Hey, the West! Feeling Guilty about the War in Ukraine? That’s OK, Russian Propaganda is World’s Best!

By Dr. Kamil Zwolski, Lecturer in Global Politics and Policy at University of Southampton (Academia.edu). You can find more posts by Kamil here.

Many in the West feel guilty about the war in Ukraine. They think it’s their fault. Well, not literally ‘their’, but the fault of their governments. They believe Russia is merely reacting to American expansive hegemony. Their view is reinforced by the American Realist thinkers, most notably Henry Kissinger and John Mearsheimer. Besides, there were some rumours of fascists in the Ukrainian government. And nobody likes fascists, right? I mean fascists in Ukraine. Fascists in many other countries, including Russia, the UK and other Western European countries are fine. And what is with this Ukrainian state anyway, I mean is that even a real state? There is Russian minority there, so there must be two sides to this story, right? That’s what we value about British public debate – there are two sides to every story.

Now, seriously. A Yale University historian Timothy Snyder sheds some light on the key reasons why Russian propaganda has been so effective in pushing its own narrative about the war it wages against the Ukrainian state.

“There are a lot of things that play here. The first is that everybody was surprised. People were surprised by Crimea and it was a shock to think that the whole European order could be destroyed – which is, in fact, what happened. One European state invading another European state was not something which was expected. Because it was surprising, people were legitimately confused for a while.

The second reason Russian propaganda worked very well is that Russian propaganda is not so much about convincing you of its truth, it’s about preventing you from acting quickly. The idea that what happened in Crimea was some kind of civil conflict or that those soldiers were not Russian soldiers – those were obvious lies. But while people in the West were processing them, the invasion and annexation were completed. And then once it was completed, people felt a little stupid how they have been fooled and then they didn’t really want to return to the whole issue.

The third reason why Russian propaganda works is that it is addressed directly to very sensitive points. The Russians understand us, I think, much better than we understand them. And that’s because they’re so much like us, like the Americans. They understand that we are vulnerable to certain things. One of the things that we are particularly vulnerable to is the idea that this is somehow all our fault. So the Russians will hit over and over again the idea that the Americans are responsible.

And this is confusing for the Americans, but for the Europeans it’s divisive, because many European will think: “Ok. Well, America is responsible. We don’t have to do anything. Maybe we should blame the Americans for the whole thing.”

The fourth reason why Russian propaganda tends to work is the way western journalism works. Western journalists generally think there are two sides to every story. If the Ukrainians are very bad in getting their side across, which they generally are, unfortunately, and the Russians are extremely good at their version, then the Russian version wins even if it’s much further away from reality. And so western journalists sometimes don’t realize how much they are being used.

And the final reason, although this is much weaker now that people went to Kiev, is that people were reporting on the events from Moscow or from far away. In general, journalists and anyone who goes to Kiev or Ukraine in general report extremely well. So really just going there is often enough.”

Emphases added.

Full interview available here.

Haiti’s Revolutionary Past Missing from Post-Earthquake UK News Coverage

By Southampton Media Observatory (@SotonMediaObs).

Today marks the five year anniversary of the Haitian earthquake that killed an estimated 230,000 people. The 7.0 magnitude quake struck close to the Haitian capital Port au Prince on the afternoon of Tuesday 12th January, 2010, triggering an unprecedented social disaster. Yet January also holds an older historical significance for the people of Haiti, with the celebration of their Independence on New Year’s Day. In 1804, Haiti freed itself from French colonial rule, ending slavery and becoming the only country in history to be born from a successful slave revolt. However, this unique history is one that is often forgotten and its significance is underplayed.

In fact, the principle reason why the death toll following the earthquake was so high was because of systemic problems within Haiti’s developmental path that are inextricably linked to its fight for independence. However, this relationship is for the most part ignored in UK media coverage. Out of 1363 articles in UK national newspapers in the year following the earthquake (13th January 2010 to 12th January 2011) featuring the keyword ‘Haiti’, only 63 made reference to Haiti’s struggle for independence (Table 1) and only 15 mentioned the indemnity Haiti was subsequently forced to pay to France (Table 2).

Whilst 335 of the 1363 articles mentioned the impoverished nature of Haiti, making it a key frame of reporting (Table 1), only 41 also included a historical reference, with only 24 of these explicitly linking this historical context to poverty in Haiti. (Table 1)

Therefore, despite the direct linkage between disaster scale and poverty, and the readiness to acknowledge Haiti’s poverty in news coverage, UK national newspapers rarely made the connection between the social conditions in which the earthquake struck and Haiti’s historical experience since independence.

This omission is important not only because it makes the explanatory framework of the social disaster incomplete but also because it has potentially negative implications towards public perceptions about Haiti. Indeed, this exclusion is a substantial issue: Paul Farmer (2006, 191-192) notes that Haiti’s “bad press” is problematic “because it obscures Haiti’s real problems, their causes and their possible cures”.

Table 1: Poverty Key Words

Key Word Mentions Articles
Poverty 164 115
Poor 154 133
Poorest 153 137
Impoverished 58 55
Bankrupt 6 6
$2 (a day) 24 22
Western hemisphere 86 80
Unique Articles 335
History Mentions 41
Explicit Links 24

Table 2: Independence and Indemnity Key Words

Key Word Mentions Articles   Key Word Mentions Articles
Indemnity 3 1 1804 35 34
Reparation(s) 16 10 (1st/oldest) Black Republic 23 19
Compensation 4 3 Slave Rebellion 5 5
Restitution 2 1 Slave Revolt 13 13
Pay for lost colony 1 1 Slave colony 2 2
1825 6 5 Revolt (against slavery) 1 1
1947 9 8 Overthrew (slavery) 4 4
Independence debt 3 1 Independence 39 30
Compensate 2 2 Louverture/L’Ouverture 10 7
Unique Articles 15 Unique Articles 63

In Haiti, a continued lack of development and investment has led to widespread poverty, which is predominantly the result of an extended historical sequence of external and internal exploitation by unaccountable elites, relating back to the country’s very origins as a sovereign state.

The success of Haiti’s slave revolt was deeply troubling for the European powers and the USA who had slave-based colonies and populations. They feared the “contagion of rebellion” spreading and saw Haiti as a dramatic challenge to the prevailing world order that needed to be actively countered. One dramatic consequence of this was the USA’s refusal to recognise Haiti’s independence, thus limiting its access to international markets. Haiti thereby found itself in an international context of isolation with aggressive moves against it that “aggravated its internal problems and precipitated its economic decline.” In 1825 a massive French armada set out to retake the country; the invasion was only averted by Haitian acceptance to pay a vast indemnity to compensate France for the loss of its slave colony and incomes. By 1900, Haiti was spending 80% of its national budget on repayments for crippling loans borrowed to pay this indemnity. It was not paid off until 1947, which left Haiti “destitute, corrupt, disastrously lacking in investment and politically volatile.

The lack of historical context in UK national newspaper reporting on this key issue means that not only is a major part of the explanation of Haiti’s current plight missing from the narrative, but it also removes the crucial element of the role the world’s major powers have played in undermining Haiti’s development. This omission helps perpetuate an inaccurate public perception of the causes of Haiti’s social vulnerabilities that contributed to the exceedingly high death toll after the 2010 earthquake. This is problematic because an insufficient understanding of the causes inhibits the finding of successful, long-term solutions.

The ‘Squabble’ Over Sterling and the Scottish Independence Referendum

By Dr Alexandra Kelso, Senior Lecturer in Politics

Yesterday, I appeared on the BBC Radio Solent Drivetime show (at around 5.35pm for those who’d like to listen to the replay) to comment on the debate which occurred over the weekend concerning whether Scotland would retain the pound in a sterling zone in the event of becoming independent. This is just the most recent example of how the imminence of the independence referendum is now fuelling highly specific discussions about the nuts-and-bolts of how things would actually work in practice should Scotland become independent. The SNP are being increasingly tested on their ideas and proposals, and are now forced to go far beyond appeals to some sense of Scottish nationhood, and to deal instead with the greasy mechanics of governance and what a post-independence political and institutional landscape would look like.

However, it was only later when I reflected on the interview that I considered the way in which the debate had been introduced by the interviewer, who described it in terms of ‘squabbling’. In the interview, I attempted to recast the issue as less about ‘squabbling’ and more about the inherent difficulties associated with drilling down to the complexities of detail and addressing opposing viewpoints. What strikes me is how this genuine disagreement amongst competing actors in the referendum debate was casually described as ‘squabbling’, as if to suggest a playground spat, when what is actually at stake are fundamental questions about the future of the UK state. It is only natural that such questions will prompt passionate, as well as pragmatic, disagreement. When the media belittle such debates by referring to them as mere ‘squabbling’, even if it is simply for provocative effect, they contribute to our collective disappointment in democracy and its functioning. We may be cynical about our politicians, and often for good reason, but when they stand up and debate the issues surrounding something as important and complex as the future of sterling in an independent Scotland, we disempower both them and us when we chalk it up to silly  ‘squabbling’.

Channel 4, Fat and the Facts

By Dr John Boswell, Politics & International Relations

Watching Supersize vs Superskinny, Channel 4’s latest venture into the ever-popular fat voyeur genre, I was struck by one thing in particular. Unlike the casual viewer, it wasn’t the enormous quantities of food that participants consumed (or actually in this case were forced to watch their ‘superskinny’ counterpart struggle down), nor the gratuitous footage of even bigger Americans in undignified situations, nor even the perma-tan and blonde highlights of the creepy Dr. Christian. Instead, having spent much of the last 4 years analysing the way political actors make sense of and argue about obesity, what stood out for me was the constant stream of facts and figures that viewers were bombarded with. From Perspex containers filled with kilograms of sugar and fat (a ‘shock’ technique filched from Jamie Oliver) to the sober clinical assessments delivered by the good doctor,  the show seemed to be jam packed with references to scientific claims on obesity and its impact on health.

This observation aligned neatly with what I had found in my research—a seemingly universal fetish for ‘the evidence’ whenever the issue of obesity comes up. Indeed, every policy actor I have come into contact with in both the UK and Australia, whether in public or private, seems to share this obsession. The evidence of my own gathered over this time shows that these actors typically litter their comments on the subject with facts and statistics, make extensive and deferential reference to ‘the evidence’ in general, and speak of the need for (or at least of the faint hope for) policymaking around this issue to be ‘evidence-based’. Now, to be clear, these actors disagree vehemently about the nature of obesity as a problem and about how public policymakers ought to react: for some, the obese are lazy oafs sponging off the NHS; for others, they are helpless victims of an ‘obesogenic’ environment poisoned by the wicked food industry; and for others still, they are objects of a moral panic inflamed by special research and pharmaceutical interests. Yet all share an obsession for the evidence, such that these conflicting accounts are all avowedly ‘evidence-based’. So how does that work?

An elegant explanation is that evidence is just a discursive resource that actors can draw on; that the fierce debate over the ‘obesity epidemic’ and its implications for public policy are just another case of science falling victim to politicisation. What I argue in this article (or view for free here), recently published as part of a special issue for Policy Sciences on ‘Evidence and Meaning’, is not that this is explanation is entirely wrong – I absolutely concur that ‘the evidence’ is not some innocent, neutral object beyond the dirty reality of politics and policymaking—but that it is overly simplistic. The debate over obesity is not a case of fixed coalitions drawing on scientific evidence solely for the purpose of reinforcing their preconceptions. It is a complex, dynamic one in which apparent ‘allies’ frequently and often openly contradict each other with respect to ‘the evidence’.

In light of this rather more optimistic stance, I ponder what this might mean in democratic terms. I acknowledge, of course, that the primacy of ‘the evidence’ has some drawbacks in this regard. While all the actors engaged in this debate (including and perhaps especially public health experts) also draw extensively on alternative forms of knowledge—common sense, professional experience, personal anecdote, etc—these claims are always enfolded within or made subordinate to claims about the evidence. This has pretty obvious exclusionary implications. But, on the other hand, the common refrain to the evidence has two key benefits. The first is that the currency given to evidence keeps all actors on board, even when they do not feel they are getting their way. They have faith that ‘the truth will out’; that the evidence proving their case will mount and become so compelling that policymakers will have no choice but to pursue their preferred course of action. The second benefit is that by committing to justifying their claims with reference to ‘the evidence’, all actors across this debate are submitting their accounts to a common standard of assessment. By demanding so publicly and vociferously that policymaking on obesity be ‘evidence-based’, they run the risk of being ‘hoisted with their own petard’ if their own use and interpretation of the facts is not seen to add up.

Which leads me back to the sums being done at Channel 4. If the show’s researchers are so concerned about facts and figures, then perhaps I should point them to the growing evidence that Dr. Christian’s methods of shock and humiliation do appalling damage to self-esteem and (as a result) are almost always counter-productive for weight loss and health in the long term. But something tells me the channel may be about as committed to improving public health in Supersize vs Superskinny as it is to advancing social welfare through Benefits Street.