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Of Presidents and Propaganda

“It’s a 77 minute lobotomy.” With these (somewhat apologetic) words, filmmaker Maxim Pozdorovkin opened a Panel R15: Russian Propaganda within the Global Engine of Fake News, a fascinating post-screening discussion about his documentary Our New President. Indeed, as these words suggest, the film is jarring, in terms of its visuals, editing style, and content alike. Through a disconcerting blend of found footage—encompassing news broadcasts, amateur YouTube videos, and more—this documentary illustrates the emergence of a hero cult and media spectacle surrounding Donald Trump in Russian media, as well as how this discourse is applied and felt among ordinary Russians. Over the course of this panel during Session 7 (Friday, May 3), the film sparked an in-depth conversation among Pozdorovkin, moderator Dominque Arel (U of Ottawa, Canada), and panelists Joshua Tucker (NYU, US), Jesse Driscoll (UC San Diego, US), Gulnaz Sharafutdinova (King’s College London, UK), and Samuel Greene (King’s College London, UK). These participants explored multiple, provocative lines of inquiry, including the nature of so-called fake news and the present-day media environment, as well as the emotional and political power of the documentary medium itself.

The panel began with a look at the process of creating the documentary. When asked how he assembled a film from a trove of seemingly disparate footage, Pozdorovkin affirmed that the documentary was truly “the strangest film” in terms of editing. He then explained that, from the inception of the film, he wanted to approach Trump’s election without contributing to “media cult” surrounding him. Pozdorovkin elaborated on how and why he selected the content included in the film, noting that most people featured in so-called “amateur” video content, like those posted by ordinary people on YouTube, had no personal experience with America. The film’s utilization of found footage therefore created a hermetic vessel, divorced from national memory and personal ties, where one can observe how disinformation travels. Pozdorovkin likewise commented on the jarring and at times unsettling nature of the disinformation presented in the film, as well as the fast-paced editing style. “Movies,” he said, “are a terrible medium for saying anything, but they are a wonderful medium for feeling things.” Essentially, the film does not merely tell why fake news is so corrosive, but makes audiences see and feel its damaging effects. In fact, Pozdorovkin and the discussants suggested that the film is a microcosm of how the dissemination of disinformation from the Kremlin works. “The success of meddling is in the media spectacle,” Pozdorovkin explained. In fact, Pozdorovkin explicitly drew on his background in propaganda studies, stating that since the advent of, say, World War II-era propaganda aimed at injecting a particular message into audiences, present-day disinformation now aspires to broad disorientation among the public. The absence of a clear narrative or smoking gun to find permanence and understanding amid the tide of information is precisely what makes Kremlin-sanctioned meddling effective, Pozdorovkin concluded.

This analysis prompted an intriguing question from Greene. “These things,” Greene said, referencing the flow of news and disinformation surrounding Trump’s election, “move so fast.” Audiences, he continued, have been through so many aspects of this story. Some parts of it feel like distant memories, even though they only took place a year ago. For Greene, the film closely reflects the reality of what we’ve been through as a society: meddling seemingly aimed at overwhelming the public with information, so that we cannot focus on anything or make sense of it all. Other participants and panel attendees echoed Greene’s views, with one audience member remarking that the film’s style visually pulls the viewer in, echoing the manner in which outrage-provoking fake news and clickbait draws our attention. This realization led Greene to the government take-over of NTV, a prominent Russian broadcaster, depicted in the film as the beginning of the end for participatory democracy in post-Soviet Russia. Greene inquired, what role did the public play in this development? He explained that when it comes to fake news as a phenomenon, attempts to understanding the apparent prevalence of disinformation often emphasize the role of the elite and not that of the public. We rely on the idea that we consume information then do something with it, such as going out to vote, Greene said, but in reality, we often consume news to situate ourselves socially. The news is what we talk about with our colleagues, at the kitchen table, and on social media. In this context, the truthfulness of information is largely irrelevant.

Pozdorovkin echoed Greene’s sentiment, citing a news clip used in the film which cast Trump as a “troubled teenager from Brooklyn.” This biographical oversight, in Pozdorovkin’s view, is a hard mistake to make by accident, yet its inclusion in the news has no clear political motivation—aside from contributing to public distrust and exhaustion with regard to news media. After all, Pozdorovkin said, “if you get a barrage of inconsistent information, you will give up [making information-based decisions] and make your decisions based on emotion.” With respect to Greene’s question on the role of the public in these processes, Pozdorovkin replied that he wanted his film to not simply show that ordinary Russians view and interact with fake information, but to demonstrate how they internalize these false statements. He cites a YouTube video, shown as part of the film, where a boy in Siberia proclaims that Trump’s victory proves that women cannot become state leaders. The video’s salience, for Pozdorovkin, does not lie in what the boy seems to think of Trump, but in how he thinks about women. This “informed pseudo-intellectual position on the world” holds tangible effects for the women—sisters, cousins, classmates, neighbours—in the boy’s life. Rather than truthfulness, Pozdorovkin explains, it is this process of internalization, as well as the spectacle and performativity which, for Pozdorovkin, contribute the spread of fake news, that is key to understanding how audiences perceive, feel, and use disinformation.

This response ignited a thought-provoking debate about the nature of fake news and why some audience members appear to believe seemingly absurd disinformation, revealing several insightful tensions within this emerging field of study. Some participants brought divergent viewpoints on the mechanisms behind the production and dissemination of fake news on the part of professional or state-affiliated content creators. Driscoll, for instance, argued that it is easy to think of a fake news as a loop of black boxes, with disinformation following from troll factories, to the Internet sphere, on to alt-right and their media, and back to the trolls who create or repurpose fake content. The film’s important contribution to understanding this process, Driscoll argues, involves its focus on mainstream broadcasters—the very same caricatured liberal media which the alt-right is criticizing. For Driscoll, these stations help to perpetuate the myth of Russia’s soft power and its supposedly powerful propaganda machine abroad, stating “MSCNBC is just as complicit as Fox News in blowing it out of proportion…it is just as good as making you feel something as Fox News.” To counter disinformation, Driscoll argues, the West must realize that ““soft power is our advantage” and lean into its tendency to succeed in areas related to arts, entertainment, and communications at home and elsewhere. For his part, Pozdorovkin related Driscoll’s perspective to the motivations of fake content creators. Thinks content creators’ motivations are split. Some of them, Pozdorovkin said, are likely very cynical and think of the content production process as a mere job without a larger political mission, yet others view the perceived cultural hegemony of the West, and in particular the United States, as a problem. They believe that they are justified in doing anything to undermine it, including disinformation campaigns.

Conversely, Greene argued that scholars ought to turn away from political news producers to focus on formal political institutions themselves. He stated that as government austerity has become the new norm, the growing public belief that the government is ineffective regardless of the person or group in power has prompted audiences to disengage from political processes, leaving the political information cycle as a source of discussion and entertainment, instead of a tool for prospective voters to understand the political landscape.

Sharafutdinova tempered this viewpoint by noting that rather than suggesting political disengagement, “this film is an illustration of how geopolitics have become an important part of everyday Russians’ lives.” Sharafutdinova directed the conversation toward the question of how and why audience members interact with fake news, asking Pozdorovkin how he perceived the motivations of those who seem to buy into false information. She was intrigued by how Russians across the lines of age and gender took Trump’s election so personally and appeared to embrace the cult hero narrative articulated in state-approved media. Why was this the case and is it unique to Russia, or are there examples elsewhere? she asked, noting that “intellectual laziness” is posited as a cause for belief in fake news within the United States.

Interestingly, Pozdorovkin took issue with the term “intellectual laziness,” saying that it seems to ascribe blame to the individual instead of what he sees as the main crux of the fake news phenomenon: the medium itself. He argued that when information is predominantly algorithmically distributed, one’s belief in it is more or less irrelevant and only one’s level of engagement matters, regardless of motivation. This aspect of the media environment is why the theatricality of content platforms such as YouTube is key to the distribution of fake news. Although, as Greene pointed out, disinformation and mass media are not new phenomena, Pozdorovkin contended that algorithmic distribution is innovative not in that it huge behaviourist infrastructure, largely free of editorial guidelines, thereby producing a “deeply uncomfortable” black box with pertinent psychological effects.

Tucker offered another viewpoint on the phenomenon. He stated that his research on affective polarization (or, simply put “how much you dislike supporters of the other party,” in his words) shows little evidence of a correlation between new media and this process, whether in the form of a supposed rise in attention-grabbing headlines calibrated to exploit distribution algorithms or through the formation of echo chambers. Due to incidental exposure through social networks, Tucker said, audiences are in much less of an echo chamber on social media compared to cable television, which affords viewers greater degree of selectivity. Pozdorovkin’s film, after all, noted that most Russians get their news from television.

In fact, Pozdorovkin explained, social media overlaps with televised media. Putin, said Pozdorovkin, often repeats that RT is the most popular channel in terms of YouTube views. This statement seems odd, given that other news channels tend to make money off of selling footage and keeping it behind paywalls, but RT’s YouTube channel makes it easy for the public to make use of its content. In fact, this is why RT is important to understanding trolls’ behaviour. While troll accounts rarely link directly to RT, as Tucker noted, the vast amount of available, high quality footage from RT can be utilized and repackaged to create fake content. This opportunity is a significant one, said Pozdorovkin, because if one watches the first few seconds of a video and observes a high quality, newsroom setting, these elements psychologically trick one into trusting the video.

This led to a discussion about whether this apparent shift the media spectacle surrounding Trump has parallels elsewhere. Although some panelists noted that the media emphasis on Trump and the US elections is consistent with the Kremlin’s tendency to focus news media on foreign, rather than domestic, affairs and to aggrandize its position in global politics, audience members and panelists cited examples of other foreign leaders who drew praise from publics abroad. While he noted that disinformation is a global phenomenon, Pozdorovkin pointed to the apparent cognitive dissonance between Russian state-sanctioned media’s praise for Trump and his contradictory post-election behaviour. Pozdorovkin and Tucker both suggested that the Kremlin’s pre-election narrative was more anti-Hillary Clinton than pro-Trump, with Trump seeming to represent a convenient rallying point for anti-Clinton content. After building Trump up as a cult hero, however, the Russian authorities now have to not only contend with his jarring behaviour, but have produced a narrative in the news which idolizes Trump while continuing to condemn the West in the form of a so-called “deep state” surrounding and undermining the President.

This discussion prompted an audience question as to whether Pozdorovkin’s analysis of propaganda suggests a skepticism toward the effectiveness of individual agency. Pozdorovkin answered that the prospect of individual action to counter disinformation lies in the film itself. The documentary, he said, utilizes selects the most absurd tropes and stories from a vast library of footage, pushing fake news to its most ostentacious limits to show the audience how ridiculous this disinformation is.

In turn, moderator Dominique Arel asked whether the medium constitutes a new way of sparking social and political conversations. Pozdorovkin replied that documentaries and written documents may sometimes share similar tendencies, describing certain films as little more than “illustrated versions of New Yorker articles.” For him, however, documentaries’ potential to open up new discussion channels lies in their “qualitative aspect.” While feelings and ideas like “human dignity” can feel overwrought and trite in writing, Pozdorovkin said, they can be fully felt through how a film assembles visuals, sound, editing, and narrative into a cohesive, moving whole. As a matter of fact, the discussion implied that film may have a meaningful role to play in countering the disinformation process.

Pozdorovkin noted that the difficulty of talking about—and devising solutions for—this issue stems from the lack of vocabulary to talk about the concept of fake news. This gap stems from many factors, such as the obscurity of the relevant technologies and the relative newness of these phenomena. If Pozdorovkin’s film is any indication, however, documentary may offer a new visual and emotional language to discuss fake news. In the words of Pozdorovkin himself, “Can you tell this story everyone knows so well using only false statements? If you can accomplish this, then you know everything you need to know about the news environment.”

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