It all changed shortly after Putin returned to power in 2012, according to Jim Rutenberg’s New York Times Magazine feature story, September 17, 2017. I emphasize story because Rutenberg turns a dry topic of media dynamics into a very human story, dripping with vivid details including the spread of venison, oysters and shrimp he enjoyed with one of the key figures in the tale.
“Objectivity is a myth,” Rutenberg quotes Dmitruyu Kiselyov as saying in a speech to the staff of the Russian government’s International News Service shortly after it had be put under his leadership. “Just imagine a young man who puts an arm around the shoulder of a girl and tells the girl, ‘You know, I’ve wanted to tell you for a long time that I treat you objectively.’ Is this what she’s waiting for? Probably not. So in the same way, our country, Russia, needs our love.”
This love from Russia has been radiating through our media for some time. It’s been a little hard to detect in the rising din of domestic disinformation but anyone who hasn’t noticed it hasn’t been very diligent in trying to track down sources.
“You can’t blame the mirror for your ugly face,” is a Russian proverb that applies to Russian use of media techniques and technologies essentially developed in America. Our media today is seriously disfigured. The Russian’s have given us a mirror that we would be mistaken to ignore.
Russia is replicating the sort of global news networks that the west built, Dmitri Peskov, Putin’s press secretary explained to Rutenberg. The new (Rutenberg says “free”) flows of information “produced ‘a new clash of interests’ and so began ‘an informational disaster – an informational war’.” Russia’s action, Peskov asserted to Rutenberg, has been “counteraction” in response to the developments. While Peskov apparently talked about Twitter and the spread of political uprisings, it is important to observe that Russia’s big investment was in TV. It is possible to imagine the Arab spring without Twitter or Facebook but not without the Qatar’s state-owned satellite TV channel, Al Jazeera.
To understand the media in the mirror, you have to understand advertising. It is the basis of the western media business model. The best way to learn the advertising business probably comes from talking to people creating advertising (especially direct-response advertising), selling advertising, selling with advertising and forecasting sales results. And it comes from monitoring your own responses to advertising you experience. But it certainly does not come from purveyors of “inbound marketing,” “content marketing,” and all the more romantic and utopian views of how internet communication is somehow so radically different than any preceding communication technology.
To understand media in the mirror, you also have to understand political-economics. Economics alone does not explain enough about media. Basic economics assumes away imperfect information and coercion. Information, which is never actually perfect, is obviously the stuff of media. Coercion, masked in modern habits of mind, is (less obviously) the stuff of government. Political economics deals with the interactions of belief (both perceptions of reality and evaluations of it in terms of interest), forces of destruction or coercion, and forces of production.
Media is in the business of moving minds, influencing belief. Because belief is key factor governing the use of productive and destructive forces, belief is a key determinant of political-economic outcomes. It is not for nothing that tech companies and tech moguls are pouring money into politics. They want to keep things “trending” their way and recognize that the factors they control can be traded for or eroded by coercive power. The key understanding is that these political-economic factors interact to generate outcomes.
Not withstanding Preskov’s belief that valuations in the global economy have become unmoored from real value, the valuation of companies like Facebook and Google was never exclusively about the profit they might generate through advertising, but always also about the potential political-economic power that they represent. Nor should we wallow in nostalgic notions of how old, now shattered media business structures once supported an "objective journalism" that heroically operated as a selfless agent of public interest. That simply is not how political-economics works.
To understand how the Russian global network moves minds in America, Rutenberg turned to John Kelly, who got his start tracking online information flows and relational networks in Iran and Russia in research funded by the U.S. State department. Kelly now runs a social marketing and analytics firm called Graphika and has developed colorful graphical representations of information flow phenomena. The internet creates records which can be classified and counted. Kelly has mapped out a “fake-news online network” in which Russia’s RT is a player, “trying,” according to Kelly “to pump up the fringe at the expense of the middle.” A mysterious bot army plays a role but the bulk of the action appears to be interested individuals believing what they see on Russia’s RT and Sputnik.
Rutenberg’s story is a good read, not simply because of its insight into Russian motives and machinations but more importantly because of the mirror it provides about what drives our media and how it functions. We need better civic information. Democratic Republics are fragile forms that can easily descend into the darker forms of mankind’s bloody past; darker forms still very much present in much of the world. Better media models will be consciously built around power as much as profit. In the work ahead, belief in using power for good may be as important to real success as belief in doing well for oneself.