Roughly three days after the release of the so-called Panama Papers story the Russian government and its media organs seemed to have settled on their story. Basically it can be summed up in two points:
1. The whole thing is a personal “information attack” against Putin, funded by Soros and the US government.
2. All the information about other figures in the case, such as British PM David Cameron’s father and Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko, is entirely trustworthy.
Of course this begs a very obvious question. If this was a deliberate propaganda attack wholly aimed at Putin, why would those other figures be “found” in the leak? Why would the US want to create a scandal for Cameron, and why would it want to discredit Poroshenko, whom Russians allege is a puppet of the US?
Of course a lot of times we ask these questions rhetorically, knowing full well that they won’t prompt any sort of concrete answer from those who defend the Russian president and buy into his conspiratorial delusions. As Noodle Remover Alexei Kovalev explained, these people would just explain the contradictory information by saying something like: “Sometimes they let the truth leak out.”
This bizarre ad hoc hypothesis is by no means unique to Russia. It is an integral part of the conspiracy-believer’s worldview. Conspiracy theorists tend to be ruled by two major cognitive biases. There’s the confirmation bias, whereby they seek out only those sources that confirm their views and dismiss those that don’t, and then there’s the Texas Sharpshooter fallacy, which is the tendency to see patterns amid random events. What concerns us in this case is the former, i.e. confirmation bias.
From my experience as an American, nearly every conspiracy theorist dismisses the so-called “mainstream media.” What is the “mainstream media,” exactly? One would think it simply means the major media corporations which dominate the market, but these days it has morphed into “any media that doesn’t confirm my worldview.” When arguing with a conspiracy theorist, any evidence that comes from the so-called “mainstream media” will be dismissed out of hand for that very reason.”You can’t trust them. They’re controlled.”
But follow any conspiracy theory closely enough and you’ll notice something very odd. Conspiracy theorists seem to be more than happy to use “mainstream media” stories if they appear to support their claims. In fact, sometimes they’re even more enthusiastic about sources like these. “See? Even the mainstream media acknowledges this happened!”
Russian media does this constantly, only rather than use the term mainstream media, they prefer to say “Western media,” or they associate it with a particular Western country e.g. “American media” or “British media.” Interestingly, foreign language media such as RT uses the term “mainstream media,” no doubt understanding how much more this term resonates with an English-speaking audience. In the case of Russian domestic media, there is a well-documented pattern of deception when it comes to these “Western” sources. Oftentimes the term “Western media” will refer to only one source, and that source is some obscure blog or a website with a long history of wild and outlandish claims.
There are times, however, when the Kremlin media does actually cite something legitimate, i.e. from an actual “mainstream” source and without any distortion as to what it said. In a similar vein, while Kremlin media will typically dismiss anything from human rights groups such as Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch, but as Noodle Remover has documented, they’re absolutely happy to cite the statements of these organizations if they report on human rights violations of other countries such as the United States or Ukraine.
So here’s where we see the cognitive dissonance among some Russians. The “Western media” can’t be trusted, they say. To be sure, these people say they don’t trust any media, but this doesn’t stop them from regurgitating Kremlin media talking points while never repeating anything from the “Western media,” assuming they even read or watch it. But then you ask them why, if the “Western media” is nothing but a monolithic propaganda organ dedicated to waging an information war against Russia, does it ever publish anything critical about the West, or else something that’s more in line with Russia’s POV than that of Western leaders. This is when you get the “sometimes they tell the truth” excuse.
On the face of it there’s some sense here. If someone has an agenda and then they say something that contradicts that, then maybe it merits our special attention. It’s somewhat similar to the concept of “statements against interest,” a hearsay exception in the American justice system. This is also why historians will value private letters, diaries, or archival records more than speeches or contemporary propaganda, the idea being that those things the authorities wished to keep secret were probably true. Of course when it comes to conspiracy theories which claim that everything we see is being secretly manipulated by unseen elites, this concept quickly falls apart. Let us examine how this works, using the claims about the Panama Papers as an example. And before I get any accusation about straw-man arguments let me just point out that these claims are basically composites of various statements or claims my friends and I have heard about the Panama Papers since they were first published. Speaking personally, I have dealt with such rhetoric in regards to other claims for many years. With that out of the way, let’s get into it:
CLAIM: The Panama Papers are a Soros/US government funded information attack aimed at president Putin, with the added goal of “destabilizing” Russia.
Okay, why involve allies like David Cameron or Petro Poroshenko, among about 140 other politicians?
CLAIM: The conspirators deliberately leaked some information about those leaders to make it look more realistic! And that information is true!
Alright, but why someone like Poroshenko? Surely they could have killed several birds with one stone by picking other leaders to go after. Remember, the Russian claim is that this is all about them, and that the West is trying to use Ukraine as a proxy battering ram against Russia. Why not drop some info on one of Poroshenko’s enemies? Also, if this was an information attack on Putin, why isn’t he named directly in the papers? You’re alleging that the fabricated this as a propaganda attack. If you can do that, why cast such a wide net when it comes to world leaders, and why not make a direct connection to Putin? And why would they think any of this would destabilize Russia, where the population is well aware that there is a high level of corruption in their country?
CLAIM: It’s really all about Russia and Putin, but they need to disguise that fact.
So in other words, the evil Western conspiracy against Russia is concerned about appearing credible. They deliberately let out facts that dilute their case or perhaps go against Washington’s interests so as to make the whole story more believable. If the Western media conspirators occasionally let out “truthful” information by accident, they’re stupid and incompetent- no match for the Kremlin’s political technologists. After all, plenty of journalists report on all sorts of stories which are extremely troublesome for Western governments without being fired, killed, or sued. Some make good careers out of it. It makes no sense for the New World Order conspiracy to tolerate this level of incompetence. On the other hand, one may suggest the phenomenon is deliberately aimed at making the media seem more objective so as to enhance the credibility of its propaganda. Either way, this brings up a really interesting question. Why doesn’t the Russian media do this?
When we examine the pro-Kremlin media we don’t see anything like this phenomenon. True, the Russian media doesn’t shy away from reporting on bad news in Russia, from poor economic prognoses to appalling crimes such as murder and rape. But when it comes to matters that concern the top, and particularly on the world stage, we suddenly find a pro-Putin uniformity. I’ve yet to hear of a Russian state-media report “letting the truth slip out” about MH17, Russian involvement in the Donbas, or civilian casualties in Syria. To be sure, they’ll offer a great diversity of explanations, but the narrative is always the same. Russia’s not responsible for the downing of MH17 or the war in Ukraine. Russia is fighting terrorism in Syria and its bombs never kill civilians. In my experience the only time you’ll see claims to the contrary is when the more objective outlets report the claims of foreign governments. In general, Russian media doesn’t investigate the president or foreign ministry, nor does it challenge their claims. When it comes to the Panama Papers, it’s not the Russian state press that is examining the claims against Putin and his friends and trying to get the objective information to the public. They’ve joined in the spin 100% Already we’re beginning to see the claim that the Russian state media is no different from the “Western media” is in jeopardy.
What can explain this pro-Putin uniformity? Are Russia’s information warriors incompetent, not realizing what their Western opponents apparently understand about how to make propaganda more believable and thus more effective? If so that’s very bad. Are they doing this deliberately, believing that uniformity and consistency of message is better than occasionally releasing “the truth” so as to appear objective? Well that’s bad too because plenty of evidence shows that most of the world tends to side with the “West” when it comes to credibility, a fact which can be blamed on those genuinely incompetent personnel who release some of the most crudely-fabricated fake stories. Whatever the case the conclusion is the same- the Western information warriors care about the quality of their product far more than Russia’s own care about theirs. For the Western conspirators, credibility matters.
Very well then, there is one more theory, and it’s a simple one. Maybe the Russian media just never lies, Putin is always telling the truth and so is Lavrov. This would explain the uniformity and the consistency. After all, why should they present the rest of the world’s case about MH17, for example, if it’s nothing but falsified propaganda. Perhaps the airliner really was downed by a Ukrainian SAM, then a Su-25, then a Ukrainian SAM again, then two Su-25s, a Su-27, a bomb on the plane itself, and a Ukrainian SAM once again…and a Su-25. Can it really be the case that the Russian government and by extension its media just never lie? Is there anyone willing to actually go with that answer?
Let’s just assume someone did take up that claim- how then does one explain the results? I mean if Russia has a government and media that is 100% honest one would expect Russia’s place in the world to be a little bit higher. Kremlin media is constantly trotting out “experts” who supposedly know the West so well while alleging that West cannot possibly comprehend Russia. When we look at the disparity between Russia and the West from 1991 to the present, when did it ever look as though that was the case? Clearly something isn’t right.
In reality there are few so stupid as to claim that the Russian government and its media always tell the truth 100% of the time. If anyone did, they’d most likely be foreigners rather than Russians. Most Russians don’t believe their own media, they just buy into the lie that all media works the same way. And in that they aren’t alone. I’ve only been working in journalism myself and in the beginning I was surprised to learn how little I knew about how the news is made. Surprised, in part because it’s not like I’d never given any thought to that topic prior to getting into the field. The massive failure of the US media in regards to the Iraq War kindled a very strong interest in journalism and media in me back in 2003. The topic of media bias was also very important to me.
The lesson here is that in the modern information age, especially one in which we are beset upon from all sides by PR campaigns and government-sponsored propaganda, there is a definite need for what is being called “media awareness.” The idea that the media is biased isn’t new. Many people all over the world believe in media bias; there’s even a cognitive bias known as hostile media effect, a sort of negative confirmation bias where people tend to see the media as hostile to their views. When it comes to bias, media awareness is necessary to teach people what bias is, what it isn’t, why it exists, and how one can work around it to find the truth. This is far better than retreating into a fantasy world where one accepts and dismisses information solely based on whether or not it confirms one’s preconceived notions.