Counter-propaganda does not work

2017-12-20

The United States and Russia are countries where conspiracy theories have, for a long time, been integral parts of popular culture and political ideology. The main difference is that in the US one finds very few high-ranking politicians who openly support conspiracy theories. Our interview with Dr. Ylja Yablokov about his upcoming book, entitled Fortress Russia – Conspiracy Theories in Post-Soviet Russia.

How effective are conspiracy theories as a political instrument in the context of the campaign, before the upcoming presidential elections in Russia?

The annexation of Crimea and the bombardment of people on a daily basis with conspiracy theories have done their job. The Kremlin no longer needs to wage an aggressive campaign at this point to mobilize the population even more. I would therefore say that conspiracy theories are present, but are not as prominent as they were during previous campaigns in 2007 or 2012.

According to a poll by The Economist and YouGov, whether or not an individual subscribes to conspiracies is determined largely by their political identity. How does political identity affect Russian society’s attitudes towards conspiracy theories?

I think for many Russians the issue of political identity is secondary. Russia does not have clear political divisions based on political ideologies. What many Russians may subscribe to would be notions of a conspiracy by the west, or anti-elitist populist conspiracy theories which would also often refer to the west. This notion is present across various segments of Russian society, and could affect people with liberal views or conservative views in just the same way.  

Your forthcoming book (entitled Fortress Russia – Conspiracy Theories in Post-Soviet Russia) will be the first-ever study of Russian conspiracy theories in the post-Soviet period. Generally speaking, which of these conspiracy theories would you consider the most effective politically?

Generally speaking, the idea that Russia opposes the west is the main frame through which many Russian conspiracy theorists explain why their theories are valid and have to be taken seriously. The geopolitical and military standoff over the last two centuries between Russia and various European countries – not to mention the United States – serves as the basis for seeing the west as an enemy. Talking about specific theories: the key one here is certainly the notion that the Soviet Union collapsed as a result of a malevolent plan by the west to destroy the great superpower. It refers to the fact that the country disappeared from the world map within months, and the rapid nature of the collapse left too many questions unanswered.

Pro-Russian propaganda sites always depict the Kremlin as a victim of western aggression, and so they interpret most Russian actions as defensive measures. How successful has the Kremlin been in weaponizing conspiracy theories abroad via the television channel RT and Sputnik?

When RT was initially launched, conspiracy theories were a very interesting way to attract audiences. Note that one of the first articles published by RT America was a list of questions about the September 11 terrorist attacks. This article was later removed from the website; and the same happened with several materials and programs produced by RT staff. We can say that RT provided a great forum for various conspiracy theorists to promote their ideas, thus undermining the reputation and legitimacy of the United States and European elites. So we can argue that conspiracy theories have been an important element of RT’s news agenda. Today, RT is less keen on conspiracy theories, because it is working hard to be recognized as a serious news channel, and spreading conspiracy theories would be damaging for its reputation. At the same time, it is quite difficult to assess the effectiveness of RT and other tools of Russia’s soft power. There is still a heated debate among scholars about this.   

Do you believe that these conspiracy theories featured in programs broadcast by RT will be successful at legitimizing Russian domestic and foreign policy, or at delegitimizing policies of the U.S. government, in the long run? What sort of economic/political hiccup could succeed in reversing this trend?

I think for a certain audience these theories would suffice, but I am not sure how these theories could affect large groups of European and American societies. The potential that these theories, and the channels used by Russia, have is still not very clear, and I would assume that this will not change for many months still. As long as there is social conflict between the rich and the poor, there will always be a forum for populism and for conspiracy theories. That is why I cannot predict any unexpected hiccup.   

How would you evaluate counter-disinformation initiatives such as East Stratcom Task Force, NATO centers of excellence, Stopfake etc.? What needs to be done on the level of civil society, nation states and the EU/NATO in order to effectively debunk these conspiracy theories?

I am afraid that counter-propaganda is not very effective. Conspiracy theories emerge from the discrepancies in societies; despair and inequality are the major reasons for the popularity of conspiracy theories. I am afraid the best way to counter conspiracy theories is to raise the level of education and to encourage critical thinking. It is a very long process. On the other hand, I believe active countermeasures and propaganda aimed against Russia would likely backfire, and this has to be avoided.

The Kremlin is building on the low level of trust in political institutions and the mainstream media: 40% of Slovaks, 45% of Hungarians, 49% of Czechs and 68% of Poles do not trust the mainstream media. How could trust be restored in order to make our societies more resistant to conspiracy theories?

By giving more space to different voices and by ending partisan games with politicians who are respected. When the media landscape becomes polarized between the right and the left, very few people try to be objective and are willing to follow a code of ethics. But if such an objective media does emerge, and if more people recognize that it can be trusted, then this might be the way to restore confidence. 

With the election of Donald Trump we have entered an era of post-truth, where the proliferation of “alternative facts” and conspiracy theories will make democratic political dialogue more difficult in the west. How would you compare the popularity and the structure of conspiracy theories in the media in the United States and in Russia?

The United States and Russia are countries where conspiracy theories have, for a long time, been integral parts of popular culture and political ideology. It is therefore hard to overlook these ideas in the public domain. The difference, however, is that conspiracy theories in Russia are considered legitimate by many politicians and media professionals. They are supported by the political elite and, given the loyalty of many media outlets to the authorities, they spread actively in the media aligned with the state. The United States, in that sense, is different. You find very few high-ranking politicians who openly support conspiracy theories. Indeed, Donald Trump was keen on conspiracy theories before he became president. But now, I think, he too talks less about them. But I may be wrong; I do not follow US domestic politics that closely. Hillary Clinton was also a notable supporter of certain anti-Trump conspiracy theories, and so the media did cover these stories.  Despite its failures in covering Trump’s dealings with Russia, the majority of the US media is trying to avoid spreading conspiracy theories because of professional ethics. And that is what sets Russian and US media apart.

Conspiratorial thinking also enjoys widespread popularity in Europe; according to a poll conducted in 2014, more than 50% of French respondents and a large number of people in Hungary and Slovakia said that it is “not the government” that is in charge. How do you see the role of western journalism and social media in this respect?

I think it is frequently said that many live in their own bubbles, and that these bubbles are created not only by their own networks of contacts, but are also reinforced by social media. It is therefore very important to step outside these bubbles. And the job of the media – not only the western media – is to try to present as many opinions as possible. Unfortunately, as we can see in the United States right now, the quality of coverage of Russia is at times appalling and highly unprofessional. The ‘bastions’ of professional journalism, such as the Washington Post or the New York Times, which used to be standard bearers, spreading and teaching many Eastern European and post-Soviet journalists the basics of professional journalism, have undermined their own credibility by publishing articles about Russia and Trump that are lacking serious evidence. This environment, unfortunately, makes even more people – in Russia and in Central Europe – think that western journalists are biased, and that they should not be trusted. And as a result, trust in politicians is dropping, and the belief that someone else rules the world is spreading.   

In Hungary, the government’s propaganda, for instance, has placed great emphasis on conspiracy theories, suggesting that George Soros, in cooperation with Brussels, is working to destroy the nation and its statehood, to undermine its sovereignty and to import millions of illegal migrants to Europe. This message originated from Russian propaganda. How did this conspiracy theory become so successful?

I am not aware of the origins of this concept, and I would be very interested in learning more about that particular theory. I can only say that conspiracy theories are very good at mobilizing people at critical moments. Obviously, the influx of migrants was a great challenge for the EU, and the Hungarian authorities used this opportunity to reinforce their own anti-EU position. The role of George Soros here is simply symbolic, in my view. It is used to lend a real face to these abundant and otherwise faceless evil forces. If it were not Soros, it would be someone else. 

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