How Russian State-Controlled Media Use Disinformation Campaigns to Influence Democratic Processes in Austria and Beyond

PeopleOther ♦ Published: March 9, 2022; 20:49 ♦ (Vindobona)

Russia uses its state-controlled media outlets to help push disinformation campaigns in Austria and around the world. Read how the Kremlin spreads disinformation through the media.

Editor-in-Chief of RT Margarita Simonyan: "Like all other channels, there is no objectivity… when Russia is at war, we are, of course, on the side of Russia." / Picture: © Wikimedia Commons / Jürg Vollmer / Maiakinfo, CC BY-SA 3.0 (

In the last decade or so, the terms disinformation, misinformation, and “fake news” have become increasingly common. While “fake news” often evokes images of former US President Donald Trump and other populists attacking the mainstream media, the terms are also frequently associated with Russia. The Russian government has been repeatedly accused of not only spreading disinformation in Russia but also influencing public opinion and democratic processes in other countries via its state-controlled media outlets and websites, as well as social media platforms.

Official government communications

In August 2020, the US State Department released a report on Russia’s disinformation and propaganda ecosystem. The report listed official government communications as one pillar of this ecosystem. Official communications include statements from the Kremlin or one of the ministries of the government, official social media posts from Russian government institutions, and statements or quotes from Russian officials.

In Austria, one can frequently see Russian disinformation coming from the Russian Embassy in Vienna as well as the permanent missions. The misinformation and disinformation will sometimes come in the form of official statements from the embassy or mission. For example, the Russian Embassy recently posted a statement by the Russian Foreign Ministry condemning critical statements by Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer and Foreign Minister Schallenberg regarding Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The statement employs one of the Kremlin’s signature disinformation tactics–revisionist history.

In the statement, the Foreign Ministry slams Nehammer for claiming that neutrality was “imposed” on Austria by the Soviets following Austria’s occupation after WWII. The statement reads, “Recall that Austria gained its statehood in 1955 with the signing of the State Treaty on the restoration of an independent and democratic Austria by the USSR, Great Britain, the USA and France, which became possible only as a result of its liberation from fascism by the Red Army and allies in 1945.” The statement later questions Austria’s commitment to neutrality. While the statement is partially true because the Red Army did help liberate Austria, it is not completely accurate because it is widely accepted that the Soviet Union would not have agreed to Austrian independence and withdrawn its troops if Austria did not formally guarantee its neutrality. Additionally, Austria’s declaration of neutrality simply states that Austria will not be part of any military alliances and will not allow the establishment of foreign military bases on its territory. It does not say anything about politicians condemning other countries for aggressive actions.

Another example from the Russian Foreign Ministry was an article that tried to discredit Western media reports of Russia’s planned invasion of Ukraine as a massive disinformation campaign. previously showed how the article used semantics and cherry-picking of quotes to make the Western media reporting look as though it was saying something that it was not.

More frequently than with official statements, the Russian diplomatic missions in Vienna use their social media accounts to push disinformation. Their Facebook and Twitter accounts are constantly posting and sharing information that is either false or misleading. A recent Twitter post by the Russian Foreign Ministry was retweeted by the Russian Permanent Mission to the OSCE in which a spokeswoman says, “We confirm that, during the special military operation in Ukraine, the Kiev regime was found to have been concealing traces of a military biological programme implemented with funding from the United States Department of Defence.” Obviously, this tweet was meant to help justify Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine. However, it has been fact-checked by multiple outlets and was proven to be untrue. The only sliver of truth is that the US has helped fund safe practices in Ukrainian laboratories that do biological research, e.g., research to help prevent disease.

The official government communications are only part of Russia’s disinformation campaign. The Kremlin also relies on state-controlled media outlets, such as RT and Sputnik, to help spread a false narrative.

RT (Russia Today) and Sputnik

RT and Sputnik are two of the most prominent Russian state-controlled media outlets. The State Department’s report on Russian disinformation lists state-controlled media as another pillar of the propaganda ecosystem. Both RT and Sputnik are owned by the same state-owned media company (Rossiya Sevodnja) and brand themselves as providing the Russian perspective and alternative opinions that run counter to the Western media narrative. However, both of them have been accused of being the international propaganda arm of the Russian government and helping to disseminate disinformation around the world. RT and Sputnik offer content in numerous different languages so as to reach a wider international audience. To help spread the message outside of Russia, RT also created RT America, RT UK, and RT DE.

According to a separate report specifically focused on RT and Sputnik conducted by the US State Department’s Global Engagement Center, leaders at these outlets and President Putin himself have acknowledged their lack of objectivity and pro-Kremlin stance. The report states that when the Editor-in-Chief of RT, Margarita Simonyan, was asked about balancing objectivity with state interests in 2012 she said, “Like all other channels, there is no objectivity… when Russia is at war, we are, of course, on the side of Russia.” Similarly, when Editor-in-Chief of Sputnik Anton Anisimov was asked if the outlet promotes the Kremlin’s viewpoint, he said, “Call it propaganda if you like.” The report also says that “Anisimov explained that his employees viewed their work as part of a global communications war.” Additionally, per the report, “President Putin stated he envisioned RT as an ‘absolutely independent news channel’ but ‘the channel is funded by the government, so it cannot help but reflect the Russian government’s official position on the events in our country and in the rest of the world, one way or another.’”

Outlets like RT and Sputnik help to amplify the misleading or false official government communications described above. Additionally, they directly challenge the Western media narrative and promote distrust of journalists by providing conflicting reports that are often misleading. Further, they frequently publish stories on topics that divide the public in other countries and help sew distrust of Western governments. One example of this is RT’s reporting on the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Most Western media outlets have documented numerous cases of Russia targeting civilian infrastructure, bombing the humanitarian escape corridors and killing hundreds of civilians. However, on RT DE, the reporting shows the opposite. One article is entitled “Survivors Report - Ukrainian Army Kills Civilians Trying to Escape” and provides the Russian perspective, which claims that the Ukrainian army is holding civilians hostage as human shields and accuses the Ukrainians of killing those trying to leave.

Russian state-controlled media outlets, such as RT and Sputnik, also frequently reported on the COVID-19 situation in Austria and pushed a narrative against corona restrictions, lockdowns, and the vaccination mandate. This narrative was likely targeted at the minority of people in Austria who did not trust the vaccine or the government’s role in fighting the virus. Disinformation and misinformation on COVID-19 only made it more difficult for the government to effectively respond to the crisis and helped fuel the anti-government sentiment in Austria and elsewhere.

Social media

Another important pillar of the Russian propaganda and disinformation ecosystem, according to the State Department’s report, is the “weaponization of social media.” One can see Russia’s use of social media on two fronts. The Russian government uses it for releasing official communications to help put out and amplify its false narrative. Additionally, the Kremlin has been accused of systematically using social media to infiltrate domestic conversations, undermine faith in institutions, and amplify protests and civil discord.

As can be seen in the official government communications section above, Russian government institutions use social media to disseminate a false narrative. In the example above, the government is helping to spread the fake news story that the US was funding a biological weapons program in Ukraine. They also used their social media accounts to attack Austria for its critical statements and help push the misleading narrative that the Soviet Union did not force Austria to declare its neutrality.

The second role of social media for Russia is a more robust operation. It has been widely reported that Russia has what are often referred to as “troll farms.” These institutions, such as the Internet Research Agency, have been accused of making fake social media accounts of individuals in other countries and constantly posting and sharing content that is aimed at increasing resentment of certain politicians and government institutions and pitting people against one another. This can be seen in everything from the US and European elections to the COVID-19 protests in Austria.


The impacts of Russia’s disinformation campaigns on elections are not always easy to ascertain. While there have been investigations done, it remains difficult to conclusively determine whether a particular outcome of an election or referendum would have changed without the disinformation campaign. Two notable examples are the 2016 US presidential election and the UK’s referendum on leaving the European Union. While the disinformation campaigns in favor of Donald Trump and “leave” are well documented, it is impossible to say for sure that Hillary Clinton would have won or the UK would have voted to remain without the disinformation.

Though it is difficult to show the effects of disinformation on elections, there are very clear negative impacts from the disinformation campaigns on public opinion and trust in institutions. One of these is that the line between truth and fiction has become blurred for many people. With misleading stories being run by so-called news outlets and then amplified on social media, people can find an article that fits the narrative they already believe or become frustrated with conflicting reports and choose not to trust any news source. Additionally, disinformation campaigns can lead to a trust deficit between institutions and the populations they serve. This can be seen in the way that disinformation spread in Austria and around the world regarding the COVID-19 pandemic. With all the false and misleading information spreading while scientists were trying to provide accurate information in an ever-evolving situation, many people lost trust in the experts and government. This lack of trust likely contributed to the protests against the governments’ decisions and a rejection of the vaccination by many people.

In addition, the disinformation pushed by news outlets like RT and Sputnik help to give the Russian government some cover for its wrongdoing. For example, Russia has been accused of committing war crimes in Ukraine, including targeting civilians. Stories like the one mentioned earlier about Ukraine killing civilians help the Russian government to try to flip the narrative. Now, instead of Russia committing war crimes, the story is that Ukraine is committing war crimes, which helps justify Russia’s illegal invasion of the country.

Overall, it is very clear that Russia’s disinformation campaigns have been harmful to society in many different ways. However, it is difficult to say just how big the impact actually is. As such, there remains some disagreement about how to deal with it.

Response from the West

The European Union, the United States, and many major tech platforms have restricted access to certain Russian state-controlled media outlets, such as RT and Sputnik. The decision to do so has been met with mixed reactions, with some people arguing that banning them strengthens democracy and others arguing that it is simply censorship.

According to Euronews, the EU’s top diplomat Josep Borrell argued in favor of the ban, saying, “They are not independent media, they are assets, they are weapons, in the Kremlin's manipulation ecosystem.” Borrell continued, “We are not trying to decide what is true and what is false. We don't have ministers of the Truth. But we have to focus on foreign actors who intentionally, in a coordinated manner, try to manipulate our information environment.”

On the other hand, the organization Reporters Without Borders reportedly expressed concerns about the ban out of fear of reciprocal measures being taken against the free press by Moscow. The organization used the example of the recent closure of Deutsche Welle’s Moscow office in response to Germany banning RT DE. According to RT, the Managing Director of Reporters Without Borders Christian Mihr said, “The Russian media apparatus censors, spreads disinformation and believes it is engaged in an information war. Nevertheless, we are critical of the ban on RT and Sputnik. The influence of these media on opinion-forming in Europe is limited. However, the expected Russian countermeasures could make independent reporting from Russia more difficult or even impossible. The fact that there will be countermeasures has been shown not least by the way Deutsche Welle was dealt with.”

Russian disinformation campaigns will likely continue to be a problem for the foreseeable future. They will continue to be used to try to spread a false narrative about the war in Ukraine, increase distrust in institutions and media, and sew discord in other nations. Unfortunately, the debate over how to properly deal with them and who gets to decide what is “real news” does not seem to have any end in sight either.