Yesterday provided us a perfect example of how the Russian propaganda machine creates and disseminates fake stories. In this case it was a chain-email type story about heroic Russian men defending the honor of their womenfolk against somewhere around 50 “Middle Eastern migrants.” Details in each story varied, but in each case one pro-Russian source cited another, none of them contained any names or quotes from eyewitnesses, victims, or authorities, and all variations seemed to revolve around a certain core story. Virtually every version of the story made some kind of jab at Europe, “tolerance,” and in particular the Germans for their mishandling of the Cologne New Year’s sex assaults.
As I pointed out in yesterday’s post, this story was just too fishy on a number of points. Due to some confusion between versions of the story, I found that there is indeed an establishment called “Gandvik,” where the fight supposedly began. However, the place is described as a “beer bar” and not a discotheque or night club. This means it wouldn’t have, as I mentioned in the previous post, “face control,” and it probably wouldn’t have much security apart from maybe a single guy. However, it is located in the same building as a hotel, which boasts a good number of positive reviews from what I can see. One mentions a night club on the first floor, but I don’t know if that refers to Gandvik or if the bar is simply in the same building. Either way, the reviews I’ve seen suggest that this is a quality establishment, one which would necessarily have good security and especially CCTV.
Every version of the story I’ve found so far always claims to be based on “material from social media” without ever explaining what social media that is, i.e. Twitter, VK, Facebook, Odnoklassniki, etc. None of them contain a date or anything that could indicate a date for the alleged incident, and all of them acknowledge in one way or another that there have been no official statements on the matter from the authorities, though some make lame excuses for this. In an earlier version of the story, only five migrants were involved.
Alexei Kovalev managed to find another hallmark of the Russian propaganda machine, which involves making spurious claims that the story is popular in the West. Incidentally this tends to happen when the people disseminating the fake story translate it into foreign languages and then pass it around to their buddies in other countries or post it on English language sites like Russia Insider and Fort-Russ, as in this case. Naturally if this happens enough times it will get picked up by someone in the West, and indeed this story was.
The offending article in this case comes from a Russian site called ridus.ru, and like virtually every article of this type it has a misleading headline, which tells us that the West was captivated by the story of immigrants being beaten in Russia. As is typically the case, the article begins by talking about the reaction of “the Western media,” and social network users. In the latter case- who gives a shit? Social media users, assuming they aren’t paid trolls, often comment on all kinds of fake stories or viral bullshit. But who is “the Western media” in this case? CNN? BBC? Reuters? Nope. As I pointed out in the last article, the “Western media” apparently consists solely of The Daily Caller, a right wing tabloid with a reputation for concocting their own fake stories. Granted, it’s better than some random blog nobody reads, but it’s hardly “the Western media.” Oh well, at least even this article admits that there have been no official statements or mentions of this incident from local authorities. It’s almost as if…this never happened! As a rather amusing side note, the photo in The Daily Caller story, which appears in the ridus.ru article, actually depicts pro-Russian activists in the Crimea beating a pro-Ukrainian protester. At least that’s what the caption says.
One last bit before we go on to our summary of this case study in bullshit. This story has been passed around plenty of times in English. Some versions claim that the police allegedly didn’t want to say anything about it so as not to provide “the West” with more “fodder” for their “wild Russia”(in spite of the fact that some of these Russian sites included demeaning pictures of stereotypical Russian men). And yet one wonders where the real Western media is in this story? According to ridus.ru it’s a big hit in the West, and we know the evil Western mainstream media is constantly waging information war against poor, innocent Russia, so then why didn’t they seize on this opportunity to concoct their own narrative of bloodthirsty Russian skinheads, possibly back on rotation from Ukraine, assaulting and beating these poor helpless refugees who were minding their own business? After all, the Western media certainly didn’t miss real race riots in Russia.
Summary: What did we learn, class?
This post is the sequel to yesterday’s piece, which was inspired by Russia Insider, the site that exhorts us to become “media skeptics” and helps train us in this endeavor by providing laughably fake or otherwise highly distorted stories on a daily basis. Indeed, at times it seems the only difference between Russia Insider and the parody site Russia in Your Face is that the latter doesn’t link to sites with sections on Holocaust denial. Thanks to Russia Insider, we were able to construct a perfect exercise in shooting down a BS story that went viral. So what practical lessons can we extract from the exercise, now that it is over?
-First, realize that fake stories aren’t unique to Russian media. Cracked.com busts bullshit viral media stories all the time, and Snopes.com doesn’t seem to be going out of business any time soon. For those who claim that this is different because Russia is “weaponizing” this kind of disinformation, you’re still missing the mark. This kind of organized disinformation has been used in the US, particularly by the Republican party, for years now. The tactics, such as carousel citations where one conservative blog cites a conservative pundit, who cites another blog or conservative news outlet and so on, are not unique to Russia at all. This means that if you familiarize yourself with those tactics you can better understand those of Russia’s propagandists. This is especially helpful for those who don’t speak Russian.
-You can often tell if a story is bullshit by looking for what is present versus what is absent. First there’s the narrative, which as I said in yesterday’s post reads like one of those conservative chain emails. Here there’s a valuable lesson to be learned- Europe is full of limp-wristed weaklings who “tolerate” barbaric migrants even as they grope and harass their women in public, but Russians are masculine, real men who don’t tolerate this insolence. While they use violence to get their point across, they are still somehow more civilized than the degenerate West. The article even ends with an obviously editorial line, reminding refugees that Russians don’t take kindly to “guests” who misbehave. Is that something you usually see in a normal news story?
That “lesson” shines through several times throughout the story, but what is curiously missing? As it turns out, virtually all the hallmarks of a news story are absent. No date or anything that hints at a date (i.e. Friday evening, Saturday, etc.) can be found. There are no quotes or names for anyone involved in the story. There are actual admissions that the local authorities did not mention or comment on the story. Two versions of the story tacked on an excuse as to why authorities did not comment, but a small difference in the translation drastically changed the meaning.
-In spite of the way this story clearly fits the Kremlin’s narrative on migrants, the major state-run outlets don’t seem to have paid much, if any attention to this story. Could that be because TV viewers would expect to see staff, residents, and police officials being interviewed on the subject?
-Each version of the story had either misleading or unhelpful photos. One article I found shows what is alleged to be the inside of “Gandvik,” but of course this could be any Russian dance club virtually anywhere. The others have photos of dark-skinned migrants, two show rather demeaning photos of what seem to be stereotypical Russian gopniks (possibly played by non-Russians), and of course Russia Insider has a photo of Putin with sunglasses, because that must be their placeholder any time they can’t find a suitable image for a story.
-The actual Western media outlet that picked this story up was a tabloid that already has a reputation for bad journalism if not actual political smear campaigns. As one might expect, The Daily Caller is right-wing but not pro-Putin. I found several stories that counter Russia’s foreign policy claims. Of course this doesn’t mean that conservative readers won’t be entertained by stories about macho Russian guys beating up Muslim refugees, who have already become a new bogeyman in the US despite their minuscule numbers.
Even some of the most Putin-hating American conservatives hold on to a self-loathing idea that America has become weak and that Russia is strong because it is supposedly unencumbered by left-wing ideas like feminism or LGBT rights. This combines with a sort of “noble Russian savage” mentality whereby they see the Russian as backward and inferior but in some ways stronger, more disciplined, and destined to defeat more civilized populations should the latter fail to turn away from the path of cultural and spiritual degeneration. If that sounds like something that Nazis believed, it’s because they kinda did. The point I’m making here though, is that some of these “tough, politically incorrect Russians” memes actually originated in America, in some cases long before things like RT, Sputnik, Fort-Russ, and so on. Sometimes they got picked up by Russians and reworked, only to be spit back again in different forms.
-Numerous things in this story make no logical sense. As I pointed out in my last post, the police supposedly tried to prevent a lynching while “secretly” assisting in the beating. How anyone would know this with no statements or comments from authorities, victims, residents, medical staff, or bar staff is a mystery. Why a group of refugees who’d been kicked out of Norway back into Russia would decide to go to a drinking establishment in a hotel and start harassing women is also hard to imagine. Remember that we’re told a group of about 50 people of Middle Eastern descent came into this bar or nightclub. Wouldn’t people immediately notice that and take photos, videos, or at least try to talk to them? I once sat down at a bar in Volgograd by myself and a woman came up and asked me to dance, sensing I was a foreigner even though I’d lived in Russia for over a year at that point. I don’t look Middle Eastern by any stretch of the imagination. Well, at least I didn’t back then.
So why is it in a country where nearly everyone has a camera phone, where nearly every driver has a dash cam, and where establishments have CCTV, we get no video clips or photos of this incident? None. Nothing. Again, it’s almost as if this story didn’t happen!
-The story is obviously aimed at triggering certain emotions and teaching a particular lesson. In those American chain emails, Marine Todd knocks out an atheist professor for mocking god. He does so right in the university auditorium, the liberals’ home turf. Anyone familiar with American conservative politics knows that colleges and universities are portrayed as fortresses of left-wing theory and indoctrination camps for the youth. In fact, some Christians even made a movie about that very subject, though sadly we never see Marine Todd show up in the film, or any marines for that matter.
In this case the message for Russian domestic audiences is that Russia is civilized and doesn’t tolerate Muslims gone wild like they do in liberal “Gayropa.” On the domestic front Russian media is constantly harping on similar themes- the West is degenerate, crumbling, and dying. There, as is the case everywhere outside of Russia, there is “chaos.” In Russia however, there is a superior civilization. Russia is not tolerant of degeneracy. In Russia there is stability, and this is all thanks to Putin. Naturally this same message will often be punctuated by graphic stories of heinous crimes in Russia and news that dozens of shops were demolished overnight, but of course we all know who is responsible for all that.
For Western audiences the emotional hooks have more or less been described above. Reactionary Westerners who have been duped by their own politicians and pundits into believing their country is tumbling into the abyss tend to get a thrill out of these “politically incorrect Russia” tales. As they see their national leaders and media outlets clash with Putin’s Russia, one can make a logical leap that this difference in political values is part of the conflict. Right wing Westerners get the idea that there is hope, there is a country to emulate. They can live vicariously through these non-existent Russian heroes. Telling them about the problems of Russia, or how Muslims in Russia actually wield quite a bit of influence, more so than in the West, is a waste of time. Even if they’ve actually visited Russia, they know their own countries problems far better than those of Russia, so the grass will appear to be greener.
-Real stories have sources. If you pitch a story to an editor and they ask where you heard about this from, saying it was based on “material found on social media” isn’t going to cut it. In real media outlets you’d better have an awesome follow up to that statement, otherwise you’ll probably be canned. Sure, sometimes you find out about a story because it’s buzzing on social media. Twitter is often the place where a story originates. But if you go on Twitter and watch how those stories develop, you’ll often notice journalists qualifying tweets, asking for confirmation, confirming stories, and so on. Suppose a video of the event had been taken and posted on social media like VK. Then we might have something, and we might want to watch the comments on that video to see if other residents, cops, witnesses, etc. commented or provided more information. But even then, there would have to be statements, confirmation, etc.
-If a story flat out admits that officials didn’t comment on a story or make any statements whatsoever, that’s a pretty good sign it’s bullshit. Nowhere did I see that the police actually refused to give a comment, which would imply that they were actually contacted for one. The articles just say they didn’t make any report or comment. Then the author(s) go on to speculate as to why that is with no basis for doing so. Also, given the popularity of the sentiments expressed in the article, don’t you think that the police would have wanted to brag to the nation about how they shut down a riot while still teaching these migrants a valuable lesson?
In the end we see that fake viral stories are not unique to Russian propaganda and they often possess the same features and use the same techniques. This blog might be called Russia Without BS, but BS is sadly universal and if our species is to survive we need to learn to strengthen critical thinking while suppressing those emotional instincts that lead us into making huge mistakes. Instincts got us this far, but in order to survive in the modern world, where we possess devastating weapons and technology which can adversely affect the planet, reason must prevail.
This bullshit story was just a small drop in an ocean of Russian propaganda, but it bears a lot of concrete features that make it a perfect case study not only for fake stories coming from Russia, but anywhere, including your elderly uncle who can’t help forwarding every chain email he receives.