The failure of Russia’s media elite

April 12, 2022 08:34
Photo: Reuters

When the war in Ukraine began, I was shocked to learn that most Russians apparently supported President Vladimir Putin’s aggression. I experienced a similar feeling when Donald Trump won the 2016 US presidential election. My family was living in Los Angeles at the time, and everybody around me was stunned. For the next week, the constant traffic congestion disappeared, as if the entire city was in mourning.

Despite the differences between the two events, much of the Russian and US establishments reacted in a similar way. They did not want to believe that their fellow citizens could support the brutal invasion of a neighbor or the election of a populist blowhard.

Similarly, I initially did not believe Russian public-opinion polls showing that a majority of citizens supported the war in Ukraine. After all, polls in authoritarian states are unreliable. So, I started asking the opinion of acquaintances in Russia, all around 60 years old, with whom I had not been in touch for 20 years. To my surprise, 80-90% of them supported the war. These people have known me since I was born and were friends with my parents. But they preferred to listen to Russian state television than to my arguments.

This is not a coincidence, because the Kremlin’s steady stream of anti-Ukrainian propaganda did not start yesterday. For the past eight years, Russian state TV channels have been broadcasting around the clock about the supposed “Ukronazis” and the oppression of Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region, and about how NATO is at Russia’s gates and prepared to smash its way in.

The so-called intellectual classes mocked this propaganda. Who could believe this garbage? How stupid do state TV news anchors Olga Skabeeva and Dmitry Kiselyov think Russians are? Who could possibly trust Margarita Simonyan, the editor-in-chief of the English-language broadcaster RT? Putin is trying to shift attention from Russia’s domestic problems to Ukraine, we noted, but most people will soon realize what is going on.

They didn’t. Instead, we became victims of our information bubbles. We thought that all state TV viewers would see through the Kremlin’s propaganda tricks. And if any of them could not, well, what can one do?

The Russian intellectual classes’ condescending attitude toward viewers of state TV and readers of tabloid newspapers is not new. When I was on the board of directors of the popular tabloid Argumenty i Fakty in the 2000s, mentioning my place of work would elicit a similarly contemptuous reaction: It was cool to work at a newspaper like Vedomosti (then partly owned by the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal), but not at AiF. Yet, at that time, AiF had nine million readers, while Vedomosti had 300,000.

Likewise, when our team relaunched Trud with the aim of turning it into a high-quality tabloid, it proved very difficult to hire journalists. They wanted a 50-100% premium over what they could earn at “quality” newspapers.

Contempt for mass-media audiences has thus long been rooted in the minds of Russia’s intelligentsia. Even when it was possible to launch new independent outlets, ventures like Vedomosti, Kommersant, Smart Money, Insider, Republic, and TV Rain (Dozhd) focused on a narrow audience of clever people who would hear or read other clever people explain how the world worked. This fierce competition for a small market niche meant that educated and relatively wealthy readers, at least, had access to high-quality information for the past 20 years.

Unfortunately, nobody wanted to produce quality content for the mass market. While Putin would not allow such an independent media initiative now, it was possible to start one in the 2000s. The problem – one that admittedly affects other countries as well – was that the best media managers and journalists did not want to work in this segment.

Putin, by contrast, understood that state television and tabloids are key to gaining and maintaining political influence. He did not have a media monopoly, and Russia’s internet penetration rate is about 85%, so most people had access to alternative sources of information. But the only person who tried to produce a quality product for a mass audience was the opposition leader Alexei Navalny, whose videos regularly received millions of views. This is the main reason why Putin tried to kill him. When he failed, he put Navalny in jail.

When Trump took office, the United States had strong democratic institutions that had developed over more than 200 years. But when Putin came to power in 1999, post-Soviet Russia had been independent for only eight years, and its powerful presidency atop weak institutions was an invitation to despotism.

I believe that Putin will withdraw from Western Ukraine soon. He has already lost the war, and it is just a matter of time before he admits it. But while Ukraine will be quickly rebuilt with international help, Russia’s fate will be bleak. Putin will likely intensify repression at home and pose a constant international threat because of Russia’s nuclear weapons.

Removing Putin from power requires changing Russians’ perception of him. Economic sanctions alone will not achieve this, because Putin can (and does) use his propaganda machine to spin these measures as part of the West’s war against Russia.

Instead, what is needed are media outlets that speak to Putin’s supporters in their language. Establishing such outlets will be much more difficult than it was 10-20 years ago, but it is possible. Russia is still connected to the internet, so content produced outside the country will spread quickly. But a major obstacle is financing. Subscription-based models are unlikely to generate significant revenue because the target audience often lacks disposable income. And advertising revenue will be limited by Russian companies’ fear of media association. Therefore, the main source of financing must come from crowdfunding – similar to what the Russian opposition does now – and from Western donors.

The war in Ukraine and Putin’s propaganda are closely linked. Combating his propaganda will not by itself end the war or prevent him from starting new ones. But he mustn’t be permitted to raze cities, murder thousands of civilians, and upend millions of lives with Russians’ approval.

Copyright: Project Syndicate
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Professor of Finance at IE University