Getting Russia Right

in the era of "Fake News"

David Filipov, former Moscow Bureau Chief of The Washington Post and writer for The Boston Globe, spoke at the Bob Graham Center about the U.S. news landscape and Russia's relationship with the United States. Filipov challenged audience members to adopt a more nuanced view of Putin and Russia and advocated for more critical news consumption.

What is "fake news"?
I've thought a lot about this. Generally, “fake news” is something that the person who is calling it “fake news” doesn’t like to read. The president from time to time will call something “fake news” that is actually real news because he doesn’t like it. I’ve come up with the Filipov Formula for “fake news.” Take one real fact, combine it with another real fact and create an assumption. For example, first you say: Russians had an internet campaign designed to influence public perception. Then you say: Putin’s cook is the individual that oversaw this online hacking campaign. These are two facts. But, when you put those two facts together and say that this means that the Kremlin and Putin were behind-the-scenes, managing the online campaign, well, that is taking two facts and creating a plausible. We just need to be sure when we are telling that story we are making clear that these are guesses.

Why is there a tendency to overstate Russian influence?
It's the nature of the 24 hour news cycle. Everyone is competing and wants to go a little farther than their competitors. When you have a big news story, and this is a big news story, everyone wants to make the most of it. This has led to extreme views and headlines. "Putin the mastermind!" “The Russian bots!” It’s sensationalizing. Yes, there was a serious intelligence campaign going on. But, it’s not something that is able to bring the world down. It’s a made for the internet thriller. When you find out that Putin’s favorite cook just so happens to be the guy behind the campaign to infiltrate the internet with bots, it’s so sensational, of course you want to play it to the hilt. But keep in mind that there are probably 157 reasons that Donald Trump was elected president and they have nothing to do with Russian bots. We have overstated the connection between these two things and the importance of Russian trolling.

Put into perspective the current state of U.S./Russian relations?
It's not like misinformation, campaigns of influence, propaganda and efforts to disarray are new. The Soviet Union did it and the United States did it very effectively during the Cold War. We had Voice of America and Radio Free Europe broadcasting what was going on in the democratic world to the closed Soviet Union. Every country has intelligence gathering operations. What’s different now is the adversarial relationship that we have with Russia. Once the Cold War was over, Russia was off to the side and now they’re back as our super adversary. And, we have this hothouse called the internet. We all just need to calm down and lower our bytes per second and be critical about what we are reading. The number one thing we need to do is stop taking so seriously everything we read on Twitter. That can be hard to do when the President of the United States is communicating to the masses via Twitter. The challenge is to wade through the information, decide what is important for us and use the mute button for the rest.

How do the Russian people view Putin and Russia's relationship with the U.S.?
The typical Russian citizen is wondering what happened and why is the U.S. suddenly blaming Russia for everything that goes wrong. This is especially true for people who are opponents of Putin. People who want to believe that Putin can be defeated through democratic and civil means don’t want him to have super-villain powers ascribed to him. When we talk about him masterminding a campaign capable of overturning the longest-continuing, peaceful transition of power in the world, the American presidency, it ruins the position that this is just another politician that can be brought down through legal means. Right now, they are thinking 'what is wrong with you guys. That election was over in 2016. Find something else to talk about.’ And these are Putin’s opponents!