One of Russia's most popular internet news sites is one that many Russians believe to be a dedicated purveyor of “fake news.”
Yet it enjoys almost 300,000 daily readers, is consulted by editors around the country as they prepare their own news coverage, and is also reported to be heavily used by the Kremlin staff who compile Vladimir Putin's morning press summary.
The site is InoSMI (a Russian contraction meaning “foreign mass media”), which publishes a wide variety of full articles from global media translated into Russian, with a special emphasis on stories about Russia. The site routinely runs some of most critical reportage and analysis about Mr. Putin's Russia that can be found in US outlets like The New York Times, The Washington Post and, indeed, The Christian Science Monitor. In their Russian-language versions, those pieces often enjoy huge online readerships.
Remarkably, it's the Russian government that funds InoSMI, which was originally started in 2001 with the specific purpose of illustrating the relentless hostility and and anti-Russian bias with which Western reporters cover Russia, according to former InoSMI editor Alexey Kovalev. That still seems to be a major focus, and Russian commenters vent their displeasure on the site over the bias they see in the foreign coverage of their country.
But the criticism – which mirrors American criticism of Russia's coverage of the US in Kremlin-funded news station RT – also illustrates the limits of news translation's value without understanding the context in which the articles is published.
“There are an immense number of misunderstandings between our countries,” says Larisa Mikhaylova, a senior researcher in the journalism department of Moscow State University and secretary of the Russian Society of American Culture Studies, “and just translating articles from the Western press can be a double-edged method.”
A window on the world
The Kremlin's sponsorship of InoSMI highlights a critically important distinction between the public mood and political savvy in today's Russia and that in the former Soviet Union – which did everything possible to block regular Soviet citizens' access to unfiltered Western reporting about their country.
“The main idea behind InoSMI is to provide the Russian-speaking audience with the widest range of information, opinion, and assessments by foreign media outlets, both Western and Eastern, concerning developments in Russia,” as well as international political, economic, scientific, social, and cultural news from around the world, says the site's current head, Alexey Dubosarsky.
This week, for example, one day's front page on InoSMI featured political articles from the Financial Times, Die Welt, the National Interest, Bloomberg, and Politico, as well as newspapers from Iran, Czech Republic, Ukraine, Turkey, and Poland.
“Statistically, our readers are most interested in articles about Russia, and these are what we primarily choose,” Mr. Dubosarsky says. The site's audience is mainly well-educated Russian men aged 25 to 45, people who are “successful in their life, decision-makers.” About 80 percent live in Russia, 8 percent in Ukraine, 7 percent in Europe, and 2 percent in America, he adds.
But although he works with the daily output of foreign correspondents in Russia, he thinks poorly of its quality and objectivity.
“Perceptions of Russia in the West are based on a variety of cliches and stereotypes, and a list of rather inappropriate assessments,” he says. “Western journalists are not apart from this. At least 80 percent of mainstream media articles are now hostile to Russia. Their analysis proves mostly shallow, with judgments that are simplistic and tendentious.”
Judging by comments on InoSMI, Russian readers find the analysis of Western journalists selective and simplistic, portraying Russia as a one-man dictatorship where media is totally state-controlled, dissent is suppressed, elections rigged, and which meddles aggressively in other peoples' affairs and threatens its neighbors.
If Americans want a sense of what enrages some Russian readers of InoSMI, they might comparatively tune in to RT, the Russian English-language satellite broadcaster that the US Department of Justice recently forced to register as a “foreign agent” in the US.
RT is calculated for foreign audiences, and many of its presenters are native English-speakers. But the station does carry a relentlessly unsympathetic narrative about the US: one that focuses on racism, police brutality, economic inequality, and imperialism abroad. Many Russians uncritically believe this, even as they rail in InoSMI's comments section against the one-sidedness and incomprehension of Western journalists covering Russia.
The problem may be that simply publishing articles taken straight from the Western media is not necessarily as helpful as it seems it should be because context is missing, says Ms. Mikhailova.
“If a person's knowledge of another culture is sketchy, then stereotypes are easily reinforced,” she says. “People see the tone as 'hostile' and they react against that view. It would be more scientific if these articles were accompanied by analyses that try to explain the cultural background the reporter is coming from, what he or she is trying to say, and how it might be misperceived.”
‘More like people in the West than ever’
Russians have always exhibited deep curiosity about the world beyond their country, with a special interest in how it perceives Russia. Soviet authorities tried to meet this demand with a mega-circulation weekly newspaper called Za Rubezhom (Abroad), which printed selected articles from foreign media about life and culture, as well as political and foreign policy analyses from Communist and USSR-friendly publications in other countries.
Mikhailova says she got her start translating articles by Canadian author Farley Mowat about nature, environment, and the lives of Inuit people in the Canadian north for Za Rubezhom – stories that resonated with Soviet readers. “It was something people hungered for, a connection with other parts of the world, things that were similar to our lives. It provided a window and fresh information about what was happening in other countries,” she says.
Mikhail Chernysh, deputy director of the official Center of Theoretical and Applied Sociology in Moscow, says that despite the fact that Russians are now more sophisticated, well-traveled, and able to surf the internet freely, they still hanker for connections with the wider world – a mood that has probably intensified with the geopolitical crisis between Russia and the West over the past five years.
“Of course InoSMI is a selection that suits authorities, because it demonstrates how narrow-minded and unfair Western journalists can be toward Russia.” he says. “But it's not Soviet times anymore. The fact is that we are much more like [people in the West] today than we ever were.”
Indeed, Mr. Kovalev, who was editor of InoSMI for two years from 2012, notes that Russians responded positively when it expanded beyond solely reports on Western views of Russia. “I decided it would no longer be a website that only translated coverage of Russia, because there is so much interesting journalism in the world,” he says. “Our core audience wanted that, the stuff with Russia and Putin keywords, and we continued to give it to them. But after that, I was free to experiment with more diverse subjects, and our circulation grew rapidly as a result.”
There is no US equivalent to InoSMI, but Mr. Dubosarsky points out that there are some smaller-scale attempts to provide a similar service to interested Americans, including Watching America and Worldcrunch.
“Americans are primarily focused on their own domestic affairs,” he says. “But it would be of great use for Americans and everyone else if they could see themselves through other eyes. It would only improve mutual understanding.”