The How-To Guide to Modern Propaganda

Or, how the Russians get kudos for bombing Syria while the Americans get trashed.

So many arguments across the Internet these bicker over the same thing: everyone’s sources are wrong. To post an article from a British source automatically makes it suspect of a pro-British bias; anything from America is Western propaganda; Saudi news agencies get their checks cut by the king while Al Jazeera is beholden to the al-Thani family and their interests.

Propaganda as a means of warfare is as old as war itself but only in the twentieth century did it become a pillar of any self-respecting state’s defense strategy. World War I saw posters; World War II saw films; the Cold War manipulated newspapers and media.

Now, in the Information Age, when facts are so readily verifiable, propaganda machines have gone into a node mode and the most successful propaganda regime of all is Russia. The Russian template has more effectively covered up Putin’s weaknesses than any other modern propaganda machine. It’s done so well that Facebook comments are riddled with adoration for Putin’s war in Syria, claiming Russia’s relatively small-scale air war will do something the much larger American-led coalition can’t.

What’s happened here? What kind of lessons can we draw from the Russian media machine? Here now is the How-To Guide to Modern Propaganda.

First off, Russia’s propaganda machine is a very specific reaction to a series of very new problems

The Information Age complicates the job of running a nation state in ways that should make anyone think twice about trying to take a job as a politician. Mistakes are transmitted lightspeed; Tweets blast soundbites without editing; anyone with a phone and a basic sense of literacy can become a web journalist.

It is no longer possible for a state to pretend its winning a war when soldiers from the other side live tweet their victories. Dictators can’t close down newspapers and expect to end bad media coverage when everyone can take the conversation online. Even shutting down the whole Internet is hard for most states; having let the beast in, turning it off only spurs further revolt, as Egypt found in 2011 and modern Turkey finds whenever President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan wants to silence his many critics. (North Korea has wisely kept the Internet mostly out of North Korean society).

A key problem of the Soviet Union was that information wasn’t being transmitted accurately within the state, causing resources to be lost, wasted or stolen, degrading the economy and slowly sinking the whole country. This was because the Soviet state had long practiced a brute form of propaganda honed during World War II, trumpeting glorious victories that weren’t happening, exaggerating economic reports and providing cover for just about anyone who felt like stealing from the Soviet system.

This alternate reality eventually became too expensive but infusing the Soviet Union with too much reality, too soon, undermined confidence in the state and eventually led to its collapse. When the Russian state began to reorganize in the late 1990s, newly-elected President Vladimir Putin understood that Russia still had severe weaknesses he couldn’t freely admit to but needed time to address. But using the old Soviet model was out of the question: to try to rebuild the Soviet state in the open would have inspired a political backlash he wouldn’t have survived.

So when the going gets too tough, the tough get clever. Putin set about establishing a propaganda machine that vastly improved upon the Soviet one.

And he seized upon a problem we all find when having a debate on the Internet: the reliability of sources

Openly claiming to have built the world’s biggest and best hotel in the Information Age is the height of folly; anybody with Google Earth can verify if such a hotel even exists. But to claim you’re the only thing keeping your country from collapsing? That’s basically Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.

Putin’s propaganda machine stopped following the Soviet model of emphasizing economic surpluses and tank production and started to emphasize softer values that couldn’t be so readily measured: a speech analysis filled not with triumphant, over-the-top hero worship but the glossy veneer of Western journalism, for example. The outcomes are the same: the leader is great. But while the Soviet Union was content to simply put “The Leader Is Great” on posters and in print, Putin’s Russia goes on to provide the semblance of modern analysis to a Russian citizenry that has grown increasingly sophisticated since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Putin set about building a Russian alternative universe that took advantage of the media fragmentation in the West. While the Information Age in the West fractured the once-unified media landscape, Putin’s media machine exploited breaches between Western journalists, pushing half-truths and misinformation underlined with plausibility.

Case in point is the whole fiasco surrounding Malaysian Airlines 17, shot down over Ukraine in summer 2014. Putin’s lines of defense on that disaster remain numerous. Thus far, he’s offered several plausible alternative: that the Ukrainian army did it by accident; that Ukrainian agent provocateurs, hoping to stir a Western intervention, shot down the plane; that the Russian-backed rebels don’t even have such a missile because Russia no longer uses it.

To verify each point is very difficult in a time and place when nearly everyone can dismiss a source as biased. Putin’s propaganda machine plays to these difficulties. By setting up rival media outlets, Putin fills the Internet and the world media with his slant of not-so-readily verified information. Without access to Russian military stocks, it’s very hard to totally convince people that Russia very much still utilizes that missile used to down MH17; one can always say the Western military experts are confused, inept or outright lying.

It’s the Fox News model taken global and honed to an art form

The Putin model plays to the growth of conspiracy theory thinking to muddle the media environment of its enemies. This is done both within Russia and without. Unable to invent spies and saboteurs as the Soviets did, Putin instead points to an international system that stacks the deck against Russia; this is far more plausible than a legion of James Bonds forcing loggers to miss their lumber quotas. Bad ruble? Western sanctions. Bomb in Moscow? Jihadism. Opposition leader murdered? Ultranationalists.

All the explanations are plausible and have a very specific common thread: they don’t deny bad things are happening, they merely shift the blame. While the Soviet state could and did claim everyone in Ukraine was fat and happy as millions starved, Putin understands that a single cell phone video could well undo his claim to power. So his alternative universe is not one in which Russia is a happy superpower always triumphing over everything but a besieged and victimized state that merely needs the right leader to rediscover its greatness.

This works because it’s an unprovable claim. It’s emotional and plays to the victimization Russians feel after having gone through the chaos of the 1990s; it also allows Russians to avoid blaming themselves for their problems. This isn’t a Russian trait; it’s a human one. When we can blame someone else, we do.

So the modern propaganda machine reports the bad news but finds clever ways to shift the blame

North Korea’s propaganda is so laughable because it’s so verifiably bad. Russia’s, and to a certain extent China’s, aren’t so readily dismissed. Both systems have adapted to an era where their outlandish claims can be proven false with a quick Google search. But the more adept of the two is the Russian model which no longer tries to cover up bad news. It’s emphasis on muddled analysis, on using reasonable doubt against everyone but itself, works.

It takes advantage of media rivalries within the West to cherrypick the news that suits Russia while ignoring everything else. Unlike the West, Russia’s media landscape is filled with red lines, though they aren’t as stark as the Soviet era. Moscow can and does shut down media groups but cleverly never for insulting the president. Since Putin has presided over a kleptocracy, virtually everyone is guilty of something: to upset the president means he simply notices the crimes you by default have committed. Wrote an anti-Putin editorial? Suddenly the government realizes you’ve had several years of obscure back taxes. Protested against the government? You forget to sign the right protest permit paperwork.

On the surface, this is just a government enforcing the rule of law but in reality it’s an autocracy targeting victims in the confused legal environment it created.

This leaves a media that understands old red lines still lie in the sand, faded though they are: to break a Soviet rule has consequences in the Putin era as well but never so stark and never so open.

How long can this system keep up? There are more than a few factors that drag it down

Like the Soviet propaganda machine, Putin’s media strategy hides inefficiency, though not as blatantly. Connected but corrupt people siphon resources from the state and such a bill will invariably come calling as it did in the Soviet era.

Moreover, as the Information Age advances, even this sophisticated strategy of focusing on analysis as propaganda has a time limit. Critical thinking skills are growing within Russia’s citizenry, especially with its younger generation. Much as their parents and grandparents grew too advanced for the World War II-era Soviet media strategy, so too will the kids grow too clever for Putin’s.

Moreover, thus far, it hasn’t work on the Western policy. The sanctions are in place; American troops are deploying throughout Eastern Europe. A new American president is coming next year. Unless Putin can find a way to manipulate Western voices the way he has Russian ones, a stronger Western response is in the offing.

This story first appeared at Geopolitics Made Super, October 26, 2015.