What It's Like Doing Journalism In Russia's Shadow
A conversation with Latvia-based journalists Ivan Kolpakov and Inga Springe
They talked about what it's like to live inside Russia's media bubble, and why journalists over there aren't particularly interested in the story of Russia's meddling in the U.S. election.
Read the full transcript below and subscribe to listen.
Ben Smith: I guess I thought I would start with you, Inga, because I think the story of Re:Baltica is a bit the story of independent media. You know, over the last 10 years, across this region, what you're seeing in Poland and other places as well. You were a reporter for Diena, right?
Inga Springe: Yes.
And Diena was quite well respected—
Inga Springe: It's the best newspaper in the Baltic countries. It's the best quality, of all of the Soviet Union. And then, during crisis time, in 2009 and 2010, all newspaper media collapsed, and the world economy collapsed and Diena also collapsed. And so far it belonged to a Swedish family, and then one day, you know, our editor arrived, a young guy with a white BMW and said, "No, I'm your new editor." And we asked them, "Who?" "Oh, there are some guys behind the offshore companies, but you don't need to know them."
And now seven years later there is one criminal case that was leaked materials and we can see like the Latvian richest oligarchs were behind it, deciding who would own which media.
And why were oligarchs interested in owning Diena?
SPRINGE: Oh, because they wanted money, and if you have media, you have power and you have money, so they are corrupt. They love money. And it's, it's how it happened.
And what became of the reporters at Diena who were trying to—?
SPRINGE: There was a bunch of people, like the whole editorial team, the investigative teams, and my colleagues left, and they established a weekly magazine here, which is now publishing these oligarch conversations.
Just to be clear, this magazine, IR, got leaked recorded conversations among the oligarchs discussing divvying up the media.
SPRINGE: Dividing the media, and who will be the next president, and why this person cannot be president because he is too soft, but let's, let's bet on this person because this person is a bigger asshole, so it will be easier to lead him.
That's actually the principle that who we in the United States choose our president is based on.
SPRINGE: Yeah we kind of guessed so far that it's happening like that, but no, we also have evidence that it's a really happening like that. I'm so satisfied now that I tweet. It's my small revenge.
But I went to the United States on a Fulbright scholarship and I came back and I can back and we established the first nonprofit NGO of investigative journalism. And six years ago, it was like, we were just talking about Russia's soft power, but then Crimea happened, and I feel like in America, everyone went, "Wow, fake news, propaganda in Russia!" For us it was like a topic for at least the last four or five years, and we've observed it all indirectly in front of us and we were part of it.
Yeah, actually, I think before we get to Meduza, one of the interesting things about this country is you have two totally separate media here. You have a Latvian language media and you have a Russian language media that serves a Russian minority that's about quarter of the country, more or less depending on where you are here in Riga, it's probably a majority.
And I don't know, Ivan, as a consumer of the Russian language media here, to the extent that you do consume it versus Moscow media, like I guess I wonder what you guys see in the gap between those two? Like what view of the country do you get reading the Russian media?
Ivan Kolpakov: Well it's incredible. I think if I would be a Latvian authority, I would give them money. It is something from the beginning the 1990s. It is something that completely disappeared in Russia. This post-perestroika press, it is completely focused on what's happening in Russia, and the Russian president, Russian government, Russian celebrities. And this is what actually Russians here in Latvia want to consume.
This is about agenda. Their agenda is totally Russian. They're focused on what's happening in Russia. Latvia, from the perspective of that media, seems like some bizarre phenomena? And they're, you know, trying to survive here.
And does it carry this kind of Russian agenda of opposition to NATO, opposition to the United States?
KOLPAKOV: It's somewhere in between because it is post-perestroika. You can't say that they are completely, they are not supporting Putin 100 percent. You know? You can't say that they are extremely loyal to the Kremlin. No, you can't say that. But they are somewhere in between. But you know you can feel that, you can observe that the Russian agenda is more relevant to these journalists and their readers then the Latvian agenda.
SPRINGE: I recently did research also about just this one newspaper, Vesti, because I was doing the research about Russian-speaking media or websites who are covering and writing about Latvia, and what are their agendas and so on. And then I saw that one of the nastiest, really like disgusting one, was or daily newspaper Vesti, which is like, in Latvia.
KOLPAKOV: Which is my favorite—(laughs)
That's what I used to read when I was here also. It's very colorful.
SPRINGE: And yes, it's like really about all the bad things, what's happening here, they are taking from Putin, from his media news.
From the state-owned Russian media?
SPRINGE: State-owned. And make it even nastier.
But just to be clear, the Russian sort of, the government agenda here is, to—
SPRINGE: I wanted to try to meet these journalists, to understand as they're doing it, because I really believe in this, and what's the reason behind. But I had this feeling, now, they would do for money more or less everything. Because they are very little paid, their average salary is 300 euros. And Russian journalists are paid much worse than Latvian journalists, so, and another thing is they think: this is what our reader wants! And then there was this one journalist, she was sent to Kiev, to do material a year after the referendum in Kiev.
KOLPAKOV: In Crimea, probably?
SPRINGE: I'm sorry. Yes. I'm sorry. Yes. In Crimea. And it was paid by the Russian embassy here. This whole trip. Really, it was paid by Russian embassy, and then Yelena, she interviewed like one pro-Russian or pro-Putin-loving editor there, and then she also interviewed Cossacks, and the headline was like, "They Took Away Our Fatherland." And this Vesti newspaper, they published this. Really, like, and Yelena said, “See, there is no censorship.” They published a different opinion. But next to this article, they also published, these Cossacks, they want to be in the European Union? They have to come to Riga and see what a disgusting life it is here. So kind of independent opinions.
KOLPAKOV: It's complicated. There are many reasons why this press looks like this. Because they're concerned, the readers want that kind of press because they have links with the Russian government.
SPRINGE: They want Russians to read.
KOLPAKOV: And, and, but in many ways it is the mirror of what the Russian people feel here being in independent Latvia. It shows in many ways the attitude toward Latvian government and Latvian policy towards a Russian-speaking minority here.
SPRINGE: But again, it's a big mistake, we can't talk about one Russia as a mass. They are like very different, different groups. It's old pensioners mostly, like, men, 50, 60, they are the ones who are like, reading Vesti and believing in the Russian TV.
And I think the thing that was so striking to me, for the Latvian majority who lives here, like they kind of have no idea that this the idea way their Russian neighbors see the world.
SPRINGE: Yeah, sure, Latvians live in totally different parallel and it's the same about Russians. It was there was one story, I used to tell, when we had a very famous, beautiful actress. And like, she was famous for 10 years already, and then in one Russian event, she met a very famous radio D.J. who also lived there for 10 years. And they met each other, and it was like the first that they find out that they are living in the new Latvia.
Yeah. And I think that's—
KOLPAKOV: Two worlds.
It's what you feel so strongly here, yeah, exactly, it is that kind of the two worlds. And Riga is also, Riga has always been, a famous, the American term for it is a listening post, it's where American spies in the 1930s went to sort of try to understand was happening in Stalin's Russia!.
And it's also always been a place where people who couldn't operate in Moscow were forced out. It was refugees, diplomats, all sorts of people, journalists, and I guess I hoped you could tell me—I just assume our readers don't know the epic story of Meduza. So tell me a little how you poor Muscovite exile here in Riga, how that happened.
KOLPAKOV: I'll try to tell the story briefly. So it was 2014, a really tough year in Russian history. Not the best year in Russian history and I think in the history of the whole world.
There have been a lot of tough years in Russian history.
KOLPAKOV: Yeah. Yeah. I agree. But 2014 was really special. So we've been working, me and my colleagues, and my chief at that time, Galina Timchenko, we'd been working in the most famous Russian internet media. It was the biggest Internet media in Russia, I think ever. So, it was Lenta. It had twenty million unique visitors per month. I think you can compare the size of these audience only with the federal channels, the national television. So it was really influential, and it was, it had independent editorial policy. And right off to a so-called Crimea referendum, I think it was right after or right just before the Crimea referendum, she was fired by the owner of this—
And Lenta had been covering the war in Crimea.
KOLPAKOV: It covered all Ukrainian issues. I think we've covered way more than any Russian media events, in Kiev, Euromaidan, and stuff like that, and also what's happening in the Eastern part of Ukraine.
So she was fired, and almost of all of the editorial staff decided to quit to support her, and you know to show that we are not, we disagree with what's happening with Lenta. So it was something incredible because you know almost all of the editorial staff decided to quit in a very short period and so now it is completely different media. And me and Galina and some of our colleagues, we you know, we, we met some days later, just to drink alcohol and to cry and to complain. And we realized that the there is actually no place for us in that environment, there is no media where we want to work, and there is a teeny tiny chance you to make new media probably. It's the stupidest idea in 2014 to make new political and social media in Russia.
And it was extremely scary, because when you're making something as big as Lenta. I call this, you know, the problem of the second album because when you're an artist, you're a musician, and you're making your first album and occasionally that becomes a big success, it's really hard to make the second album. Because you're asking yourself, "Was it fortune, or is it your skills, you are the professional?" So it was a kind of challenging thing for us to make it a second album.
I read Meduza all the time, they have a great site in English, as does Re:Baltica. How big is your staff now?
KOLPAKOV: It is close to 50, I guess? We started from 15.
But it's a big news operation, you publish things all the time. Do you feel there are limits on what you can publish or are you truly independent?
KOLPAKOV: Because it's, it's—I think, I think you shouldn't do this job if you have some limits in what you're doing. That's why we made Meduza, because we felt that there are limits in all other places. So you know, do I feel scared of publishing something, this or that? Yes. I am thinking about it. But then I am saying to myself, you know, come on. Nothing's going to happen. You have to do it. This is your job. That's why you moved to Riga and you live here for three years already. So I wouldn't say that we have some limits.
And one of the things that's interesting to me about Meduza, I think for a lot of journalists who want to take risks and confront power, particularly in countries where it's unstable, go the route that Re:Baltica has, which is raise money from you know a variety of backers, some local, some not, and you sort of insulate yourself from pressure in some ways if you have backers who are really strong there. Meduza is running a business, selling advertising.
KOLPAKOV: Absolutely. Yes.
That seems challenging, I mean, with the position that you're in.
KOLPAKOV: Yeah. We started, when, you know in the circumstances of a huge economical crisis, which is from one side: you need to earn money right now, it is a problem. But—
And what's worse is right, you're earning rubles.
KOLPAKOV: Yeah. Yeah.
And spending euros.
KOLPAKOV: Yes, this is really hard to make that kind of business model.
Do you ever wished you moved to Tashkent or something?
KOLPAKOV: We've thought about it. Yes! At some moment, at some period, it was, it was almost a disaster because like, for several months we just didn't realize how can we survive in that situation. In 2015, it was very unstable.
Yeah. I mean did you think about seeking, you know, U.S. government support?
KOLPAKOV: No. No. It is impossible if you are making Russian-speaking media which is focused on the Russia. And we had a very small list of investors when we started.
What does the Kremlin think of you? They must be very aware of you.
KOLPAKOV: I have no idea. I think—I know that the president and the guys in the present administration, they are reading Meduza. For sure. We are a very popular media.
You get emails from Putin about typos and things?
KOLPAKOV: Thank god, no. But—I'd love to get some emails from them, probably. Anyway, I know that they're reading us. I know that there are some fans on the Kremlin staff. There are some fans of Meduza. Because we're making good media and entertaining and funny and interesting and, and so you can't get something like these from any media on that market.
Yeah, I mean, I think sometimes you see in countries where you have, as in Russia now, a domestic media that's very scared of stepping outside the line, that the people in power actually also do want to understand what's happening, and because they have twisted the media so much they can't really understand through their own media what is happening.
KOLPAKOV: You're right. And we also have that image of this strange, actually strange media which combines traditional journalism with entertaining journalism.
Obviously I'm opposed to this.
KOLPAKOV: Yeah. You've probably have heard something about that kind of media.
KOLPAKOV: And it's really good, you know, if you're making Russian media right now. It gives you a totally different image than all other independent media in Russia have, because, there is for example, just one example, there is Novaya Gazeta, which is one of the oldest Russian oppositional media. It started in the, in the beginning of 1990s. It looks radically oppositional, because it is very traditional, it is post-Soviet, it has just like this post-perestroika style of journalism.
So if they're saying something, they look like, they have this image of activists. They are not activists. We know that they are not activists, and we know that there are a lot of brilliant journalists who work for Novaya Gazeta. But in the eyes of Kremlin, they are activists.
Do you consider yourself opposition media?
KOLPAKOV: No, we are considering ourselves as independent media.
How about you? Do you consider yourself opposition media?
SPRINGE: Well, a few weeks ago I received award from the hands of our prime minister, by saying thank you for what we are doing, and I felt very strange at that moment. So no, I don't feel like opposition media.
Yeah, that's the worst, right?
SPRINGE: I thought: is it good or bad? Because he was saying thank you. But the event was organized by the business community, and they just invited the prime minister to give an award, and they said thank you for writing all these investigations about the information war in Russia, and inequality.
Maybe less about the oligarchs.
I just wonder like—
KOLPAKOV: I am sorry, Ben, are you considering yourself as an oppositional media?
No, we consider ourselves independent media. But it's a question I've been asked. It's, yeah, I mean I think it's an interesting question. And I think there are outlets in the US now that are in, some ways, acting like traditional opposition media. I mean, I think it's dangerous, because you put your goals ahead of what you actually know. In some ways.
KOLPAKOV: I agree. I agree.
From the perspective out here, are you watching the kind of crazy American obsessions right now, or are you busy with your own problems? I mean is the American storm around Russia a subject of interest out here?
SPRINGE: I mean, I think in the beginning when Trump was elected and everyone was worried at what will happen and we have to think about our security and where we will go, and also at that time, I was doing this research about what Russian websites are writing about us.
And yes, everyone was shouting, "Yes, Trump will come and Trump will take away all the money" which America was giving to you, and no, you will see what's actually how, in bad situation you are. But otherwise no, I don't feel like—
I wonder, for American journalists, who I think are in this very, like, new—I mean the thing with reporting in the United States is that, actually, often have the goal of like figuring out what actually happened, getting into the room, getting a clear answer, leaving with a totally clear, totally reported-out picture of the situation. And I think in Russian journalism often you never get to the bottom. Like a lot of Russian stories, important Russian stories, I mean I'm thinking of the apartment building bombings, but, you know smaller ones as well—you know what? I think it's sometimes hard to get to the bottom. And I wonder if you have any sort of advice for American journalists who are sort of navigating these kind of waters for the first time.
SPRINGE: First of all, I think there are many facts which, we already have written, with Sanita, who is my colleague, three or four years ago. And those are, are still are coming, many, many foreign journalists. And for them it's like, "Whoa! Really?"
So, I mean, foreign correspondents are often kind of embarrassing, good foreign correspondents are great, but there's a kind of lazy style also. But beyond that, do you think they're getting something conceptually wrong, or just that the stories are boring and repetitive?
SPRINGE: No I don't think like—there was only one big mistake but it was done by Norwegian public TV, where I'm still mad at them, because they interviewed one of the craziest guys, who is very pro-Russian, and he says that the Latvian government is ready to take out their army on the streets to shoot women and children. And Norwegian TV didn't check this fact and just really published this, like what this crazy man said. And I thought, "Really? Scandinavian, transparent in all of these countries, and on TV you're translating all kinds of bullshit?"
But otherwise, no, but we the foreign media are now coming to try and understand what's happening about this fake news, and Russia's involvement and money, what's going through the Latvian banks. Two months ago, we had three journalists from the Washington Post in one week in Riga.
So what do you think?
KOLPAKOV: I think that at some point, last year, Russian journalists, felt, well us, we felt some kind of pervert satisfaction about what's happening in the States. Because, guys, this is the real world, this is how it works, you know, in other places, not in your perfect most powerful country. Feel that. Feel that the guys.
But speaking about journalism, it is again complicated, because if you want to find the best professionals, the best specialists in what's happening in Russia, you'll find them in New York, probably. And a lot of you know people who started the careers, who made the careers in the Russian agenda in the beginning of the 1990s, or between the 1980s and 1990s, they are chiefs in many influential American media, and they really understand the context. They really understand the agenda, they understand the culture, they understand why does this work, and why that doesn't work.
And, so we see these, storm of articles about what's happening in Russia, and it is biased. Is it biased? Yes. From our, from our point of view, it is biased. I would say that the main discourse of liberal, American, covering of Russia.
In what way? What do you think it's getting wrong?
KOLPAKOV: I just can give you an example, which made me, you know, I felt really strange about that, because I couldn't frame it, because—well, this is the example. Your intelligence service published the report about Russian hackers, right? And their influence into the democratic process, and to elect—
KOLPAKOV: Russian hackers.
Okay. I misunderstood for a moment. That was a different report.
SPRINGE: Not this one, that you published.
KOLPAKOV: Not yours.
Right, no, I understand.
KOLPAKOV: Though I support you in publishing your story.
I appreciate that.
KOLPAKOV: So there is this report.
Sorry, back to the hacker, rather than the hooker, report.
KOLPAKOV: Yeah. Yeah.
KOLPAKOV: So, the hacker report. So there is a public part of this report which is totally bullshit.
Oh, this unclassified public document that somebody had basically, if I can describe it, like Googled a bunch of things about Russian state media and slapped them into a document, someone in our intelligence agencies, and it was kind of a—it was a sloppy version of something that you could have read over the last year on BuzzFeed, or The New Yorker, or the Washington Post.
KOLPAKOV: Yeah. It was just a mix of some you know some stories from the open sources, and it was presented as a bulletproof for you know Russian interference into what happens in America. And, in alot of articles about Russia, that would be read. You could read that it was proved, because the intelligence service published the report. We haven't seen the secret part of the report, but, we agree that if it, intelligence services said that they investigated that, and they made that, you know—
KOLPAKOV: And, you know, guys. Is it American press? Are you really trusting your intelligence services like this, on that level?
I mean, it was very strange from my perspective as an American reporter, just in that, all through the 2016, many news organizations were reporting that Russia was trying very clearly to influence the American election. It was not a secret. Those were state, government institutions doing it. It wasn't some complicated thing. There was strong evidence that the people who hacked WikiLeaks were also hacking Estonians and Ukrainians, and that was very strong, pointed very strongly to being the Russians. Nothing the intelligence community said was anywhere near as strong as what had been reported in the media before.
KOLPAKOV: Exactly. Exactly. Exactly.
Yeah but somehow, I think the media likes to have the validation of, "Well, the government said it." It's a complicated—
KOLPAKOV: Yeah, but this is strange, and I think this is really against the American tradition of relations between the state and the journalists, you're always skeptical about what are the guys saying, because, and this is really sad, because when and at the same time you realize that when you know something that good, and you see how journalists covering that, you know, that story you can see how it is made. What, what is the size of mistakes they are making, and you understand that you are making the same size of mistakes, probably what is the size of mistakes they're making, and you understand that you're making the same size of mistakes, probably, about Vladivostok, or—
I mean, it's the famous thing, that when the New York Times writes something about China, you say, "Wow, the New York Times knows everything about everything." And when the New York Times writes something about your street, you say, "My God, these guys are idiots."
KOLPAKOV: What I really like in American press story, I just want to finish, because there are tons of critics against American covering of what's happening in Russia, from, you know, our sofa analytics, in Russian Facebook, but the same time you see the level of discussion within the American community, journalism community, because this is what actually people discuss in the New York and Washington. When I have been there, you have been, American journalists, they've been asking me tons of questions about what's happening in Russia, about this guy and that guy. And the level of interest is—it is a space level of interest. Because none of Russian journalists would do anything about America on that level.
Right. I think even Russian media seemed much less interested in the story of Russian influence in the United States election than I expected.
KOLPAKOV: It's true. You're right.
Why is that? I thought even maybe pro-Kremlin media would be like, triumphant?
KOLPAKOV: There is a problem—we try to follow up some American stories about specific Russian hackers who took part in the, you know, interference and you can't get proof from that side.
Right. It's just very hard, true or not, to get the evidence.
KOLPAKOV: And it's not about the region, you know, getting proof of that story, it is not dependent on where you're based. It depends on what kind of sources you have, what kind of analytics talk to you and stuff like that. And, well, American journalism is better than Russian journalism. This is unfortunately truth. This is a sad truth for us, Russian journalists.
I mean, I think the big narrative in the United States now, I think, ranges from, "Well the Russian government in some basically minor ways tried to support Trump, but ultimately this was Americans voting for an American figure." And, and the liberals are blaming the Russians all the way over to, "Trump is a Russian agent and it was a conspiracy," and stuff that I think there is really no evidence for. And I wonder from this perspective, looking back, like where do you. Where on the spectrum do you see this story?
KOLPAKOV: Which spectrum do you mean?
From Russian interference being really overstated to Trump's complicity as understated?
KOLPAKOV: I feel that, in so many ways, it's your own American phenomena. And it also a media phenomena, because, you know, Trump the right person for the stories, and it was so boosted by liberal media, and this is kind of a trap you're getting in, because when that kind of guy appears from nowhere, and he, he was the main guy who hacked the system in the states, I guess.
Donald Trump was the main guy who hacked the system?
I totally agree with that.
KOLPAKOV: He was way more effective than any Russian spies, hackers, whatsoever. Putin.
SPRINGE: But for me, what was the biggest question and I'm thinking about this even in connection with the recent, the role of social media in elections. Because I think this is the biggest issue which we still don't understand and we cannot like, evaluate, and understand what to do with it. I mean, like, with all these fake stories about Clinton, that appeared from these Montenegro guys, also I'm wondering in Latvia we have Riga's mayor who is very successful, and he really works very well on all the digital platforms, and I would like to see how actually is the bureau against corruption in Latvia, which should monitor the expenses of pre-election political campaigns, how they was able to monitor how much I spend for YouTube or for Facebook or for so on. I think is something new, which is coming as in general into elections.
Yeah, that's obviously a big part of Trump's appeal, but although, I do think I mean from my perspective, in some ways it's fun to talk about how he uses Twitter, but he was really ultimately using Twitter not to reach people on Twitter but to program television. And he is very much a creature of television.
Like he is, himself really a television character. Like he's not so much a real estate businessman as he is an entertainment figure and a celebrity, and I think that's really what he brought in a way. And what he uses Twitter for is, really what he does in the White House, is he yells at the television, he tweets things at the television, and then the television follows him.
SPRINGE: But there is one thin what he is tweeting like. But there is this other unknown thing, like all these information bubbles where like, one opinion leader is saying something and your friends back it up, and then you don't see the other opinions, and I'm more about these ones, if they, it's not even so much about what Trump, himself, is doing, or like any other politician, but we don't know actually what's happening in this unseen network of social networks.
SPRINGE: This is what is worrying me, how we as journalists can also reach out, people, through this, and to break these bubbles.
Yeah. It's a challenge.
KOLPAKOV: At the same time, it also probably gives some food for thinking for Americans as well, because when you see how your system is way stronger than our system. We started in the 1990s, we started, you know, constructing a democratic society, and we were in the beginning of transit from the Soviet society to some Western-looking society. So it was so fragile and it was so easy to destroy it, the beginning of the system. And this is what happened in Russia, because you understand that it's 2017 and it is the 18th year of Putin's presidency. And from 2000 until 2010, 2011, I felt that things were getting better every day. But since 2011, I feel that things are getting worse every day. So we are at some steps behind yourself, you know, fifteen years ago and this is really sad because you're, this is the time of your life, and you are losing it and then you are finding yourself in the studio in Latvian radio with Ben and Inga.
Sorry man, I know you'd rather be in Moscow. This is actually purgatory, right here. It's a studio in Latvian radio.
KOLPAKOV: I actually like being here.
If they can't decide if you're going to heaven or hell, you wind up in a studio in Latvian radio.
In the U.S. it's been a long time since we had a kind of, I think state media is the wrong word here, but there's a kind of just loyal, kind of loyalist media that you have, that is right now like kind of building. What Fox News is to Donald Trump and they're trying, I think, online to construct other elements of a real kind of like pro-Trump, pro-presidency media. Just it supports power, it supports the White House, it's not sympathetic, it's not aligned with him it's not supportive of his party, it is like aligned with power and exists to carry his water.
And I look at Russian state television and obviously like the first thing that strikes you as an American watching Russian state television is how good it is. How professional it is. How high the production value is and I think often Americans look at Fox News and they look at, you know, people on Periscope with a thousand followers talking about supporting Trump and like, it's easy to laugh at actually, from a technical perspective, and it's easy to make fun of. And I wonder if you have any thoughts on whether America is going to wind up with the kind of pro-Trump media as high-quality as the Russian state media, and what that would mean?
KOLPAKOV: It's a really tough question, because in many ways it is about this conception of media literacy which is extremely popular among European thinkers. And the basic of this conception is that the level of media literacy in Russia is so low. The Russians have so short period of media, independent media consumption, that's why they're so stupid and they're consuming state television as real journalism. That's why they are strongly believing what's there, you know what they can see on the television.
But I disagree with that. I really think that media literacy is an important field for for thinking all over the world and in America, and in Great Britain anywhere. In many ways, what happened in Great Britain for example in Brexit, it was the result of media literacy. It was boosted by by tabloids. Well, British people have such a long period of quality media consumption.
But the powerful media in Britain has always been the tabloids that appeal to emotion.
KOLPAKOV: But they're the same time comparing the Russian situation with the British situation, you understand that—
They have a tradition of independent media but, I think, people imagine that, actually I had, what's his name, the new, controversial New York Times columnist—Bret Stephens. I was on a panel with him where he said that well the only real solution is only like 1 percent of Americans read the Wall Street Journal and you really need like 75 percent of Americans to read the Wall Street Journal. This is the only solution. That most people should read 2000-word articles in broadsheet print newspapers, and if you can't have that, you can't have democracy. In which case, you know, we're obviously all screwed.
KOLPAKOV: It's primitive, but it works. When, you know, my parents live in not in Moscow, they live in big Russian city, but you know the name of the city. It is somewhere in the middle of Russia, one million people in a very cold place, for no reason they live there. So it's just an old industrial center and it was important for the Russian Empire and the Soviet empire. Anyway, so I'm going to their apartments, and there is all these people of their age, they're living there, there are three of them: my stepdad, my mother, and the television, because the television is working all the time. Probably fourteen hours per day. Because they are spending a lot of time at home.
So I am going there, and I'm spending three days or four days together with them, it was in 2015, and I'm in Washington, and I'm listening to Russian television, all this time. And I felt, a couple of days, later, I felt that I really believe that fascists conquered Kiev. And they're killing our, you know, our guys in Donbass. And the, and the European Union is fucked up, sorry, can I say these words?
Yeah, you can curse. That's the nice thing about podcasts.
KOLPAKOV: So you start believing—this, when you're leaving here, in Europe, in Riga, and you're making Meduza and you're, you have very short periods of watching this television, you think, "Wow, this is just impossible. What are they saying?"
How could you take this seriously, right?
KOLPAKOV: Yeah. It is important because it works. But it also works, you are absolutely right, because it is a brilliant television, but it costs like hell, by the way.
SPRINGE: That's why we can compete with them when we launched, and other foreign countries are thinking what to do with Baltic countries and how to oppose Russian propaganda.
But your question about, Trump and making maybe higher quality of TV program, or more, a better message: there is no need for higher and better quality of TV for maybe Trump followers to attract new followers, or his fans, because I think, young people, as we know, they don't watch television anymore. They are already on many other platforms, and this is challenging, like, oh, as a media, how to reach out all those different fragments, fragments of people, so. I think Fox News is, they can still stay like they are. If you want to think about new other additionals, then you should think about the message, and where to reach out to those people. But the quality, in this case, in my opinion, it's not the most important thing.
Right, it can be—people want authenticity on social platforms and it doesn't have to be the same. It's interesting. I think one of the features of this election is that every government, including the U.S., I'm sure, saw Russia's, I think, modest but real impact on the U.S. election and thought, "Oh wow, I want one of those."And so I think you see certainly China doing higher and higher quality sort of government-run television. You see Turkey starting to do it.
It does seem to me, because I assume in some sense these are your competitors for attention, but places like Sputnik—they seem like they do a pretty decent job, right?
KOLPAKOV: I don't feel that at all. I think Sputnik is one of the, it is way less successful than RT, for example, because RT creates agenda which can get some consumers you know in Europe, and even in America, even though they're lying directly to the, you know, the audience and they are making fake, and they are inviting fake experts and so and so and so, and it works, because you're trust—because there is this tradition of trust to what television says.
KOLPAKOV: That's why they believe.
And they have the aesthetics of expensive television.
KOLPAKOV: Yeah, but I'm an optimist. I think television is a dying genre in many ways, and I think you are, Buzzfeed, I mean, and many other websites, us probably, in that region, we are trying to destroy television as an old media. And it is really good. And at that historical moment, I think it is good that we are we're really fighting the television, we're fighting for the audience. And we're going to win!
SPRINGE: It doesn't mean visualization as a way of showing information is dying, it'll go to other platforms and we can more easily show different aspects of one fact, then, because we have phones, we have all these devices. But the traditional TV, where you just sit and you can just switch channels, this is going away.
And it is true, right? The television gave us Trump more than anything else, and and you know obviously television rules Russia in a certain way right now. Do you think it will be harder to lie on social media? Harder to lie on these on these new platforms?
KOLPAKOV: As we now, as we can see right now, it is not hard to lie. You can create alternative reality completely, you know, completely fake, and people are going to consume it. Some, and some, and the most complicated thing is that some part of the audience understands that it's a fake reality. But they're consuming it nevertheless.
They choose it. I wonder like in this region, where do you see sort of the information war being fought most intensely? You recently had a story about Poland but where do you see sort of the most interesting front in this conflict over, over the information space?
SPRINGE: It switched somehow more to these social networks, and Twitter, it's still popular, there's Twitter robots, there are hundreds of Twitter, different kind of profiles, who repeat the same message. And know what's new, and I also spoke with StratCom, it's a center in Riga which also analyzes the messages which comes out. They are talking about.
This is the NATO center, right?
SPRINGE: Yeah. They are analyzing the websites who are publishing about family values and that Norwegians are pedophiles, and want Russian children just to adopt and rape them.
I missed this story!
SPRINGE: We did research, and quotes, and everyone was telling this.
And so this was a story that was being ginned up by the Russian government at some level.
SPRINGE: Yeah, at some level it came up and the idea was that you see the the Western countries, they just want to adopt our children and destroy family values, but that's why we be strong. We are churchgoing Christians, and they are our outside enemy. And all of this news appeared on different, strange websites, and StratCom, people told me that they have compiled like hundreds of such kind of websites, but we, for some people, we cannot put it one database because they are changing, and when it's discovered, they change for another one.
And now the new way of how Russia is spreading its news, is attacking specific people. It's like, for example, in Baltic countries, a very bright is the Lithuanian President, Dalia Grybauskaitė, there will be tons of articles about Grybauskaitė, or this journalist Jessikka Aro in Finland. She is also, there are games made about her and so on.
This is a journalist who investigated Russian information operations.
SPRINGE: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. So the time is changing and moving, and it also depends on what's happening outside. Lik a big gift for Russia's propaganda was migration and the refugees. It just came and happened, but it is very easy to say which are the main Russian messages because when you go to a Russian language website, they are even like hashtags up already, like refugees, Grybauskaitė, NATO as occupants, and something else.
To what degree is there some genius in the Kremlin pulling all these strings? To what degree are there kind of mid-level people throwing spaghetti at the wall and hoping it'll stick?
KOLPAKOV: The positive and negative truth is that there is no place where all the decisions are made.
Is it more just different people trying different—?
KOLPAKOV: Yes, it is like, there is Putin, and of course his decisions are the most important, and there are issues he decides, he always decides by himself. But then there are a lot of people who surround him and there are groups of influence sometimes this group wins, sometimes that group wins, and this is what actually creates space within the whole system and it creates space probably for us and probably for some different actors in these space. It may seem that, it looks like a huge it looks like a system.
KOLPAKOV: But in fact it's a lot of, it's a sum of occasional decisions.
You know this to me was one of the most, the strongest arguments against the idea that this was this incredibly, that the election was hacked in this very organized way. Julia Ioffe, this very good Russian-American journalist, said like, "What do you think, we're Germans?"
KOLPAKOV: Yes. Yes. Exactly, this is the problem. When you read these articles, I feel proud for my country, they're so well organized, they're really German. They hacked Americans, wow!
This is not how things is Russia really work.
KOLPAKOV: No, when you see the army, this brilliant Russian Army in Crimea, these super-professionals. All these people who invaded Crimea, this is all our professional army.
That's the whole thing.
KOLPAKOV: Yeah, the whole thing. Yes! The whole professional part of our army took part in these operations in Crimea. We don't have any other, you know huge, you may think that it's part of a huge and very strong army, but that's not true. The armies is destroyed and nothing works. Nothing works in Russia. It is so corrupted. It is made by people who are who didn't get As in schools. You know they didn't get As! No, they all are not professionals in any sphere. We made this nickname for previous Russian parliament, "crazy printer," because they printed crazy documents, they printed crazy laws. The quality of these laws was ridiculous. They're making scary laws but you can't live according to these laws.
But I'm not talking about the most ridiculous laws such as gay propaganda or something like these.
No, but this sounds like the early Trump administration, too. The sort of incompetence that trumps everything.
KOLPAKOV: This is what makes me skeptical about Russian invasion anywhere. We have so small resources. We can take part in one war at a time. We took part in a war, in the Ukraine, and then we relocated people to, to Syria. But we can't take part in two wars, for example. We just don't have professional resources for that.
Right. One story on Meduza that I wanted to ask you about because I think it's in some ways the next thing is that there's a, there's a campaign to demonize the guy who runs Telegram which is a pretty secure Russian-based messaging app.
Tell me about.
KOLPAKOV: As all Russian stories, it is bizarre. So there’s this guy, Pavel Durov, he is a genius. He is an internet genius.
He got As in school.
KOLPAKOV: Absolutely. I'm sure and his brother. His brother is a developer. So they made the most popular Russian social network. Russia is one of these few countries where local, social networks are very popular. You can compare it with Facebook. And his social network was more popular than Facebook.
This is VKontakte.
KOLPAKOV: VKontakte. You're right.
And Latvia, for awhile—
SPRINGE: And also we had Draugiem.lv.
Did that survive, or did Facebook kill it?
SPRINGE: It is still, but Facebook is more popular now.
KOLPAKOV: And then, then big business took his, his social networks, so he lost his business eventually, and, and he moved to outside Russia, and he decided to make new, new company, which is Telegram, and it is popular especially in Asia, I think. And in Iran.
And it's basically, it's a lot like WhatsApp, or like other messengers.
SPRINGE: Encrypted. More secure.
Before WhatsApp was encrypted, Telegram was always encrypted. Although there have been doubts about how secure it is.
KOLPAKOV: You always have doubts about any secure messenger.
But anyways, it's popular in Russia.
KOLPAKOV: So they made this messenger. And what is the most significant thing about this messenger? Why is it better than WhatsApp in many ways? Because it gives you an opportunity to broadcast. You can create groups without any limits, any limitations without any limits of subscribers, so you can create your own BuzzFeed Ben account in Telegram, and you're broadcasting.
And Meduza publishes on Telegram, yeah? How many followers do you have?
KOLPAKOV: 42,000 followers. Which is not bad for that sized messenger. And it is very good technology for broadcasting, and two years ago, or one year ago, these phenomena appeared in Russian Telegram, anonymous Telegram channels. Because when you have that weak media environment, there is a space for political analysis, there is a space for political comments, you can't talk, very often you can't talk, you can be not anonymous, you can talk about it openly. So I think, we had this boost of anonymous Telegram channels, all these channels are about Russian politics. Some anonymous people are writing something into this, into this channels. This is 90 percent of what is, what is published there are rumors.
But this is real opposition media, in a way.
It's at least critical of the government.
KOLPAKOV: It's really critical.
In a way that might be dangerous to do in public.
KOLPAKOV: Yeah, we know that some, some people that work in the administration make some leaks through these channels. So it's a very interesting part of this environment. It's harder to get these people because the messenger is so good. But then the state passed this law about distributers, the name of the law is the list of distributors, official distributors of information.
KOLPAKOV: And if you are operating in Russia you have to become part of this, you have to register as a part of these list. So WhatsApp has to register, Skype has to register, ICQ probably has to register as a, you know, as a distributor of information.
But the target is Telegram.
KOLPAKOV: And Telegram as well, they have to register, and there was a big fight between Roskomnadzor, which is the main censorship department in Russia, and Telegram, for registering, in this list. So I think that they are trying, what are they trying to reach, they want to know what is, who are the people behind this anonymous Telegram channels, probably.
But also, this is some Russian guy and they want to be in negotiations with him. Because all American companies who are operating in Russian, they are in negotiations with the Russian state. Facebook, Google, everyone. Everyone's talking to the Russian state.
But Telegram isn't talking to them.
KOLPAKOV: He didn't want to talk to them.
Right, and so now he is suddenly very famous. Well he was already famous, but now there is sort of a media campaign against him?
KOLPAKOV: Yeah, but it finished yesterday, because yesterday he said, "Okay guys, let's register Telegram."
And the way they did it was by demonizing him, basically, and portraying him as a kind of friend of terrorists.
KOLPAKOV: Yes, they, you know, it's the stupidest, any political, public campaign against somebody in Russia is always stupid, because Russian television is suddenly—suddenly starts showing stories about this guy. No one knows Telegram! I mean, the majority of people in Russia they don't know what Telegram is. What is it for? And now suddenly he is the hero of the main stories in the main the TV programs. He became a superstar for everyone, though he was a star for youngsters, always. Because he's like Russian Zuckerberg or something like this.
KOLPAKOV: So yeah, but he's really nice. He's a really nice person and he's a good manager.
Alright, are you trying to sell Meduza to him right here?
KOLPAKOV: No, no, no, no, no. I just know him, and I just feel that he is honest when he says that he doesn't want to communicate to any states. Not only Russia. I think he's honest.
I think encryption is going to be this huge challenge for governments.
Well, thank you guys for coming on and for coming into this studio at Radio Latvia, which you know is where your life path has taken you. It's good seeing you both.
KOLPAKOV: Thank you.
SPRINGE: Thank you.