One of the more interesting theories behind Vladimir Putin’s “disappearance” is that the Russian leader has engineered it himself. After all, he hasn’t officially vanished. The Associated Press has quoted his spokesman as saying “there is absolutely no reason for any doubts about the state of his health. His health is really perfect, everything is OK with him, and he’s working in accordance with his traditionally overloaded working schedule.” If after all the excitement he suddenly shows up at ordinary meetings then the next time he drops out of public sight the public will be less excited.
At a recently concluded seminar on disinformation the speakers warned that Russia had developed techniques designed to neutralize the control of the Narrative practiced by Western institutions. The idea was to flood the news agencies with false information.
Since 2008, Pomerantsev argued, the Kremlin and military in Russia have adopted a body of thinking where information can be used as a tool to “confuse, demoralise, divide and conquer” and thus be used as a weapon. This comes from the Kremlin’s recognition that it cannot take on the West in a traditional military fashion and expect to win. Rather, over the years, Putin has talked about needing to be cleverer than the other side.
One of the Kremlin’s main strategies is to destroy people’s faith in journalism and the possibility of debate in media. Michael Weiss noted that this disinformation is most problematic when it is picked up by mainstream media organisations and circulated in the spirit of objectivity. The Putin regime, Weiss claimed, understands that Western institutions valuing transparency and objectivity can be exploited. “Even if you read through and see that a story is nonsense, the headline will still begin to penetrate”, he said.
This is particularly effective when the opponent relies on a synthetic storyline. The Russians well understand that the West uses the media to advance certain themes. It exploits the Mainstream Media’s tendency to push certain points of view by leaving enough material around to falsify it. Edward Snowden’s revelations, for example, were not only damaging in themselves but allowed the public’s imagination to run riot over the administration’s possible dishonesty. Once the public is convinced that Western news stories are just a bunch of lies then they will believe Putin just as readily as Obama.
Unlike traditional propaganda techniques designed to engage emotional support, disinformation is designed to manipulate the audience at the rational level by either discrediting conflicting information or supporting false conclusions. A common disinformation tactic is to mix some truth and observation with false conclusions and lies, or to reveal part of the truth while presenting it as the whole (a limited hangout).
Another technique of concealing facts, or censorship, is also used if the group can affect such control. When channels of information cannot be completely closed, they can be rendered useless by filling them with disinformation, effectively lowering their signal-to-noise ratio and discrediting the opposition by association with many easily disproved false claims.
The jamming idea isn’t new. During World War 2 the British developed anti-radar chaff (code-named “window”) “in which aircraft or other targets spread a cloud of small, thin pieces of aluminium, metallized glass fibre or plastic, which either appears as a cluster of primary targets on radar screens or swamps the screen with multiple returns.” One can think of disinformation as memetic “chaff”.
What’s behind the Russian curtain of chaff, if chaff it is? Even if we’re convinced there’s nothing, the impenetrable curtain fixes our gaze because we still imagine the worst behind it. Fear supplies what the eye cannot see and is amplified by the fragmentary glimpses we are allowed to see.
Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d,
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone.
Just as the offscreen monster in movies is more frightening than the man in a rubber suit when he finally appears, Putin can get more mileage from suggestion rather than explicit presentation. Putin missing from the Kremlin is so much more menacing than Putin in it. The MSM has largely played into the Putin’s disinformation trap by creating weaknesses he can exploit. By emphasizing narrative-making over straight reporting, by pushing “explanatory journalism” they are leading with their chin.
At some point during the past year, the media industry seems to have gotten the message that explanatory journalism is the next big thing — how else to explain the launch of not just one but three major efforts in that area, and more to come? The New York Times has just launched The Upshot, which seems like a blend of both the data-focused journalism practiced by Nate Silver’s new site FiveThirtyEight and the explainers of Ezra Klein’s Vox. Each has its own unique flavor, but is the market for that kind of content really big enough to support them all?
“Explanatory journalism” a la Ezra Klein presents a huge open flank for practicioners of disinformation. The MSM has been so busy corrupting information that the Russians need do little more. All the Kremlin has to do is put a dollop of whipped cream on it with a cherry on top and wreckage of the media’s credibility is complete. The more “explanatory journalism” and the more intensely Journolist process the facts, the more vulnerable the Western thematic machine is to men like Putin.
The inability of the media to get definite news on the whereabouts of the Russian really speaks volumes about just how limited the sources of news organizations are. Jordan Hirsch writing in Commentary Magazine, argues that Iran has bamboozled the American leadership into letting it have the bomb. And why not when they unfailingly consume their own Kool-Aid? Vox interviews Obama and Obama reads Vox. What could go wrong? If the West hopes to outsmart men like Putin it will have to improve its ability to gather the facts and nothing but the facts. The “explanatory” part of things the public can handle for itself.
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