The Vladimir Putin those of us in the West see is a man who, of late, has jailed the relatives of prominent dissidents, supported separatist rebels in Eastern Ukraine and instituted new rules for foreign media companies that led CNN to announce it was pulling out of Moscow. But in Russia, the former prime minister and three-term president enjoys an astounding 80 percent approval rate. The key lies in the Kremlin’s artfully constructed television machine, according to Peter Pomerantsev.
Writing in Politico, Pomerantsev, a former television producer for Russian networks, provides a look at the programming shaping the Russia (and the West) Putin wants the nation’s television audience to know. More than mere propaganda, the strategy is a mix of mindless entertainment, intricate conspiracy theories and paranoia-inducing medical and social coverage.
Turn on Russian TV and you’ll see Jerry Springer style talk shows stuffed full of Hells Angels who have become Russian Orthodox holy warriors ready to defeat the decadent West. You’ll see neo-Nazis with MTV-dancer bodies who film themselves beating up gay teenagers in the name of patriotism and whip-wielding Cossacks attacking performance artists on the streets. But in the end the errand is always the same: to keep the great, 140-million-strong population reeling with oohs and aaahs about gays and God, Satan, fascists, the CIA and far-fetched geopolitical nightmares.
The goal, writes Pomerantsev, “is to confuse rather than convince, to trash the information space so the audience gives up looking for any truth amid the chaos.” The challenge for the United States extends far beyond responding with a carefully sourced debunking of Russian spin.
There also remains a residual, 20th-century belief that Russian propaganda can be countered by delivering “real information” to audiences. But Russian TV doesn’t try to prove “the truth.” And what good is giving “the truth” to an audience that has been emotionally spun by the Kremlin not to believe it? Inside Russia today, there is plenty of access to alternative information online, and ethnic Russians outside the country have plenty of “reliable” sources, but their emotional allegiance is to Kremlin broadcasters.
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