Media as a tool of confusing rather than informing the populace has reached unprecedented virtuosity in Russia, he says. Having spent a decade producing television programmes in Moscow, Pomerantsev recently published a book, Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible, which brilliantly captures the surreal atmosphere in contemporary Russia, where media gurus and the Kremlin’s puppet masters are working out daily assaults not just on the population’s critical thinking faculties but on reason itself.
In an interview with DELFI, Pomerantsev discusses propaganda in Russia and how information has become an issue in geopolitics and calls for novel ways to deal with the challenge.
How is propaganda in Putin’s Russia of today different from the times of the Soviet Union?
Propaganda is key to Putin. Propaganda was very important in the Soviet Union. Communism, as people in Lithuania will know, expertly had a very exalted idea of the public propaganda. Stepping from Karl Marx’s idea that you can remake man. This goes very deep, because in the West we just don’t have that idea.
In the Soviet Union, there was less television. There was circus, youth groups, pioneer camps. They used a lot of stuff to create the new socialist man. But this goes very deep, this idea that viziers, geniuses, Zhdanovs can create a new being. And this phenomena of the political technologist – it’s a very Russian idea. The cadres who create the propaganda, and who recreate society.
Television in particular seems to play a huge role in Russia.
We have to understand Putin’s personal rise. He was a no one. In 1996, he already saw how television had transformed the Yeltsin Russia. The corrupt, modern television had saved Yeltsin’s presidency. In 1999, he gets transformed form a no one by the power of television, plus a war in Chechnya, into Putin. So he is very aware of the power of television. The first thing he does is taking hold of television. Even before he takes control of the security.
The country is so huge, he’s seen its power to unite the country. And also he has stumbled into a new version of authoritarianism. Authoritarianism used to be 80 percent violence and 20 percent propaganda. Under Putin, it’s become 80 percent propaganda, 20 percent violence. That is, less arrests than there were in the Soviet Union. He just needs to arrest one person and then make it work on television to hold the country.
How limited is access to information to ordinary Russians?
It’s not just about censorship. There is some censorship inside Russia. Obviously, especially on TV it’s very very limited. But you hang that stuff online, it’s not like in the Soviet times. If you talk about Russians in the near abroad, they can definitely see a lot of that stuff. So what they are doing is they are working in a much deeper way than mirror information. We think that the Russians don’t have information. They do. It’s the effect and the structure of it.
And the way to understand it is a way like religious cults work. The cults, like the religious cults. Normal people with sensible jobs who believe that, I don’t know, scientology is the path to salvation. They seem normal, but they’ve been conditioned.
In the Russian TV, three things really strike me. They make it incredibly entertaining. There can be a very very western stuff. This is more than unsafe. This is very insidious because the package of the West was democracy, plus James Bond movies, plus Santa Barbara. And by saying “we can do this but you don’t need democracy”, they’re sending a very very deep message.
And they put political messages into entertainment?
That they do definitely, but that’s not that unusual – America has put army guys in Hollywood movies. All countries do this. There is the cult of the FSB guy, but that’s standard propaganda. That’s pretty much what the world does.
But here they’ve been incredibly entertaining. So that really makes our job, western job of communicating with Russians, very difficult. So that’s the first thing. That’s how they get audiences in.
The next thing is they break down communication, quite actively. Through certain uses of language, like the conspiracy theory. Conspiracy theories are a way to stop debate. It’s what happens at the end of discourse. This has been going for a long time, for about 10 years, and it’s not just about politics, not just about the CIA. There’s conspiracy about everything, crazy fungi taking over Russia. There is a cult of conspiracy theories.
But this is done strategically, they are very aware of what they are doing. They really do see television as brain washing. They don’t set themselves journalistic challenge. They set themselves the challenge “how do we hold the nation together”. It’s very much a mentality of creating Russia and holding control over it.
So they bring entertainment and they break critical thinking. You can see that in the language they use. Dmitry Kiselyov is typical. He uses what linguists call false assurances – comparing things which have no comparison. Like, Swedes have sex education programme on – that shows that paedophiles are taking over the EU. He does it all the time. His favourite phrase is “Cовпадение? Hе думаю!” (Coincidence? I don’t think so!). And he makes some crazy comparison – Swedes lost at Poltava in the 18th century, now Carl Bildt wants to take over Russia.
And do ordinary Russians actually buy it?
This kind of crazy stuff, but that is really how Russians start to think. You hear that in people’s logic. You have conversations in Russia where people make these bizarre leaps, like: NATO is really big and therefore wants to destroy Russia. You can’t argue with that because these are broken-down semantic logical patterns.
And then the next thing they do is they work on traumas. Just like a cult will make you remember all your bad experiences. They go over the humiliation of the 1990s – we were humiliated. They do talk about Stalin and Gulag, it’s not true that it’s censored.
In therapy, the assumption is that it will get through to where the trauma is and make you think rationally about it, get over it and bring it into speech. They do the opposite – they just scratch it: “We were humiliated. And Stalin hurt us, and everything hurt us.” So people are constantly emotionally very fucked up.
Russia is a country of unresolved traumas. Alexander Etkind is the genius of this, he is a Russian scholar who now lives in Italy, he’s written a lot about Russia’s unresolved traumas. There was no resolution of the Civil War, no resolution of the Gulag. They’ve never dealt with their traumas so they are very easy to manipulate that way.
At the same time they use simple stuff like fears. NTV, which is one of the big channels, is non-stop fear. It’s not like classical propaganda “we’ll have glorious future”. It’s about how awful Russia is, murder, gangsters. They’re all out to get you! Definitely, you need the Kremlin. Fear fear fear. You need the strong state.
It’s very counter-intuitive. There’s fear, traumas and then, at the end, once people are already in the state, they can drop any information. “Fascists are in charge of Ukraine.” First you need to raskachat, i.e., get to people, and then you can say whatever – “Putin will come and save us.” But there is the whole kind of emotional journey that they put people on which I think is very similar to how cults work.
Who masterminds this kind of brainwashing campaigns?
I don’t think this is necessarily planned. This is very much the culture they’re producing. It’s very interesting, they are fascinated about NLP, this American neuro-linguistic programming that was very fashionable in the US in the 1960s.
All of them are obsessed with it, even just to market stuff. Minute 3, always mention aliens, minute 5, always mention abortion. They are obsessed with key words and key things. If you listen to political contributors, they never say anything rational. They just talk in these weird spirals, just repeating “the enemy, the enemy, the enemy” and kind of never really making sense. They’re steeped in that stuff, in these ideas. I don’t know there’s anyone clever enough to systematize it. I think they’re just instinctively going about how to fuck up their people.
I don’t think anyone plans it to the second. It is the culture they produced. It’s formed by their idea of what television is there for. They don’t think of journalism. There is an idea of television as a weapon, as a way to control society.
How do they construct propaganda messages?
In terms of context, that is quite classic. There’s framing, like “NATO is the aggressor” or “There is a huge war on”. This is classic communication theory. That is actually the least and the most obvious of what they do. And I think we can all see that in the way they define “Ukrainians are fascists”. That’s language they use and way they build the arguments. That’s quite clear and that clearly has been thought through.
And the messages they send are quite mixed.
Their aim is, they don’t want people marching on the streets. That’s a big risk. They don’t want hundreds of thousands of people marching to Ukraine. They want them confused, passive-aggressive, angry. They send mixed message all the time to confuse people.
Agitation propaganda is very straightforward. Like Hitler: this is happening, this is why, go and march, go and kill. Russia wants to keep population paranoid, but they don’t want people to come out on the streets, they are worried about that. They want people sitting in their homes confused rather than active. They use confusion a lot of the time. So it’s not classic agitation propaganda.
But this is where it does get very surreal. It’s when they create events for TV. When they find these demonstrations which seem to be there for TV. This has become especially apparent during Ukraine. Say, in the morning there would be weird story in RIA Novosti saying, “Ukrainian Parliament has voted to ban Cyrillic”. Everyone knows its ridiculous. The same evening people come out in Kharkiv and say “don’t touch our Cyrillic”. So this is clearly an operation.
Does Putin believe in his own propaganda?
Everyone is asking whether he’s become an act of his own propaganda. It almost doesn’t matter. You create this false reality – NATO is attacking us – and it doesn’t matter whether he believes it. People will then commission budgets and policies based on this surreality. And it gains its own momentum. It becomes real.
And that is much more dangerous. This has stopped being propaganda. You know how you get the budget in Moscow now? You go to Putin, you go to Lubianka and say: “I have invented an internet program that will defend us from Facebook or Twitter.” Whatever. And you’ll be given money for this.
How should the West respond?
There are several challenges but we have to split them off. The biggest one, by far the priority, is what to do with Russian communities and Russian-speaking audiences outside of Russia.
That’s what we need to understand, it has now become a security threat and will be in the future because all states, terrorist organizations, etc., are using information in a way that is really changing the security environment. So first, it has to become a priority and then there will be more money. But it doesn’t become a priority until someone in the White House says: ”Wow, this is issue number two in the world.”
Should the state fund these efforts?
There are different ways of doing it. You have to understand that they won’t make any money, because any advertiser who goes there will be immediately penalized by the Russians. So Coca Cola won’t touch it because they will lose their sales in Russia. So the idea that you can be financially sustainable is probably illusionary, at least when it starts.
So until an Obama or a Clinton says, “Information is now one of the great agendas out there along with terrorism”, I think that will change the way funding is done. So first is to understand this as a real security problem.
Then, supporting alternative Russian media. Probably there is a plethora of ways, not have one big channel. There is a feasibility study being done by the European Endowment for Democracy on this. You have to look at the audiences and really break them down. Creating one big channel might not be the best thing. It might be better to do lots of little ones.
But that’s the media challenge. There is also an operational challenge which has nothing to do with media. The intelligence services. A lot of the time the problem is to do with media laws, in Central Europe they are not transparent, so we don’t know who owns stuff. Or there are problems with corruption, because an oligarch with connections to Russia will own media in Bulgaria, for example. These are intelligence operations that intelligence agencies need to be working on. The idea that Germans can solve them is naïve.
Maybe there is space for a ProPublica type of things which leak a lot of things about corruption scandals. Their Achilles heel is corruption. But also in terms of protecting journalism generally from disinformation. We made a report with Michael Weiss, we made a bunch of suggestions. I think we need to have disinformation editors at newspapers who would say “this is disinformation, it is not getting in”. Just don’t let it pollute the space. Because at the moment just getting the big lie out is already a problem.
If, as a journalist, you had a source who is lying all the time, you wouldn’t quote him, you would see he is not reliable. So why should you quote the Russian MFA when it lies all the time? Why should you quote [Russian political scientist] Sergey Markov when he keeps repeating that Ukrainians are fascists just to get that on the BBC?
So it’s a real problem not having disinformation editors.
We also talked about how, I think, TV and big media are approaching a moment when it will need a Geneva Convention. A bit like what we have with human rights, when the countries said, these are the basic rules of human rights, and everyone signed up for it which, for a long time, gave some model for how to look at human rights. Now maybe it’s breaking down, but for a long time it worked very well. I think we need a similar moment so all the big media, including Russia Today, sit down and go – this is our Charter. This is what we do and don’t do. We do this and that, opinion, we don’t do disinformation.
And what would happen to those who do not stick to the rules?
They don’t get censored, that’s not a good way forward and pointless in many ways, but maybe they get censure or they get thrown out of the club. So Russia Today will stop being called news organizations and we’ll start calling it drama, they’ll be doing fiction. I don’t know, some type of self-regulation by media organizations. And that can then form a code they all would adhere to. Then that can form the basis for something like Amnesty International, who tracks human rights, so you can then have objective international organizations tracking disinformation.
One of the things we wanted to create was Disinformation Index. But for that to be non-partisan there has to be an agreement first. Because at the moment you have myth-busting sites, on both left and right, and they become part of the problem. So you have to have that initial agreement for there to be something like a convention. Journalists are always very reluctant about this. Because they say “we know our jobs”. It is not about the journalists, it is about the audience, it’s about us.
It’s about propaganda?
Propaganda is a pointless word. Propaganda is the word that means everything. It means formation of people’s attitudes. It’s pointless. I think we have to stop using this word. It’s not useful now. Propaganda is getting people wear condoms so they don’t get AIDS.
If they were to sit down and go: we don’t do disinformation, misinformation, false assurances, there are linguistic things we don’t do, we don’t do conspiracy theories. But they have to agree.
The world “propaganda” is too vague. There is nothing wrong with public diplomacy channels, there is nothing wrong with the Kremlin having its own point of view, there is nothing wrong in the Kremlin pointing out corruption in the West or having a TV channel which shows the West to be bad all the time. It’s nothing, that’s part of the debate – let’s do it, we can beat them.
That’s not the problem. The problem is whether they use the mask of information to do disinformation. That’s the insidious thing. The problem is when they start making up massacres in Syria. Or when they take a rabbi in Crimea and they re-edit his interview on purpose to make it look like he is running away from Ukrainian nationalists when he is running away from the Russian army.
But whatever I raise this idea with the audiences, they like it. Whenever I raise this idea with editors, they go – no, we like to be free. We are reaching a point in information where there is so much of it. I think, we have to regulate ourselves. That’s my big plan. But no traction so far wherever I raise it.