Many people explain Vladimir Putin’s high approval ratings by pointing to the effectiveness of state propaganda delivered by television; but this is “both true and not true,” Igor Yakovenko says, because “in this story, there are two actors: the mass media and their consumer.”
“Russians need the Russian media not as a source of information,” he writes on Kasparov.ru; instead, they use it “not as a source of information but as a means of confirming that each of them is still in a familiar world … and that it isn’t at risk of a complete collapse in the form of a change toward the unknown” (kasparov.ru/material.php?id=558CDB6435CD9).
In that, although the Moscow commentator doesn’t say so, the Russians are less different from American television views than the latter assume given that increasingly Americans turn to the news to be entertained or at least titillated, something that because of the quest for high ratings, all too many US outlets are prepared to supply with large amounts of “soft” news.
“When a Russian comes home at night and turns on the federal TV channel or looks at ‘Izvestiya,’ he is doing that not in order to receive information,” Yakovenko says. “The absolute majority of those who watch the Solovyevs and Kiselyovs have access to the Internet and could easily convince themselves” that state television is lying.
That they don’t shouldn’t surprise anyone, the Kasparov.ru commentator suggests. After all, Russians “drink vodka not to satisfy their thirst; they swallow drugs not as food; and they turn on NTV or Russia-1 not in the search for information but for reassurance.” Indeed, the state media serve as a kind of “bedtime story” for Russian adults.
“Everything is fine, little one; you are at home,” the state media tell Russians, Yakovenko says.” “The evil fascists and the crisis is all somewhere else, in traitorous Ukraine and in the evil west: just look how bad it is there! But with us in Russia, everything is in order thanks to the Leader.” In such a situation, Russians don’t need to worry.
This calming and reassuring message imposes specific requirements on the Russian media when they talk about something about which “in conditions of an information society, it is impossible to conceal.” This week featured an example of exactly that kind of thing: the demonstrations in Armenia.
The Russian state media could hardly suggest that these events were not taking place nor could they openly acknowledge that the source of the problem lay in the greed of Russian-owned energy producers and the willingness of the Armenian authorities to go along with Moscow to the point of using force against their own people.
Instead, the entire Armenian story had to be recast in a way that assured Russians that there was nothing to worry about and that Vladimir Putin has everything under control, Yakovenko says. To do that, he continues, the Moscow media promoted the notion that what is happening in Armenia is just as these media earlier suggested in Ukraine is entirely the work of evil Western forces working against “Holy Russia.”
Such a portrayal, of course, is hardly credible, but it is reassuring – and that, Yakovenko argues, is what the Russian state media are responsible for providing ordinary Russians and why the latter continue to rate Putin so highly. The problem in short lies not just in the media but in the fact that the media are giving the people exactly what they want.
By Paul Goble, Window on Eurasia