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Life after facts: how Russian state media defines itself through negation

The image of “Russian propaganda” as a powerful machine where all cogs and wheels work in harmony is not entirely accurate — and here’s why. Русский

May 2016: French journalists translate Dmitry Kiselyov's segment on "Eurosceptics" in France. Source: ouTube / LePetitJournal.This May, Russia’s state-run Rossiya channel showed a segment about unrest in France, which Dmitry Kiselyov, host of Russia’s top-rated news programme, prefaced by saying that “eurosceptics are rearing their heads” in Europe.

In the actual segment, just one eurosceptic was featured: Jean-Marie Le Pen, the former head of France’s far right National Front party, who kicked out from the party by his own daughter for being too radical.

The programme’s other heroes (people on the street and an opposition politician) said things that had a modest relationship to euroscepticism — they were speaking about French people’s protest against labour reform.

Moreover, as an investigation by France’s CANAL+ channel showed, the people featured in this segment from the weekly news show “Vesti nedeli” had their words not only taken out of context, but even completely made up (in translation for a Russian audience) by the segment’s author.

What Russian journalists refer to as “media shit-slinging”, heated arguments between journalists on Facebook, has seeped into national networks

There was a flurry of responses from state broadcasting company VGTRK. First, the segment’s author Anton Lyadov showed an “investigation of CANAL+’s investigation” in a new segment — although this only raised new questions. Then Kiselyov himself devoted an entire segment of the next show to this story, but, for some reason, decided not to address the arguments of the French programme, instead focusing on attacking, with some fairly strong words, Pavel Gusev, the chief editor of the tabloid Moskovsky komsomolets newspaper. (Gusev then penned a no less strongly-worded open letter to Kiselyov.) Kiselyov concluded with his already familiar argument: yes, the Russian press makes mistakes, but western media outlets are even bigger liars.

The conflict didn’t end there — both sides are still trying to rile each other. In a new edition of “Vesti nedeli”, Kiselyov talks about Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s teleconference, which was hosted by the Moskovsky komsomolets press centre in Moscow, with a background picture titled “Is this the revolution’s headquarters?”

Moskovsky komsomolets answered with a whole series of articles about Kiselyov, mocking him for saying “Let’s get back to Russia” after showing a segment on Crimea and featuring a column that calls Kiselyov an idiot and a provocateur.

We should note that these figures are matched, to a certain degree. Kiselyov and Gusev are almost the same age. Both control two of the biggest media platforms in Russia (Moskovsky komsomolets is Russia’s third most popular newspaper; “Vesti nedeli” is the fourth most popular programme on Russian TV, according to TNS). Both Gusev and Kiselyov are recipients of state awards and members of various councils and sit on various boards.

Now we have a situation in which two of Russia’s most recognisable media figures, who have access to millions of minds, are going after each other in public

But while Kiselyov’s “Vesti nedeli” is the loudest mouthpiece of government propaganda, Moskovsky komsomolets’ relationship to the Russian government is hard to categorise. It’s impossible to be in charge of a mainstream Russian media outlet without a high degree of loyalty to the state. This is why nobody calls Moskovsky komsomolets an opposition newspaper even after they publish “dissenting” articles.

At the same time, it is Moskovsky komsomolets that has featured some of the most sharply critical articles about the government in recent years, articles that have resonated far more than those at “traditional” opposition publications. In response, both the paper and its chief editor have been hounded by the same people who demand that the independent Dozhd-TV be taken off the air and Echo Moskvy radio station be closed.

With that in mind, if Moskovsky komsomolets is featured by foreign media and reports on abuses of freedom of speech in Russia by NGOs such as Freedom House, it is featured after Ekho and Dozhd, as a “tabloid loyal to the government,” which accidentally got mixed up in a crackdown.

To believe or not believe

Now we have a situation in which two of Russia’s most recognisable media figures, who have access to millions of minds, are going after each other in public. What Russian journalists refer to as “media shit-slinging” (mediasrach), heated arguments between journalists on Facebook, has seeped into national networks.

Such media wars would seem to be an anachronism of the Yeltsin era. Mainstream media in Putin’s Russia is usually referred to as a monolith, presided over by officials from the Presidential Administration (its first deputy head, according to the Putinist tradition, is the shadow curator of Russian media), whose mission is to elbow out the last remaining independent publications.

Yet Russia’s media environment is far more fluid and contradictory than meets the eye. These conflicts can arise around the issue of media ethics, which were supposedly kicked to the curb as too old-fashioned, and the complete insanity on Russian state TV was explained away by the fact that Russia was at war.

The conflict between Moskovsky komsomolets and the Rossiya TV channel demonstrates that Russian propaganda is not as monolithic as it seems. Source: Youtube.In this situation, the viewer is disoriented. As the propaganda machine kicked into high gear, all polls (FOM, Levada, VTsIOM) showed that critical attitudes to media were fading away, while tolerance for disinformation was rising. According to FOM, for example, 54% of respondents in 2014 said that a degree of lying in the media is acceptable if it benefits the government. In 2001, 45% of respondents stated that there weren't any topics that you could lie about "in the interests of the state", and in 2014 - only 28%. 

An October 2015 Levada poll asked: "When watching television, listening to the radio or reading newspapers, do you believe that you aren't given full information or are drawn away from important events or topics?" In 2012, 46% of respondents claimed that they had this impression "fairly often". In 2015, it was 34%. Meanwhile, the amount of respondents who trust the televison to cover events in Russia "to a significant degree" rose by ten percentage points, from 38% to 48%.

This was happening in the context of a full-blown propaganda campaign on Russia’s most popular state channels, featuring all sorts of devices: from strategic withholding of certain facts to outright lies and macabre fantasies broadcast to the entire country.

Russia’s media environment is far more fluid and contradictory than meets the eye

As my own experience shows, most attempts to get through to victims of disinformation are met with a typical response of “so what if our media lies, everybody everywhere lies, and anyway, there’s an information war being waged against us, we must hit back.”

All of this is happening in Russia, a country which, from 2000 to 2016 saw a rise of Internet users from nearly zero to 70% of the population. More and more older Russians are getting online. Ninety-seven percent of Russians from the age 16 to 29 are already online, according to GfK. In principle, seven out of 10 Russian citizens, from schoolchildren to very old pensioners should be able to withstand disinformation.

But as research and experience show, you can’t defeat confirmation bias. People who believe that vaccines are bad for you grow only more determined in their views even as they encounter the most irrefutable facts (this is the “backfire effect”, discussed in many studies). And as this study shows, consumers of factual and false information belong to separate groups that barely communicate with one another.

Russia’s odd relationship with foreign media

As facts grow more and more available, people are more and more eager to choose psychologically comforting lies— and this problem is not exclusive to Russia. This is bad news for all opponents of disinformation and propaganda — their efforts get less clicks and views that disinformation itself.

The issue isn’t that Russian propaganda is so sophisticated, but that it exploits features of human psychology, such as self-preservation mechanisms that shield the mind from cognitive dissonance. Telling people what they want to hear is nothing new.

Telling people what they want to hear is nothing new

A new poll by VTsIOM has exposed another paradox: although headlines have trumpeted the fact that Russians’ trust in television has slightly fallen, television remains the absolute leader as far as influence on opinion goes. The absolute anti-leader, meanwhile, are foreign media: their trust ratings are deeply negative, at -42 this year (they were at -56 last year, and at +21 in 2007).

October 2015: people protest against disinformation by western NGOs in Moscow. (c) Alexey Kudenko / RIA Novosti. All rights reserved.But as a new Levada poll shows, only one percent of Russian citizens surveyed regularly gets its news from foreign media. So the overwhelming majority of those who distrust foreign media form their opinions secondhand. So if Dmitry Kiselyov says that “those foreigners” lie and slander Russia (and the presidential Institute of Strategic Studies goes as far as regularly computing an “index of aggression” of foreign media with regard to Russia), then Russian viewers believe it.

One percent of a population is a tiny sum, but it is also true that comparatively speaking, foreign media is quite popular in Russia. Russians actually have a history of very reverent attitudes toward foreign newspapers. These date back to the days when the Soviet cultural magazine Ogonyok published photographs from the Morning Star, and Soviet press kiosks stocked the latest edition of L'Humanité.

Russia’s Inosmi.ru site, which translates articles from various foreign outlets into Russian, has between 250,000 and 300,000 unique visitors daily

Today, many sustain a somewhat naïve and paradoxical belief in the power of the foreign press. You won’t see this anywhere else: Russia’s Inosmi.ru site, which translates articles from various foreign outlets into Russian (full disclosure: I was the chief editor of InoSMI from 2012 to 2014), has between 250,000 and 300,000 unique visitors daily. Western analogues like WorldCrunch don’t get even a tenth of this kind of traffic. InoSMI isn’t even the only such site in Russian. Besides that, Russian outlets of a more common profile translate foreign articles more and more.

Russians’ interest to what’s happening abroad is much greater than the world’s interest in Russia. The sharp decline of trust in foreign media combined with a sharp increase of interest in foreign media (in 2012, the rate of unique visitors on Inosmi.ru rarely rose above 100,000 daily), has to do with another phenomenon, most coherently expressed by our favourite, Dmitry Kiselyov: Russian state media, aimed at both domestic and foreign audiences (such as the state-run RT channel), determine their niche in the world via constant denial, via the mentality of “we are not like them.”

Over at “Vesti nedeli,” Kiselyov not only attacked CANAL+ by pointing out instances how western media twist facts, he also directly stated that the Russian media is better: “We illustrate protests against labor reform in France in a way that’s cooler than their domestic audience sees it.”

May 2016: Dmitry Kiselyov and deputy minister of communications Alexey Volin appear at the "New era of journalism" forum in Moscow. (c) Alexey Kudenko / RIA Novosti. All rights reserved.A week later, Kiselyov opened the “New Epoch of Journalism: Goodbye to the Mainstream” forum at the Rossiya Segodnya state news agency (where he is general director). “New journalism” and “post-mainstream” — this is how Kiselyov and his colleague Margarita Simonyan, chief editor of both Rossiya Segodnya and RT, view themselves.

Kiselyov and Simonyan say that demand for an alternative viewpoint is growing in the world, and that Russia is the leader of this anti-mainstream or post-mainstream trend. Of course, neither Kiselyov nor Simonyan don’t deliver any earth-shattering facts in the course of their work (RT rarely breaks any news and takes its most noteworthy information from the “mainstream media”, which it so despises). Instead, these stories simply confirm their audience’s existing worldview, and package this confirmation as “alternative opinion.”

In the ‘post-mainstream’ world, objectivity is devalued 

These “alternative opinions” could be outright lies or craziest conspiracies — but in the “post-mainstream” world, objectivity is devalued. There is no objectivity, Simonyan has often frankly stated this. This new reality of “life after facts” is particularly rewarding for Simonyan in Germany, where the population has the highest level of distrust towards traditional media.

For instance, according to a 2015 poll by Die Zeit, more than 50% of German citizens surveyed do not trust their most popular media outlets when it comes to the most controversial topics such as the migration and refugee crisis. And it is the German version of Rossiya Segodnya’s Sputnik site that has the most visitors. 

Russian media’s internal conflict

The study and struggle against “Russian propaganda” has become, in the last few years, a genre of its own, with hundreds of articles and dozens of studies devoted to it. Meanwhile, Russian propaganda has begun a period of “self-reflection”, starting to discuss with its audience whether or not lies and manipulations are acceptable in journalism. 

So far, lies and manipulation are deemed acceptable because “western media does the same thing.” This confirms political analyst Yekaterina Shulman’s theory of the “reverse cargo-cult” — the belief that key institutions in western societies, such as those devoted to freedom of speech, an independent press, human rights, and so on, are as hypocritical as they are in Russia, it’s just that “westerns are better at pretending.” 

Kiselyov has a huge amount of arguments he can make here — from support for the Iraq war in the New York Times to Euronews exaggerating the number of Crimean Tatars deported by 10 times. Yet fans of the “reverse cargo-cult” forget one tiny, insignificant detail — in the west, such episodes can harm a media outlet’s reputation, corrections are issued and apologies are voiced.

The monolith known as “Russian propaganda” is not as invincible as we’re used to believing

For Russian media, this is something exotic. Just like examples of mass solidarity among journalists. But they are happening: first one regional outlet, and then, an entire association of regional press have printed a warning for readers on their TV guide page: “Be careful! The NTV channel can distort information and engage in propaganda while passing it off as news!” This was the response when NTV accused the Yakutsk Vecherny newspaper by augmenting its editorial policies due to pressure from George Soros’ Open Society.

Thus the sensational news that Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov has admitted Putin made an error during his annual TV question-and-answer marathon (Putin claimed that Suddeutsche Zeitung, which published the Panama Papers investigation, belonged to Goldman Sachs).

Likewise, Kiselyov himself had to admit to an error when “Vesti nedeli” showed documents allegedly belonging to a world war two-era “Ukrainian SS soldier”, which was clearly fake, as many viewers immediately pointed out. These apologies became news because admissions of wrongdoing and errors are not common to Russia — they’re usually seen as admissions of weakness.

But they still happened, and the discussion on ethics in journalism (even if it involves asides along the lines of “but everyone else is also unethical”) is also happening — the monolith known as “Russian propaganda” is not as invincible as we’re used to believing.

Want to know more about how media culture really works in Russia? Check out our "Beyond propaganda" rubric or our related articles for more. 


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