Don’t do it: why the Foreign Agent designation is welcomed by RT and Sputnik

The discussion on whether to classify the broadcasters RT, formerly Russia Today, and Sputnik as foreign agents under the Foreign Agents Registration Act is full of nuance, most of which is absent in the public debates over the topic. The fundamental question at issue is whether these two broadcasters are under both the direction and receiving funding from the Kremlin. There is no debate over the latter, while management of both unconvincingly disputes the former. But as we ask the question, we should know not just why we are asking, but what is the outcome we seek to achieve.

In May 2015, I wrote that RT definitively and objectively satisfied the definition of a foreign agent under the law. Relevant history of the creation and evolution of the law in that article should help the reader better understand the law as it exists today, including why it was not automatically invoked earlier. A revision to the law, resulting from Canadian pressure, means that today a foreign agent determination requires an intentional decision to start the process, making the application of the nearly eighty-year-old law problematic. For that and other reasons, I concluded before that the “sensible time to register RT as a foreign agent may have passed” and that the “Kremlin propaganda machine would kick into high gear if RT received a notice to register from the Justice Department or an indictment for failing to register.”

Last week, I followed-up with a response to the news that the FBI was looking into whether Sputnik should be declared a foreign agent with the intent of forcing a registration under FARA. Today is different from 2015 as now both RT and Sputnik are better known, even if still little-watched, representatives of the Kremlin’s many disinformation programs aimed at the United States. To many, it is more clear now that RT and Sputnik satisfy the parameters of being a foreign agent as laid out in the letter and spirit of the law.

It remains true that it is long past time that these public facets of the Kremlin’s information operations in the U.S. be required to register as the foreign agents that they are. Doing so would satisfy both the spirit and the letter of the law. However, the time to do so has indeed passed and designating them now as foreign agents will provide no positive value or relief and will backfire.

It is not clear what triggered the current FBI inquiry. Perhaps it was the report by the Atlantic Council published on 1 September. From the summary:

In Agent of Influence, author Elena Postnikova not only argues that RT should register with FARA but makes a legal case for it while laying out recommendations for policy makers. At a minimum, RT’s activities warrant a thorough investigation by the Department of Justice (DOJ). Strong evidence supports the conclusion that Russia’s RT is owned, controlled, and financed by the Russian state. RT advances Russia’s interests abroad and uses communication channels to influence US domestic and foreign policy. RT has not presented evidence to support that it is a bona fide media organization, which would be excluded from registration.

Overall, the well-researched report is strong, save two critical points. First, the report’s word choice is poor. “Media” refers to organizations that communicate information to a large number of people without regard to the nature of the communication or the whether there is truly a listener. “Media” is not synonymous with journalism, hence the use of the phrase “news media” by many, including myself, to denote a journalistic operation. This makes the last sentence in the excerpt above false: RT is a bona fide media organization.

And then there is a critical difference between could and should. The report makes no effort to look at the impact of its recommendation. Yes, it can be determined that RT and Sputnik are foreign agents. The evidence is overwhelming despite the insincere defenses and redirections otherwise. But, should the declaration be made?

No, FBI’s inquiry into RT and Sputnik should be dropped and neither should be declared foreign agents for two reasons.

First, the process and logical conclusion of the FARA inquiry will reinforce to the small audiences of RT and Sputnik that the Kremlin’s information operations are telling them what their government does not want them to know. A website in the RT and Sputnik orbit correctly described these operations as “providing raw material for American alternative media who can discuss it, analyze it and spread it around.” This includes and apparently The Drudge Report. Beyond entrenching their viewership, the foreign agent designation would have little to no impact on those few who came across RT and Sputnik out of curiosity, unwittingly, or as part of a diverse media diet.

Second, imagine a scenario where the leaders of RT and Sputnik would not argue to their Kremlin master that the foreign agent designation is a definite measure of effectiveness. This is a handed-on-a-silver-platter propaganda opportunity to expand their brand among their core audience: the “alt-media,” the conspiracy theorists, and those seeking the “untold.” If you were Dmitry Kiselyov, Margarita Simonyan, or a friendly troll or alt-right media master, wouldn’t you push for more funding and try new provocative projects?

Other reasons have been given for not applying the foreign agent label, including one that pretends Russia is waiting for an excuse to expel VOA or RFE/RL from Russia. The Kremlin does not need a reason. Their foreign agent laws, aimed at news and civil-society organizations alike, are capriciously applied though they are not. The Kremlin’s threats that forced radio stations to stop rebroadcasting VOA, from over thirty a decade ago to none today, relied on alleged building code violations, false allegations of broadcast or ownership license problems, or no reason at all.

As for the argument that invoking FARA would lessen America’s “moral authority” or the “moral high ground” by exposing the ownership and function of foreign information operations masquerading as news media in the United States, this is an intellectual argument detached from reality. Besides the fact that FARA does not suppress any operations, and that “reciprocity” is not in the Kremlin’s vocabulary, there is no equivalence between how America and Russia treat free speech and the news media. Any alleged loss in “moral high ground” would come from propaganda that helped entrench the already committed audience or from lofty idealistic commentary. Knowing the inability of the U.S. government to communicate effectively, either proactively or reactively with counter-propaganda, such a narrative could influence the very few, if any, that factor “moral authority” into their judgment of information sources. When considering the “moral” argument, recall that we now live in an era when “I heard it on the Internet” is no longer derogative but authoritative.

Flip the “moral authority” argument and it is easier to imagine Russians impressed by America’s application of its foreign agent law that applies a label and nothing else when they compare it to Russia’s foreign agent law that results in expulsion of the organization.

Of course, RT and Sputnik could avoid the designation if they can demonstrate they no longer satisfy the foreign agent conditions. But we can assume that is an unacceptable option for management.

That FARA would not in any way force a change to the speech of these operations is beside the point. This is lost on proponents of FARA. Whether or not RT and Sputnik know this is beside the point. They will rail about the injustice, discrimination against them as attacks on free speech and government interference in the press, and more, all while their audiences eat it up.

In all likelihood, the Kremlin’s propaganda team is hoping for the foreign agent label. Meanwhile, there are lawyers in DC looking ahead to their fees processing the foreign agent filings, which will be the only practical burden imposed on the Kremlin’s media.

In the end, the foreign agent designation will have no effect on how many bureaus RT and Sputnik have across the U.S., will not subject either to physical or financial threats, would not require changes to their presentation style or substance or content, and not impose any restrictions on distribution as they could continue with their current — and face no restrictions on future — contracts with U.S. cable networks or radio stations or other domestic organizations.

The bottom line is the investigation into whether to require RT and Sputnik to file under FARA should be dropped. The foreign agent designation would be a pyrrhic victory. Yes, they are a foreign agent supporting the Kremlin’s agenda of subversion, but the label will only help, not hurt, their mission.