The Russian government’s use of mainstream media to support its strategic narratives and spread fake news may be losing some of its influence with the ascendancy of social media and a more sceptical audience, Irina Khaldarova writes.
On 12 July 2014 the most popular Russian television channel, Channel One, broadcasted a story which shocked the public. It was about a young woman introduced as a refugee from the eastern Ukrainian town of Slavyansk from where she had reportedly fled with her four children from a Ukrainian army “atrocity”. According to the woman, Ukrainian soldiers gathered locals in the city square and crucified a three-year-old boy on a bulletin board. They left him to bleed out while his mother was forced to watch and then tied her to a Ukrainian tank and dragged her around the square until she died. This shocking Channel One report has often since been cited as the most scandalous fake story ever aired and as an illustration of the Russian information war against Ukraine.
Another fake news accusation surfaced in connection to the shooting down of the Malaysian Airlines flight MH17. Mikhail Leontiev, a famous Russian TV host and a Vice President of the giant state-owned oil company Rosneft, in his analytical program Odnako (“However”), presented a “sensational image” on 14 November 2014. This was an aerial photo claiming to show a Ukrainian jet fighter firing a missile at MH17. According to Leontiev, this photo was supposed to refute the widely held view in the West that MH17 had been shot down by Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. The report openly tried to shift the blame to Ukraine and other countries, which purportedly supported Ukraine in this crime. The image, however, was swiftly denounced by international media as a forgery.
These examples show that the Russian information campaign against Ukraine was neither particularly sophisticated nor carefully designed, but it was aggressive and had no moral boundaries. It used plain language and strong symbols to reach the Russian public, and in most cases, it succeeded.
In 2014, when the Ukrainian crisis was escalating, Russian pollsters reported that around 90 per cent of Russian people surveyed mentioned television as their main source of news. Moreover, there was a correlation between media and trust: people who chose television as their primary source of information were more likely to say that they trusted it, and they believed that the events in Ukraine were covered by the government-owned channels truthfully and without bias.
We assume that fabricated news represents the distillation of the most important strategic narratives that the Russian government wants its population to follow. The diffuse media environment, in which contemporary propaganda campaigns are constructed, requires continuous engagement with and support for these state-sponsored narratives. Thus the fake stories are, supposedly, being produced for the purpose of supporting already constructed meanings. In this light, fabricated news is being used as agitation propaganda to provoke a visceral response from the general public. In Russia, where most of the population trusts and relies on television for information, the fakes accomplish their function successfully.
Although the Internet in Russia does not approach television in terms of popularity, especially among the older population, it is gathering pace on the path to becoming a stronger participant in the media landscape. The Russian government is aware of this trend and tries to reach the public through superficial social media accounts and websites (“trolls”) which amplify its strategic narratives online. It came as somewhat of a surprise, therefore, when our research revealed that Twitter users in Russia did not always share the same loyalty to television news in general and to Channel One in particular. Our recent study explored the narratives of fake news on Channel One regarding recent events in Ukraine and how they were perceived in the Twittersphere. Our content analysis of tweets showed a comparatively high level of distrust regarding Channel One’s news reporting at 50.7 per cent of all tweets. The strongest tweet emotions were sarcasm followed by disgust targeted at Russian propaganda on Channel One in general or the specific content of a news story. Sarcastic remarks were made conspicuously highlighting the bizarreness of the news:
It turns out that Putin praised Goebbels for a reason. It was not for nothing. Here is the new epic lie from Channel One. http://t.co/dG3jSuWoDy
I can’t believe Channel 1 broadcasts insane, hysterical rumors like this. Actually, I can. But awful, even for them http://t.co/ASPQ4NH92y
Russian soldiers: Why do Ukrainian soldiers get two slaves and we not? That’s not fair! https://t.co/AnVdyuIBIL
Twitter users were rather sceptical about the accuracy of Russia’s mainstream media narratives. Many tweets suggested that Twitter users were aware of the strategic narratives, and while they adopted the terms offered by television for describing events and actors, they demonstrated that they distrusted the television propaganda. Some users also showed that they could debunk the information by pointing out the inconsistencies in images.
Despite the television dominance in Russia as a news source, an increasingly savvy social media cohort seems set, therefore, to increasingly disrupt the Russian government’s long-held dominance over the stories, fake or otherwise, it seeks to tell the people.