There are few terms that smack more of propaganda than “information war” (with “propaganda” itself being one of them). Like most modern violent conflicts, information wars are not formally declared. Instead, they are called into existence through a variety of performative incantations: not a declaration of information war, but a declaration that the “other side” is already engaging in an information war and that it is incumbent on our side to fight back. Thus the entire Putinist media apparatus constantly tells its audience that the West, in “slandering” Russia, is conducting an information war. Meanwhile, in Germany, Great Britain, and the United States, neo-Cold War hawks demand the revival of mid-twentieth century soft power strategies (and, more important, soft power budgets) in order to combat the trumped-up threat of the Russian Federation’s hilariously entertaining foreign television service, RT (formerly Russia Today).
The advocates of information war are happily ensconced in their own informational feedback loop: RT’s director, Margarita Simonyan, shamelessly inflates the stats showing her network’s effective reach, and Euro-American hawks are only too willing to believe her. The growing allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 American presidential election have only added fuel to the fire, despite the obvious fact that RT itself, with it relatively small reach and constant pandering to the lunatic fringe, could not have played a significant role in the outcome. Simonyan herself flatly denies accusations of interference and propaganda, but, like the Internet trolls who retweet her network’s stories, she clearly enjoys the attention, The sky is falling, and everyone under it couldn’t be happier.
The one thing that would-be information warriors do get right, however inadvertently, is their proposition that the news media, rather than being transparent conduits for some kind of Platonic unadulterated truth, are engaging in the creation of fantasy. This is a proposition that is at once obvious and treacherous. Science fiction writer Nancy Kress has a trilogy of novels (Probability Moon, Probability Sun, Probability Space) positing an alien race that functions entirely according to “shared reality”—anyone or anything that contradicts it is declared “unreal” and possibly eradicated. By contrast, the global media (both old and new) have cobbled together a “shared unreality”, or perhaps multiple “unshared realities.”
There is a continuum here, starting from the simple fact that the news is reported by individuals and groups whose perspectives and biases can shape a story despite the best journalistic intentions, and ending with a model in which the entire news media take their marching orders from Svengalis in the central government. Certainly, there is ample testimony to the fact that Russian central television does, in fact, respond to very specific Kremlin directives (a phenomenon that is often displaced onto the American media landscape, such as casual assertions on Russia Today that a particular negative televised report about Russia appeared at the behest of Barack Obama, never mind that the report aired on Fox News). But even this is not the entire story.
Rather, let us assume that neutrality is, at best, a goal the news media can strive towards rather than an actually achievable state. Further, I’m quite content to assume that the Russian news media are operating with an obvious mandate to tell their stories with a particular slant. This is, in fact, so obvious that it almost amounts to transparency. The “information war” paradigm is problematic because it is implicitly based on a naive, outdated model of media consumption that has not been taken seriously in the world of media studies for decades: this propaganda model, sometimes called the “hypodermic” model, assumes that an immensely powerful propaganda apparatus essentially reprograms the minds of hapless viewers and readers. This is the model of the “consumer as orifice”: passive, open, and vulnerable to all kinds of insertions. (The sexualized and gendered character of this phrasing is intentional).
Contemporary media scholars prefer to focus on media consumption as a process of negotiation, recoding, and even appropriation: there is never a guarantee that the message transmitted is the same as the message received.
Such misprision was obviously an important strategy for media consumers in Soviet times, when there was no pretense of either a lack of censorship or the free market of ideas. Savvy Soviets habitually read between the lines, intuiting or simply creating meanings in the gaps and contradictions of official pronouncements. This, in turn, suggests an obvious problem with the hypodermic model in the case of contemporary Russia: how are we to understand the transformation of a media consuming culture from the habitual distrust in the Soviet era (when Soviet viewers were arguably much smarter media mavens than their Western counterparts), to the more open mediascape of the 1990s, to an era in which the entire population has been suddenly hypnotized into believing everything said to them on TV?
But what does a more skeptical approach to propaganda look like? How can we understand the Russian public’s apparent support for the government’s program, particularly in Ukraine, without simply writing them off as brainwashed? And what happened to the Soviet skepticism of yore?
First, we should keep in mind the fundamental differences between Soviet and post-Soviet propaganda. One of the main flaws of Soviet propaganda was its vulnerability to immediate, empirical verification. That is, Soviet television painted a picture of Soviet reality that could be debunked simply by walking out on the street and into a store. Russian state television, rather than asking that viewers not believe their own eyes, assembles a model of reality that is already congruent with popular views, and whose distortions center largely on the outside world rather than on life in Russia. In comparison to Soviet news, Russian television looks almost like the result of focus groups and market research; if it trades in resentment, self-aggrandizement, and paranoia, it is responding to two decades of frustration with what is often mistakenly labeled “liberalism” and a pent-up desire to see, as Donald Trump might put it, the country “start winning again.” And, as with Trump, this desire is inextricably bound up with hostility towards the entities whose alleged hostility and bad faith have been keeping the country down.
In other words, the Russian state media are, in the broadest strokes, giving their customers what they want. This does not meant that there have not been campaigns to drum up anger over issues that were probably not at the forefront of viewers’ minds before the campaigns began, but rather that the campaigns themselves are much more consistent with a broad spectrum of popular, illiberal, nationalist, and xenophobic views that were less welcome on Yeltsin-era television. in this regard, Russian state television behaves more like American niche cable television than like CBS or ABC. FOX news can drum up resentment over the so-called “War on Christmas” on an annual basis because they knows their audience; moving the campaign to Rachel Maddow and the liberal-leaning MSNBC would be pointless.