Unplugging Putin

Putin controls Russia by keeping them “in thrall to a virtual reality—one in which NATO is about to invade their homeland, and Ukraine has been taken over by neo-Nazis.. It isn’t just a question of censorship. Inside Russia, many sources of accurate information survive. True, most of them are now either websites or newspapers—television, the main source of news for most Russians, is controlled by the Kremlin—but the country is significantly more open today than the USSR was 30 years ago. Even so, Putin commands domestic support ratings upward of 80 percent. And even among the 30 million Russians who live abroad and have easier access to television stations not controlled by the Kremlin, many believe in the Kremlin-dictated reality. In Estonia, for example, over half of the Russian population still thinks that the country had volunteered to give up its independence and join the USSR after World War II, according to a 2005 poll.
These kinds of sentiments have fueled a surge of Russian patriotism that has enabled Putin to continue his aggressive geopolitics in the face of Western sanctions—which explains why he takes propaganda very seriously.

His first move after coming to power in 2000, before reining in the energy sector and the bureaucracy, was to seize control of television. Since then, he has diligently remade it to suit his purposes. The first thing to note about modern Russian TV is that, unlike the stale Soviet fare, it is highly entertaining. Western consultants have helped Russian producers launch glitzy talent shows, addictive sitcoms, and steamy pop videos—content that draws huge audiences. If in the Cold War part of the West’s appeal was the implicit link between Western entertainment and democracy, Putin’s Russia has undermined this. It’s now possible to love Taylor Swift but hate the United States.

Once the audience’s attention has been grabbed, Russian television sets about reshaping its perception of the world. The process starts with an assault on critical thinking. Russian television is full of conspiracy theories and mysticism, not just about the nefarious CIA agents who stand behind every public protest in Russia or Ukraine but also about countless other threats lurking everywhere. Bizarre pseudoscience programs warn viewers about impending deadly fungi epidemics and introduce them to psychics who can enter their minds. Any sort of rational debate is rendered impossible by a constant stream of false assurances—illogical connections between two associations where two random facts are fused to create a distorted whole.”

“Having drawn in the viewers and disabled their critical defenses, Russian television reaches deep into the nation’s emotional traumas. Politicians and presenters feed the audience nonstop reminders of the difficult 1990s, when, they argue, the West cheered at the sight of a weakened Russia and of the tremendous human toll of the two world wars. Saying that Russia suppresses its past wouldn’t be quite correct; rather, Russia engages with history in a way that inflames traumas instead of healing them. To take just the most obvious example, Kiselev and other commentators have repeatedly described the leaders of the 2014 Ukrainian revolution as followers of Stepan Bandera, the World War II–era Ukrainian nationalist and one-time Nazi collaborator whom most Russians associate with Nazi atrocities.
These kinds of tricks are not aimed at helping viewers achieve closure—in fact, they serve the opposite purpose. Coming to terms with the past requires that people bring their traumatic experiences into the realm of critical thinking in order to grapple with them—an approach used in psychotherapy. Russian television, by contrast, works more like a cult—heightening the vulnerability of its followers by forcing them to relive bad experiences without ever making peace with them.”

“Once viewers have been turned into emotional putty, Russian TV makes its final move: lifting them up with tales of glorious victories achieved by national leaders, from Joseph Stalin to Putin, thereby tying the viewers’ emotional uplift to the Kremlin’s heroics. (“Russia is getting up off its knees” is a favored slogan.) The necessary disinformation is added as the icing on the cake—and by that point in time, the audience is ready to swallow almost anything.
It has taken the Kremlin 15 years to perfect its strategic use of television, but until recently the application of this tactic remained mostly domestic. With the crisis in Ukraine, the strategy has taken on international significance. Policymakers in Brussels and elsewhere are now debating the best ways to counter the Kremlin’s information campaign, including by creating alternative Russian-language content. Such content would, of course, never match domestic Russian television in funding—Channel One, the battering ram of Kremlin propaganda, has a budget of some $850 million—or compete with it in making big talent shows and movies. Still, there are alternative avenues for winning over Russian viewers that are well worth exploring.”

These challenges are not confined to the sphere of Russian-language media; the intensity of information warfare is on the rise across the world. China, for one, has developed the concept of a three-front war against the United States, which uses media and psychological warfare to enhance territorial claims on neighboring states. In the Middle East, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) was able to quickly swell its ranks thanks in large part to its effective propaganda. The stakes in future media campaigns are sure to grow further as undemocratic regimes partner up to create international disinformation networks. Russian TV channels, for example, have already been helping to disseminate story lines favorable to the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria. And the entry of China into the game will only strengthen such informational alliances.
To mount a strong counteroffensive, any alternative media supported by Western donors must be broad in its reach and regular in delivery—priorities that require a significant long-term commitment. Today’s public interest television companies, such as Layalina, barely survive on small grants and commissions. It would take a qualitatively different level of funding to bring larger and more effective outlets on air. But good television is no longer merely about humanitarian values; it’s now a matter of global security.”

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