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“Distracting the Audience from the Real Problems”

November 11, 2019

Maria Borzunova is a Russian journalist who works for the independent online TV channel TV Rain.

Together with her colleague Ilya Shepelin, she hosts a weekly programme on TV Rain called ‘Fake News’, which describes and debunks disinformation broadcast by the dominating, mainly state-controlled national TV channels. 

In this exclusive interview, Maria Borzunova discusses why the disinformation is such a dominant feature on the large TV channels. She also explains how the national networks have reacted when TV Rain has exposed their disinformation. Finally, she shares her reflections about the degree of danger facing independent Russian journalists today.

“Fake News”

Q. First a question about terminology. Your programme on TV Rain is called “Fake News”. Is this the term you prefer to use? Or how about other terms, propaganda or disinformation, for example?

A. Of course, we mostly talk about “fake news”; but in my opinion, propaganda is also part of fake news. I define the term “fake news” as an intentional lie, an intentional misrepresentation of facts, and as intentional propaganda as well. For us, fake news is a kind of comprehensive term, which is also why we used it to name the programme.

On top of that, this expression has been on everyone’s lips in recent years; politicians, for example, really like to use it, sometimes accurately, sometimes not very accurately, calling any news that they do not like “fake news”.

Maria Borzunova and TV Rain’s Fake News programme challenge the Kremlin’s top propagandists, such as Dmitry Kiselyov. In a recent episode they exposed Mr Kiselyov for his claim that “Russia is the world champion in free speech“.

“Everything is much worse abroad”

Q. Your programme is presented on TV Rain’s website and on Youtube as “exposure of fakes on the national TV channels”. In your opinion, which purpose do these fakes on the national channels serve?

A. Fake news, like propaganda, is mainly used for distracting the audience from the real problems that exist in the country – for example, to show that everything is much worse abroad.

We saw this during the protest rallies [in Moscow] this summer: when the police were treating the protesters very harshly, all the national channels showed how they disperse protests in Europe or America and what kind of punishment people get there.

In this way, they try to distract people’s attention from what is happening in their own country – real problems that are worth paying attention to and which really should be worked on. If they do talk about their difficulties inside the country, they do it very cautiously.

What does the world look like through the lens of Russia’s national networks? Read about a Sunday night on Russian TV.

No apology

Q. Can you give an example of how you exposed a particular fake that appeared on the national TV channels, and what it led to? Have your exposures ever had concrete consequences?

A. Yes, we have had a number of such stories. First, of course, I recall the incident with the program ’60 Minutes’ [on the state TV channel Rossiya 1] after the shooting at the college in Kerch.

A young woman, allegedly an eyewitness to the event, was interviewed by telephone live on air, and she was introduced as Alina Kerova. But it soon became clear that it could not have been Alina Kerova, because Alina had died during the shooting and had been one of the first victims to be identified by relatives.

When we understood this, we called the [Rossiya 1] host Olga Skabeeva, and the editors of the program responded, though not on air, but on their social network profiles: they said that the young woman had introduced herself like that, and that it wasn’t them who had given her that name. I can even believe that and I am not inclined to call it fake news in its purest form, because during a live broadcast situation you do not always have time to check the facts and it is not difficult to make a mistake. Everyone makes mistakes, this is not the point.

What shocked me in this situation was how it was handled further by VGTRK [the state media organization which controls Rossiya 1 TV]. After this episode, Alina Kerova’s parents reached out to me and told me that VGTRK hadn’t even tried to contact them, as well as about the additional problems they had had because of this broadcast.

Olga Skabeeva and Yevgeny Popov host the programme ’60 Minutes’ on the state TV channel Rossiya 1. 

Alina Kerova’s mother had already managed to return from the identification, and then this program went on the air; her relatives watched it, including her father, who was then travelling, and he called the mother and said: “Are you sure that it was our daughter?” The mother was forced to return to the identification, so the error had rather serious consequences for this particular family. I was surprised that the representatives of the VGTRK did not contact the family, and did not apologise in their programme for this mistake.

I don’t want to use a moralising tone in this situation and lecture other people on ethics; but it was hard for me to talk to Alina’s mother, and I realised how high the price is of such an error.

NTV – news or fiction?

Another time, it happened purely by chance that we decided to check a person who had appeared in a story on [the Gazprom-owned network] NTV.

It was when we had the discussion around the Kuril Islands. All the national TV channels began to broadcast stories on how important the Kuril Islands are for Russia, and there was a man in a news item on NTV who said that he was buying a house in the Kuril Islands. He told about how much he was looking forwards to this; that he was selling his apartment in Moscow in order to move to the Kuril Islands and that he already knew which house he wanted to buy.

We then found this man on the social networks, and he turned out to be an actor who is often hired to participate in various programmes on the national TV channels. Previously, he had mainly been in different kinds of game shows, but now he had appeared in the news.

We called him, introduced ourselves as TV Rain, and said that we also want to shoot a story. We told him that we needed a character who supposedly wanted to buy a house in the Kuril Islands – but that in addition to that, we would like him to say that he had also bought a house in Crimea in 2014 [the time of Russia’s illegal annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula]. He agreed; that wouldn’t be a problem, he said, as long as he would paid for it.

In a news story by Gazprom-owned NTV, the main interviewee turned out to be a paid actor.

When our story about this went on air, NTV became really offended – until then, they had not been paying attention to our programmes, but at that point they started to have our releases blocked [on YouTube]. Many news media even wrote about how NTV was blocking our Fake News programme. NTV immediately tried to deny their responsibility and said it wasn’t on purpose, that it was their bot which had allegedly blocked it because it found their original content in our videos.

But normally, the national TV channels don’t react to our programme in any way; although we know that they watch it and follow our work.

People realise they are being lied to

Q. So do you think that your exposure can pose a threat to the disinformation – or compete with it?

A. We are first of all producing the programme for our audience. And I see in the feedback we receive that people need this kind of program.

Moreover, it’s known for a fact that the older generation mostly watches TV and rarely uses the internet, and I often see people telling things like, ‘I showed your program to my mom, my friend, or someone else, and it made them realise that they are being lied to by the national TV channels’. In my opinion, this is very important, and as long as I see this kind of feedback, I believe that we have good reasons for doing what we do.

Systematic monitoring

Q. How do you find the fakes? Do your viewers or your colleagues write to you with leads, or are you somehow systematically monitoring the national TV channels?

A. Yes, we do indeed systematically monitor the TV channels. We sit down and watch the programmes – we know quite well where we should direct our attention: for example, to Vladimir Solovyov, who often says absolutely terrible things on his shows, and to Dmitry Kiselyov’s programme.

It does happen, of course, that people send something to us, and it happens that in the middle of the week, some kind of fake pops up, which everyone is talking about; but basically, it’s our own monitoring when we ourselves look for the fakes.

Maria Borzunova is one of TV Rain’s news anchors in addition to co-hosting the weekly programme ‘Fake News’.

“American Media: Vladimir Putin has Defeated Everyone”

Q. Can you tell us more about your methods of exposing fakes? Is there any advice you would give colleagues on particularly successful techniques for identifying fakes?

A. For starters, it’s obviously important to go to the source. There is a special category of fakes – it’s mostly online publications that like to do this: they publish a story with a headline saying, for example, “American Media: Vladimir Putin has Defeated Everyone.” Then this article is relayed with the same heading and with virtually no change by RIA Novosti and a dozen other media outlets.

You start to google – and realise that the source is not “the American media”, but just a website with blogs written mostly by unknown columnists who simply express their opinion – but in the Russian news, this is presented as the point of view of some authoritative American publication.

The Big Birthday Burger Lie: Ruptly (a part of RT) is among the Kremlin media which have been exposed making up fiction stories about the Russian president’s international popularity.

Also, it often happens that a phrase is intentionally taken out of context or is translated in such a way that it confirms a certain thesis. In these cases, the original source can very well in fact be an article in an authoritative American publication; but if you read it in full, it becomes clear that the particular phrase, which is used in the fake news story, is either taken out of context or not very accurately translated.

The “NoodleRemover

Q. Besides your own programme, whose work in exposing disinformation would you single out as worthy of recognition?

A. First of all, of course, this would be Alexey Kovalyov’s blog “NoodleRemover” [in Russian, “to hang noodle on someone’s ears” means “to mislead, to tell someone lies”]. He was a kind of pioneer in this field and he dealt with this topic before we did, even if if was not in the video format. So I want to highlight his work; although now he works at Meduza and has stopped this project.

“Reality proved me wrong”

Q. Do you not fear for your safety? Have you considered stopping your work with exposing disinformation?

A. This is actually a tough question. This summer, I went to Norway to meet with readers of the newspaper Aftenposten, where we talked about fake news and about our program. After the meeting, in an informal conversation, the journalists from Aftenposten asked me the same thing.

Then I replied that I couldn’t imagine that anything could happen to a journalist in Moscow today – a journalist who works more or less in plain sight.

Maria Borzunova reporting for TV Rain from this summer’s protests in Moscow.

Things are not easy in the Russian regions: we know about criminal cases against regional journalists, and even in St. Petersburg the situation is quite complicated. But in Moscow – I did not remember anything happening to a journalist.

And then – just a few days after that conversation I return to Moscow, and it turns out that my colleague Ivan Golunov has been detained on fabricated drug charges – in other words, the reality proved me wrong.

Honestly, I can’t say that I am afraid. Of course, I try to observe some basic precautions and pay attention to what is happening around me; but I think that if you are afraid, you should not become a journalist at all.

Other articles in our series of interviews with Russian journalists:

Propaganda Must be Opposed by the Language of Values“: Andrei Arkhangelsky is one of Russia’s most active commentators on the topic of disinformation and propaganda.

“’Information war’ is a term used by the Kremlin to justify disinformation”: Roman Dobrokhotov won the 2019 European Press Prize Investigative Reporting Award for exposing disinformation in the Skripal case. 

“The propaganda digs a cultural ditch between Russia and Europe”: Pavel Kanygin has covered the MH17 case as an investigative journalist with Novaya Gazeta.