How Kremlin propaganda (doesn’t) work

Many readers no doubt remember the massive volcano of buttrage that erupted in Russia after Turkish F-16s shot down a Russian Su24 that had allegedly violated Turkey’s airspace (this turned out to be highly specious). Almost immediately thereafter, Russia’s consumer watchdogs suddenly “discovered” contamination in Turkish chicken imports. Russia’s media made even more shocking “discoveries.” For example, they suddenly found out that the Turkish government had been collaborating with ISIS, something that had been well-known in many circles for at least a year, including December of 2014 when Putin visited Turkey and announced the construction of a new gas pipeline (which promptly fell flat). Barely a month after the shoot-down Sputnik News “discovered” that there were at least 100 Turkish mercenaries fighting on the Ukrainian side in the Donbas. Their source? The ever trustworthy “Donetsk People’s Republic” press secretary Basurin, whose word is apparently good enough for Sputnik.

Among the many passive-aggressive means used to get revenge on Turkey was a ban on package tours to the country. For those who don’t know, along with Egypt’s Sinai peninsula, Turkey has long been one of the most popular tourist destinations for Russians, so much so that one resort in Antalya actually as a mock-up of St. Basil’s Cathedral next to its swimming pool. In better times, such package tours were widely accessible. After a recent reconciliation of sorts between Russian fun-size dictator Putin and Turkish litigious dictator Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the ban on package tours to Turkey was lifted.

Of course the Russian public wasn’t going to buy into this. They would not soon forget Turkey’s “stab in the back,” the latest in a series of slights and crimes dating back centuries. No, Russia’s public doesn’t trade national pride and patriotism for a cheap package tour. That’s why the bulk of Russia’s tourists chose to visit the Crimea instead…

Just kidding! Three days after the ban on Turkish package tours was been lifted, Russians made Turkey the number one Russian tourist destination.  Sales are reported to have started immediately after Putin approved the lifting of the ban. I’m sure the Turkish tourism industry is happy to take Russian money, but on the flip side it means they’ll once again have to deal with more of this:

If you don’t speak Russian, well, let’s just say the general tone of the conversation was not good.

Back to the topic at hand, I noticed some fellow writers on Twitter seemed a bit perplexed by the 180 on Turkey. One of them considered it a tribute to the Russian state media that it can apparently make people who previously loved Turkey hate it, then forgive it and fork over their money to the Turks by the wheelbarrow. While acknowledging that there is indeed a lesson about Russian media efficacy here, I must respectfully disagree. It’s not that the media manipulated Russians into thinking one way and then another, but rather Russians never fully bought into the anti-Turkish hate to begin with, or at least not enough to actually modify their behavior accordingly. That is to say that had there been no ban on Turkish package tours this whole time, Russian tourists would probably have continued to visit the country without any noticeable changes. This, in spite of what many of them might say about Turkey when asked about politics.

Supposedly a holdover from the Soviet era, many Russians have mastered the art of saying one thing and doing another. For example, you say you are a patriot and then use your state position to skim off wealth for yourself, which you then turn around and hand over to Western corporations or real estate agents. Or if you’re an ordinary person, it might mean cursing Turkey in public while taking your entire family there on a package tour. Personally I don’t buy into this being an exclusively Russian trait, but it’s just that some folks here seem to have refined it into an art form.

Another thing to consider is that when you see public outpourings of rage against a certain country or group, the participants are often paid and the event is organized by someone with ties to the state. If you’re reading Russian-language commentary on social media, there’s a chance you could be reading the words of a troll farm worker. You can certainly hear many of the media’s talking points regurgitated by people on the street, but it’s typically not as widespread as you might think it is if you were looking at the internet. The fact is that most Russians actually don’t care about politics at all. I doubt any were totally unfazed by the destruction of a Russian jet and the killing of one of its pilots, but few get upset enough to deny themselves one of the few pleasures left to many Russians today.

So when considering the role of the media in Russian society, while it certainly is true that propaganda shapes politics and public opinion, if the regime wants action from anybody it needs to pay. More importantly, one shouldn’t assume that Russians actually believe the kind of nonsense their TV puts out. If anything it’s the opposite- they don’t believe any media at all. Sometimes you’ll hear Russian media figures tacitly admit to making propaganda, but then they’ll say the “Western media” does it too. Only those Russians who can access that foreign media are able to dispute that. Overall, “you can’t really know what’s true” isn’t a great slogan to mobilize people to action, but it certainly works when you want to keep people confused, cynical, and generally non-trusting towards each other.

 

 

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3 thoughts on “How Kremlin propaganda (doesn’t) work

  1. zephyrean

    > Or if you’re an ordinary person, it might mean cursing Turkey in public while taking your entire family there on a package tour.

    I work for a Russian tour agency owned by Turkish nationals that took the worst hit from the Egypt and Turkey bans. I can assure you the reason for this is simpler and sadder: Russians are racist. In an ordinary Russian’s mind, brown people are already icky subhumans, and a package tour is a colonial fantasy of living in luxury being served by brown people. Anti-Turkish propaganda doesn’t conflict with this mentality.

    Reply
    1. gbd_crwx

      If this is true, is there a posibility that this is spun as “We have now shown them a lesson, this ought to teach them a lesson about beingf uppity” ?

      Reply
  2. Asehpe

    “”It’s not that the media manipulated Russians into thinking one way and then another, but rather Russians never fully bought into the anti-Turkish hate to begin with, or at least not enough to actually modify their behavior accordingly.””

    Yes, that’s been my experience while dealing with Russians and Ukrainians… I wonder if you notice a difference when you go to Ukraine in people’s attitudes towards their own media, and foreign media in general.

    This makes me wonder what would happen in Russia if suddenly the media became trustworthy, at the level of, say, Britain (minus tabloids) or the Netherlands. Would the habit of not believing anything still continue, so that Russians simply wouldn’t be able to tell that their media has improved? Or would someting slowly change? Do you see people in Russia who would like it if their media improved, and who would notice it if it did?

    Reply

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