Ilya Klishin is a Russian journalist and media consultant and the former editor-in-chief of TV Rain, Russia's only independent TV station. He has contributed to Russia's most prominent independent press outlets, including Vedomosti, Snob, OpenSpace and others, and to the English-language Moscow Times, and had a central role in anti-electoral fraud campaigns after Russia's December 2011 parliamentary elections.
In a guest post for IranWire's ongoing series about disinformation during the coronavirus pandemic, Ilya Klishin gives his take on how efforts to reverse the slurry of disinformation in Russia are too little, too late.
How hard can it be to stop a fake news machine during the coronavirus crisis?
In spring 2020, for the first time in many years, it appears that the Kremlin-controlled propaganda machine is consciously and intentionally refusing to support the global cacophony of fake news. The RT television channel has, for some reason, not invited Covid-dissidents from both sides for comment. Madcap ideas such as the fight to combat Bill Gates’s plan to implant microchips in the citizenry or the installation of 5G masts (of which, incidentally, Russia still has none) have not flooded the Internet with reports by paid commentators, also known as trolls.
In the time of coronavirus, suddenly we see communications coming from the Russian Government differing little from those of the majority of the world’s governments. The viral infection is dangerous, we need to observe social distancing, and we must wash our hands regularly: the media megaphone of Putin’s Russia is now broadcasting words that are dull and correct.
How is this possible? Where is the rock-and-roll, the anarchy? Where is the chaos and confusion preached about for so long? It’s nowhere to be seen. It turns out that when the West, Russia and basically everyone faces the same problem, it is no longer possible to continue intentionally pouring oil on the flames, as this would so obviously lead to human deaths on a massive scale. This is why the dominant policy of the last 5 to 7 years, one of media degradation and even dehumanisation, provoking the rotten side of human nature and eroding the boundaries of what is considered normal, has had to be curtailed, at least temporarily.
What are we talking about here? In short, a madness was being transmitted intentionally into the information sphere. Astrologists and palm-readers, shamans, psychics and false prophets, all jabbering convincingly about anything and everything, from global conspiracies to paranormal activity. This was in addition to rhetorical manipulations of the basest and most vile human emotions: sex, violence and collective phobias.
This had all been done over many years and, it is important to say, not only by a tabloid press acting in pursuit of their own ends or at the behest of the Russian authorities, but also by the until recently respectable mainstream media.
It is essential to realise that every specific report disseminated of, say, a masonic conspiracy or Martians, did not necessarily aim to convince readers, listeners or viewers that masons or Martians existed with absolute probability. Quite the contrary: the aim was to sow the seed of doubt and shift the perceived probability from zero to at least one per cent. And that was more than enough.
This world of informational Bacchanalia was losing its solid foundation and coming loose. The people no longer knew what to believe. Everything they had once seen as indisputable could now be argued, ridiculed and placed in the context of obvious hogwash, and, thus, devalued. It was better for the person in the street to believe nothing and trust no one. After all, we will never know for sure what the real picture is. This last phrase is critical. The propagandists were striving to achieve precisely this outcome, not beliefs in poltergeists or conspiracies. This is because, when a civilian is resigned to such a realisation, they pose no danger whatsoever to the government.
We can find a classic example of this exercise in the cloud of garbage information surrounding the news of the Boeing shot down over Ukraine in 2014, which, by all accounts, was struck by a Russian missile fired either by pro-Russian separatists or disguised Russian military personnel.
While the world recoiled in horror to this news, dozens of versions flooded the Russian media space, each crazier than the last: right up to statements that the incident was a staged act of provocation and in fact, the aircraft had taken off full of corpses. In the end, what had actually happened remained unclear - which was the whole point of the exercise.
For years, I stress again, this monstrous propaganda system had brought out the worst in human nature and had speculated for a fall until the coronavirus episode. At this point, the brakes suddenly needed to be applied. It turned out that things don’t work that way, and the system began to malfunction.
In early May, the film director Nikita Mikhalkov, well-known for his hyper-loyalty to the authorities, complained about censorship in Russian television. Of course, there is censorship, but Mikhalkov was not talking about that. He had been stopped from telling viewers that Bill Gates was planning to implant chips worldwide under the guiseof a coronavirus vaccine, in order to thin out the population (a team of Reuters fact-checkers dedicated a large "exposure" piece to this in March). What he intended to stop actually ended up being shown just once on air, not five times.
What is important here, though, is not that Nikita Mikhalkov recorded his indignant video address (more a matter of his relations with the Russia-24 television channel), but rather the public response it generated. If we set aside social media in Moscow and Saint Petersburg, where the response inevitably involved ridicule, we see a real and frightening picture of widespread support for this "martyr for the truth".
Mikhalkov’s six-minute address garnered more than two million views and 110,000 likes, more than thirteen times the dislikes, without even starting on the 23,000 sympathetic comments that followed.
Serious alarm bells are ringing. For many years, the Russian authorities have engaged various individuals to make a cacophony in the information space, based on their cynical logic. If we wish, it could have been taken apart through common sense. But in the end, they created a monster. Not everyone they enlisted was similarly cynical; some proved to be total lunatics. Now, this monster has started to bite.
And it is not alone. You cannot put a stop to this speculation for a fall with a simple click of the fingers. Millions have come to doubt the limits of what is normal in their perception, and have devised new approaches to perceiving information. If the official stance of the Russian government suddenly runs contrary to these approaches to perception, millions of new conspiracy theorists will more likely stop believing the government than all the conspiracy theories.
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