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.