Friday, 14 August 2015

And if all others accepted the lie

Someone I know was recently tapped to work at the media organisation Russia Today (RT) in a European bureau. Pretty cool opportunity, but I used to joke that watching RT was important to know what not to think. I know I was having fun, then he asked me what I thought. It still boggles me why people want to hear my opinion. I told him RT is raw, stark and ugly propaganda and that this was all the more reason to join. He was confused, so I explained.

Russia is a strange place. The Enlightenment missed the country completely and now they have a completely different way of understanding European history. And the thing is, there's a lot of affinity between Russia and the West. But there's also enough difference to make for some interesting breaks.

During the Cold War for instance, the Russians were extremely good at manipulating the West. They were light-years better than any rule-based and ethical Western agency. They were so good in fact that there are reliable reasons to think the lack of nuclear war was due entirely to KGB penetration of NATO. The Soviet Union was terrified of a surprise attack along the North European Plain. The security dilemma made it hard to know why NATO needed so many tanks if it wasn't planning an attack. The Soviets worked into the top levels of NATO to see if the organisation was planning anything. If they'd discovered a serious plan to invade the USSR, they would have immediately preempted it with a nuclear strike. The West knew the Soviets would do this.

Along these lines, both Deception, by Edward Lucas, and Disinformation, by Lt. Gen. Ion Mihai Pacepa, are fascinating for how Russia interacts with and changes the West’s perception. Probably most of it will be known in a common-sense sort of way, but there’s a lot of great examples. Apparently the majority of the FSB (KGB) employees are foreign propaganda artists. Actual intelligence operatives are few and far between in the Russian security services. And it’s been this way for decades.

But to join RT, a decision should depend on what the person wants from the job. If they just want to work, can take instruction well, treat it only as a job, then it'd be a great experience. If a person's ideology is orthogonal to RT’s and threatens to impede their work, then perhaps working there isn’t a good idea. It’ll just lead to tears. If they're curious about most things (like any good journalist), and aren’t too worried about ideology, then working at RT would be a unique and highly prized experience.

Weirdly, RT's propaganda is actually easier to talk about. Of course RT is propaganda, it’s a media organisation, how could it not be propaganda? It has to be remembered that ALL journalism is best understood as an arm of the state. The very existence of a media institution is the entrenchment of a government system. In other words, if journalists feel their job is to “speak truth to power”, then the default assumption is that power exists in the form of a government. That’s why journalism is called the fourth estate, because it’s the next column on the line of the judicial, legislative and executive branches. Journalism is government. The two are one and the same.

A journalist's role and function can only be understood as civil service, similar to treasury employees and intelligence officers. The whole point of the civil service is to maintain and promote the modern state system. In every battle between the civil service and elected representatives, it is the civil servants which always win. They can win because they are not subject to elections and as a tool are integral to the victory or defeat of those elected representatives. The other branches of government must keep journalists on their side, not to defend their personalities, but to maintain the illusion of state coherency and control. That, after all, is the whole point of modern statecraft.

As an aside, educational institutions are part of the state apparatus as well. After all, universities and schools teach only that the modern democratic system is correct as the default assumption about organising power. I challenge anyone to provide an example of when an anarchic system was presented as anything but a comparison to the superior democratic system. Even if that person was being critical of democracy, they will still regard it as the default structure. Because only from democracy, they say, can other ideas arise. In this way, other government structures cannot be created ex nihilo. You cannot beat the system by playing with its rules.

When people are told to vote, think a bit about how many layers of conditioning for the democratic system is required to get her head nodding in agreement. I mean, the sheer packaging of assumed information each one of us receives at educational institutions for us to function in a modern state (and more importantly the incentive not to question the default assumptions), is absolutely phenomenal.

Anyway, back on track. Does this mean that all journalism is propaganda? I'm here to inform you that yeah, it pretty much all is. But not in the way you’d think. The thing about effective propaganda is that it teaches people how to think, not what to think. For example, when you hear that the New Zealand government has a “list” of jihadists and is doing everything to stop them attacking its citizens, the propaganda is not in the list. It is not even in the government interdiction. It's much more insidious.

For any propaganda to work a reader/watcher/consumer must already believe the government represents a structure of control and order. Whether there is true control is ancillary, the semiotics of control and order is more important. How does a person adopt this belief? It works much like an infection. A virus of the mind is implanted through the special arm of the government called the media. The reason people are told the government and media are independent entities is precisely to obscure this intrinsically connected relationship. And the propaganda has worked so well that even the journos and politicians believe they are separate.

Propaganda only works if there is a medium through which it can pass. Propaganda doesn’t, in other words, just fall out of the sky. And this medium will only work if the public has been convinced that truth comes from - and only from - the medium. Said differently, a sufficient amount of the public must be conditioned to assume that the only way to know if an event actually happened is whether it appeared to them via a medium of some sort. Truth and reality spoken by hearsay, bloggers, etc is the antithesis of this process. The medium has changed over the millennia. At one point it was priests and kings, now it's the media and government titles which have us convinced they own a direct line to the truth.

It’s this trust in the construct of the media and government that is the power of propaganda. The little messages we get so annoyed about are way, way, way up the layers. The damage was already done when people were convinced the government and journalists had a special grasp on reality which was only accessible through them. This is the how in propaganda.

RT, as far as I understand it, is a media outlet controlled by the Russian state. It is essentially the Russian version of BBC or MSNBC. Does this make it any different? Only in name. The structure is identical to every other media outlet on earth. To be honest, if a journalist is worried about writing propaganda, then he might be in the wrong job. Yet they decide to stay balls-deep in the system with each word they write. Being "independent" is even worse because it just becomes another layer obscuring the reality of the media's function.

The trick is to know at a deep level that what you’re doing as a journalist is essentially the maintenance of the status quo and the overarching government construct, while being able to operate at a functional level enough to get paid at the end of the month. I work through it all by thinking about the absurdity of it all. I’m an observer at heart and it’s hilarious to watch how serious most people take it all - they think government institutions exist outside of their heads! But it’s all nonsense. Journalism, media, government, corruption, propaganda, postal services, blah, blah, blah. None of it’s real, but the simulacrum is so much fun to play with!

To be honest, if I was offered an editor role at RT, I’d take it. I’d love to see how it all works. To see how all the lies and truth are muddled up and watch as people believe both without realising neither exist. It’d be an experience like no other.

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