According to a recent survey, 48 percent of Estonia’s Russian-speaking population oppose their country’s membership in NATO. Sociologist Juhan Kivirähk says this is because Estonian Russians still see NATO as an enemy of Russia. How can the West counter this perception?
The narrative that NATO threatens Russia has been one of the most frequent topics in Russian state media, especially since NATO’s 2016 Warsaw Summit, when member states approved
a plan to rotate additional troops into the Baltic states and Poland to reassure allies in the face of Russia’s aggressive behavior. Since then, Moscow’s media machine has only produced more disinformation portraying Russia as the passive and repressed party, and NATO as aggressive, manipulative and harmful.
To find effective countermeasures to Russian disinformation, we should first ask how sincere Russian state media is in its messaging. Do Kremlin or pro-Kremlin media actually believe their own claims that NATO’s commanders are testing new hybrid warfare techniques
on Russian-speakers in Latvia to alter their behavior, or that an American B-52 plane accidentally dropped
a nuclear bomb in Lithuania? It is hard to believe that they do.
Do they consider NATO a threat to Russia, and that it is preparing
to attack? Probably. If so, why are NATO’s counter-disinformation efforts not more effective?
The answer may lie in the so-called master narrative which forms the basis for other Russian narratives. If the master narrative is that NATO threatens Russia and that Western media aims to diminish this threat perception, then Moscow is simply doing what everyone else, in their view, is guilty of: producing propaganda. Even if the stories pro-Kremlin media tell are not completely true, they justify their lies with the belief that the United States is lying as well. In effect, everything is propaganda.
If so, then two things must be clarified: first, the basis for Russia’s belief that everything is propaganda; and second, the characteristics of the master narrative.
In late May, Elena Cherysheva, editor-in-chief of the Estonian Sputnik news agency, said
in an interview 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, also expressed a similar viewpoint—these statements are not simply personal views but the general viewpoint
of Russian state media.
The Kremlin may commit disinformation, but in its own mind, it is lying because it believes that Russia is at war—and in this war, everybody is lying.
Here we come to the concept of master narratives. Also known as metanarratives, these were described in 1979 by French sociologist Jean-François Lyotard as narratives that lie behind other, minor narratives which certain cultures use in everyday practice, and which explain and justify these minor narratives. To understand why Moscow uses anti-NATO narratives, we should find the narrative behind them, and use it as a key. And so, what are the Kremlin’s master narratives?
As mentioned above, Moscow seems to have two: the United States and NATO threaten Russia, and everything is propaganda.
So, even if Kremlin media does not believe many of its published disinformation narratives, it still believes that its master narratives are valid. Therefore, it may commit disinformation, but in its own mind, it is lying because it believes that Russia is at war—and in this war, everybody is lying. This is similar to the idea expressed
in 2013 by Dmitry Kiselyov, who 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.”
Unfortunately, one of these master narratives is paradoxical. The idea that everyone commits propaganda is generally known as a 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 psychologically exhausts its audience. It causes readers to lose interest and trust in media, while weakening civil society in general. A recent Estonian study shows
that people who are exposed to multilingual media and do not know who, if anyone, to believe admit being fatigued from certain topics and tried to avoid them altogether.
If “everything is propaganda” is indeed the Kremlin’s master narrative, then it is difficult to fight against other, derivative narratives as these attempts will themselves be perceived as propaganda. Instead, the West should concentrate on analyzing and fighting the master narrative itself. Assuring the audience that not everything is propaganda by regaining the trust of media consumers should be the first step.