How Russian TV portrays the war in Ukraine

In the Russian version of war, Russians are liberators, Ukrainians are Nazis, and the West is full of lying hypocrites. To turn on the Russian television news is to enter a parallel universe, where even the word war forbidden. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government has now blocked or restricted all other sources of coverage, so this is the only version of the world most Russians see.

To get an idea of ​​what Russians are being told about the war, I have been turning on Russian state television for a few hours a day over the past week from my laptop. Although state-run news channels include supposedly on-the-ground reporting, much of the action takes place on talk shows, which are “where the most extreme or nationalistic narratives are pushed”, Sarah Oates, a political communications expert at the University of Maryland, told me.

The hosts and panelists stick closely to the same Kremlin talking points, giving the shows an endless loop quality, even by cable TV standards. A panel of white people who love Putin dissolves into another, and another. “Every third word is Ukraine, America, NATOsays Bakhti Nishanov, Senior Policy Advisor at the US Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe. “Even if you weren’t paying attention…it’s in your subconscious.”

On Russian televisions, people, walls and floors are adorned with the “Z” marking that Russian troops paint on their tanks. I saw that meant za pobedu (for “victory”) and za mir (for “peace”), even if that’s not how you write the letter Z in Russian. Throughout, I heard references to parts of Ukraine being ‘cleansed’ and ‘brought to order’, and that Ukrainians ‘will only understand the truth about their country once it is liberated. “. The penalty for dissent is high, and talk show guests consistently agree. They nevertheless often end up screaming, spitting torturous consonants at each other until the host presents a new way the government line is correct.

On March 1, I listened Perviy Canal (Channel One), the most influential public channel, to find on-the-ground reporting from Ukraine. It was a woman who said in Russian, “We’ve been waiting for you for years,” as in, she was waiting for the Russians to invade. The journalist then interviewed Ukrainian fighters who allegedly surrendered. The soldiers’ Russian captors were shown to be kind to them, giving them cigarettes and hot food and letting them call their mothers. It is impossible to know if it was genuine or not; The Russians may have aped a viral video in which Ukrainian soldiers offered a captured Russian tea and a phone call.

To be continued on Channel One: the scourge of “fake news” on Facebook. Finally a villain that our two nations have in common! The “fake news” that worries Russians, however, is information about the war that deviates from the official Russian narrative. Indeed, last week Putin signed a law criminalizing the dissemination of “false” information about the war, including calling it a war, and blocked access to Facebook in Russia. Deviating from Russia’s version of the war could result in a 15-year prison sentence, and Western news outlets pulled out of the country accordingly. Later in the show, an attractive woman with empty eyes came on the screen to let me know that hotels in southern Russia were still operating. So it’s good.

“People seem nervous about getting out of script or even knowing exactly what their script is supposed to be,” Cynthia Hooper, a Russia scholar at College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts, told me. followed the cover. Whereas previously Channel One might have provided a decent, if not ideal, job for a Russian journalist, “now those same positions really involve nothing more than a very, very deep complicity in crafting stories designed to bolster Putin’s regime, fuel popular hatred against alleged enemy aliens, and lend support to criminal and destructive government policies,” she said.

When there isn’t much good news from the front, a popular angle is how unfairly America and Europe are treating Russia. At Time will tell us, a talk show on Channel One, pundits have complained that people are discriminating against Russians abroad, in part as evidenced by a photo of the empty Russian teahouse in New York. “Where are the civil rights defenders? someone asked. 60 minutes, another talk show, aired a clip of Republican Senator Lindsey Graham calling for Putin’s assassination, saying someone should “get this guy out.” “Imagine what would happen if we suggested killing Biden!” said a panelist. “Can. You. Imagine. What. Would. Be.” In another talk show, The big gamewar pundits spoke of the folly of invading Iraq – the kind of whataboutism that was typical of Soviet-era messaging.

To the extent that Russian TV shows speak of casualties, they attribute them to Ukrainians who, according to Russian state television, use “human shields” and prevent their own citizens to flee through the humanitarian corridors. (Foreign journalists and Ukrainian officials say neither of these claims is true.) An attack on British journalists outside Kiev – which the journalists themselves attributed to Russian commandos – has also been blamed to Ukrainians. If you’re wondering why you haven’t heard of this, “no one talks about it in the West because the West glorifies the Nazis,” according to a Russian TV pundit. (The “Nazi” claim seems to be aimed at older Russians, who revere the Soviet Union’s role in winning World War II.) Overall, Russian television creates the false impression that Ukrainians are getting away with it. on it, says Alexey Kovalev, the investigative editor of Medouza, an independent Russian news site that opposes this narrative and has been blocked by Russia. Kovalev recently fled Russia and spoke to me from a Baltic country.

And Russians, whose information options are shrinking, tend to buy what their government and its media allies are selling. Russians with Ukrainian parents buy it. Acquaintances of Kovalev buy it. The alternative – that the invasion is not justified, that the Russians are the aggressors – is too horrible to contemplate. A recent series of interviews with street men from the independent exit Actual hour shows ordinary Russians saying the invasion is meant to protect Russians, or that they don’t believe Kiev is being bombed. “I’m for Putin,” a woman says, stepping away from the camera. “In all, I am for him.”

Most Russians still support the war, and only 3% blame Putin for it, according to independent surveys. Support is strongest among those who trust state media. “Your beliefs are more important than the facts,” Oates said, “and I think [Channel One] is good for helping people reflect on their beliefs. This is the story that people would like to see true.

Russian news blurs the difference between truth and lies, between heroes and villains. Over time, uncertainty turns into cynicism and resignation. “There are a lot of calls in the United States for the Russians to demonstrate and get rid of Putin,” Maria Repnikova, a professor of global communications at Georgia State University, told me. “But the cynicism factor is a very, very strong thing when it comes to do not go out or not resist. Cynicism creates the feeling that “nothing is true and everything is possible”, to quote the title of journalist Peter Pomerantsev’s book on modern Russia.

Despite what the Russian news says, Ukrainians are the real victims of Putin’s war. But ordinary Russians are the victims of its information war. They are like the Americans who approve of the Big Lie because all they watch is Newsmax, or those who bury themselves in the maze of Facebook and emerge with a belief in QAnon. Putin knows that if you can control information, you can control your people.

Perhaps the saddest fact is that Russians, now cut off economically, geographically and culturally from the rest of the world, may not know what awaits them. Watching their own channels, they find themselves with the optimistic vision that victory is near and they will be the victors. In the words of a talk show pundit I saw on Russian TV last week: “All this will pass. Without Russia, Europe is not Europe and the world is not the world.

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