Finally I have had the time to write my response to Peter Pomerantsev’s article in The Atlantic, entitled “Russia and the Menace of Unreality.” The author examines the nature of Russia’s new media, and how there is no longer any concern whatsoever as to the credibility of their coverage. Russian media, particularly that aimed at foreign audiences, isn’t concerned so much with presenting an alternative point of view, but rather a myriad of different points of view until the waters are sufficiently muddied. Instead of presenting a lie as truth, the strategy seems to be to make truth unknowable by bombarding audiences with multiple, sometimes mutually exclusive theories or claims.
The downing of the Malaysian airliner over Ukraine was a perfect example of this. RT and other Russian media sources posited numerous different explanations of the event, including:
-The first claim, that Ukrainians shot down the plane believing it to be that of Vladimir Putin. Of course no evidence was presented to support this theory and it was quickly taken down.
-Another claim, from the Russian defense ministry, alleging that a Ukrainian military plane shot the airliner down. Oddly enough, they claimed that the plane in question was a SU-25, a ground attack aircraft and not an interceptor. Why any military aircraft would have been sent to intercept a plane which had spent some time in Ukrainian airspace and flew in from the West was never really dealt with.
-A claim that the airliner was indeed shot down by a Buk SAM system, but that it was the Ukrainian army’s SAM and not that of the rebels.
-A claim which admits that the rebels shot down the plane, but only because it was being escorted by Ukrainian fighter planes, implying that they thought it was a military flight.
All of this serves to distract from key questions such as how the rebels managed to get their hands on this system and operate it in the first place. If they did have the know-how to properly operate it, it suggests Russian military involvement. If not, then they were negligent. Even if we accepted the unlikely idea that the Ukrainian military downed the plane, this would not change the fact that the rebels were responsible due to a conflict they started and continued even after the first cease fire and the offer of peace talks which went unanswered.
So it is with Russian media. Rather than actually present some coherent, alternative message, the new direction seems to be aimed at merely confusing every new story until nobody has a clue what is going on. If Russia is called out for wrongdoing and they can’t concoct any conspiracy theories to explain the accusations away, the response is typically whataboutism- not because the Russian government is terribly concerned about the rights of people living in Detroit or Ferguson, but simply because they trying to say, “Yes, we are bad, but everyone else is bad too, so we should all just mind our own business and continue being bad.”
Of course the obvious parallel to RT, in the US at least, would be Fox News, but this is somewhat inaccurate. First of all, while Fox is known for neck-breaking political line shifts from time to time, the overall message is pretty much always consistent. Fox is a conservative network. It champions supply-side economics, deregulation, and neo-liberalism by gift-wrapping these concepts in patriotism, nostalgia, “family values,” and other trappings of American conservatism. How radical Fox News can be seems to be based on the party of the administration in the White House, but there has always been limits for Fox. The network will only follow libertarian populism so far. Its pundits have publicly repudiated birtherism. Fox News promotes a sort of worldview which is, while invincibly stupid, quite simple and coherent. It generally consists of the following concepts:
-Liberals are destroying America and undermining its values.
-Religion, particularly Christianity, is under attack by secular humanists.
-The world is full of evil people who are trying to kill you, rape you, or possibly invite your daughter to a rainbow party.
-Look at this outrageous act that some liberal did!
-Certain people(wink, wink) are trying to cheat you by leeching off welfare. Also they like to play the knockout game.
-Guns are awesome and owning them makes you manly.
-MUSLIMS! OH NO!
I could go on, but by this point you could probably fill in the blanks yourself at this point. Sure, Fox can be contradictory. When Bush was president we were told it was wrong, if not treasonous, to criticize the president during wartime. It was wrong to question the expansion of government surveillance; if you had nothing to hide there was no reason to worry. And anti-war protesters were limp-wristed cowards who wanted to see our troops lose. Then Obama was elected and the line reversed. It was patriotic to criticize the president. We were only a few precarious steps away from a full-on dystopian tyranny. And the pencil-neck hippies of the Bush years suddenly transformed into goose-stepping union “thugs” who were poised to form Obama’s new paramilitary force, designed specifically to root out Christians and strip them of their firearms. Contradictory, indeed, but look closely. Positions shifted, but the general line is intact. Conservatives are under siege by godless liberals and their Muslim allies. They went from defense of Bush’s administration to an offense against that of Obama, but the narrative remains consistent.
Not so with Russia Today. RT’s line often varies from story to story. There is only one consistent feature. Everything is anti-Western. Whereas Fox News at least claims to stand for something, RT and much of Russia’s media, if not the Russian state itself, can only present itself as standing against things. None of these institutions actually stands for anything. Even when its ideologues babble on about “Russian civilization” or the “Russian world,” the words have no meaning. A few years ago it was “Eurasia” or “Russia’s special unique path.” Whatever the words, it’s always the same. They all boil down to being “anti-something;” it’s never about what Russia actually should be, but rather what it shouldn’t be. When you take that message to foreign audiences, you are setting yourself up for problems. This is particularly so in Russia’s case, where the type of propaganda which is needed to woo Russian citizens tends to clash ideologically with RT’s main foreign audience.
It’s no secret that RT mainly appeals to conspiracy theorists, right wing populists, neo-Nazis, fascists, and terribly confused leftists. Each of these groups sees in Russia some kind of champion for their cause against their own government, which they hate. From RT’s point of view, as well as those in the state who hold the purse strings, this seems like success. Nobody can deny the success of the network in terms of exposure, ratings, views, and followers. But as is the case with so many Russian government ventures, short term, low-value gains are favored over real substance. In other words, RT sets the bar low to attract masses of people who are largely useless to Russia’s interests, while simultaneously turning off anyone in the West who could exert influence on their governments in a manner more conducive to the interests of Russia.
RT’s main audience is numerous indeed, but largely ineffective, marginal in their own society, self-defeating, self-isolating, and ultimately impotent. On the internet, these people tend to be extremely vocal and active, creating the idea that there are masses of fed up Americans, Canadians, and Europeans who will at some point exert pressure on their governments. It has been theorized that some ideologues in Kremlin circles believe that they can create enough dissent in Western countries so as to bring down governments or at least highly cripple them and prevent them from blocking any sort of Eurasian ambitions of Russia. If they indeed believe this, they are at best naive, and at worst totally delusional. For as loud as those “dissidents” are on the internet, I can say from experience that the vast majority of them are totally worthless from a political point of view. Think about it- If someone has thousands of posts and comments on multiple forums, often carrying on endless debates and arguments with random people from around the world, how much time do you think that leaves for real world activism. HINT: None.
Most of these people don’t get out in the streets, and they often have a myriad of excuses as to why. If they do anything in the real world, it usually involves joining some organization which inevitably consists of a handful of men who meet at a local restaurant once a month to bitch about how the world is screwing them. They feel marginalized, and they act marginalized. Some of them have achieved modest financial success, but a great many of them are either unemployed or work in dead-end jobs. Now I want to say at this point that I am not pointing that out in a pejorative sense. Whatever their beliefs and however abhorrent we may find them, the fact is that these people are highly alienated by life and that alienation is often what attracts them to bad ideas in the first place. But I point out their economic status because let’s be frank- We live in a capitalist society which puts more faith in the words and ideas of financially successful people than it does in those of people who work at Subway.
The other failure of RT is ideological. One thing about RT that I always found to be hilarious is that it is so beloved by libertarians in spite of being a state-run TV network. Libertarians have often served as guests on RT, and some even had their own segments. Libertarians as a whole reject the free-market, corporate-dominated Western media, preferring instead the state run network of a country which has a massive state sector, lots of government regulation, and even state-owned enterprises. Now I realize that any libertarian could simply say that it isn’t their concern as to what system Russia actually has, but this does not change the fact that they prefer what must be, according to their definition, a product of a “socialist” society. Furthermore, the libertarians and similar ideologues who so deeply adore RT do not acknowledge the contradiction between Russia’s system and their beliefs.
These people will typically dismiss any talk of Russia’s lack of freedom as propaganda, and then go on to insist that living in the US is real tyranny. Look, I’m the last guy who likes throwing the word freedom around without qualifying or defining it, but Russia is objectively less free than the US and many other countries. People have been investigated and sometimes arrested here, simply for writing the most innocuous things on their personal blogs. Some unfortunate individuals have been actually jailed or beaten by unknown assailants. I’m terribly sorry but this generally does not happen in the US or other Western countries. The Westboro Baptist Church enjoyed the protection of the First Amendment. The National Socialist Movement has often enjoyed police protection for its marches on dozens of occasions. Alex Jones runs a highly successful business based on telling people to prepare themselves to resist the government whenever they get around to implementing martial law and rounding people up into FEMA-run concentration camps. The two dipshits who made Loose Change, essentially accusing the government of murdering 3,000 people on 9/11, are still alive and well.
Meanwhile, in Russia, an activist was jailed for running a social media page demanding the same federalization rights that the Donbass rebels demanded in Ukraine. That’s right, you can be jailed for demanding the same kind of autonomy Russia was demanding for the Donbass and the Crimea, according to a law that was actually approved after the whole separatist mess started. So no, I’m terribly sorry Mr. RT viewer, but it isn’t the same in America. As far as I know, nobody from the anti-government militia known as the Disciples of the New Dawn has been arrested for their Facebook page, one of many anti-government militia pages on the social network. None of them will be arrested until they actually break a law.
Another ideological conflict comes up when it comes to treatment of the Soviet Union. In Russia, the authorities haven’t managed to fully come out against the USSR. Of course their reasons for this have nothing to do with sympathy towards socialism. On the contrary, Russia has a reactionary regime with staggering wealth inequality and workers have few avenues to air their grievances. The government treats ordinary people with utter contempt. What they glorify in the USSR is the authoritarian side, the Cold War, and basically all the bad sides of the Soviet Union which eventually compounded until its demise. Of course this glorification creates unease with RT’s mostly right-wing audience, many of whom aren’t just anti-Communists but open neo-Nazis. If it weren’t for the tragedy that has taken place in Ukraine, one would almost be amused at the utter confusion of Western fascists as they observe the ongoing conflict with absolutely no background understanding of the two factions or their history. Indeed, watching them discuss it calls to mind a group of people watching a foreign film with no subtitles, in a futile effort to determine what is really happening. Which side do they choose? Sure, the Western media is always bashing Russia, meaning Russia must therefore be good, but then again Russia glorifies the Soviet Union and claims to be fighting fascists, specifically fascists who wear their old anti-Communist symbols and even Waffen SS insignia in some cases. But Russia is, of course, bigger, and it’s anti-Western, anti-EU, anti-NATO. Which country is run by Jews, Ukraine or Russia? Which one is more under the control of Jews? And one need not be a neo-Nazi to have a knee-jerk negative reaction to the Soviet Union and Communist symbols. Indeed, it must take a great deal of fortitude for many RT viewers to side with the country that laments the destruction of Lenin statues and Red Army monuments, both being symbols that they hate.
All in all, RT’s audience consists largely of an incoherent mob; it is an alliance of convenience and little else. Russia has staked a lot on RT, and does seem to be putting more into its foreign news services, and therefore it is all the more tragic that these resources are so readily pissed away. RT could have been a decent alternative to networks like CNN or the BBC, which quite frankly are often biased on many issues. Most American networks, for quite some time, have become utterly enthralled to the official press release, and there is a genuine fear, at least in the US, of challenging official information lest a network’s reporters be cut out of the loop for asking too many difficult questions. Up until recent times, Russia was an up and coming player in the world, with legitimate positions to put forth, and RT could have been the vehicle to articulate those positions. In the end, RT could have reached a new generation of movers and shakers, people seen as successful and influential in their respective societies, as well as people who are perceived to be intelligent by their peers. RT could have also broadcast a more realistic view of Russia, its problems, and its potential for success. What a pity that this isn’t what we got.
No, what the Kremlin got for its money, indeed what they got for the Russian taxpayers’ money, is the network which willfully and enthusiastically chases the most useless, ineffective people. Worse still, it doesn’t offer anything to enlighten those people. It doesn’t present an alternative viewpoint, but rather it just spreads utter confusion among an audience consisting of people who spend most of their time on the internet and who are constantly angry about anything and everything. They are not critical thinkers, nor are they people with any influence, much less influence which could help Russia in some way. They certainly do not “question more,” to use RT’s motto, as they unquestioningly swallow anything that confirms their prejudices and is presented to them as counter-mainstream. Hence, RT’s potential to benefit Russia was wasted when it could have been useful, and now it looks as if it has passed a point of no return. It will still rake in the ratings, the views, and the likes, but none of those loyal fans will be there to save the regime’s ass when the inevitable collapse happens.