Image: The Intersection Project: Россия / Европа / Мир
In George Orwell’s classic novel of totalitarianism, “1984,” Big Brother, the ruler of the state, doled out “two minutes of hate” each day, perhaps calculating that that amount would keep people on edge and in line but not send them over the edge into dangerous pathologies of aggression and violence.
But in Russia today, Vladimir Putin has made a different choice: his government-controlled media spew hateful and aggressive propaganda 24/7, and the consequences, Olga Idrisova says, are that this is “inevitably leading to radicalization and an increase in the amount of violence in society.”
Many commentators, the Russian journalist says, view Moscow’s propaganda today as a revival of Soviet propaganda of several decades ago, but that is a mistake because it fails to consider that despite some common targets and themes, Russian propaganda now is very different and much more disturbing in its consequences than its Soviet predecessor.
“Soviet propaganda portrayed western capitalism as the enemy and contrasted it to communism as an alternative model of development.” But “today’s ideological enemy has become the West as a whole, with its particular mentality and set of values.” In the current environment, Idrisova says, no one wants to talk about comparative development strategies.
Instead, she points out, Moscow’s messengers stress “more abstract” themes that can’t be easily measured and thus Russia’s lagging position can’t be shown. That’s why there is so much talk about “the Russian world” or “spirituality” and not about production or standard of living or the future.
“It is impossible to measure with the unaided eye, for example, ‘the level of spirituality;’ therefore it is easy to manipulate any abstract categories despite the globalization of the information space,” Idrisova argues. But because that is so, Russian propaganda is unrelievably negative while Soviet propaganda always contained its own “positive” message.
Today, Russian propagandists implicitly acknowledge that “we ourselves have not been able to build anything outstanding, but the West is to blame for this.” Russians instead are told to be proud not of present achievements of which there are few but rather of events of 70 years ago like the war which can be transformed into myths.
Such negative rhetoric and a focus on the past has a profound effect on the psychological “’health’” of the Russian population, promoting the growth of homophobia, liberalophobia, and Americanophobia, intolerance, and aggression, which “we can already observe” in the streets of Russian cities and villages now.
In 2013, she notes, the Institute of Psychology of the Russian Academy of Sciences concluded that Russians had become three time more aggressive and crude over the previous two decades, in part at least because the Russian media had displayed those attitudes more often over that period. Since then, the situation has become even worse.
In Soviet times, news anchors read the news so blandly as to be almost boring; now, the style is that of Kiselyov, angry, bombastic, sarcastic, and crude. And that by itself, she suggests,, has been enough to transform in an extraordinarily negative way what ordinary Russians see as acceptable.
The growth in aggressive attitudes “inevitably leads to an increase in the number of crimes,” she says, and that is exactly what even Russian officials are forced to acknowledge. Over the last year alone, the number of crimes has increased by almost five percent.
Moreover, the Russian media’s talk about “’a Jewish fifth column’” has allowed anti-Semitism to resurface and its talk about the baleful influence of the State Department has meant that opponents of the regime keep quiet lest they be called “foreign agents”
Moscow’s response to the rise of the Internet has also played a major negative role in developments. On the one hand, it has meant that the regime has used themes that no one can use the Internet to check. And on the other, the Kremlin has introduced trolls which “not only disinform but have a negative impact on the psychology of those who use the Internet.”
These trolls consciously lower the tone of the discourse on the Internet and thus lead many who would otherwise rely on the Internet to avoid the commentary pages on many sites and thus reduce the chance that the web will become a place for the exchange of real opinions among those who are not supporters of Putin and his regime.
That in turn has the obviously intentional effect of leading people to conclude that support for the regime is greater than it is and that opposition to it is small and marginal. And those who receive that message, including those who get it online, are thus more inclined to be hateful and violent to regime opponents.
As a result of Putin’s 24/7 time of hate, Idrisova says, there is every chance that more Russians will become psychologically unbalanced and more ready to attack anyone viewed as an opponent of the regime. As that happens, this in turn will “lead to ever greater radicalization of Russian society in the immediate future.”
It will also, although that is not its intent, create a situation where such hate may be turned on its authors, something Orwell’s Big Brother understood but that clearly Vladimir Putin does not.