What we learned from a week of listening to Russian propaganda on KC airwaves

Illustration by Christian Toth

In January, Radio Sputnik, a Russian state-sponsored news agency that U.S. intelligence has called a “propaganda machine,” reached a deal to broadcast on three frequencies in Kansas City, all under the banner of Liberty-based KCXL. The agreement made national news; the Kansas City Star published an outraged editorial.

We wanted to know what Sputnik actually sounds like, though. So I started streaming shows online and pouring over their website. (I did not, however, download the Sputnik app. If I wanted Russian-backed spyware on my phone, I’d still be using Facebook.)

Hear the words “Russian propaganda,” and you might imagine Khrushchev banging his shoe or Stalin-era posters of muscle-bound, strong-jawed men basking in the sun of a worker’s paradise. Sputnik, though, is far more subtle. The broadcasts are slick and sophisticated. They are also superficially baffling in their mix of right-wing outrage and lefty rabble-rousing, along with a smattering of celebrity, health and culture news.

London-based show “Shoot From The Lip,” for instance, featured a story about transgender people supposedly threatening violence against a college professor and a diatribe slamming
Meghan Markle as an excessively woke, spoiled American brat.

The host then claimed Prince Andrew shouldn’t talk to the FBI about his history with Jeffery Epstein because the agency wouldn’t allow the Prince to leave the United States afterward. Sputnik has similarly pushed the Seth Rich conspiracy, a staple of the far right which seeks to implicate Hillary Clinton. It’s a debunked conspiracy that former Assistant U.S. Attorney Deborah Sines, who oversaw the Rich case, was tied to Russian operatives.

Radio Sputnik doesn’t really lean left or right, though. It leans hard both ways. Another show, “By Any Means Necessary,” features interviews with the likes of Noam Chomsky, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., and Black Lives Matter activists. The notion that Democrats are cheating Bernie Sanders out of votes was in heavy rotation on that one.

At first glance, having a program that denounces social justice warriors (SJWs) and another that hosts Chomsky seems wildly inconsistent. Today’s Russian propaganda, however, doesn’t promote any particular political perspective. The point is simply to sow division, according to reports prepared for the Senate Intelligence Committee.

For example, in 2016, two Russian-controlled Facebook pages organized rallies in Houston. One group, called Heart of Texas but controlled by Russia, held a rally to “Stop Islamification of Texas.” Another Russian-sponsored page, United Muslims of America, organized a “Save Islamic Knowledge” counter-rally.

Sputnik feels a lot like that. If there’s a fault-line in our society (guns, abortion, Meghan Markle) then Russia wants to exploit it. That’s the dark reality too few Americans across the political spectrum seem willing to acknowledge.

If you are looking for a takeaway, though, the real “fault lies not in our stars” moment came when I first tuned into KCXL on a random Tuesday and found myself listening to speculation that Chief Justice John Roberts had been blackmailed by Jeffery Epstein. The show turned out to be TruNews, hosted by Rick Wiles. Texas-based Wiles, purportedly a pastor, has publicly claimed, among other things, that Queen Elizabeth II is a satanist and Bill Clinton is a cannibal. You might also recognize Wiles as the guy who called impeachment proceedings a “Jew coup” and was later given press credentials by the White House.

Yet you’ll notice nobody protests TruNews. It doesn’t make national news for broadcasting in a new city. Nobody at the Star writes an editorial denouncing Wiles.

We rightly worry about divisive propaganda from overseas. The Russian information war has been terrifyingly effective at dividing and radicalizing the American people—with no end in sight. But let’s not forget what’s grown right here at home.

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