If you turned on the main news channel in Russia and listened to the reports on Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in the past few days, you’d get a very different story from what you hear in the West. Russian viewers have been told that the Ukrainian military must have shot down the plane and are now using the tragedy to make Russia look bad.
There are so many misleading stories in the Russian media that they are hard to even track, although a project at a journalism school in Ukraine called stopfake.org is doing a good job. Some of the stranger stories include a mysterious Spanish air-traffic controller who claimed that he somehow knew Ukrainian fighter jets were flying close to Malaysia Flight 17 and the theory that the plane actually carried corpses from the Malaysia Airlines plane lost in March.
How could Russians actually believe all of these conflicting, often ludicrous stories? It would seem that the spin on state-run television is so far from reality that Russians, who have high levels of both education and cynicism, would see through the lies.
First of all, disabuse yourself of the notion that the Russian audience is naïve or gullible, merely awaiting messages from the West to become fully informed. Russians don’t really believe what they see and hear on state television, but it’s what they need to hear right now.
In other words, Russians know that the state-run First Channel is not even attempting to give them some sort of balanced account of the news. Rather, the function of central television is to create and manipulate an imagined Russian state that is effective and powerful in the world.
Russians literally laugh at the idea of objectivity or even balance in the news, as I found out when I did focus groups with television viewers there several years ago. Media outlets are mouthpieces for powerful interests, some of them state and some of them industry, but ultimately all tied to one another in the web of Russian corruption. At least state television doesn’t rub your nose in all the problems of the former Soviet Union and the struggling Russian state, they said. At least state television gives you a little hope for your country and your future.
There were Russians who preferred commercial television, particularly a network called NTV that was more cynical and questioning about the government and the war in Chechnya. But even NTV, which has been effectively muzzled over the years by forced ownership and editorial changes, could never compete with the ever-more sophisticated propaganda on the prominent state-run First Channel.
In particular, First Channel developed a very effective form of propaganda entertainment called kompromat in Russian. This is an abbreviation of ‘compromising material’ and it’s a heady mix of negative images, fast-paced (and often half-baked) accusations, as well as misleading clips of film taken out of context. It’s all then carefully crafted with an authoritative voiceover to create an impression without falling into dogmatic propaganda.
The report on the First Channel’s flagship news program Vremya (yes, same name as in Soviet times) on the shooting down of the Malaysian Airline pointed the finger at the Ukrainian army. This was done in part by reporting that the Ukrainians had mistakenly shot down a Russian passenger plane with a missile in 2001. There were video clips from 13 years ago, giving ‘credence’ to the ‘proof’ that the Ukrainian Army was to blame in 2014.
The alternative story about what brought down the airplane and killed 298 people – what we in the West would call facts – is really only a few clicks away. Although Putin has moved to limit freedom of speech online in Russia, Russians citizens still have access to virtually any news source. They just have to be much more careful about commenting on it, as even a “like” of an opposition group can be illegal nowadays in Russia. Indeed, Russians are very enthusiastic users of the Internet, with online growth exploding since 2000. The Russian government itself believes that Internet use will reach almost full saturation of the population under 40 in a few years.
So Russians could consume not only news reports from other sources, but also see the actual evidence in pictures, text, video, witness reports, etc. Indeed, much of this is in Russian, particularly the damning conversation among Russian insurgents about finding out that the plane they have just destroyed carried only civilians. There are multiple family and cultural ties with Ukraine, so it is not as if they don’t have personal information and understanding of their neighbor.
In focus groups and in conversation, Russians are quick to point out that they are not dupes of their government propaganda. They are making information choices, but they do not choose what they often call information “chaos,” a barrage of opposing sides and opinions. Also, there is little benefit in cultivating an oppositional spirit. There are no viable opposition political parties or movements in Russia right now. They have been systemically destroyed by government manipulation and propaganda so that Putin and his inner circle can hold onto control.
The most prominent opposition figure, Alexei Navalny, is under house arrest for trumped-up charges. There is always the memory of powerful rich men, such as oil magnate Mikhail Khordorkovsky, brought down with the help of state television spin. Khordorkovsky was just released last year after a decade in a Russian prison. Most of all, older Russians remember the economic chaos after the first burst of democratization in the early 1990s, havoc that left their pensions worthless and millions out of work as unprofitable Soviet enterprises were shut down.
So how far will this go? Will Russian viewers swallow the story that the Ukrainian Army shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in order to make the Russians and Putin look bad? It’s a ridiculous idea and all the evidence points to the Russian insurgents launching the missile with equipment supplied by the Russian government. But if Russians want to believe that the Ukrainians shot down the plane, then Russian state television will keep helping them to believe it.
Sarah Oates is Professor and Senior Scholar at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at UMD. She has spent 20 years studying the Russian media and is the author of Revolution Stalled: The Political Limits of the Internet in the Post-Soviet Sphere (Oxford University Press, 2013).