Liar’s paradox as Kremlin’s Master Narrative

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According to a survey of 1200 respondents conducted in spring 2017, 48 percent of  Estonia’s Russian -speaking population oppose their country’s membership in NATO. As explained by sociologist Juhan Kivirähk, the reason is that Estonian Russians still see NATO as a Russian enemy. How to explain to Russian state media consumers in Estonia that NATO is not a threat to Russia when the facts are perceived as propaganda?

Since NATO’s July 2016 summit in Warsaw, where members approved a plan to move additional troops on a rotating basis into the Baltic States and Poland to reassure allies in the face of Russia’s aggressive behavior, the narrative that NATO is a threat to Russia has been one of the most frequent topics in Russian state media, which is followed widely among Estonian Russians. This narrative sees Russia as the passive and repressed party, and NATO as aggressive, manipulative, and harmful.  This narrative probably is a major reason why almost half of Estonia’s Russian-speakers oppose alliance membership.  If providing the facts to fight Moscow’s false narrative does not seem to be effective but is perceived as propaganda, then what measures would work?

To find effective counter measures to Russian information attacks, we should first ask how sincere is Russian state media in its messaging.  Do Kremlin or pro-Kremlin media representatives actually believe that NATO’s commanders are testing new hybrid warfare techniques in Latvia on Russian-speaking population to alter their psyche and behavior, as they claim, or that American B-52 plane accidentally dropped a nuclear bomb over a building in Lithuania? It is hard to believe that they do.  Do they believe that NATO is a threat to Russia, or even is preparing to attack it? Probably yes. If so, why do the facts provided by NATO to prove the opposite not seem to undermine this belief?

The answer may lie in the so-called master narratives on which the others are grounded. The Kremlin media may not believe that the US dropped a nuclear bomb over Lithuania, but it probably believes that a) the US and NATO is a threat to Russia, and b) everything what is written in Western media, including everything that the US claims to be facts, is propaganda. And if these two master narratives are valid, then Moscow, in their view, simply does what that everyone does: committing propaganda. Even if the stories Kremlin media tells are not completely true, the lies are justified by the belief that the US – as a threat to Russia - is lying as well, so they are just protecting themselves by using the same means.

If so, then there are two things that need to be clarified: first, on what the understanding that everything is propaganda is based; second, what are the characteristics of a master narrative.  

At the end of May, the chief editor of Estonian Sputnik news agency Elena Cherysheva said in an interview to the Estonian Public Broadcasting Russian-language TV channel ETV+ that she sees no difference between journalism and propaganda. Since Sputnik is part of the Russian government-controlled news agency Rossiya Segodnya, whose head Dmitry Kiselyov expressed similar viewpoint, it can be assumed that its Estonian chief editor’s statement presents not only her personal views but the general standpoint of Russian state media.

This viewpoint is especially interesting because of its general characteristics: the representatives of Kremlin media did not just say that Western journalism commits propaganda but that it applies to journalism in general – therefore also to the kind of journalism the Kremlin media practices. For Kremlin media, the narratives about how NATO’s commanders may be testing new hybrid warfare techniques in Latvia on Russian-speaking population to alter their psyche and behavior; alternatively, that American B-52 plane accidentally dropped a nuclear bomb over a building in Lithuania may be false.  But since everything is propaganda, for Russian state media committing the disinformation is not only acceptable but also ineluctable.   

Here we come to the concept of master narrative. Master narrative (or metanarrative) is, as described a by French sociologist Jean-François Lyotard in 1979, a narrative that lies behind other, minor narratives that certain culture uses in everyday practice, and what explains and justifies these minor narratives. In order to understand why Moscow uses anti-NATO narratives, we should find the narrative behind them, and use it as a key. Assuming that this concept could help us to understand narratives present in Kremlin or pro-Kremlin media, what would Kremlin master narratives be? As mentioned above, Moscow seems to have two master narratives: a) the US and NATO is threat to Russia, and b) everything is propaganda.  

So, even if Kremlin media does not believe that many narratives are true, it still believes that the master narratives – NATO is a threat, and everything is propaganda – are valid. Therefore, it may commit disinformation, but in its own mind, sincerely so: it is lying because it believes that Russia is in war – and in this war, everybody is lying.  This is very similar to the idea that Dmitry Kiselyov expressed in 2013 at the meeting with journalists of the RIA Novosti news agency that was being restructured as part of the creation of Russian government-owned international news agency Rossiya Segodnya Kiselyov was appointed by Russian President Vladimir Putin to be a head of. Kiselyov said: “Objectivity does not exist. There’s not one publication in the world that’s objective. Is CNN objective? No. Is the BBC objective? No. Objectivity is a myth, which they propose to us and impose on us.” This idea expressed in a different versions by both Elena Cherysheva  and Dmitry Kiselyov – there is no such thing as objectivity and everything is propaganda – seems to have become a master narrative for Russian state media.

Unfortunately, one of these master narratives is paradoxical.  The form of the statement “everybody is committing propaganda” is generally known, as liar’s paradox: if everybody is lying, then I’m lying as well (and also lying about lying). The problem with paradoxical statements is that rather than provoking critical thinking, the paradox is psychologically exhausting for audience. It causes the loss of interest and trust in media, as well as weakens people’s social involvement and the civil society in general. A recent study made in Estonia shows, people who are exposed multilingual media and do not know who to believe – if anybody – admitted being tired of certain topics and tried to avoid the contradictional topic in the media.

If “everything is propaganda” is indeed Kremlin’s master narrative, then it is difficult to fight against other, derivative narratives or to provide facts on that the NATO is not a threat to Russia – all these attempts are perceived in the light of “everything is propaganda” narrative. Instead, the West should concentrate on analyzing and fighting the master narrative itself. Assuring the audience that not everything is propaganda by regaining trust of media consumers should be the first step.