So recently I had the pleasure of reading this article by Holly Baxter of Vice, wherein she describes what I assume was an all-expenses paid visit to Moscow on some kind of a press junket. She explains that she was solicited to go on this tour by a company called Rossotrudnichestvo, which she and other chosen journalists had never heard of before, and which apparently had a two-person operation in a near-empty office in Kensington. The article goes on to describe the blatant, heavy-handed propaganda she and her fellow journalists were subjected to throughout the trip. I strongly suspect that some of these encounters were in fact pre-arranged, possibly with university students who were paid to participate, but this is just my inference from her description. I attempted to contact Holly for more details, but she’s hard to get in touch with.
The reason I loved this article so much, however, is for the farcical comedy it presents. The author is not a Russia correspondent; in fact she took note of the fact that only one person in her group was. She recounts previous experience in Russia, and says she saw it as any other European country. In other words her previous impression of Russia was quite positive, generous even, especially considering that she has seen Siberia. So what we have here is a person without special interest or background in Russia, meaning she and probably many of her fellow travelers were essentially blank slates- unassuming people being open-minded and listening to Russia’s pitch. Was it successful? No, it wasn’t. When ordinary Westerners who don’t have a particular interest in Russia come face to face with Russia’s “message,” the reaction is largely confusion. It’s not “Hey that’s propaganda and you’re full of shit,” but rather, “Whaaaaaaaaaaaaat?”
The author notes how the hosts directly accused the Western media of lying, and talked about how they were fighting an information war. I think many Western journalists are aware of the role that profit-seeking and laziness play in reliance on official sources. This is something commonly discussed by veteran journalists and there have been several documentaries about this very subject. As for the “information war,” bit, upon hearing that Russia veterans such as myself would most likely start rolling our eyes and doing the “jerking off” hand motion in air. The tone of the article suggests, however, that these journalists were just confused and or offended by these direct insults toward their profession. After all, they are the “Western media,” even if only one of them had any connection with Russia.
At one point she mentions a teenaged journalism student who declared that “democracy is an illusion.” I wish I had known the context for that. It’s the kind of hyperbolic statement that Russians will sometimes drop without ever considering what they are saying or what their words even mean. That statement alone could merit an entire article, but I think it’s the best jumping off point to explain why this propaganda fest failed so miserably, and why the author’s reaction was so confused and ultimately negative.
If you’re familiar with conservative politics in the US, you can better understand Russian politics. I’ve noticed that since about 2008, Republicans have become far less coherent. Their speech is an ever-growing mishmash of jargon about various scandals of the week, some real, some imagined, some utter bullshit. You know what I mean: “Oh yeah? What about BENGHAZI? FAST AND FURIOUS! WHAT ABOUT ACORN? WHY DON’T YOU GO GOOGLE THAT ON YOUR OBAMAPHONE THAT MY TAX DOLLARS PAID FOR? SOLYNDRA!” Indeed, I’ve actually had to Google a couple “memes” that right-wingers spit out just so I know what manufactured scandal they are talking about. For the record, I’m not saying that these kinds of things should be off limits for debate; I’m merely stating that conservatives tend to just spit out these words and phrases with the automatic assumption that they have the same resonance with us as they do with them. How does this occur? Two words- echo chamber.
Conservatives, like various other socio-political groups, tend to surround themselves with media that reflects and confirms their point of view. When two conservatives get together and mention “the birth certificate” or “Benghazi,” they both know exactly what their supposed to think about these things. For someone like me, this was confusing. My first reaction was, “Benghazi? What about Libya?” But of course conservatives couldn’t bring themselves to condemning the use of the US military to topple a Middle Eastern government, even if it did mean supporting radicals who eventually facilitated the Benghazi attack. But to conservatives, Benghazi is tantamount to treason, and they know this. The problem is they assume everyone knows it.
And so it is with Russia and its media machine. When they tell members of the Western media that the Western media lies, they actually expect their audience to accept it even if it implicates them. Russians know the Western media lies; ergo the Westerners must know too. Russians in the media love speaking about “the information war,” a handy term which can be used to justify censorship of dissenting views because it’s a war, after all. In the West, indeed in the United States, you don’t hear American journalists speaking about an “information war” with Russia. RT has its offices in the US and UK, and they provide their content without restriction. In times like these, some US officials may speak about Russian propaganda, but nobody acts as though the United States is and always has been locked in an “information war” with Russia. More importantly, at no point has it been suggested that First Amendment rights should be curtailed in response to Russia’s international media. That would be a great way to lose an election campaign. Russia’s media invented the “information war”, and they make it so. Thus they tell this group of travel writers and food critics about the information war and the result appears to be blank stares and silence. No doubt the Russian officials who gave that pitch silently thought to themselves, nailed it! Meanwhile at least some of the guests had to be wondering just what the fuck their hosts were talking about.
The boy who spoke of democracy being an illusion is another perfect example. He doesn’t know why democracy is an illusion. If you ask him which “democracy” is an illusion or how it is an illusion or whether Russia’s system is more or less democratic, he’d probably be quite confused. I guarantee you he’s never really had to consider that statement. You see, if you ask me about liberal democracy, I can put your ass to sleep with entire lectures about its strengths and weaknesses. I have considered this question. I could talk about the extent to which American democracy is in fact something of an illusion, and how it is not actually democracy. I can also explain, however, why America’s political system is more democratic and superior to that of contemporary Russia. I can do all these things because firstly, I’m not a teenager, but secondly and most importantly, I actually think about the things I believe and I am very concerned as to whether or not they are true. This is something totally lacking among American conservatives and incidentally, many Russians.
People like that teenager are largely limited to Russian media and Russian forums, and within this world they are only exposed to a limited number of ideas. There is an endless parade of pseudo-intellectuals who explain to young Russians exactly what liberalism means, why the West is degenerate and corrupt, and so on, and at no point is there any debate or discussion of actual sources from the West. Ever hear about books like Ann Coulter’s How to Talk to a Liberal(If you Must), or Glenn Beck’s Arguing With Idiots? Away from the Thanksgiving table, few conservatives ever seriously engage their liberal opponents in discussions about politics. In fact conservatives studiously avoid sources which are deemed “liberal” by their trusted pundits. Of course at some point you might encounter doubt about the correctness of your beliefs when you spend so many years railing against people you don’t really engage with. Therefore pundits like Coulter and Beck will write strawman-filled books like those to reassure their conservative readers that their arguments can trounce whatever it is that liberals supposedly believe. The books are more about reassuring conservatives that they are right; they are not to help them learn what liberals actually believe.
There is a similar situation in Russia, but it is exacerbated by the language barrier. When some Russian politician tells them what Western liberals believe, they have to accept it because they have no way of actually finding out beyond tracking down the few translated works from the West. If Tim Kirby, who speaks Russian, tells them horror stories about America, many have to take him at his word. Long story short, much like the conservative who so readily states that Obama is an Islamic-Communist tyrant, that boy who says democracy is an illusion has never been forced to defend or explain that belief.
What is distinct about Russia and especially its media these days is its post-modernist approach to reality and the truth. I have spent years studying the history of the Stalin era and the Great Patriotic War, and in that time I have discovered that many common beliefs about the war in both the West and in Russia are in fact myths. Sometimes when explaining this to Russians, citing my evidence which typically comes from the Soviet archives, the response is this dismissive “Well we can never know what really happened!” This is the common go-to phrase in Russia any time you press someone on these claims. I guarantee you that if you were to actually bounce one while he or she is regurgitating one of the 38-or-so explanations as to who downed MH-17, at some point they will relent and you will get one if not both of the following responses:
“Well nobody can say what really happened!”
“Maybe you are right, but the Western media lies too.”
And that’s that. The Western media lies, so it’s okay for Russia’s media to lie. It’s all the same. No need to give concrete examples of Western media lying and then compare them to how the Russian media lies. No need to consider evidence, Occam’s razor, or logic. Russia is always right, but if you challenge that just remember that nobody can know who is right; everybody is wrong. Everyone’s narrative is equally valid.
These days political discourse in the United States typically involves conservatives and libertarians declaring America to be Nazi Germany 2.0 while liberals, not particularly political literate themselves, look on dumbfounded as their opponents scream, “Benghazi! ACORN! Where’s the birth certificate? Long form! Death panels! They’re gonna take my guns! Bleeaargh!!” The message of Russia’s government to the world is very similar, “Traditional values! Gayropa! Russkiy Mir! Russian civilization! Information war! Bleaaaargh!”
This is why this press junket was such a hilariously tragic failure. This particular outing could not have come cheap, but the truth is Russia spends billions on foreign-language press like RT and other outlets, plus venues like the Universiade, the Olympics, and the World Cup in a bid to spread its message. Yet in spite of all the money that is thrown at improving Russia’s image and getting its message out there, they have nothing to show for it but a gagglefuck of foreign fascists, conspiracy nuts, confused leftists, and quite possibly a lot of Egyptian click-farm comment writers. It appeals to people who feel alienated by their own societies, or more often than not people who alienated everyone else in their society, and it offers no alternative or solidarity. Whenever normal, as in everyday, ordinary, educated people come into contact with Russia’s message, unless they have some kind of background in Russian history or politics they are completely confused. Russia’s propagandists have no desire to understand them so as to speak to them.
Of course the typical response to this is that Russia doesn’t care what other people think about her. Bullshit. One hundred percent, unadulterated bullshit. If Russia didn’t care what other countries thought about her, the government would have put the $51 billion they spent on the Olympics into the pension fund, infrastructure, and the nightmarish orphanage system. Instead of dramatically increasing their foreign-language press and PR budget, they’d do the same with that money. Clearly Russians citizens would have benefited a lot more from that investment. Julia Ioffe hit the nail on the head by comparing Russia to a teenage girl who wants to be part of the popular clique. She thinks she’s so special and deep, and she makes attempts to reach out to those cool people and appeal to them. She keeps making the same appeals, and every time they reject her she throws a tantrum and says she doesn’t need them and that she never wanted to be part of their group anyway. Then a bit later, she tries again, but with no change whatsoever. She never considers the feelings, beliefs, interests, or ideals of the people she is trying to attract or impress. They should accept her on her own terms and she doesn’t have to learn anything about them nor does she have to respect them.
So from what I gathered reading Holly’s report, a group of unassuming and open-minded journalists bore embarrassing witness to Russia metaphorically flopping on the ground, and with tears streaming down red cheeks, screaming “Information war! Western propaganda! Orange revolution! Fifth columnists! We are patriots! Serbs are our brothers! Fascists! We won the Second World War! The Crimea is ours! Novorossiya! Save the Donbass people! Give us more sanctions! We don’t care! We don’t need you! We never wanted you! We don’t want your freedom and democracy!You will collapse because of your tolerance! You’ll see! You’ll all see! Bleeeeeeeeeeeeeargh!!!!” Their response, or at least the author’s, was exactly what people like me would expect- confusion, accompanied by mild amusement and perhaps a little disgust. State money down the toilet.
In a recent post, I took aim at some statements of Timothy Snyder to Stopfake News, specifically because he was essentially advising them to engage in what I consider to be dishonest propaganda. He talks about how Europe supposedly values multiculturalism(yeah I know, maybe he hasn’t been to Europe in a long time or something), and therefore Ukrainians should portray Maidan and Ukraine as standing for these values. My beef in this case was that he didn’t seem to concerned about Ukrainians actually valuing those things, only that they should make that claim when speaking to the West. To be sure, Evromaidan and its supporters have successfully done this to some extent. They do consider their audience and they realize that they cannot attract foreign support with the same propaganda they use internally. Hence the attempt to downplay groups like Praviy Sektor or the Svoboda party, hence the long tradition of rewriting the history of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army and the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists and presenting both as some kind of one-in-a-million liberal democratic movement that fought both Stalin and Hitler. I think the more intelligent among them would prefer that Westerners never hear the name Bandera, that they never know what those black and red flags represent. Are these people dishonest? Yes. Are they actually competent, and able to adapt to a changing political situation? Emphatically yes.
Russia lacks this dynamism in its propaganda. More importantly, those who are put in charge the media machine know next to nothing regarding the values or politics of the countries they criticize. They have no idea what most Americans think, much less anyone else. I don’t think they care either. They learn that if you smut up the US government, you suddenly get Billy “Only gold and Bitcoin are real money” Pickens in Salina, Kansas liking your post and leaving a comment about how the American people need to rise up before the UN troops arrive and intern everyone in FEMA concentration camps as part of the Illuminati population control program. Multiply that by a few thousand and some Russians with no real knowledge of the US or its political environment can easily delude themselves into thinking they are actually having an effect on their enemy. RT’s inspiring Americans to take up arms against their own government! We’re winning the information war! In reality, this delusion is steering Russia toward disaster. All those conspiracy nuts aren’t going to come to Russia’s aid in the coming economic crisis. Those Egyptian and Bangladeshi click-farm workers won’t either. Analysts have noted that Russia has in the past two years greatly increased spending on the military and on its media, particularly Russia Today. Both constitute flushing money down the toilet. Neither strengthen Russia, both weaken her.