Moving Down the Mind

31 January 2016, 10:00

When the power blockade of Crimea began, what was the first thing those running the peninsula did? Did they set up power generators in every building? Did they organize free mobile power substations? Did they pull at their hair screaming “Crimea’s NOT ours!”? Nope, they sent out a fleet of trucks to towns around the peninsula that had huge television screens instead of trailers. Needless to say, all the screens were set to the channels of the Russian Federation where a cheerful Putin and sleepy Medvedev told Crimeans that soon they would be warm and well-lit.

TV, the Goebbelsian golden means

It’s unlikely that the initiators of this popular event were aware who first thought of the propaganda role television could play and how to put it in the service of the state. In 1938, two years after the first TV station began operating in Germany, Magda Goebbels was struck by the idea that televisions could be set up in laundry rooms so that housewives wouldn’t be bored while waiting for their wash to be cleaned. Money for this was, of course, allocated by her husband, Joseph Goebbels, who was the Reichsminister for public education and propaganda—under one condition. That broadcasters would strictly adhere to his instructions and always serve the interests of the Reich.

A fanatic follower of Hitler and dedicated Nazi, Magda couldn’t agree more. So, the television channel she privately managed as the wife of the country’s main ideologue and an extremely active woman contained only those materials that might strengthen the spirits of viewers in their belief that Hitlerian initiatives were absolutely right. A typical schedule looked like this:

January 12, 1938. The Television Channel of the Third Reich

20:00 — Current news

20:38 — The Edmund Benke SS 8/75 storm troopers sing an old soldiers’ song against the background of the runic SS symbol.

20:39 — “A Word about What Matters.” A fighter from the SS storm troopers speaks.

20:40 —“Germany’s past lives.” A film made at the request of the SS Reichsführer.

20:45 — The Edmund Benke SS 8/75 storm troopers sing another soldier’ song.

20:48 — “The Führer’s Word.” Clips from the film.

20:49 — “Into Battle and on to Victory.” A film made at the request of the SS Reichsführer.

21:00 — Repeat of program.

At that time, television had already begun to conquer markets and minds in Europe and America, but with the start of World War II, none of the countries in the conflict was broadcasting regularly. Moreover, Germany, notably, turned off its beloved child only for two days: the eve and first day of its invasion of Poland. After that, German television worked without interruption to strengthen people’s belief in the Nazi idea. Who knows? Maybe if Germany had turned off this new medium, Hitler might have crashed earlier. In fact, it’s quite likely that that would have happened.

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In short, Russia’s ideologists and propagandists have nothing much to brag about, given that their instruments had already been tested 80 years earlier by their teachers in the art of brainwashing.

The persistence of television

20 years ago, sociologists and psychologists predicted the rapid demise of television as it was squeezed by a far more powerful, accessible and inexpensive media rival, the internet. But they were wrong. Television was and remains the main source of information as well as of entertainment and fun for the majority of people—not only among the victims of aggressive propaganda that residents of FSU countries have become, but also among citizens of highly successful and sated countries in Western Europe.

Possibly those experts who predicted that television would fall by the wayside did not take into account the inertness of people, assuming that the mind wants to select its source of information on its own, when there is no such thing. No printed media, no radio and not even the internet beats television when it comes to the power of suggestion, because television has a unique capability to blur the line between truth and lies, reality and fantasy. Sitting before the screen, individuals are affected in a very powerful way: their psychological defenses seem to be completely set aside. Moreover, this is true even for those who know everything about how television works and whose ideological foundations are hundredfold more solid than in the average viewer.

Not long ago, a woman I know who is a firm liberal, and was a colleague and long-time friend of the murdered oppositioner Boris Nemtsov, complained: “I had to spend five days with my mother and she has Perviy Kanal [Channel 1] on all the time. It was scary, you know, because I suddenly found myself questioning the rightness of my chosen ideology.” It’s hard to know what would have happened to her if she’d stayed at her mother’s place for a month. So, not much needs to be said about what happens in the brain of someone who has no inclination to analyze when they spend all their spare time in front of the boob tube and leave it on in the background the rest of the time?

Two components form the foundation of television broadcasting that give it the capacity to be an indispensable weapon for propaganda: its persistence—the viewer need not select the news in this colossal flow of information—and its picture. The principle “better to see once than to hear 100 times” makes TV the king of propaganda, better not only than the radio but also better than the internet. It would seem that nothing is simpler than choosing some sites that you trust, sift through the network and you can find endless sources of alternative information. But broadcasters know their job well: the heirs of the unforgettable Magda Goebbels do such a good job of continuing her work that it’s no longer necessary to speak of even a marginal urge to analyze in the average viewer.

Programming hatred

Using Russian television as an example, it’s pretty easy to observe in how short a term the blue screen can bring up in the viewer the precise reaction needed for the government to maintain a certain level of trust. In January 2014, understanding that a free Ukraine was dangerous for a Putin dictatorship, Russia’s leadership reoriented the federal channels on stirring the most primitive hatred to that “brotherly” nation. And indeed, nothing was simpler: Russians who anyway did not suffer from a surfeit of benevolence, within days had forged a phenomenal hatred towards all things Ukrainian.

Nor did television broadcasters need to concern themselves to find new ways of dulling minds: simply to offer more concentrated and unconscionable versions of tried-and-true approaches. Those who watched news from Kyiv on Russian television will remember forever the ugly faces of the people on the Maidan, their nasty grins, their evils slogans like “Who won’t jump is a Moskal!”[1] and “Pike the Moskal!,” scary-looking men in camouflage under the black and red flag—while Russia’s speakers cursed Bandera, declaring him “the worst fascist of all times and peoples.”

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It became impossible to explain, even to educated people who believed that fascism had taken over in Ukraine, that they were being very thoughtfully fed highly selected seconds-long images taken completely out of context that bore no relationship to the overall situation. If you said “Don’t believe your television!” the response would be “Then whom should we believe?” And so, such a question could only be rhetorical in the light of what was going on: A state that made a point of conning its population every minute of every day and was condemned for its lies by everyone except deputies and corrupted officials suddenly became trustworthy on this one and only issue: the situation in Ukraine.

Was this paradoxical? Not really. The explanation was very straightforward: state television had begun to engage in psychological warfare, using every possible communication weapon in its arsenal. It started by filtering images and matching them with out-of-context quotes from people on the Maidan. It moved on to descriptions of bloody episodes from the life of Stepan Bandera under the same image of men marching under the black and red flags and tryzubs,[2] then to giving the still-nascent Praviy Sektor[3] a hellish image. Once the Russian viewer had been warmed up this way, it was easy enough to buy into what came next: a ludicrous yet dangerous tale about a little boy who had been crucified by Ukrainian troops in revenge against his insurrectionist father.

This all could have merely made people laugh if not for the fact that, fed on hatred to Ukraine, Russians began through sheer inertia to despise everything that did not fit into their worldview: “the fifth column,” “liberasts,” Tadjik migrant workers, “pindos-Americanos,”[4] “Gayropa,” gays, good books, interesting movies, classical music… It would seem that it was nothing—a few weeks of unconscionable professionalism by a bunch of propagandists on federal channels. But in those weeks, life in Russia changed beyond recognition.

The making of propaganda TV

There aren’t really that many ways of influencing a viewer psychologically—you can count them on the fingers of one hand and a bit. But when you multiply them by the main components of television itself—persistence and pictures—they are a killer app.

The key element is editing: selecting from all the available video materials only those that show the situation in the desired light. Using Russian television as an example again—what can one do: today this is the template for rabid telepropaganda—, Russian viewers were recently treated to a very telling picture. President Putin made a speech before the federal elections. Sure, he talked a lot about corruption, about the way that it really does exist in some places and some cases, although the government is, of course, busy weeding it out. Just as he said the word “corruption,” the cameras captured, from among several hundred viewers in the hall, the face of Russia’s Prosecutor General, Yuriy Chaika. Given that Chaika had become extremely visible to Russian voters after opposition politician Alexei Navalniy’s investigation his family’s ties to organized crime and that federal channels would never merely amuse themselves in this way without orders from above, it was possible to presume that soon Mr. Chaika would be facing the music.

In another example, a report on pre-Christmas New York is accompanied by video snippets showing obese Americans wandering around downcast or homeless people begging—as if to say, take a good look: it’s not as great as you might think, there. This method, as old as television itself, was effectively used by soviet broadcasters in all the newscasts and the program International Panorama. Old but eternal.

Other methods for imbedding the necessary information is to pin labels using very specific jargon, one of the oldest methods of all. Guess who said these words: “Opposition members are smearing our country with dirt, working for money that the West is paying them. These opposition people live off American dollars and are the trained dogs of their foreign masters. All these so-called opposition members, these enemies of our people, are being financed by Western plutocrats and live off their donations.” Putin? Prokhanov? Surgeon the biker? Nope, not at all! This is from a 1938 televised speech by Joseph Goebbels. Try to find 10 differences between it and speeches by Putin or Lavrov. You can’t? Of course. The language of the Cold War, like “external enemy,” “soulless Europe,” “America’s foreign debt,” “crisis in western economies,” and “pushing foreign notions” has come back to the Russian screen, as though from the coffin, where we thought perestroika had buried it.

From red herrings to anonymous stars

TV professionals around the world are fairly enthusiastic about one source of influence over viewers called “the red herring.” The smell of smoked fish can fool a dog’s sense of smell so that it starts going after the wrong trail. This is a simple, unique and very effective way to distract people from really serious problems and to divert their sense of smell. It was most effectively described in American Berry Levinson’s movie, “Wag the Dog.” A team of PR professionalism is putting together a video about a war that isn’t actually happening and successfully diverts world attention from a sexual scandal that is about to expose the US President. The movie was a blockbuster around the world, but it did nothing to enlighten minds: being incapable of generalizing and extrapolating, most viewers laughed and thought the movie brilliant, but did not “get it” that this was not just an isolated comic event in one country or that the consciousness of each of them sometimes becomes the stage for this kind of “performance.”

For instance, Alla Pugachova’s latest wedding makes the headlines on all the channels, while the real news should be that energy is getting more expensive, the price of Russian gas is collapsing, and the dollar keeps gaining strength. And if the red herring is spiced up with the right kind of language, the viewer finds himself with one less problem. Because you can always say, not “The ruble once again collapsed in trade” but “Today the ruble stopped strengthening.” Oh, how nice!

Another favorite way to embed the right kind of opinions in the minds of the television audience is to use “star power.” Using high-profile individuals who are not experts is the simplest of all because you don’t need to write a scenario or to work seriously on language and images. An opinion-maker of this kind is usually a well-known, popular actor, director, show business personality, or athlete, whose word the naive viewer takes very personally, beyond criticism—or sense. If a news anchor states, “Most Russians condemn the US’s attempts to dictate its rules to the world community,” that will be a lone voice crying in the desert. But if internationally famous actor and director Nikita Mikhalkov says that he’s in shock over President Obama’s latest speech before the UN General Assembly, and right after that aging pop singer Joseph Kobzon talks about those mean Americans who won’t let him visit his kids in the US, the viewer “gets it” that things are really bad there.

Even simpler is using anonymous opinion-makers who actually don’t exist. “A source at the White House reported today that there is a crisis of power in the US,” “International experts have concluded that the Malaysian jet was shot down by Ukrainians,” “Scientists at one of the top laboratories in the UK say that meat is harmful to the health.” After which, you can flap your jaws as much as you want: the magic of any “authority,” even one not backed by a name, but the words “international” and “leading” will have done their job. The beauty of it is that this is a tactic that is unpunishable—because there’s no one to take you to court for misquoting them!

Ambush via amusement

Of course, the news is the heavy artillery of television. But let’s not forget that they amount to only around 11% of air time, compared to entertainment: serials, talk shows, comedy, and so on. Moreover, not all entertainment is equal. On Russian channels—other than Cultures, which has a very small reach—you will find neither classical music, nor distinguished films, nor theatrical performances.

The main entertainment form for viewers has become serials and talk shows. In the daytime, serials about the latest Cinderella with the face of an illiterate slut seeking love in the big city keep housewives enthralled, while in the evenings, somewhat better-produced shows about the lives of decent cops and brave special forces guys fill the screen. The greater Russia’s isolation, the more desperately the government needs to turn the screws, the more TV epics we see about nice-guy enforcers. And lately this set has been expanded to include endless serials about the lives of movie stars who have died, such as Liudmila Gurchenko, Liubov Orlova and Valentina Serova, or about widely known figures from soviet times: Yekaterina Furtseva, Galina Breznieva, Wolf Messing known for his telepathist skills and hypnosis, or faith healer June. It doesn’t much matter what serials engross the viewer in Stalin-Khrushchev-Brezhnev times, but the soviet background against which the fates of these heroes are depicted is seen as completely benign. “What the heck do you mean? There’s no politics here!” the authors laugh as they continue to wash away blood, dirt and lies of the soviet regime. Perhaps they think that it will come back one day, nice and spotlessly clean.

The educational and entertainment value of television typically gives way where the concern to preserve the corrupted government comes to the forefront. That’s where the main objective of those in power—and therefore of television—becomes paralyzing the will of the electorate. This is where television turns into a massive, expensive lawnmower for the mind. A huge army of mowers tracks on a daily, hourly and by-the-minute basis to make sure that the least little bit of independent thinking has no chance of sprouting above the soil. As soon as they stick their little heads out, bang! A new Petrossian[5] show is launched. Laugh your heads off, voters! The minute liberal opinion begins to be raised, kapow! A new political talk show is launched where the word “liberal” becomes the latest put-down. Argue your brains out, dear viewers!

This all brings to mind the naive dialog from the 1980 Oscar-winning soviet film “Moscow Does not Believe in Tears.” “In time, television will turn all our lives upside down. There won’t be anything. No movies, no theater, no books, no papers… just public television.” “Don’t you think you’re getting a little ahead of yourself. Theater will soon die out, that I can agree with. But books? Movies?” “Just remember my words in another 20 years!”

Maybe this dialog wasn’t so naive, after all.

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[1] “Moskal” originally meant a Muscovite, but has gained a largely pejorative nature and come to mean someone who is anti-Ukrainian, generally Russians but not only.

[2] The tryzub is a stylized trident used as the heraldic symbol of Ukraine.

[3] Originally one of the defense brigades on the Maidan, Praviy Sektor or Right Sector was a nationalistic paramilitary group that eventually had battalions on the eastern front and also became a political party led by Dnipropetrovsk-born Dmytro Yarosh. It did poorly at the polls.

[4] “Pindos,” from a very poor region of northern Greece, was used in the Balkans some 200 years to refer to undesirable migrants and has evolved to be used pejoratively against NATO soldiers in the same region, and to Americans in general today.

[5] Yevgeni Petrossian is a Russian stand-up comic.


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