Since Stalin, the Russian government has used dezinformatsiya as the spear tip of its foreign policy. What’s changed is that the internet now provides Moscow with an enormous distribution network and even revenue opportunities for its efforts — and that the US no longer enforces disclosure requirements for foreign propaganda.
The Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) was created in the 1930s to counter Nazi propaganda by requiring distributors in the US to disclose the nature of the source. Pamphlets and magazines sent from hostile foreign governments were required to be labeled, such as with a stamp added by the distributor indicating that the organization behind the propaganda was a registered foreign agent. In introducing the law in 1937, Rep. John McCormack explained this would ensure Americans knew Nazi propaganda when they saw it: “The passage of this bill will label such propaganda just as the law requires us to label poison.” The House Judiciary Committee report on the proposed law said, “The spotlight of pitiless publicity will serve as a deterrent to the spread of pernicious propaganda.”
The US continued to enforce the labeling requirement through the Cold War. Magazines such as Soviet Life came with warnings stamped on them by distributors alerting readers that the publisher was an agent of Moscow.
Russian disinformation websites were required to register with the Justice Department under FARA during the Trump administration, but the attorneys general under several presidents have failed to update the law’s labeling requirements for the internet. (FARA gives the attorney general discretion to update how FARA’s broad rules are applied.) The modern equivalent of a stamp in every copy of a pamphlet paid for by the Nazi or Soviet government would be a detailed disclosure included in every article or video from the Kremlin that appeared in anyone’s social media feed or search result.
Instead of updating FARA, over the past few years there have been calls to dilute the law as an outdated relic of the Cold War. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a forceful reminder why the kind of disclosure required by FARA matters. To its credit, the Federal Communications Commission invoked the invasion to start requiring broadcasters to disclose when a foreign government has paid to distribute its propaganda, but no such rules are being applied online. Twitter on its own has at least started to identify some Russian disinformation sources as “state affiliated” in tweets, but this provides readers with limited information. (Meanwhile, Putin began requiring labeling of all Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty stories on the web in Russia in 2020, which led to more than $13 million in fines for non-compliance by the US sources.)
Labeling through extensive disclosure is more practical on the internet than in print or through broadcasts, where space is limited. Disclosures online can be detailed enough to give readers all the information they need to decide how trustworthy to consider a source. My analyst colleagues at NewsGuard often write “Nutrition Labels” for news sites in the thousands of words, with numerous citations, to explain why sites like RT and Sputnik News fail basic criteria of journalistic practice and differ fundamentally from government news sources with effective independent charters such as the BBC. Microsoft makes NewsGuard’s detailed ratings and reviews of news websites available to its users, but the other large platforms don’t yet provide this kind of transparency to their users. And labels work: Gallup research found that when given access to apolitical source ratings, a majority of readers became less likely to believe or share news from rated untrustworthy websites and more likely to believe and share news from rated trustworthy websites.
Joshua Geltzer, who is now on the staff of the National Security Council, has argued for more disclosure (though not specifically through FARA), writing on the Just Security website in 2018: “The spread of disinformation is the rare type of national security threat for which informing the public actually can diminish the threat: if Americans know what to look out for online and what not to accept at face value on social media, the power of disinformation deliberately spread by hostile actors is reduced.”
Instead, in recent years, Putin made the apocryphal prediction attributed to Vladimir Lenin come true: that capitalists would sell the rope for their own hanging. For years, Google has been the major global distributor of Putin’s disinformation on the web, especially through its YouTube video platform. In 2013, RT became the first news channel on YouTube to achieve 1 billion views. A senior YouTube executive helped RT mark the occasion, appearing on its celebratory broadcast to praise RT’s reporting as “authentic” and without “agenda or propaganda.” RT recently bragged on its YouTube home page that it was “the most watched news network on YouTube,” with “over 10 billion views.” YouTube continued to promote RT without explaining its record of falsehoods to its users, even after RT was required to register under FARA in 2017. Google sanctioned RT only after the recent Russian invasion when the European Union issued a law demanding that the digital platforms sanction Putin’s propaganda sites. Google temporarily blocked RT on its YouTube service — too little, too late.
In addition to RT as the leading news channel on YouTube, Putin’s government operates the news agency with the largest audience on YouTube. In 2013, the Kremlin created a video news agency called Ruptly (as in “disrupt”) to spread propaganda onto other unsuspecting news sites around the world. Last year, RT reported that Ruptly became the most-accessed news agency on YouTube — larger than Reuters or The Associated Press — with 429 million views in 2020. Under pressure from the European Union, Google’s YouTube blocked access to Ruptly temporarily.
The digital platforms did more than provide massive new distribution opportunities to Putin’s advertising outlets. They also funneled advertising revenues from unknowing blue-chip American and European advertisers to the Kremlin.
Google runs the largest programmatic advertising service on the internet, which delivers ads to news websites regardless of whether they follow journalistic practices or instead are designed to spread disinformation, without the advertiser knowing where its ads appear. For example, Google delivered advertisements from top brands to Sputnik News, the general-interest site that the Putin government launched in 2014. In 2019, NewsGuard analysts found that more than 400 blue-chip brands unintentionally had their ads appear on Sputnik News — with Warren Buffett the top advertiser, through his Geico brand.
The FARA law as written also includes disclosure requirements about the funding of foreign propaganda, which means Google and other ad-tech companies should be required to disclose the funding they provide to sites registered as foreign agents. Now that propaganda sites are getting ad revenues, the Justice Department should add this category of funding to the financial disclosure requirements. The board members, CEOs, CMOs and “brand safety” executives of the leading American companies whose ads appeared on Sputnik News, RT and other Kremlin sites would at least become aware through this disclosure that their ads are subsidizing foreign agents.
Under pressure from European lawmakers, Google temporarily stopped serving ads to Russian government propaganda sites such as Sputnik News after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. But Google continues to deliver ads to other websites pushing Putin. For example, the website for Pravda, which is owned by a Putin loyalist, promotes Kremlin propaganda echoing RT and Sputnik News. It continues to collect revenues from ads delivered by Google. NewsGuard analysts have found more than 100 websites targeting the US and Europe publishing Russian falsehoods about Ukraine, including dozens of getting programmatic ads from unknowing advertisers.
Countering Putin’s propaganda should become as much a focus for Washington as spreading the propaganda is for Putin. The US doesn’t need to ban or censor propaganda. It can simply enforce the FARA disclosure requirements that applied to Nazi and Soviet propaganda. Americans would then know when the “news” they see online is funded by the Kremlin and other hostile foreign powers. The Biden administration should insist on detailed warnings on websites, YouTube and other platforms whenever their users see disinformation online.
Silicon Valley platforms served as Putin’s useful idiots for years by distributing his disinformation and even helping to fund it. They should make amends by providing their users with clear warnings about the nature of these websites and channels. Until then, Putin’s propagandists will find new ways to promote their false information and to cash in on advertising revenues from unsuspecting Western companies.