How does Russian TV propaganda really work? New research shows that Russian state media’s influence is by no means total. Most people are capable of watching television news critically – provided they’re given the opportunity to do so.

File Photo of Kremlin Tower, St. Basil's, Red Square at Night

(opendemocracy.net – Maxim Alyukov – May 8, 2017)

Maxim Alyukov is a member of PS Lab and a student at the Department of Political Science and Sociology at the European University at St Petersburg. He works on media and political communication, civil society, social movements and conflict in the post-Soviet space.

Today, many researchers agree that the influence exerted by television on Russia’s citizens is an important source of power for Putin’s regime. But this idea is more of a political statement than an established fact. For media researchers, how a viewer perceives what is broadcast to them is a “black box” – in order to understand exactly how this process works, qualitative empirical analysis is required.

Preliminary results of research I’ve conducted at the Department of Political Science and Sociology at the European University at St Petersburg suggest that the way people consume television news is far from a simple process, and that, when they have the opportunity to do so, viewers are capable of engaging in complex critical analysis.

My study’s primary focus is on Russian television viewers’ perception and analysis of news broadcasts regarding the situation in Ukraine. Eight focus groups were held in St Petersburg (November 2016) and Moscow (March 2017). These focus groups revolved around coverage of three main events broadcast by Russia’s Channel One: the Kiev protests of 2013; the 2014 referendums in Donetsk and Lugansk; and the armed clashes that took place in eastern Ukraine over the course of that same year.

The data gleaned from these groups allow us to outline some of the general mechanisms of how Russian television viewers interpret news broadcasts. And so, how do Russian viewers interpret information they receive via television?

Bounded rationality

Research in communication and cognitive psychology points to the existence of two primary modes of information processing. The first, called “systematic”, requires time, effort, considerable resources, and – predicated as it is on the collection, comparison and analysis of various data – resembles the work of a scientist. The second, “heuristic” mode involves information processing shortcuts that allow you to make an immediate leap from data to conclusion, without expending mental energies or engaging in time-consuming data comparison and analysis.

In the heuristic mode, analytical procedures are substituted for conceptual cues and schematised representations that serve to simplify analysis and are predicated on phenomena not directly related to the essence of the matter. Thus, for instance, you might base a judgment about the president’s future policy direction on his appearance and personal qualities, while largely ignoring his political programme.

This is what happened with Ronald Reagan. As shown by John Zaller in The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion, Reagan’s personal charm outweighed the purely political dimension of his actions in voters’ eyes. Another classic example is voter reliance on the party affiliation heuristic: in The Reasoning Voter, Samuel Popkin demonstrates that, instead of analysing information about a given candidate, American voters frequently use party affiliation to stereotype that candidate as an average representative of the Democrats or Republicans.

Most viewers watch and interpret the news in a heuristic fashion – TV-watching tends to take place in parallel with a host of other activities, such as cooking, chatting, working, playing with the kids. And more often than not, TV functions as a background presence. Involved in other activities, viewers rarely analyse daily news broadcasts in detail, habitually relying on semi-automatic information-processing mechanisms.

Heuristic thinking: why do viewers trust the news?

According to many researchers and journalists, television coverage of the conflict in Ukraine significantly boosted the legitimacy of the Russian regime in the eyes of its citizens. Skillful manipulation of facts and emotions induced viewers into accepting the government’s official stance on the conflict and led to the mobilisation not only among the regime’s supporters, but also undecided and even critically-minded individuals.

But when TV viewers watch news reports about Ukraine, what exactly do they ground their trust on? In general, when it comes to news analysis, most conceptual shortcuts are used to determine the reliability of information. With the help of these shortcuts, viewers determine which aspects of the broadcast are and aren’t true without resorting to complex analytical procedures or wasting time on analysis.

Negative emotions, and fear in particular, are the very foundation stone of Russian media’s Ukraine coverage

One key shortcut is violence. In respondents’ eyes, images of violence render the broadcast trustworthy because, as far as they’re concerned, violence cannot be staged. In the words of one respondent, “there’s no doubting this horrific imagery of war”. And so, when they see footage featuring violence – and Russia’s airwaves have been saturated with it over the last three years – viewers immediately conclude that the broadcast possesses a degree of authenticity.

Another shortcut is recognition or identification. “Ordinary people” featured in news broadcasts have an air of sincerity because, as another respondent explained, “you’re on the same level with people the same as you.” This shortcut is predicated on a complex dynamic typical of post-Soviet societies, which many researchers regard as depoliticised. To put it differently, members of these societies have no desire to participate in the political process and see politics as a dirty and pointless business. “Ordinary people” seem sincere in the eyes of focus group participants not so much because they’re similar to themselves, but because they’re the antithesis of corrupt politicians. Being “on the same level” with a guy off the TV not only means that they’re “similar to you”, but also that they’re “not some politician”.

The third important shortcut utilised by TV viewers to determine the trustworthiness of a news story is – strange though this may seem – the authority of the state. “You try to believe what the TV says,” one respondent remarked. “After all, we’re talking about state-owned channels where high positions are occupied by responsible individuals.” Despite the fact that trust in parties, trade unions, churches and other state institutions is extremely low in Russia, the state remains a very important entity on an everyday level. Viewers don’t trust political parties, but they still do their utmost to get their children into a state university.

In large part, this attitude on the part of focus group respondents stems from their experience of life in the 1990s. Back then, private institutions could come into being only to fizzle almost immediately out of existence, and stability – or at least a modicum thereof – was the preserve of state institutions alone. State authority now functions as a marker of trustworthiness when it comes to the everyday activity of news-watching.

Finally, a particular role in news analysis is played by emotions. Negative emotions, and fear in particular, are the very foundation stone of Russian media’s Ukraine coverage. Viewers find their own sense of security threatened: they’re frightened less by developments in the Donbas per se than by the prospect that war might touch their own lives. “I was scared that it [war] might break out here, that it’d come our way if they didn’t contain [the spread of the conflict to Russian territory]” – this is a constant refrain in respondents’ discussions of the news.

This shortcut allows the question of trustworthiness to be sidestepped: the fear that the war might affect your country, your town implies that you already trust the news without checking its credibility. It’s worth mentioning certain societal and gender differences here: groups particularly susceptible to fear of this kind included women with children and people whose lives have already been touched by armed conflict (wartime residents of Chechnya, for example).

Real politics: what is good for the state is good for me

When watching the news, TV viewers not only evaluate a story’s trustworthiness but also make moral assessments of current developments, pronouncing them acceptable or otherwise. Perceptions of news coverage are also shaped in accordance with another shortcut that allows the viewer to undertake a political and normative assessment of events: this is realpolitik.

In political theory and practice, the term realpolitik denotes an approach to policy whose proponents give precedence to pragmatism over ideology and morality. Russian television viewers, for their part, see the concepts of objectivity and the interests of the state in opposition, believing, for example, that certain information should be withheld if its disclosure were to present a danger to the state or tarnish the country’s international image.

In respondents’ eyes, images of violence render the broadcast trustworthy because, as far as they’re concerned, violence cannot be staged

This shortcut plays a particularly significant role in structuring perceptions of news stories that feature references to foreign intervention. “What are foreigners doing there?!” respondents cry indignantly; if a story features foreign politicians (or even ordinary citizens) and makes reference to western funding or any other western influence on the situation in Ukraine, the viewer’s interpretation of that story immediately comes to be influenced by the realpolitik shortcut.

This, in turn, thwarts any discussion of trustworthiness because the shortcut presupposes that objectivity is an unattainable ideal at best, and, at worst, a harmful illusion. It is the interests of the state(s) involved, and those interests alone, that truly matter. News reports, like information circulating in the media as a whole, are merely the expression of the interests of your own state, or those of another. Information distortion is an acceptable manoeuvre simply because it cannot be otherwise: objectivity, according to this theory, doesn’t exist.

In all likelihood, the realpolitik shortcut wasn’t particularly prevalent prior to the outbreak of the conflict – it has acquired particular relevance and become widespread as a result of the traumatic experience undergone by Russian TV viewers over the past three years. The war in Ukraine seems so illogical and contrary to common sense that viewers have come to believe that the groups behind the conflict wield tremendous power.

This, in turn, calls into question the possibility of independent journalism – if these groups could force thousands of people to kill each other in a meaningless war, then what chances does independent journalism have? Believing in its ideals, we merely succumb to an illusion that allows us to be manipulated.

Systematic thinking: how do viewers stop trusting the news?

Interpretation shortcuts help us to simplify the complex and remote domain of politics and translate it into the language of the familiar and intelligible domain of everyday life. They help us to understand what’s true and what isn’t, what’s acceptable and what’s inadmissible, without expending time or mental resources. There’s huge scope for manipulation here: exploiting the existence of these shortcuts, TV channels offer viewers a world-picture they believe in – or at least consider acceptable.

But what happens when viewers engage in systematic analysis rather than the usual semi-passive heuristic analysis when watching television? Imagine, for example, that you’ve got into the habit of critically assessing news broadcasts before getting together with other people to discuss their minutiae in detail. Focus groups help to simulate this scenario. Research on the modes of engaging with and analysing information is most often based on quantitative methods, but qualitative methods (the focus group being a case in point) also allow researchers to document the transition from one processing mode to another.

That such a transition has indeed occurred is evident not only from viewers’s subjective feelings – many respondents explain that, since they don’t normally tend to scrutinise the fine details of news reports, the analytical discussions held in the context of the focus group constitute something extremely unusual for them – but also from the fact that what they previously considered to be criteria of trustworthiness become objects of criticism as a result of their joint discussions.

Deploying a systematic information-processing strategy is relatively simple. First, you have to avoid clichés enforced on the popular consciousness by state propaganda. For example, when asked the question “How do you feel about the Russian government?”, viewers immediately react with a series of state-approved clichés circulating in the public sphere. To cite one example: annexing Crimea is said to be a “necessary and fair step” that justifies the economic difficulties we’re living through now.

When they scrutinise anew the “horrific imagery of war” whose veracity had previously seemed beyond any doubt, viewers begin to see evidence of editing

Secondly, you need to discuss people’s own experiences. Generally, in order to provoke an entire series of critical narratives, I only had to ask how much more (in)frequently respondents have been watching the news in recent years. Some start talking about emotional burnout and employ striking corporeal metaphors while doing so (“my body cannot take it anymore”; “my eyes started bleeding”). People who remember life in the USSR, meanwhile, start making ironic references to Soviet censorship (“Oh, we’ve got it so good here. Just like in in the Soviet Union. They’ve got it bad, but over here things are great.”)

Viewers’ own experiences are in many ways linked to the anger and frustration they feel both with regard to the news, which traumatises them and doesn’t offer them certain meaningful information, and with regard to everyday life – salaries, public amenities and overall level of life comfort.

Thirdly, I draw respondents’ attention to dubious news items (“intercepted” conversations between Ukrainian pilots, military deliberations conducted on Facebook, and so forth). Common sense tells viewers that military frequencies aren’t exactly straightforward to intercept and that military personnel don’t discuss upcoming operations on social media. When combined with a general critically-minded attitude to life and politics in Russia, this gives rise to the following effects.

When they scrutinise anew the “horrific imagery of war” whose veracity had previously seemed beyond any doubt, viewers begin to see evidence of editing. Yes, the violence itself cannot be staged, but the news item featuring that violence certainly can. And viewers start to see that the item has been concocted by the imagination of a director – that it’s artificial, and that it’s teeming with “directorial gambits” and cutting techniques designed to trigger certain emotional effects in the viewer.

How do we take the practices of attentive news-watching and post-viewing discussions beyond the focus group and turn them into an integral part of everyday life?

Induced by these effects to trust the people populating their screens, viewers now come to regard them as being part of a strategy of manipulation. “What’s the purpose of this relentless negativity?” exclaims one respondent, her voice rich with emotion. “You turn on the TV and start feeling bad – what’s the point of that? There’s deliberate propaganda going on.” When they approach news broadcasts analytically, viewers effortlessly recognise such moments for the targeted propaganda that they are. The feelings of identification lose their power, too. The selfsame “ordinary people” who’d previously commanded respondents’ trust metamorphose into “dubious characters”, while the behaviour of bombing victims starts to seem unnatural, their conduct now regarded as “very cold”.

Above and beyond the specific issues that can call a news item’s trustworthiness into question, viewers often remark on the clichéd nature of the news in general. The broadcasts they’ve been watching for the past three years are highly consistent in terms of content and structure alike. And so the following refrain predominates in group discussions: “It was as if I’d watched the same report for the tenth time”.

This repetitiveness forces respondents to take the news with a pinch of salt because it presents very different events as if they were governed by the same logic. Protests, military confrontations, referenda – everything is integrated into the same all-encompassing framework and therefore perceived as manipulation. “It’s all a dog and pony show as far as I’m concerned,” says one respondent. “I don’t take any of it in. […] In my eyes, it’s all just clichés. News stories are constantly being cooked up according to an absolutely unchanging recipe.”

In this situation, a logical question arises: how do we take the practices of attentive news-watching and post-viewing discussions beyond the focus group and turn them into an integral part of everyday life?

How do we transform systematic thinking into an everyday practice?

Some researchers have tackled this problem by creating manuals and guides that provide explanations of propaganda techniques. Numerous such publications have seen the light of day in the wake of the Ukrainian conflict. (See, for instance, this explainer on mediakritica.by, or Alexei Kovalev’s guide on Republic). Manuals can provide the reader with a theoretical grounding in the subject; critical analysis, however, isn’t the same as second-hand knowledge – it’s a practice that involves a particular mode of engagement.

And yet, directly broaching the issues of propaganda and politics in conversation with people isn’t a strategy that tends to yield much success either. Firstly, Russian society remains depoliticised, and discussing politics with strangers is seen as an unusual occurrence at best, and a downright objectionable one at worst. So people often either simply hold their tongues or else parrot safe, state-approved commonplaces like this one: “We’re prepared to stomach the west’s sanctions because the annexation of Crimea represents a restoration of historical justice.”

Secondly, the issue of critical thinking immediately triggers a defence mechanism: no one’s likely to admit that they take the news at its word. Differentiating between this defence mechanism and genuine systematic thinking is relatively straightforward. In the case of the former, viewers only talk about comparing different sources of information in the abstract, and are unable to adduce any examples; in the latter, conversely, they either discuss concrete examples from their own lives or refer to the news stories they’ve seen over the course of the focus group.

Finally, people may well be loath to initiate such discussions because the question of Ukraine has already caused them to fall out with friends and relatives. Conflict between loved ones is a well-known consequence of the social polarisation generated by the Ukrainian crisis; people prefer to “stick to their own opinion” and avoid getting embroiled in debates.

But focus group discussions testify to the fact that it is possible to discuss politics productively and analytically. What are the prerequisites for such discussions?

First of all, you have to avoid state-propagated commonplaces and guide the discussion into the sphere of everyday life. Second, you need a safe space where you can speak out without any fear of payback by the state – or, indeed, of other people’s aggression. These spaces can exist beyond the artificial environment of the focus group: it’s possible to create them in everyday situations, too. We can all address the personal experiences of our interlocutors without resorting to ideologically loaded clichés. Instead of employing loaded terms like “propaganda” or “manipulation”, you need to use a very different sort of language to speak about whatever your interlocutor might be feeling and about how it impacts their daily existence. Little by little, they themselves will start dealing in more abstract categories such as “objectivity” or “justice”.

Once the focus group is over, many of my respondents get back in touch to ask whether they might be able to participate in the study for a second time. Which goes to show that discussing politics and social problems can, in actual fact, be enjoyable. The main thing is to create conditions conducive to such discussions.

Three years’ worth of news about Ukraine

TV viewers rarely engage in such systematic analysis. In the current situation, complex criticism is replaced with disappointment, frustration, and fatigue. How have viewers’ psyches been affected by three years’ worth of reports awash with violent imagery and negative emotions?

Initially, the events in Ukraine kindled viewers’ interest in politics and generated strong politicising effects. Viewers began to watch the news more frequently and some began scouring the internet for further information. But such engagement couldn’t last very long, and was soon replaced by what the media scholar Susan Moeller calls “compassion fatigue”. This effect (a response to the traumatic nature of news) poses an extreme threat to society: people feel emptied out and disconnected and ultimately lose interest in any problems beyond the confines of their private lives.

Clichéd news coverage contributes to compassion fatigue in its own way. For the past three years, the news has revolved around stark geopolitical schemas like “Russia versus the west”, and it has been dominated by stories of shelling, casualties and “provocations”. None of this is meaningfully informative: journalists have failed to explain the mechanisms of the conflict or the context behind it, and they haven’t conducted any true-to-life analyses of the factions and factors involved. Why, one might ask, would simple TV viewers require complex political analysis?

State media coverage of the conflict in Ukraine has served to validate viewers’ already existing but inchoate stances, pushing them to their extremes. At the same time, it has spawned widespread fatigue and political apathy

Yet studies have shown that “simple people” are usually smarter than elites and newsmakers suppose them to be: they understand complex explanations, and, if such explanations are lacking, the upshot is a loss of interest in politics and news. Precisely this often occurs during times of crisis, and the model of journalism that gives rise to such effects has been dubbed the “crisis model” by Doris Graber.

As a crisis unfolds, TV viewers feel the need to understand what’s going on, but the media either can’t provide them with correct and substantive information (because access to the conflict zone is limited, for example), or else don’t wish to do so for political reasons. This is exactly what’s happening now – a fact not lost on viewers. Journalists “flit from topic to topic” yet “no topic is ever properly rounded off”, engendering the feeling that television “is never going to teach you anything new”. In the absence of any meaningful analysis, viewers watch the news ever more infrequently and focus on “key points” alone. The emotionally-driven and content-free coverage of the Ukrainian conflict that has dominated Russian state media for the past three years was meant to mobilise and politicise the citizenry. The gamble succeeded, but only in the short term: its long-term consequence is political apathy.

Different viewers have been affected in different ways. Those who initially held critical (though not necessarily oppositionist or anti-regime) views became disillusioned with politics in general: in the eyes of these viewers, pro-Kremlin and opposition politicians are now all peas from the same pod. Those with pro-regime views, meanwhile, also grew weary of the content-free coverage and began to watch less news, their interest in politics diminishing. Their attitude towards the regime hasn’t changed, however, and they’re now prepared to justify the manipulation and propaganda for the sake of their own peace of mind. Some of them believe that the media should withhold information conducive to traumatic and negative emotions even if such a manoeuvre flies in the face of objectivity.

State media coverage of the conflict in Ukraine has served to validate viewers’ already existing but inchoate stances, pushing them to their extremes. At the same time, it has spawned widespread fatigue and political apathy, which, in its turn, inhibits any political discussion that could prompt these stances to shift. However, I’m yet to figure out precisely which social, political, ideological and biographical factors have influenced various strategies of interpretation.

Translation by Leo Shtutin.

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