Truth is irrelevant in the information war of the Kremlin. That is the difference between Russian and Soviet propaganda, says journalist Peter Pomerantsev. Its strategy is to create a pseudo-reality and blur the picture. Conspiracy theories abound. They are extremely popular with the extreme leftist and rightist audiences all over Europe.
‘Russia is waging the most amazing information war blitzkrieg known in history’, announced General Breedlove, Supreme Commander of NATO, during Russia’s war in Ukraine. This was something of an underestimation. The new Russia doesn’t just deal in the petty disinformation, forgeries, lies, leaks and cyber-sabotage usually associated with information war. It reinvents reality, creates mass hallucinations which then become political action. In Ukraine, for example, Putin created a TV pseudo-reality about Russian speakers under threat from US-backed fascists. It was a conjuring trick, but separatists took up arms to fight for it and people of Donbas voted in a staged referendum because of it.
This culture of unreality has been the model in Russia’s domestic politics for around twenty years. The key to understanding today’s Russia are ‘political technologists’, Russia’s political spin doctors, the Viziers of the system who, like so many post-modern Prosperos, would magic up puppet political parties and the simulacra of civic movements to keep the nation distracted while the Putin clique consolidated power. In the philosophy of the political technologists information precedes essence. ‘I remember creating the idea of the Putin majority- and hey presto, it appeared in real life’ one of the caste, Gleb Pavlovsky, told me when I lived in Moscow.
Gleb Pavlovsky, voormalig adviseur van Poetin. Foto Jevgeni Isajev
This belief in the absolute power of propaganda has roots in Soviet thinking. Jacques Ellul, in his classic 1965 study of the subject, wrote: ‘The Communists, who do not believe in human nature but only in the human condition, believe that propaganda is all-powerful, legitimate, and instrumental in creating a new type of man.’
Truth is irrelevant
But there is one great difference between Soviet and the new Russian propaganda. For the Soviets the idea of truth, even when they were lying, was important. Soviet propaganda would go to great lengths to ‘prove’ their theories or bits of disinformation were fact. In the new Russia the idea of truth is irrelevant. On Russian ‘news’ programs the borders between fact and fiction have become utterly blurred. Russian current affairs programs show actors posing as refugees from Eastern Ukraine, crying for the cameras about invented threats from imagined fascist gangs.
One Russian news broadcast showed an interview with a woman who related how Ukrainian nationalists had crucified a baby in Sloviansk, Eastern Ukraine. When the deputy Minister for Communications Igor Volin was confronted with the fact this was a fabrication he showed no embarrassment and simply shrugged: ‘all that matters are ratings.’ And the ratings are high: the Kremlin tells its stories well, having mastered the perfect mix of authoritarianism and entertainment culture. The point of this new propaganda is not to persuade someone of a rational truth but to keep the viewer hooked and distracted.
Many Russians are perfectly aware the TV lies. Raised in a late-Soviet culture where no one believed in Communism but went along with the farce, they are deeply cynical. ‘Everything is PR’ my Moscow peers would tell me. But I would also notice how useful this cynicism was to the state: when people stopped trusting any institutions they could easily be spun into a conspiratorial vision of the world, one which was actively encouraged by the Kremlin’s TV channels which saw the hidden hand of the CIA, or masons, behind all world events.
Conspiracy theories are all over Russian TV. When the Kremlin spat out dozens of outlandish stories after the downing of Malaysian Flight H717 over Donbass, featuring everything from blaming Ukrainian fighter jets to a NATO attempt to attack President Putin’s private jet, viewers are not meant to be so much convinced of any one version but be left confused, paranoid and passive, living in a virtual reality controlled by the Kremlin which can no longer be mediated or debated by any appeal to ‘truth’.
Now the Kremlin is expanding its reality-reinventing model of propaganda out of Russia and to the whole world, through the hundreds of millions it spends on international broadcasters like the rolling news channel RT and internet ‘trolls’. Unlike Soviet times Russian foreign propaganda does not try to sell a vision of Russia, it’s aim is merely to ‘disorganize’ and ‘disrupt’ the West, feeding the anti-US, anti-EU, anti-semitic or anti-immigrant moods already present in society, while simultaneously ensuring that its bombing campaign in Syria keeps a flow of very real migrants flooding into Europe.
Like its domestic equivalents it also focuses on conspiracy theories - from 9/11 truthers through to the hidden Zionist hand behind Syria. This falls on fertile ground. As national governments show themselves unable to deal with globalized crises voters of far-right and far-left parties become disillusioned with the ‘truth’ presented in mainstream media and turn to conspiracy to explain events. And right nationalist parties, who are also often allied ideologically and financially with the Kremlin, are rising: Jobbik, for example, is now Hungary’s second party. The Front National won 20% of the French vote while being openly funded by the Kremlin.
Just as the Kremlin’s international propaganda grows, Europe and the US are having their own crisis of belief in the idea of ‘truth’. In the US especially it been a long time coming. Back in 1962, Daniel Boorstin, Librarian of Congress, wrote in The Image about how advertising and television meant ‘the question: ‘is it real?’ is less important than ‘Is it newsworthy? We are threatened by a new and peculiarly American menace...the menace of unreality’. By the 2000s this idea had moved from the realm of commerce to the realm of high politics, captured in the now legendary quote from an ‘unnamed Presidential aide’ (thought to be Karl Rove) to the New York Times: ‘We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors...and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.’
Playing with the worst
Simultaneous to the pressure on reality from capitalism and Capitol Hill comes an anti-establishment drive. In the US the rise of Donald Trump represents a sort of post-truth politics which appeals to the disenfranchised who detest ‘the establishment’ and ‘main stream media’: Trump brazenly makes up claims about Muslims in New Jersey celebrating 9/11, but when ‘fact-checkers’ catch him out it has absolutely no effect. His comments appeal to emotions rather than argument, while his voters live in media echo chambers where they want their own biases reinforced.
It’s this ‘post-truth’ trend the Kremlin wants to take advantage of. Without a consensus on reality debate, dialogue, cohesion and trust become impossible, democracy and multi-lateral alliances break down. Unlike the Cold War the Kremlin does not represent a different ideology. Rather it is playing with the worst of what we also see in the west: corruption, hate speech and disinformation. Not some mysterious ‘other’ but the avant garde of a malevolent globalization.