Toxic TV: How Russians Learned to Hate the News

Fifteen years ago Putin initiated the shutdown and subsequent takeover of NTV, a popular independent TV channel in Russia at the time, spelling the beginning of Kremlin’s tightening control over the country’s television stations. Fast-forward to the present day and Russia’s state-controlled media is being characterized as arguably “the most advanced system of propaganda in the world”. It may have taken a while for the outside world to catch on to the subversive and sophisticated techniques of the Russian media, but now the term Russian propaganda has become a popular buzzword among politicians, diplomats and even the military. While NATO is scrambling to develop a policy towards what it has qualified as “information warfare”, Russia analysts are raising the alarm about the Kremlin’s ability to undermine the very notion of truth. Indeed, much has been written not only on the appeal of Russia’s messaging to certain Western audiences, but the way in which it has managed to influence public opinion within Russia, employing a mix of Fox News-worthy sensationalism with vehement anti-Western rhetoric.

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Television has remained the medium of choice for disseminating the Kremlin’s ever-changing narrative. Described by some as an example of a new breed of powerful “postmodern” propaganda, Russia’s news programming has been held responsible for brainwashing a large portion of the Russian population. Putin’s sky-rocketing approval ratings and record levels of anti-Western sentiments among the Russian public appear to support the view that the Kremlin has developed a remarkably effective propaganda machine. In reality, however, the effects of Russian propaganda are more subtle and duplicitous. The results of years of state-sponsored propaganda are in fact most apparent among those who are arguably the least affected by it: Russians who refuse to watch the nightly news.

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For an entire generation of young Russians, the news has become synonymous with propaganda. Having caught just the tail end of Russia’s short-lived period with a relatively free press, many Russians under 30 have come to associate state television with poor taste, disinformation, hysteria and lies. News on TV has come a long way since the old days of Soviet news broadcasting with its clear ideological stance and attempts to occupy the moral high ground. Monotonous reports on the struggles of the working class in Angola of the Soviet era have in Putin’s Russia been replaced by an endless barrage of purposefully contradictory information, buttressed by photoshopped footage and contributions from dubious experts. The packaging may have become more sophisticated and catchy, but it would be dangerously misleading to assert that an overwhelming majority of Russians actually buy into the outlandish reports being peddled on the news. While some undoubtedly believe the Kremlin newscasts, it isn’t for nothing that Russian television has come to be referred to colloquially as zomboyashchik (zombie box) by a large number of Russians. This isn’t just a fringe phenomenon – many young, educated Russians with Internet access have turned away from their television screens in disgust. In fact, refusing to consume Russian propaganda has become somewhat of a badge of honor for many Russians, a silent middle finger to the current regime. Boycotting government-sponsored news media is often seen as a way of shielding oneself from the brainwashing effects of Russia’s increasingly aggressive propaganda machine.

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Paradoxically, however, those who choose to switch off their TVs are unconsciously playing into the hands of the Kremlin. In the process of transforming Russian television stations into bastions of disinformation, the very notion of news media has become inextricably associated with propaganda. This has resulted in a palpable aversion to news media, journalism and current events as a whole. Instead of looking for credible alternative sources of information online, many have simply stopped following the news completely. The Kremlin’s stranglehold on television stations has pushed many into a state of apathy and indifference to international and domestic affairs. Keeping up with current events isn’t particularly in vogue in Russia nowadays, especially among Moscow and St.Petersburg’s young, hip – and therefore arguably more global – urbanites.

State television has been remarkably successful at defining the behaviors of even those who refuse to tune in to their broadcasts.  Indeed, the Internet has not emerged as a meaningful alternative, struggling to fill the void left by the absence of independent news media on TV. The wealth of information available online may allow many Russians to keep track of their niche interests – such as HBO shows, fashion trends or travel destinations – but has not directed people to actively seek out alternative news sources. While a handful of independent Russian-language online news publications remain, the Kremlin has damaged the appeal of the news as a genre. Unlike in some other parts of the former Communist Europe, language also remains a significant barrier to consuming foreign language sources in Russia. The Kremlin-controlled media has not only managed to discredit journalism as a vocation, but has also diminished the demand for news consumption more broadly.

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In order to fully understand the effects of Russian propaganda domestically, it is therefore important to look at the margins, to focus on those who claim to be beyond its reach. While it has already been rightfully pointed out that Russian propaganda is fostering a kind of cynical relativism among both foreigners and Russians alike, the disinterest of many young Russians in current affairs is another troublesome bi-product. Young members of the so-called Russian intelligentsia are particularly prone to displaying a distaste for something as mundane and menial as the news. The Kremlin is equally happy seeing youngsters more preoccupied with art, music and literature as it is with them buying into bogus conspiracy theories. Disengaging from the news may come across as a kind of resistance to state propaganda, but often it turns into a form of self-imposed oblivion. The sophistication of the Kremlin’s broadcast media does not lie in its ability to sway entire populations, but rather in its effectiveness in defining the discourse of those who oppose it. Putin’s astronomical approval ratings may well be ephemeral, but deep-seated apathy and disengagement are here to stay.

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