On BuzzFeed's podcast NewsFeed with @BuzzFeedBen, a conversation about news in Russia's shadow, and the vibrant pro-Putin media.
American journalists watching the rise of an aggressive new quasi-official Trump media have been able to take solace in one thing: Much of it is laughably bad. The websites are drowning in bizarre popup ads. The grainy Periscopes have a few thousand concurrent viewers at their very best. The television programs — even over at Fox News, the ambivalent mothership of them all — look clunky and dated to the 2017 eye.
But here in Riga, a capital of the free Russian media in exile, that complacency falls flat. The 21st century contains a radically different model for state media: It can be classically great TV. Russia’s government-controlled television (two state-owned channels and a state-controlled one) have become fast-moving, glamorous, and intense. The motion graphics are great. Even RT, the little-watched English-language spinoff, looks pretty good, undermined only by the randomness of the commentators who the channel Skypes in from their mothers’ basements in the service of propaganda goals.
In the the US, most of the the pro-Trump media isn't just failing to break news and get its facts straight; it's also failing on aesthetic and technical grounds. Some of it feels like spam; some of it hews to gritty authenticity; and some looks more like older generations of state-run programming than it is the new Russian model — grim panels of party officials and colonels repeating propaganda talking points. Some of it is, like those, underwritten by ideologues and thus largely free of the need to make money, or the pressure to build an audience that comes with that. Others are simply aimed at a narrow demographic: elderly Americans. Fox News can be effective propaganda, but those realities and the demographic realities of linear television limit its spread. It’s no more likely to broaden its appeal than Tony Bennett is to wind up in the top 40.
Here, for instance, ousted Trump aide Boris Epshteyn goes up against John Oliver. He’s no John Oliver:
There are exceptions: Alex Jones spends lavishly on production, and it shows; Mike Cernovich is figuring out publishers' Facebook tricks. It’s easy to think that media in service of power must always be like this.
But the warning from Russia is that it can be amazing — glossy and funny and slick, and run by smart, cynical people who know what they’re doing. Gary Shteyngart’s great, drunken immersion in Russian media captures some of this, as does David Filipov’s account of his appearance as a punching bag: “You feel like you’re a rock star playing the Colosseum; then when you get out there, you realize it’s the Roman era, you’re a Christian, and you’re performing for a Colosseum filled with hungry lions.”
And Russian TV is great TV because it didn’t emerge from some serious-minded political technology think tank under the Kremlin. It emerged, as the editor-in-chief of the Russian news site Meduza, Ivan Kolpakov, pointed out in an interview on our NewsFeed podcast, from the ugly, corrupt, and extremely commercial Russian 1990s. Initially clunky and behind the times, it played aggressive catchup, and has held onto that commercial streak even as it has migrated back into the hands of the state.
How good is it? Kolpakov recalled a visit to his family in Perm, in the Urals, back in 2015, where the TV was a constant presence. “A couple days later, I really felt that fascists conquered Kiev, that they’re killing our guys in Donbass, and the European Union is fucked up.”
There are other astonishingly high quality Russian propaganda efforts, all of it now “cross-language and cross-platform,” as a Latvian journalist, Rita Ruduša, noted recently. Some of this is, well, BuzzFeedy: Classic nostalgia images of “then and now” that spread on Facebook among people who don’t realize the source is government funded. Ishmael Daro reported last year on one such page, called In The Now (which started as an RT show), that seamlessly mixes disinformation about Syria with memes and cute animals. NATO recently put out a report titled “Stratcom Laughs” on the effective uses of humor in Russian strategic communications. (The report is not a laugh riot.)
Others update a more traditional Soviet propaganda style for the YouTube age, like this astonishing video justifying Russian empire-building along the lines of the British “white man’s burden.”
The era of filter bubbles has demonstrated just how far people will stretch their logic to consume media they want to believe, even if it comes from preposterous fake outlets. The notion of a state media with all the resources and technical quality of the real one isn’t something to take lightly.
“The most complicated thing is that some part of the audience understands that it’s a fake reality but they are consuming it nevertheless,” said Kolpakov. “They choose it.”
And there’s no reason to think that the Trump movement won’t be able to make media of this technical quality. Indeed, Trump’s political career was born from groundbreaking, high-quality reality television, and perhaps his most important campaign supporter was its founder, Mark Burnett. Trump is currently flailing as president but succeeding as a kind of White House reality show; what happens when they learn to produce it?
Ben Smith is the editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed and is based in New York.
Contact Ben Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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