The Sputnik was the first artificial Earth satellite, launched on 4 October 1957. Shortly after its launch, the New York Times explained that the literal translation of “sputnik” is “something that is traveling with a traveler.” Additionally, “the traveler is the earth, traveling through space, and the companion ‘traveling with’ it is the satellite.”
If you search on Google for the word ‘sputnik’ you get about 23,600,000 results. But if you add ‘satellite’ to the search, results are just 536,000. This means that there are currently over 23 million pages on the web talking about a different Sputnik: the Russian news service that was named after it. This time the traveler is information and the companion travelling with it is propaganda.
Sputnik, a major Russian media brand with modern multimedia centers in dozens of countries, was launched on 10 November 2014. It replaced RIA Novosti, the country’s major news agency, and radio station Voice of Russia, creating in their place a new media conglomerate to be known as Rossiya Segodnya.
Russia needs to have more propaganda, President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Thursday, in comments on the dissolution of RIA Novosti, the country’s major state-owned news agency. [MOSCOW, December 19, 2014 (RIA Novosti)]
This was the latest major evolution in Russia’s efforts to re-model information tools and channels to reach abroad. The appearance and content of Sputnik clearly reflect a well conceived – as quite effective – strategy to achieve several purposes  :
- to devalue the notions of democratic transparency and accountability,
- to undermine confidence in objective reporting,
- to litter the news with half-truths and quarter truths,
- to create an alternate reality for Russian minorities in Eastern Europe that discredits democracy and could incite violence
Sputnik and the Russian TV Channel RT do this mainly by capitalizing on Western media principles, such as leaving value judgments out of reporting, to spread disinformation and erode trust in the media.
Peter Pomerantsev, a senior fellow at the Legatum Institute said citizens in the Baltic countries, for example, have become cynical about all news sources, whether Russian or Western. But they tend to prefer the entertainment value and sensationalism on offer from the Kremlin.
According to its own homepage, Sputnik’s broadcasting is entirely geared toward foreign audiences. It produces multimedia content and broadcasts in: Russian, Abkhaz, Azerbaijani, Arabic, Armenian, Chinese, Crimean Tatar, Dari, English, Estonian, French, Finnish, German, Georgian, Hindi, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Latvian, Moldavian, Polish, Portuguese, Pashto, Spanish, Serbian, Turkish, Tajik, Uzbek, Ukrainian, Japanese.
Sputnik news feeds in English, Spanish, Arabic and Chinese are available around the clock. Regional editorial offices in Washington, Cairo, Beijing and Montevideo work 24/7 to provide a non-stop newscast.
The appeal of Sputnik is built around creating a perception of credibility, a contradiction in terms for a propaganda tool. Still, they smartly carry a number of factual reports, in pure western style, which create a curtain behind which they insert the appropriate messages, and fake news, when needed.
Catherine Putz recently posted a comment on a Sputnik article titled “Washington’s Pivot to Central Asia Aimed at Damaging Russian Interests” as “a perfect example of how Moscow’s pet publications twist reality into a simplified narrative that plays into regional fears…But as attractive as the messaging is, and though it contains some tethers to reality, Sputnik’s narrative draws conclusions that simply aren’t supported by facts.”
Probably the best tactic used by Sputnik to build its reputation is to echo western media when it is convenient to do so. What better that a negative story in the New York Times?
Quoting the Washington-based Brookings Institution, the article states that the Russian Air Force in Syria left many Western military experts surprised, as they didn’t expect that Russia had the capacity to carry out military operations with such efficiency. However, nowhere in the post you can find a link to the original story…
In other cases original stories are just linked, so as to boost credibility as a news service using worldwide sources:
Currently, the Sputnik international page on Facebook has more than 600000 likes, Sputnik in Arabic (one the several accounts) has over 1340000 followers, the same page in German has nearly 114,000 followers.
Of course the above statistics must be interpreted taking into consideration the different popularity of Facebook in each geographical area:
Without pretending any scientific accuracy, it is anyway evident how effective Sputnik’s penetration has been in the Arabic world. Unless an armada of robots is creating over a million accounts… It is to be seen if this number changes after the Russian ambiguous engagement against ISIS.
All the Sputnik posts are built with very effective search engine optimization. Which means that if you search for news on a topical subject there are many probabilities that the first results of your search will bring you to a Sputnik page. And if you do not know what is behind it, you are fished.
Many studies indicate that to try to debunk one by one disinformation stories is almost a waste of time. Particularly with reference to viewers who pretend to look for ‘alternative’ sources of information. The same are those who are more easily trapped within disinformation bubbles. Responding to every lie or phony situation is counterproductive, because it is reactive and you are always behind the curve. Still, the record must be corrected and fact-checking remains a required approach to counter propaganda.
Experts believe that instead of just playing defense, Western information should counter-attack and fill the information gap left within domestic Russian speaking audiences. Reality-based, locally relevant, engaging programming is the one type of content Kremlin media, despite its many successes, does not produce. Both Aron  and Pomerantsev  urged the U.S. government and civil society groups to provide more support to news sources such as Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty that can counter Russian propaganda with local and narrative-based stories. The counter-propaganda efforts will require a long-term commitment, they said.
Meanwhile, I ‘liked’ the Sputnik page, just to stay abreast of the artificial reality they want me to perceive. So please take me away from the above statistics.
 from testimony by Leon Aron, US Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Europe and Regional Security Cooperation, 3 Nov. 2015
 from testimony by Mr. Peter Pomerantsev before US Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Europe and Regional Security Cooperation, 4 Nov. 2015