Whilst television continues to be the major news source for citizens in both Russia and the West, the internet age provides both new tools and new pitfalls for those trying to influence our interpretation of events. The first part of this three-part article by Paul Hansbury looks at the terminology used in the propaganda battle. The second instalment says that the ongoing propaganda battle about Ukraine is being won by a Russian narrative that has effectively shifted attention from the domestic to the international stage. Furthermore, whilst Russia may be winning the battle, the third instalment suggests this may well lead to it losing the war.
Effective propaganda constructs a narrative which cannot effectively be countered. It feeds the information age’s lust for instant knowledge, and its omissions will be skilfully concealed from its consumers. In its least sophisticated form the images on its television screens will directly contradict the ‘lies’ being spoken by the other side, showing the viewer those ‘lies’ for what they are. The politician talks of calm whilst the viewer sees fire and brimstone.
There are two competing narratives on Ukraine, which for the simplicity’s sake will be described here as the Russian and the Western narratives. This is not to claim that the information space is neatly divided on either side, although the Russian state has a far tighter control over its discursive space than Western governments do over theirs and that has important implications for the outcome. (We might identify a third, distinctly Ukrainian, narrative, although that is less widely discussed.) This article pertains primarily to the Russian narrative; in doing so it does not constitute an endorsement of Western “propaganda” which must be approached with equal suspicion.
In most societies, with largely unrestricted access to the web, one can choose between these propagandas and this is a both a challenge and a boon to the propagandists. It is a challenge in so far as the competing narrative is readily available, and a boon because ”evidence” can readily be found to bolster arguments, albeit that the search terms tapped into Google or YouTube embody pre-formed understandings of the situation.
We, the consumers of this propaganda choose and too often become uncritical of the one we adopt, simply using it as a tool against the other narrative. Yet each piece of evidence and each argument must be considered carefully if we are to better understand what is happening. Last week a series of flyers bearing the stamp of the Donetsk People’s Republic were distributed, demanding that members of the Jewish community register with the authorities. Social media were awash with accusations, but very little is known about who was behind the leaflets. The hoax (if that’s what it was) was rightly condemned, but only after it had firmed-up many people’s preconceptions.
The war of words over Crimea’s “annexation” draws attention to the significance terminology has in shaping perceptions of events. Russia insists that it was a “reunification.” The primary reason for Russia’s unease with “annexation” is fairly easy to grasp: annexation encourages analogies with the build-up to World War II, and analogies prejudice the way we interpret the unfolding situation. (The reader may care to look in a dictionary to decide whether annexation is indeed an appropriate word.)
As attention shifted from Kyiv to Crimea, and now to the south and east of Ukraine, one can be excused for asking what exactly the protestors currently occupying buildings are demanding. In the Russian state media (e.g. RIA Novosti, Russia Today) they are generally described as “pro-federalists” or self-defence forces.” In the mainstream UK press they are exclusively referred to as either “pro-Russians” or “separatists.” ( Some non-state-controlled Russian media also refer to separatists.)
Presumably no one individual can be both a separatist and a pro-federalist, and so an unbiased description would seem to be “anti-Kyiv” – though no one to my knowledge is using that identifier. Actually, it is unlikely that they have shared wishes, but they – whoever “they” are – are told that the new authorities in Kyiv are fascists (the Russian narrative) and this is their unifying grievance.
“Pro-federalist” conveys a notion of benign intent. Moreover, the Russian press has picked up on the fact that the Ukrainian leaders have used the malign label “terrorist” – although ironically it is Russian law that equates separatists and terrorists. More significantly, through the term “pro-federalist,” the Russian narrative pegs its international concerns (discussed in Part 2 of this article) back to the domestic. Meanwhile the Western narrative only plays into the wider Russian narrative’s hands by internationalising the issue, whereas a debate about the pros and cons of a federal Ukraine may be the best way to hold the country together.