Populism, Post-Truth and the Challenges for Journalists: Forging Dialogue Across Divisions

Reframing Russia is a research project that aspires to reach a better understanding of the dynamics of the intensifying ‘information war’ between Russia and much of the “western” world. As part of this ambition, on November 7th, 2019, we organised a dialogue across what are often conceived of as deep set political and media divisions at the Frontline Club in London. The roundtable debate brought together a high-profile RT presenter, a senior RT executive, a columnist for The Independent, journalists from the BBC and from Sweden’s main public broadcaster, SVT, an ABC reporter, a retired senior British diplomat and an academic from the Alan Turing Data Science Institute specialising in researching populist politics and the detection of  extremist discourse online.

‘Populism, Post-Truth and the Challenges for Journalists’ were chosen as topics that could provide common ground. While Russian disinformation, interference and ‘cyberwarfare’ techniques are often invoked in this context, our aim was to forge dialogue across divisions in what has become a very hostile and conflicted space. The discussion was held under the Chatham House Rule.

The dialogue was conducted in a calm atmosphere of mutual respect. There were inevitably several sharp exchanges. Some of these adopted familiar, ‘information war’ tones but there was convergence on a surprising number of issues.

A central point of contention revolved around the assertion by one participant—contested by others—that the loss of public trust in journalism and the very failure of current business models for press journalism might ultimately lead to the ‘death of democracy’. The claim, convincingly illustrated, was that traditional journalistic mechanisms for providing audiences with information of the quality and depth necessary for them to develop informed opinion are being fast eroded. As another speaker argued, the impact of emerging phenomena like ‘deep fakes’ is likely to accelerate this process. Others, however, observed that social media platforms facilitate more meaningful audience engagement and help rebuild trust in journalism; meanwhile access to multiple new open information sources aid news gathering and create space for crowd-sourced and citizen journalism, enhancing the quality and breadth of public knowledge. Moreover, it was suggested, popular concerns over limited political and media literacy resulting in widespread failure to detect misinformation and media bias may well be overstated and reflect condescension towards younger audiences.

The debate took a new direction following an intervention highlighting the alleged degeneration of the traditional media sphere into ‘a self-perpetuating echo chamber that has lost touch with its audience’. This bold inversion of the conventional wisdom that ‘echo chambers’ are the by-product of new, online media led the same speaker to claim that the digital revolution into which RT was born has equipped members of the public with an unprecedented choice to ‘mix and match’ the outlets they follow, and to consume hitherto unavailable stories and alternative narratives which are sometimes unjustifiably vilified.

Inevitably, attitudes to fact-based journalism loomed large in the debate. One participant lamented that in the current political climate, ‘we need to present facts and not speculations; but when we present facts, the audience does not care’.  Others cautioned against over-fetishizing facts and the fact that very different versions of the truth circulate. Nonetheless, pressure on journalists and media organisations to deliver news in entertaining ways to capture audiences, both in terms of substance and format, were recognised as intense – often militating against the straight presentations of facts. An important point of convergence was that the vital contextual knowledge needed to make sense of the complexity of international affairs, not least those involving Russia, was often missing. Russophobic and anti-Western narratives, which are equally toxic, circulate with too little question in both Russia and elsewhere.

The latter point was among several which elicited broad consensus, including the following:

  • The tendency to single out Russia as acting in a unique or exceptional way renders representations of Russia in Western public discourse unbalanced, merely fuelling its claims of double-standards and hypocrisy (e.g. not subjecting the likes of Saudi Arabia or China to the same scrutiny in relation to human rights). This was noted by a respected western journalist who did not specialise in Russian affairs.
  • Focusing on ‘Russian meddling’ unduly narrows and distorts analysis of the reasons for the wider decline of trust in mainstream media and elected politicians. Commercial pressures, decreased funding for quality journalism and UK press partisanship offer better explanations for such phenomena. Participants with very different political views including those highly critical of Russia and RT concurred on this point.
  • UK-Russia relations should be viewed in a longer perspective. Negative images of Russia are historically entrenched in the UK where they are more prevalent than in other European countries. British policymakers, journalists and analysts should broaden their view, avoiding ingrained stereotypes which hamper the analysis of specific situations and the development of appropriate policy responses.
  • The idea that ‘fake news’ and ‘post-truth’ are an entirely recent phenomenon is unhelpful. Misinformation, skewed interpretations and the dissemination of complete fabrications have a long history from which lessons can be drawn in order to identify which aspects of these phenomena are genuinely new (those attributable to the reconfiguration of the public sphere by social media, for example).
  • Most facts are open to all manner of contestation, selection, manipulation and reframing. Journalism in Russia as in the UK is a mix of fact-gathering and fact-curation and debate should focus on the appropriate relationship between these principles.
  • In this context, notions of ‘due impartiality’ should not be confused with ‘objectivity’; the BBC definition of this axiom is admirably nuanced, but it leaves too much latitude for individual journalists’ judgement. But we need to be cautious, lest we undermine the criteria by which we consider journalistic practices in contexts where the hand of state control is more apparent.

Nonetheless, relativistic claims of complete equivalence between media outlets which operate in very different political environments are misplaced. Examples of BBC management standing by its journalists when under severe attack by UK governments are not universally replicable. Dialogue of the sort represented by the discussion at the Frontline Club does not require participants to compromise on points of fundamental principle, to be forced into general accord in the interests of diplomacy, or to lose face; on many points a respectful ‘agreement to disagree’ remained the order of the day.

Indeed, perhaps the key take-away from the event was that, precisely because UK-Russia state relations are stuck at such a stubborn impasse, policy makers and those in the position to influence their thinking on both sides should encourage further initiatives involving actors at the sub-state and non-state levels. Such trust-building exercises could serve as a means of kick-starting the much-needed process of resetting diplomatic relations, if not from the bottom up, then at least from outside conventional channels. There is a valuable role here for discussions under Chatham House rules in which influential figures from opposing positions can come together in open debate, working towards establishing a common agenda, or a common language in which to disagree.

A particularly important place in these forums should be reserved for journalists and newsmakers since they play such a critical role in influencing popular attitudes on both sides, and because mutual accusations of malign interference in the two respective public spheres are driving the diplomatic crisis. That crisis is liable to intensify with Brexit, which may reinforce Russia’s perceptions of British weakness and isolation, whether those perceptions are justified or not. Now, therefore, is the time to act.


See the event photo gallery here.

Healthy Democracy Has no Reason to Fear RT | Opinion

This is the first in a new series of guest blog posts on topics connected to our project. We are deliberately seeking a wide range of views and opinions, and we are encouraging authors to be as open and outspoken as they feel is necessary. Needless to say, the project team neither endorses nor rejects these views, but would welcome any debate they might provoke.


This commentary argues that if Western democracies really had faith in their own values, they would welcome, rather than demonise, Russia’s RT. With RT pursuing its self-proclaimed mission to “question more”, it is difficult to see why confident, healthy democracies should shut the door in its face. Isn’t asking pertinent questions – including about official versions of events – ultimately an indispensable function of the media in a free democratic society? What exactly are we afraid of?

I believe the hostile Western reaction to RT is an example of “something [being] rotten in the state of Denmark”. It suggests that we fear RT because it addresses issues that we would rather avoid.

Below I discuss the salient areas where RT is questioning more and thereby performing the vital function of responsible journalism, while our own media are patently failing us.

The economy

The West’s recent economic growth has been founded largely on money printing, all-round debt creation and the spread of negative interest rates. Mainstream media generally avoid serious analysis of this financial incontinence and its likely terrifying consequences. No-one is asking how all of this is going to end.

RT spells out the nature of the problem and its dire consequences. It makes us aware of the issues that our own media are ignoring.

Globalisation

A democracy’s rational response to the post-Marxist revival of Russia and China would be to welcome them as partners in mutually beneficial economic and security cooperation. After all, have they not just recently overthrown totalitarianism? But the West rejects such a win-win scenario because it regards these mature civilisations as “autocratic revisionists”.

Via its “propaganda arm”, Russia calls for pragmatic cooperation on the basis of genuine equality and mutual respect. Why would we want to obstruct the broadcasting of such a message?

Uncomfortable facts and alternative narratives

Recent years have seen tragic events such as the downing of the MH17 and the alleged poisoning of the Skripals. Western media and establishments have immediately blamed Russia, or even President Putin personally. Depicting the president of a superpower such as Russia as a terrorist is a very serious matter.

Adhering to the standards of professional journalism, RT points to inconsistencies in the official accounts of these events. Apart from helping to establish the truth, this stance shows full respect for the victims of these tragedies.

Then there is the West’s apparent common cause with Ukraine’s extreme nationalists or Syria’s “good terrorists”, all in the name of the struggle against the “autocratic” Putin and Assad. Are we sure that democracies should be enlisting a movement founded by an infamous mass persecutor of Jews and Poles?

And let’s not forget either the simplistic narratives about Russia’s “annexation” of Crimea and “Russian aggression” in general. Alternative narratives of this complex story – including that in 1953 Crimea was illegally transferred to Ukraine by a totalitarian Kremlin – are dismissed out of hand.

In tackling these – and many other – issues, RT steers clear of the simplistic narratives.

RT stands on the side of reason

And what about the West’s excessive political correctness and, more recently, the new-fangled ‘Woke’ ideology? Or the elevation of a troubled teenage environmental activist to the stature of a modern-day prophet?

The absurdities of PC undermine the principles of open society, the foundation stone of democracy, as famously formulated by Karl Popper. And we should recall that no lesser thinker than George Orwell warned against the consequences of language manipulation.

Is the Woke revolution not faux liberalism? Does its mindless radicalism not discredit potentially worthy causes? Legitimate concerns of minorities cannot be satisfactorily addressed by the violation of science and reason. A healthy liberal society can have no truck with obscurantism and the persecution of dissenters.

Once again, RT systematically debunks such damaging excesses. It offers viewers an oasis of sanity amid all the PC madness in the West.

 Military balance: The Sword of Damocles?

Alarmingly, numerous influential individuals believe that the US is invulnerable. That it can fight and win a nuclear war. Obviously, this particular fantasy is extremely dangerous because the conviction of invulnerability can drive the delusional towards triggering the war.

Responding to this mortal threat to us all, Russia has engaged in the rapid and successful modernisation of its defences. Having surged a generation ahead, it possesses revolutionary precision weapons against which the Pentagon has no effective defence.

President Putin is not someone given to empty posturing. An accomplished strategist, he has repeatedly demonstrated that he means what he says. And he has warned that aggression against his country will be met with immediate devastating attack on the West. That there will never be another invasion of Russia’s territory.

More concerning, Putin has signalled that Russia’s posture is pro-active: should the Kremlin conclude that war is inevitable, it would be the first to strike, prioritising NATO’s command centres and missile silos. An entirely rational – not to mention “humane” – calculation: Decapitate the would-be aggressor before he can engage in a planet-annihilating escalation.

But consider this: Russia is prepared to be the first to strike, but no-one knows exactly how far the increasingly reckless West can/will “safely” push it. Where exactly is the point at which the Bear concludes it must start to bite? It will not tell us because the element of surprise is essential to its strategy.

With NATO apparently determined to “experiment” by pushing us all to the brink, we are, indeed, beyond MAD. Besides, accidents and/or mutual misreading of intentions can spark a rapidly escalating conflict at any time.

These alarming facts are either ignored by the Western media or incorrectly presented as evidence of Russia’s “aggression”.

For its part, RT performs the vital service of driving home these shocking truths about the deadly threat to us all.

The West must, indeed, become Woke

Organisations such as RT are dedicated to spreading these vital, multifaceted messages. Far from demonising and excluding them, Western establishments should wake up and listen.

“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” – President Reagan, 12 June 1982, Berlin.

GW

Uses of history in Putin’s Russia: Commemorating the revolution, legitimising the current regime | Precious Chatterje-Doody and Vera Tolz

The Leave.eu campaign has now apologised for its advert evoking victory in World War Two as a justification for Brexit. But as the UK moves towards a December General Election, this is unlikely to be the last we see of historical references being used to further particular political aims. Often – as in this case – history is used to justify a dramatic break from what has gone before. But in a growing number of neo-authoritarian regimes worldwide, we see the opposite process: political actors are attempting to manufacture historical controversy in order to bolster their own positions.

Our latest research, published here, shows that this is exactly what happened recently in Russia, when the centenary of the 1917 revolutions coincided with the start of a Presidential election campaign. Those revolutions helped destroy the Tsarist Empire, establish the first Communist state, and create the defining geopolitical dividing lines of the twentieth Century.

But the revolutions’ legacies remain contested: Russia’s still-popular Communist Party and the military are nostalgic about Soviet times, whilst the Russian Orthodox Church and Russian émigré communities have negative views of the Communist project.

In today’s integrated global media environment, the interactions between different cultural actors shape how particular historical events are commemorated. Even neo-authoritarian regimes cannot control this process, so they have to come up with some way to deal with it. Scholars predicted that the Putin regime would hedge its bets, by promoting ‘reconciliation and accord’ between the pro- and anti-Communist lobbies.

What emerged, though, was a manufactured conflict of historical interpretations. As we show through our latest research, this was not designed to make sense of history for the public. It was to bolster the ruling regime.

From ‘reconciliation and accord’ to electioneering at home

Both politicians and state-aligned media were the ‘official’ voices of the commemoration in Russia. This is because Russian state-aligned broadcasters often broadcast the messages considered too controversial for politicians to say directly. In this case, Putin’s December 2016 Decree named the domestic broadcasters, Channel 1 and Rossiya-1 – and Russia’s international broadcaster, RT – on the Organisation Committee for the Revolutions’ Commemoration.

In the early part of 2017, politicians and media discussed the revolutions within ‘reconciliation and accord’ frame, and were deliberately ambiguous. Putin bluntly blamed Lenin’s incompetent state-building for the USSR’s ultimate collapse, but his Culture Minister, Medinsky, balanced his own criticisms with praise for the Bolsheviks’ state-building efforts.

Channel 1 interpreted the revolution variously as a global phenomenon that ‘determined world developments in the twentieth century,’ or a tragedy, ‘which resulted in numerous victims and threw our country back by many decades‘. Rossiya-1 aired harsh condemnation of the revolution from the well-known dissident writer, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and the Head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, alongside a presenter’s rather contradictory conclusion that Lenin was concerned with ‘building, rather than destroying’ and ‘made people believe in the reality of a just world’.

By the October-November anniversary, though, this ambiguity was gone. Russia’s state-aligned broadcasters turned completely negative, and for the first time ever in state-endorsed accounts, the revolution and its enduring legacies were thoroughly tarnished.

Hollywood-style serials, ostensibly based on factual information, graphically portrayed Bolshevik treason, cruelty and moral depravity. In Channel 1’s Trotsky, Lenin was a murderer no better than Stalin, responsible (with Trotsky) for the first wave of post-revolutionary terror. One central character dismissed the revolution’s legacy as a future built by ‘bandits and criminals’ (ep. 8). Rossiya-1’s Demon of the Revolution gave a similarly negative portrayal of Lenin and his entourage as treasonous, German-funded mercenaries.

Historical documentaries, The Great Russian Revolution (Rossiya-1) and The True History of the Russian Revolution (Channel 1) foregrounded similar themes, patched together out of factual and fictional accounts. They portrayed the masses as unconscious revolutionaries, manipulated into subverting Tsar Nicholas II’s benign rule by cynical traitors – both Bolsheviks and liberal oppositionists. The chaos of Bolshevik take-over was explicitly linked with the traumatic state collapse of 1991, and Putin’s saving of Russia from another collapse in 1999.

Traditionally in Russia, discussions of the pain and disorder of the revolutionary process have been offset with an acknowledgement of Soviet achievements and national resilience. This has been a cornerstone of Russia’s post-Soviet identity. So why the sudden change?

It is no coincidence that the Communists and their legacies were so unambiguously trashed right as a Presidential election campaign was kicking off. This saw Putin facing off against a dynamic new contender from his closest rival party – the Communists. Although the election result was a foregone conclusion, the size of Putin’s majority still matters. So, whilst the media vilification of the Bolsheviks was not intended to court national consensus, it made for a very dramatic pre-election statement.

Social justice and progressiveness abroad

Media coverage of the revolutions’ centenary for international audiences was similarly instrumentalized, but the overall narrative was totally different. Russia’s international broadcaster, RT, built up a romantic picture of the revolutions and their globally-progressive legacies. Its interviews, discussion shows and documentaries alike all drew together personal impressions to emphasise the positive social legacies of the revolution globally.

The most significant element of RT’s centenary coverage was the 1917LIVE historical re-enactment on Twitter. The most extensive re-enactment of its type to date, it involved dozens of accounts live tweeting the revolutions in the first person, a hundred years after the fact. Archival resources, historical quotes and newly-created resources were compiled in an act of online docu-fiction which actively encouraged social media users’ participation. It drew in celebrity guest-tweeters (e.g. Brasilian author Paulo Coelho as Mata Hari), and won a plethora of social media marketing and educational awards.

Followers of the project felt that it provided an entertaining educational opportunity to re-live history. The interactivity of the project gave it an ambiguous overall narrative, but #1917LIVE still ended up engaging with messages that were also central in the domestic coverage, including role of the ‘West’ in stoking the revolution.

From nation’s history to regime’s future

Historical commemoration is often used to come to terms with a society’s past, and inform its future direction. Dramatic changes in interpretation of the past usually only happens with political leadership changes: new contenders try and discredit the legacies of the incumbent, whilst spelling out a new direction for the future.

But in neo-authoritarian regimes like Russia, true leadership challenges are few and far between. Here, politically-allied actors offered strategically conflicting interpretations of the past. They not only cast aside their own previous stories about the revolution, but they also offered totally different stories for domestic and international audiences – despite their collaboration within the official commemorative regime.

These commemorations were not about making sense of the past. They helped the incumbent regime to legitimise its position in the face of rather different domestic and international challenges. So, whilst today’s global media environment poses challenges to neo-authoritarian states such as Russia, media commemoration provides one means by which they can attempt to confront these challenges.

20246360_10102118657351092_8781397811840310796_n

 

Precious Chatterje-Doody, a former Research Associate on our project, is now a Lecturer in Politics and International Studies at The Open University.

 

dscf2513-e1507123554783

 

Vera Tolz is Sir William Mather Professor of Russian Studies at The University of Manchester.

 

 

Why did Putin build a monument to victims of Soviet repression? | Vera Tolz & Precious Chatterje-Doody

Wall_of_Grief_-_opening_ceremony_(15)

On October 30th, 2017, President Vladimir Putin took the unusual step of personally unveiling a monument to victims of political repression in central Moscow.

Whilst some commentators see this as a long-overdue recognition of Soviet-era state terror, others have dismissed it as a distraction from political repressions ongoing in Russia today. But making such a politically-charged statement is clearly a potentially risky strategy.

Professor Vera Tolz and Dr Precious Chatterje-Doody discuss the motivations behind the move, and its implications, over on the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog.

Reframing Revolution: how to mark (or not to mark) 100 years since October | Mollie Arbuthnot

How should the centenary of the October Revolution be commemorated? Attitudes to the Soviet past have been contested in contemporary Russia, but the approach of October 2017 made this a pressing question. A public celebration was clearly unthinkable, but letting such a significant date pass totally unnoticed also seemed unacceptable. This post offers some observations from the ground in St. Petersburg and Moscow last week.

In St. Petersburg there was a light show on Palace Square, on the evenings of the 4th, 5th and 6th of November. This ‘Festival of Light’ (the second to be held in the city) was part of the celebrations for National Unity Day, but the main show was entitled ‘1917-2017’ and was dedicated to the events of 1917. (The fact that Unity Day was originally invented to replace Revolution Day on the 7th further muddles the idea behind this year’s festival).

The light show was projected across the facade of the General Staff building, opposite the Winter Palace. It wasn’t very long (about 15min) but quite impressive as a spectacle, and when I was there on Saturday evening there was a big crowd.

The narrative started with 1917 New Year celebrations, followed by food shortages and protests, the February Revolution (visually represented by a speeding train, pictures of the Imperial family, and letters between Nicholas II and his wife about his abdication). A printing press produced an explosion of newspapers, Lenin appeared briefly, and there was a striking depiction of the storming of the Winter Palace, with soldiers and revolutionaries charging forwards from the arc of the General Staff building, out towards us in the crowd.

Lenin projection Palace Square

Lenin briefly appears as part of the light show to mark the Centenary of the Bolshevik Revolution

There was no mention whatsoever of the Soviet Union or anything that happened after October 1917. The show ended with a globe and some abstract light effects (with the voiceover announcing that Russia ‘will emerge through all its trials new and newly-great’) and, finally, the Russian flag.

The ending felt oddly abrupt. This erasure of the Soviet Union hasn’t gone unnoticed: the comments on YouTube videos of the show suggest that some viewers felt that it left a noticeable hole in the story, and that the leap from 1917 to 2017 wasn’t handled well. On the square, however, the show produced a big cheer.

There was also a light show at the Aurora ship, which I didn’t manage to see, and I had read about a planned historical re-enactment of the storming of the Winter Palace to go with the light show, but there was no sign of this on Saturday.

Almost every museum, gallery, and library in St. Petersburg seems to have put on a special exhibition or display related to the Revolution.

As for Moscow, 1917 has been conspicuous by its absence. On Tuesday morning, the day of the centenary, there was a parade through the centre of town, officially for the 76th anniversary of the 1941 military parade for Revolution Day, held during the Battle of Moscow. I missed the parade itself but went to Red Square afterwards. There were tanks and various pieces of military hardware on the square, as well as a lot of people in period costume, for visitors to look at / take selfies with. This was also a popular event: there was quite a crowd there and the atmosphere was fairly jolly, with children playing on the tanks and people singing various songs (Katiusha did several rounds). Visitors could even participate by dressing up and posing in special booths, with banners and props, as the stars of a Soviet propaganda poster.

The whole thing seemed, to me, like a fairly obvious attempt to deflect attention from the revolution’s centenary whilst simultaneously creating a public space for people to express patriotism and nostalgia for the Soviet Union, and as far as I could tell this seems to have been quite effective. The Lenin mausoleum was closed and largely ignored.

With the exception of one woman in St. Petersburg trying (without much success) to give out copies of Pravda, I haven’t seen any protests or attempts to challenge the narrative of these public events.

 

 

Mollie Arbuthnot headshot smallMollie Arbuthnot is a PhD student in Soviet visual culture at the University of Manchester. She is currently based in St. Petersburg and Moscow, researching propaganda posters produced for Central Asia in the 1920s and 30s.