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Is the West losing the media arms race?

People in the US establishment have never been particularly fond of RT, but over the past year this previously inchoate and tempered concern has turned into something bordering on pure terror.

Ed Royce, a Southern California Republican who has been serving in congress since 1993 and who is the current chairman of the House of Representatives’ foreign affairs committee, recently went on the record as saying that RT is not simply dangerous or mendacious but that it “may be more dangerous than any military, because no artillery can stop their lies from spreading and undermining US security interests in Europe.”

Earlier this month Royce, in an editorial for the Wall Street Journal, talked about Putin’s “secret army” of “misinformation warriors” and bemoaned the “withering” of the US’ international broadcasting services which are “no longer capable of meeting today’s challenges.”

Reading Royce’s editorial, and other recent coverage of Russia’s “information war,” you get the distinct impression that the West is losing. US government broadcasters have been “hollowed out.” They are “unable to defend against Russia’s resurgent information war.” You would think that the West was being massively outspent and outcompeted by a power-mad Kremlin.

As is usually the case, the realty is rather less exciting and rather more banal than Royce’s hysteria would suggest. When you compare RT’s budget to those of other state-owned media outlets you see that the West already massively outspends Russia. 

Even by themselves places like Deutsche Welle, Agence France Presse, and the BBC World Service have budgets that are broadly comparable to the $445,000,000 that RT spent in 2014 (before the ruble’s recent nosedive pushed the equivalent figure for 2015 somewhere between 30 and 40% lower). The $731 million dollars that the Broadcasting Board of Governors spent in 2014 is about 1.6 times as big as all Russian spending on RT.

That is to say that when you stop and look at the budgets, spending by just four Western outlets (a figure which ignores any contributions from other Western institutions and allies like the EU, Canada, Australia, etc.) was roughly 430% of RT’s total.

Whatever difficulties the West is currently facing in terms of confronting RT, it seems safe to say that a shortage of money is not one of them. Much attention has been devoted to RT’s supposedly lavish budgets but Western budgets are even bigger!

The fact that we already outspend Russia in the media sphere also makes some of the proposals to further hike Western spending look rather curious. If exceeding Russian media spending by a factor of four isn’t sufficient to guarantee success, why would exceeding it by a factor of five? What is the marginal return on additional spending likely to be if substantial quantities of earlier spending have apparently been so ineffective?

Please note that I am not arguing in favor of some kind of unilateral disarmament in the face of Kremlin information warfare. The BBC World Service, Deutsche Welle, AFP, Voice of America, Radio Liberty, and other such outlets are here and they’re not going anywhere. There doesn’t seem to be any pressing need to trim their budgets, and so even without changing its policy one iota the West will continue to spend billions of dollars a year generating news coverage.

What I am suggesting though is that the West’s problem is not primarily one of PR. If it was simply a question of getting the message out, the West would already have won the information war against Russia. Collectively, Western state-owned outlets reach far more people that RT does. It’s not that people in various parts of the world aren’t being exposed to the Western point of view, it’s that they aren’t being convinced by it. That’s a significant (and very real!) problem, but it’s one that is not going to be solved by shoveling another $50 million into VOA.

It’s also worth taking a step back and thinking about what the Russians are really trying to accomplish. Josh Kucera, a freelance journalist specializing in post-Soviet security and international affairs, made an interesting point. He argued that, in hyping the threat posed by RT, the US seems to be falling into a familiar trap of “overreacting to an insurgent attack.” RT, when you really think about it, is basically an asymmetric form of public diplomacy, an admission by the Russian authorities that the West quite thoroughly dominates the information space and that they needed to strike back.

Insurgents want the targets of their attacks to respond clumsily. The goal is to get them to respond by simply throwing massive quantities of resources at a problem in the hope that it will all somehow go away. Intelligent counter-insurgency is not about throwing money at problems but about effective and efficient targeting, about responding to an insurgent attack in the most narrow, precise, and measured way possible. As they set out to combat RT’s influence, Western policymakers would do well to keep those counter-insurgency lessons in mind.