Why you should care

Because shirtless Putin has a message for you. 

It’s 3 a.m. Laptop is open on my bed; in one hand, I’ve got a Clif Bar, and in the other, a coffee mug. When I glance up from the screen, out the window I can see the military base across the street from my D.C. apartment. Is my Internet tapped? I wonder. My apologies if you’re watching, Mr. Commander in Chief. I just can’t seem to stop. Even if it is pure Putin propaganda, 24/7 Russian news channel RT USA has me hooked.

A haunting promo shows a video of Edward Snowden before asking: “What secrets make a government go to war with whistle-blowers?” Another blames the European refugee crisis and the rise of ISIS on the Western allies who gleefully deposed Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi. Then there’s Olivia Munn pimping Proactiv acne treatment. Yes, the coverage is self-serving and laughably biased. But the thing is, it isn’t wrong. America’s treatment of whistle-blowers is both chilling and hypocritical. Deposing dictators did create a vacuum that gave rise to ISIS and, later, war-fleeing migrants. And Olivia Munn does have great skin.

Experts say this is all part of Russia’s plan: Dial down the blatant Homerism, add an aura of reputability and pitch themselves as the “second opinion” to disillusioned millennials, who believe mainstream U.S. media coddles the rich and powerful. To the naked eye, its headlines read like The Huffington Post. The outlet interviews undercurrent folks with a hint of credibility, from Noam Chomsky on the left to Pat Buchanan on the right, and even libertarian Ron Paul. RT, founded in 2005 as Russia Today, was created to discredit democracy and undermine American exceptionalism: a rebuff to what Vladimir Putin saw as “anti-Russian bias” in Western media. I know this. Still, I can’t look away — because what else is there? While Today obsesses over Marco Rubio’s booties or Donald Trump’s comb-over, RT’s relentless coverage of police brutality and government spying tugs on my Black Lives Matter and Bernie Sanders sympathies. And I’m not the only one who is hooked: In 2010, Nielsen Media Research reported that Russia Today was the second-most-watched foreign broadcast outlet in America, trailing only the BBC.

Libertarian commentator Andrew Demeter, an 18-year-old from Cleveland, relies primarily on RT and other YouTube pundits for his news. It covers what “mainstream media in the U.S. won’t dare touch,” Demeter says. RT has 2.8 million weekly viewers in seven major cities, the outlet told OZY, adding that in December, its YouTube channels hit 3 billion views, besting CNN, Euronews and Al Jazeera. But like so much of what I’m watching tonight, those “facts” seem self-serving; RT has, according to multiple media reports, likely exaggerated its reach. (The company declined to comment.)

Kremlin propaganda is mostly effective in Russia because it “functions in a monolingual space,” says Natasha Rulyova, a professor of Russian studies at the University of Birmingham in England. “When the Kremlin uses the same tools [abroad], they are confronted by other voices.” And so their appeal gets limited to fringe groups and anarchists … and weary political correspondents.

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