6 Reasons You've Probably Read Russian Propaganda Today
Soviet propaganda is iconic across the world, from museums to the T-shirts worn by that guy that always brings an acoustic guitar to the party. But it's not a thing of the past: The modern Russian state has their own propaganda, and they spend at least $300 million a year delivering it directly from the Kremlin to your Facebook feed. Cracked sat down with Professor Eugen Fedchenko, who helps run the propaganda-busting website StopFake.org, and talked to him about how Russian propaganda slips into our reading every day.
Modern Russian Propaganda Is Weaponized Nonsense
Propaganda was ever-present in the old Soviet Union, aimed mostly at the USA:
Pretty subtle stuff, much of the time.
We can all agree they hired great artists, right? We would pay top dollar to watch this guy fight CGI aliens next to Captain America.
Somebody forward this to Marvel.
But judging the effectiveness of Soviet Propaganda is another matter entirely. The natural assumption, based on decades of Bond movies, is that most Soviet citizens bought into the propaganda. The mainstream academic opinion is in line with that: Soviet propaganda worked pretty well, particularly because nothing else was allowed inside the country.
Eugen Fedchenko is a professor of journalism living in Ukraine who also lived through the last couple decades of Soviet history on the frontier of the USSR. And out there, in his recollection, Soviet propaganda was less effective:
"Soviet propaganda was completely dull, even for Soviet people. If you explain by propaganda that Americans are starving and you go to grocery store and it is empty ... these kind of reality checks made Soviet propaganda ineffective domestically."
Modern Russian propaganda is made by some of the same people who used to make Soviet propaganda and focuses largely around the news network Russia Today (RT, to its hip young friends, of which it has precisely none).
Hip readers questioned more, then left.
Russia Today is owned and financed by the Kremlin, so it's like if the Pentagon owned Fox News or MSNBC, and everyone was just fine with it for some reason. And while old Soviet propaganda was distinctly nativist, Russia Today learned from the American media.
"Instead of one thing, you need thousands of things. Instead of one audience, you target many."
RT spun off into a number of websites, including the English-language Sputnik:
You've probably seen at least one article by RT or one of their affiliates on your news feed within the last year. Likely involved with some bird-fucking insanity, like this:
And it's weird that something like this would come out of the Kremlin. It almost doesn't seem political at all, until you look at a bunch of RT headlines at once and realize their habit of casually implicating the U.S. government in corruption or incompetence. Sometimes justifiably ...
And other times?
Who gives a shit!? Didn't you read that RT story? We've got space alien mob rule to worry about.
Professor Fedchenko explained the reasoning behind Russia's next generation of propaganda: "Instead of ideology you use nonsense, and with all that noise people lose focus."
In 1984, the height of propaganda was signs with unblinking eyes that recorded your every movement. In 2015, the best government propaganda looks like a shitty conspiracy forum.
Russian Propaganda Hides In Your News Feed
Sites like RT and Sputnik run content that rivals BuzzFeed:
The actual text of the article is of a NASA guy admitting that Area 51 exists, but clarifying that it's just a place they test new planes, etc. Y'know, exactly the same thing the U.S. government's been saying for years.
The truth is out there ... it's just boring.
Because of the way Facebook works, if you find yourself clicking on a lot of articles from a website -- say Russia Today or Sputnik -- because it had one of those headlines you just had to check out, new articles from that same site will show up more frequently in your news feed. And they won't all look instantly crazy.
Like how your uncle's posts look during non-election years.
"So they are telling people about UFOs and lizard gods and natural medicine and paramedical things ... and then they started to criticize foreign governments and blaming foreign governments, and it became apparent this stuff is hugely attractive to many people."
So articles like this appeal to the kind of folks who are broadly suspicious of any brown people:
Similar to this garbage posing as real news to cross into your brain.
While an article like this has better odds of luring in that friend who deeply trusts the healing power of crystals:
"They have a huge audience in the Middle East because they criticize Israel consistently. A huge audience in South America because they criticize the U.S. government. And these are very simplistic concepts which are so attractive, because people want easy explanations."
No matter who your Facebook friends are, RT or one of its affiliates has propaganda catered to the things they already believe about the world. It's the Trojan Horse of propaganda. Many, maybe even most RT articles don't advance any specific agenda. But they worm their way into your Facebook feed, and then when the news breaks that a passenger plane has been shot down over Ukraine, maybe this pops up:
And if you don't bother to dig any deeper into that story and learn that the Russian government's done stuff like obviously Photoshop satellite photos to make this same claim, maybe you just incorporate that little headline into your view of world events.
Russian Propaganda Works Like Fox News
Are you a dumb blogger who hates the government and wants someone with a budget to pretend you matter? Russia may have an opportunity for you:
"They invite a lot of local journalists and editors and languages, so if you watch Russia Today America, you see ... American faces and journalists, a studio that looks like any American channels, the structure of the material is familiar ... but the topics are different. And that makes it attractive: It's different."
Russia Today also gambles a lot on the laziness of the average reader. If they quote an "expert" in an article, they know that most people won't bother looking into that "expert's" background. Here's one example pointed out to us by Cracked writer Jim Kovpak:
The article backs up its insane claim -- that Europeans will flee Europe due to all the refugees -- by pinning the whole idea on "Polish media." Read a little deeper, and you'll get sent to this sketchy website:
The "translation" should change every word to "bullshit."
Nearly all the articles are written by the same guy, "krakauer," and the most successful articles feature only a handful of comments. It's clearly some person's crazy website (the article above is suggesting that the Ukrainian conflict is a possible "Second Vietnam" for the U.S.) that RT is crediting as "Polish media." Which is technically correct -- the worst kind of correct. They do it to Western media too:
"They like being able to say Western media is on their site -- 'AMERICAN MEDIA PREDICTING COLLAPSE OF UKRAINE' -- and then you go and it's a WordPress blog of some guy at USC."
Oh, also, did you know we're on the brink of nuclear war with China and Russia?
If you actually read the article, you'll find it's based entirely on a blog post written by Paul Craig Roberts, who spent one year as assistant secretary of the treasury and is exactly as qualified to comment on the likelihood of WWIII as everyone reading this sentence. He's also kind of a 9/11 truther, but to RT he's just a "Reagan official."
Assume The Opposite Of The Propaganda Is True
Propaganda is often used as a shell game. The Soviet Union focused on stories of American racism during the Civil Rights Movement to distract from their own domestic injustices. So if a nation's propaganda claims that they have, say, a shitload of cool-ass weapons coming out that are just utterly unstoppable, it might be to hide the fact that their military is actually a bit of a disaster.
Example: You've probably seen a bunch of articles about Russia's crazy new superweapons on Facebook:
The story is immediately picked up by right-wing media, because if the Russians have a bitchin' new tank then we better get a bigger one, with flames on it, to show those bastards what freedom looks like:
"And see if we can add wings so we can do inverted tanking on them, Top Gun-style."
And that's exactly what the Kremlin wants; Russia can't actually afford to build Armata tanks, and they've got no plans to field them in meaningful numbers. But thanks to social media, Russia can use the Armata to intimidate the West without actually building any. And take this story:
"'The recoil from the two barrels will also cause the shooter's penis to grow at least two inches,'
said a totally real and jealous anonymous NATO doctor."
That twin-barrel assault rifle is actually decades old. It was called the AO-63, and during the 1980s it was evaluated by the Spetsnaz, who ... rejected it for not being good enough. But double-barreled anythings are twice as cool as normal-barreled stuff, so Sputnik/RT dusted off history and renamed it "NATO's worst nightmare." Professor Fedchenko explained the proper way to read these sorts of articles:
"Soviet propaganda tradition teaches us you need to read the opposite. If they publish an article on some super bomber, they're having some problems with aviation. If Soviet media were saying, 'This year we'll have the biggest automotive production ever,' it means this industry really sucks."
Nowhere is this clearer than the current sanctions on Russia:
"Every time on Sputnik you can see stories about how Russia is not harmed by sanctions, they find experts to prove that. If you're not harmed by something I'm doing, why would you talk about that? So, again, we deal with opposites -- if they say sanctions are not important, sanctions are hugely important."
"Neither does our story, but still ..."
"Pentagon" in that headline means "one dude" and "no sense" is how they translate his actual quote, "What's clear is that sanctions are working on the Russian economy. ... What's not apparent is that that effect on his economy is deterring Putin from following the course that was evidenced last year in the Crimea."
And, yes, the reality is that sanctions have been devastating to the Russian economy. But never mind all that -- some guy that knows what a pentagon is thinks Russia is super-duper double-thumbs-up for all time!
TV Can Be A Weapon Of War
Russian television dominates much of Eastern Europe. And prior to the Ukrainian separatist crisis, it helped prime people to support the right side:
"It was about local elections, national elections, everything. People's views and opinions were completely changed. ... People in Donetsk and Lugansk, their worldview did not come from nowhere. It was formed from Russian TV."
We got to see a bit of this during our trip to the Ukrainian war zone. We spent the night drinking in a hospital with some Ukrainian soldiers, watching Novorussia, which is actually just Russian TV with a different logo, provided for free to the separatist state. Curiously, The Devil Wears Prada was playing. Professor Fedchenko explained:
"It could be seen to project an image of affluence; that's important."
"Affluence ... in a different country ... making people miserable. Trust us; it makes sense."
We spoke with a refugee from Donetsk (the Ukrainian city that separated with Russian military aid) during our trip to Kiev. She backed up the professor, pointing out that people she knew in town found Russian talk shows very convincing when they painted a picture of what a paradise Novorussia would be if those damn Ukrainians would just get out of the way. Or, as the BBC more eloquently put it:
"Russian state TV's coverage of the conflict in Ukraine does not simply contain one-sided and often misleading propaganda. It also appears to employ techniques of psychological conditioning designed to excite extreme emotions of aggression and hatred in the viewer."
And does it work? That's something you can debate: This article makes the case that RT is likely exaggerating their reader numbers. But RT's also been nominated for Emmys. People are clearly listening -- even if not as many as they'd like to claim. During their evaluation of Russian propaganda in Ukraine, the BBC noted that, "All the indications are that it is having the desired effect."
Their Propaganda Goes In Weird Patterns
To hear Russian media tell it, Ukraine is just chock-full of crucifixions:
And earlier this year Russia's biggest news channel ran an interview with a woman who claimed to have seen a 3-year-old crucified by Ukrainian soldiers.
"A single witness described in graphic terms how this boy was crucified, and she was given this detailed narrative about how the boy was bleeding, and that was aimed at religious views of believers. And then she explains that after the boy was crucified they dragged his mother through the square by tanks. ... There were no other witnesses of this; there was not a single picture or anyone who could confirm it."
And, as our source pointed out, this particular move is more than a century old:
"We've lost too many innocent cartoon characters to this horror. Please help."
It wasn't true in WWI, and it isn't true now. But claiming that horrific things are being done to children is a well-documented standby of Russian propaganda. And that's not the end of their grab bag of bullshit.
"Another story was about slaves. So they said that every Ukrainian participating in occupying forces would be granted a piece of land and two slaves. ... They try to portray Ukraine as a fascist state, with its attitude towards Jews and LGBT ..."
During the Stalinist era, Soviet propaganda went after "disloyal" subjects by painting them as Nazi sympathizers. During their 2008 war with Georgia, modern Russian propagandists accused Georgians of accepting neo-Nazi volunteers. And right now Russian media is busy making the case that the Ukrainian army might look pretty sexy in jackboots.
This article is about Nazi recruits for the so-called "Azov Regiment," a group of Ukrainian volunteers who do have some neo-Nazi members. But, as StopFake pointed out, this picture originates from 2005, way before the civil war started. There are neo-Nazis in the American army. There are even neo-Nazis in the Russian-backed separatist forces fighting against Ukraine. There are neo-Nazis everywhere, is the point. That doesn't make everyone who shares a barracks with them Nazis. Nazis aren't The Thing. Though ... how cool would that movie be? Excuse us -- we have a screenplay to write.
Jim Kovpak has an website about life in Russia. Robert Evans has a friend struggling to afford her beloved dog's surgery: you can donate here.
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