BBG Watch Commentary
Are comments on Voice of America (VOA) websites subject to pro-Kremlin trolling? There is absolutely no doubt that they are. In addition, rudderless Voice of America itself retweets fanatical pro-Kremlin supporters, including at least one retweet from “Pro-#Russia,#Assad,#Gaddafi. F**k the #EU,#US” shadowy Twitter user, also known as “Steiner 1776,” and at least one retweet from an RT photographer who had earlier posted a photo of the First Lady Michelle Obama mocking her call for the return of kidnapped African girls and making anti-Obama and anti-US propaganda points. Other retweets from Russia’s RT, used by the Kremlin to spread President Putin’s propaganda, were also posted on the Voice of America website. VOA is funded by U.S. taxpayers. VOA had also posted a map showing Crimea to be part of Russia. There is little chance that under the current management the Voice of America is capable of avoiding such journalistic mistakes, much less being able to moderate comments that may be placed by paid agents of the Kremlin.
Weeding out paid propaganda comments is an almost impossible task under any circumstances, but VOA would certainly not be able to do anything about it now unless it gets better executives, better managers, better editors, and journalists experienced in covering Russia. Many veteran VOA editors and journalists were pushed out by the current management and replaced with poorly-paid, exploited, and poorly-trained contractors.
If anyone wonders whether comments on VOA websites are subject to pro-Kremlin trolling, they can look at comments under a recent VOA news report about Ukraine, “US Says It Does Not Recognize E. Ukraine Polls, VOA News, May 12, 2014. The vast majority of comments for this VOA report are virulently anti-US and pro- Russia. Either many of these comments are placed by Russia’s propaganda services or it is a damning indictment of Voice of America’s ineffectiveness.
In any case, the current VOA management is not capable of addressing this problem. The solution would require hiring highly capable executives as well as individuals with extensive experience in analyzing Russia’s propaganda. VOA would also need IT staff knowledgeable about countering this kind of trolling. The most important step would be to have real experts on Russia and the Kremlin’s propaganda. You do not get that kind of expertise hiring contractors at low pay. What VOA ends up with are maps contradicting U.S. foreign policy and RT retweets on its websites. Those most at fault are senior agency executives, both at the Voice of America and the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB), who still insist that VOA mission critical programming “is not considered inherently governmental function” and can be done by anyone without much direction or supervision.
If anything, the Voice of America, which presents America to the world, has a much higher obligation than a commercial newspaper like The Guardian to have clear policies and procedures and effective countermeasures against this kind of propaganda trolling. At present, VOA executives can’t even assure quality control of content being put out by VOA.
For those interested in propaganda trolling, we recommend an article by Chris Elliott in The Guardian who quoted a complaint from the paper’s online reader:
“… the quantity of pro-Kremlin trolling on this topic [Russia and Ukraine] … which has been documented extensively since 2012 as a real and insidious threat to online communities of idea and debate, has rendered commenting on these articles all but meaningless, and a worthless exercise in futility and frustration for anyone not already being mind-controlled by the Kremlin.”
Chris Elliott observed that “Readers and reporters alike are concerned that these [comments] are from those paid to troll, and to denigrate in abusive terms anyone criticising Russia or President Vladimir Putin.” In the case of VOA, they are paid to post anti-U.S. comments as well comments defending President Putin and his policies.