Geschichten der Gegenwart

A few days ago when the Swiss SVP (Swiss People’s Par­ty) poli­ti­ci­an Clau­dio Zanet­ti inqui­red via Twit­ter at #RT and #Sput­nik whe­ther an arti­cle about media cen­sor­ship in Rus­sia published by was accu­ra­te, this sin­gle tweet expo­sed the full extent of the come­dy cur­r­ent­ly being sta­ged by the mas­ters of dis­in­for­ma­ti­on: a right-wing poli­ti­ci­an asking jour­na­lists paid by an aut­ho­ri­ta­ri­an sta­te about the truth regar­ding free­dom of the press. What did he want to learn from RT und Sput­nik? Whe­ther perhaps it’s true that, as ela­bo­ra­ted by info­sper­ber, 360 jour­na­lists have died in Rus­sia sin­ce 1990? That TV sta­ti­ons have been shut down? That jour­na­lists in Rus­sia are orga­ni­zing a tra­de uni­on and are not only cri­ti­cal of their own cen­sor­ship and pro­pa­gan­da but also fear a pos­si­ble wave of coun­ter­pro­pa­gan­da from Wes­tern Euro­pe?

So here is someo­ne who alter­na­tively descri­bes his own country’s public tele­vi­si­on as “sta­te tele­vi­si­on finan­ced by com­pul­so­ry fees,” as a “journeyman’s pie­ce of poli­ti­cal pro­pa­gan­da,” or as a “socia­list do-gooder’s medi­um,” asking a for­eign sta­te tele­vi­si­on sta­ti­on about the truth. And in so doing, he announ­ces that, nowa­days in Switz­er­land or even all of Euro­pe, you can’t trust your own press when you want to know the truth about Rus­sia; but rather you can trust the sta­te broad­cas­ter of Russia’s aut­ho­ri­ta­ri­an regime.

The Good of One’s Own and the Evil Other; and Evil of One’s Own and the Good Other

So let’s take Zanetti’s ques­ti­on serious­ly and take a look at what RT (Ger­man ver­si­on) reports with regard to jour­na­lism in Rus­sia. First of all: RT has no reports about the restric­tion of press free­dom, cen­sor­ship, or the per­se­cu­ti­on of jour­na­lists in Rus­sia. A search with the key­wor­ds “free­dom of the press” pri­ma­ri­ly calls up arti­cles on the “Wes­tern lying press,” press cen­sor­ship in Euro­pe and the Ukrai­ne, the “ideo­lo­gi­cal blind­ness” of the NGO Repor­ters Without Bor­ders, and Breit­bart’s “media alter­na­ti­ve.” In other respects, howe­ver, the rea­dings are actual­ly enligh­ten­ing. This is becau­se RT – form­er­ly Rus­sia Today, a Rus­si­an sta­te tele­vi­si­on broad­cas­ter foun­ded in 2005 and direc­ted toward audi­en­ces out­side Rus­sia, which sin­ce 2014 main­ta­ins a mul­ti­lin­gu­al web por­tal and mul­tich­an­nel news net­work on You­Tube in Ara­bic, Ger­man, English, French, and Spa­nish – pro­vi­des an excel­lent oppor­tu­ni­ty to rese­arch the most cur­rent media pro­pa­gan­da.

RT Second Opi­ni­on ad cam­pai­gn

How RT works is shown most can­did­ly by a con­ver­sa­ti­on bet­ween RT Edi­tor-in-Chief Mar­ga­ri­ta Simo­nyan and the poli­ti­cal sci­en­tist Dmitry Kulikov. Both agree that the West is com­mit­ting “tre­a­son against its own values” and that the “fascis­tiza­ti­on in so-cal­led ‘libe­ral demo­cra­ci­es’ is advan­cing.” Accord­ing to them, this is revea­led among other things by the Euro­pean parliament’s initia­ti­on of a “reso­lu­ti­on” on the “fight against Rus­si­an pro­pa­gan­da,” which in “form and con­tent” brings back “memo­ries of a ple­num of the Cen­tral Com­mit­tee of the Com­mu­nist Par­ty of the Soviet Uni­on.” Simo­nyan fur­t­her claims that Wes­tern free­dom of expres­si­on is under thre­at, respec­tively, that the West has long aban­do­ned free­dom of expres­si­on. Becau­se, accord­ing to Simo­nyan, as soon as “a real mani­fes­ta­ti­on of free­dom of expres­si­on appears” – mea­ning media like RT and Sput­nik – “that expres­ses actu­al dis­sen­ting thought and diver­gent opi­ni­on, they [that is, the EU] start pas­sing such reso­lu­ti­ons and try to stif­le us.”

The Medium is the Message

RT always descri­bes its dis­in­for­ma­ti­on as a “second opi­ni­on” or “dif­fe­rent per­spec­tive,” as a “coun­ter-public sphe­re” vis-à-vis the “cen­so­red” press in Wes­tern Euro­pe. Anyo­ne who oppo­ses RT also oppo­ses free­dom of expres­si­on in its­elf. Howe­ver, RT only deploys this stra­te­gy for the West; in its reporting on Rus­sia, free­dom of expres­si­on remains a black hole. Reports on activists fighting for free­dom of expres­si­on in Rus­sia – such as Ildar Dadin, for examp­le, sen­ten­ced to a three-year term in a penal colo­ny for his one-per­son pro­tests – don’t appe­ar on RT.

In con­trast, the Wes­tern Euro­pean press – accord­ing to RT – dan­ces to the tune of a “cen­tral power” that “deter­mi­nes what is true accord­ing to poli­ti­cal oppor­tu­ni­ty.” “A future,” says RT’s edi­tor-in-chief, “that Geor­ge Orwell had urgent­ly war­ned us against in his work 1984.”

In an adap­tati­on McLuhan’s slo­gan, at RT the medi­um is its­elf the messa­ge. The messa­ge is not con­tai­ned by the indi­vi­du­al reports, which are some­ti­mes more and some­ti­mes less accu­ra­te; rather, the messa­ge is the exis­tence of RT its­elf: RT was esta­blished as a coun­ter media to the Wes­tern press so that in the same move one could descri­be the lat­ter as a “lying press.”

RT Second Opi­ni­on ad cam­pai­gn

RT also natu­ral­ly sym­pa­thi­zes ent­i­re­ly in this sen­se with Breit­bart, which it por­trays as an oppor­tu­ni­ty to “‘libe­ra­te’ the anti-Trump Ger­man media mar­ket from out­side” and “to crea­te” ano­t­her “coun­ter-public sphe­re.” In so doing, RT’s jour­na­list has no qualms about com­pa­ring the libe­ra­ti­on of the Ger­man press from its sup­po­sed ideo­lo­gy to the libe­ra­ti­on of 1945: “Readers by the thousands ven­ted their anger about what they view as extre­me­ly bia­sed reporting. Some even main­tai­ned that the Ger­man media land­s­cape is so uni­form that libe­ra­ti­on from its under­ly­ing con­sen­sus could only come from out­side like ear­lier in 1945.”

Even RT’s pro­mo­tio­nal pos­ters insist that RT is the “second opi­ni­on.” But the­se pos­ter cam­pai­gns also pro­vi­de a typi­cal examp­le of a dif­fe­rent stra­te­gy: they cri­ti­ci­ze – some­ti­mes qui­te right­ly – the men­da­cious jus­ti­fi­ca­ti­on of the Iraq War by the United Sta­tes, for examp­le, in order to ther­e­by con­clu­de that RT and Rus­si­an poli­cy are the only alter­na­ti­ve. It is pre­cise­ly this prac­tice that pre­s­um­a­b­ly ens­na­res above all many peop­le on the left. With RT, toge­ther with the Rus­si­an government one is sup­po­sed to be able to hate Clin­ton, Mer­kel, the EU, and neo-libe­ra­lism and at the same time for­get that Putin’s poli­ci­es are not left-wing but rather natio­na­listic, xeno­pho­bic, homo­pho­bic, ultra-reli­gious, cor­rupt, and aut­ho­ri­ta­ri­an.

Reversals into the Opposite

RT also makes exces­si­ve use of the rever­sal into the oppo­si­te, a favo­ri­te rhe­to­ri­cal stra­te­gy of right-wing popu­lists. We can iden­ti­fy at least three func­tions of the rever­sal into the oppo­si­te. First, RT wants to be able por­tray Rus­sia as the last advo­ca­te of Wes­tern values and as a libe­ral coun­try; and to por­tray Wes­tern Euro­pe – par­ti­cu­lar­ly the EU – as a Soviet-style dic­ta­tor­ship.

Second, the rever­sal tar­gets the media its­elf, wher­e­by pro­pa­gan­da is pre­sen­ted as a coun­ter-public sphe­re and the inde­pen­dent press is alter­na­tively descri­bed as the “lying press,” “so-cal­led free press,” or cen­so­red press. This allows RT to depict cri­ti­cism of RT its­elf as an orga­ni­zed thre­at against the last “coun­ter-public sphe­re.” With all of the­se rever­sals, it is no coin­ci­dence that RT has appro­pria­ted a voca­bu­la­ry ori­gi­na­ting with the non-con­for­mist move­ments of the Soviet peri­od: “coun­ter-public sphe­re,” “dis­si­dent thin­kers,” “new per­spec­tives,” etc. are the buz­zwor­ds it uses to fuel its governmen­tal resis­tan­ce against oppo­si­ti­on at home and against the West. In the mean­ti­me, right-wing popu­list par­ties have also clai­med this voca­bu­la­ry for them­sel­ves (AfD as dis­si­dent thin­kers, SVP as the oppo­si­ti­on, etc.).

Third, the­re is a rever­sal of “real” and “medi­al,” becau­se the peop­le who in prac­tice are des­troy­ing libe­ral values are the same peop­le who cele­bra­te tho­se values in their pro­pa­gan­da. This split bet­ween medi­al rep­re­sen­ta­ti­on and rea­li­ty pur­sued by RT was tested over a long peri­od in the Soviet Uni­on, whe­re “rea­listic” rep­re­sen­ta­ti­ons of the coun­try in the press always resem­bled a uto­pi­an novel. It is a clas­sic examp­le of pro­pa­gan­da.


The afo­re­men­tio­ned dis­cus­sion bet­ween the poli­ti­cal sci­en­tist and RT jour­na­list reveals yet ano­t­her typi­cal stra­te­gy: dis­pla­ce­ment. For years, Rus­si­an sta­te media have descri­bed cri­ti­cism of their poli­ti­cal sys­tem as Russo­pho­bia. In 2009, for examp­le, the Rus­si­an aut­hor Vik­tor Yer­ofey­ev was char­ged with “Russo­pho­bia” by mem­bers of the radi­cal right-wing Move­ment Against Ille­gal Immi­gra­ti­on (DPNI), foun­ded in 2002, who view them­sel­ves as scent hounds for tracking Russo­pho­bia (the char­ge was later drop­ped).

RT Second Opi­ni­on ad cam­pai­gn

Describing cri­ti­cism of the poli­ti­cal sys­tem as Russo­pho­bia faci­li­ta­tes a subt­le dis­pla­ce­ment: cri­ti­cism is ther­e­by read as hat­red toward a nati­on, cul­tu­re, or eth­ni­ci­ty. RT has ful­ly mas­te­red this eth­ni­ci­za­ti­on of the poli­ti­cal: it empha­si­zes to for­eign readers that the cri­ti­cism, which pre­vious­ly was still harm­less­ly descri­bed as Russo­pho­bia, is now – in the West – tur­ning into racism: “With uni­ver­sal appro­val, they [the Wes­tern media] are also sli­ding into a form of racism. Apart from the Rus­si­an nati­on, I know no other nati­on in the world against which this degree of hat­red toward natio­nal cha­rac­te­ris­tics is per­mit­ted.”

This is also reflec­ted by the fact that orga­ni­za­ti­ons in Rus­sia that cri­ti­ci­ze the regime are defa­med as “agents” of the West and oppo­si­ti­on is gene­ral­ly por­tray­ed as paid for or con­trol­led by the West. This is an old secret ser­vice stra­te­gy, which was also used in the GDR, whe­re it was cal­led PID (poli­ti­cal-ideo­lo­gi­cal diver­si­on). As the Lexi­kon der Staat­si­cher­heit (Sta­te Secu­ri­ty Lexi­con) has it, the term aro­se in 1956/57 in the GDR “when Ulb­richt belie­ved he could detect new ene­my methods of ideo­lo­gi­cal ‘sof­ten­ing and dis­rup­ti­on’ in the con­flict with sup­por­ters of inner libe­ra­li­za­ti­on.” Tho­se who cri­ti­ci­zed the sta­te were cate­go­ri­zed as “sup­por­ters” of PID. This is how they dis­pen­sed with any cri­ti­cal con­fron­ta­ti­on with their own sys­tem.

“Clash within Civilizations”

The dis­pla­ce­ment of cri­ti­cism from the field of poli­tics to tho­se of eth­ni­ci­ty and natio­na­li­ty is sup­po­sed to blind peop­le to the poli­ti­cal instru­men­ta­li­za­ti­on of “cul­tures” and to the cul­tu­ral dimen­si­on of poli­tics. A poli­ti­cal instru­men­ta­li­za­ti­on of cul­tures always occurs when, for examp­le, slo­gans like “clash of civi­li­za­ti­ons” (Samu­el Hun­ting­ton) are used to con­ce­al the fact that nati­ons, sta­tes, or socie­ties do not first beco­me hete­ro­ge­neous just becau­se of “for­eig­ners.” They have always been hete­ro­ge­neous, if one con­s­i­ders that dif­fe­ren­ces are evo­ked above all by poli­ti­cal or reli­gious con­vic­tions and eco­no­mic dis­pa­ri­ties, and not by eth­nic mem­bership – which in any case is a high­ly flu­id cate­go­ry.

While the good of one’s own and evil of the Other usual­ly belong to the rhe­to­ri­cal arse­nal of natio­na­list sen­ti­ment, Rus­sia has now elbo­wed its way into this favo­ri­te bina­rism of right-wing popu­list poli­tics and shifted the coor­di­na­tes: RT is qua­si working on crea­ting for for­eign readers a good Other or good For­eig­ner – a flou­ris­hing, cos­mo­po­li­tan Rus­sia – and, on the other hand, depic­ting Wes­tern socie­ties – espe­ci­al­ly Ger­ma­ny – as the fore­court of hell.

RT Second Opi­ni­on ad cam­pai­gn

RT is ther­e­by reac­tivating the medi­al front line bet­ween East and West. And Europe’s right-wing popu­list par­ties are appre­cia­tively shif­ting this front line into the inte­ri­or of their socie­ties. That is the actu­al dis­pla­ce­ment we’re dealing with. Right-wing popu­lists are exploi­ting what RT rep­res­ents in order to sta­ge them­sel­ves in their own coun­tries as the “oppo­si­ti­on” or “alter­na­ti­ve.” The result is a “clash wit­hin civi­li­za­ti­ons” that is sup­po­sed to trans­form demo­cra­tic hete­ro­gen­ei­ty, which is fun­da­men­tal for open socie­ties, into a simul­ta­neous­ly inter­nal and exter­nal cul­tu­re war. At the same, using every instru­ment of pro­pa­gan­da and dis­in­for­ma­ti­on, the­se right-wing popu­lists need to mask the fact that the demo­cra­tic order and libe­ral ways of life are threa­tened not by refu­gees from dic­ta­tor­ships but by sup­por­ters of aut­ho­ri­ta­ri­an forms of government and tota­li­ta­ri­an fac­tions. Regard­less of whe­re they come from.

Translation: Bernard Heise

Von Sylvia Sasse

Sylvia Sasse lehrt Slavis­­ti­sche Litera­tur­­wis­sen­­schaft an der Univer­sität Zürich und ist Mitbe­gründerin und Mitglied des Zentrums Künste und Kultur­theorie (ZKK). Sie ist Heraus­geberin von novinki und von Geschichte der Gegenwart.