A bomb is a bomb is a bomb?

Rusian war fotage Syria

We’ve been blathering on about the superior quality of recent Russian war footage for months, so it’s nice to see that France 2 apparently agrees with us.

RT just caught them passing off footage of Russian bombing raids as NATO film stock.

Read the background and see the video here. No wonder the Russians have been taking such pains over copyrighting their material.

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Images of the Year, 2015

Last year’s winners were relatively frivolous, reflecting a new, more casual, more boisterous way of doing politics that accompanied the rise of the BRICS. Top of the list was the Natalia Poklonskaya fanart, symbolising the changing ways in which citizens interact with politicians and political events (and also because mmmmmm Natalia Poklonskaya). Second came Angela Merkel’s Caxton Street selfie, representing the same phenomenon but also the new breed of populist personality politics. Third was the razzmatazz surrounding the APPEC Summit in Beijing, in there to show how the rising states tend to lack the Western modesty and or embarrassment about openly taking pleasure in wealth and power.

This year’s winners?

Well most people would probably go for that photo of Aylan Kurdi.

Aylan Kurdi

However, it really says a great deal more about Western social media trends than about Asian politics, which rules it out for the purposes of this blog. On the other hand, the Charlie Hebdo cartoon satirising the Western attitude to refugees that was immediately seized upon as being anti-Muslim did make the short list:

Charlie Hebdo Aylan Kurdi

However, this blog deliberately focuses on high-level power politics and the way that this is expressed and understood. This year has seen a certain amount of settling, familiarisation and concretisation of the phenomena that first hit the limelight last year. The rise and rise of Donald Trump has gone a certain way towards confirming that populist personality politics is here to stay, even in the West. With this, however, audiences have also grown more cynical and calculating regarding its manifestations. Last year we were – to a large extent – blown away by all the showbiz glitz and renewed joie de vivre on the part of our leaders. Now we’ve had time to think about it, we’ve also begun to look beneath the surface. While we’re still impressed (cynically impressed, for the most part, but still impressed) by all the swag, we’re also aware that beneath it all decisions are being made and strategies played out that will change all of our futures, whether for better or worse.

That’s why this year’s winner is a group of pictures, namely every image tweeted under the #ModiFindsCamera hashtag, which began after video footage came out showing Modi literally dragging Mark Zuckerberg out of the way of the photographers.

The #ModiFindsCamera phenomenon wins because it shows that while people are still impressed by this new-style politics, they’re impressed because they can see the skill and calculation that goes into it, not because they’re deceived by the show.

And while we’re on the Modi theme, another honourable mention has to go to the brilliantly telling (not to mention sinister) pictures of Modi standing by while David Cameron serves as his warm-up act at Wembley:

Modi at Wembley

Which leads us on to second prize…

While last year’s political swag had a certain amount of because-we-can exuberance to it, this year the displays have tended to be more purposeful (though this hasn’t always been the case). The message has generally been more focused and clearer, even brutal in many cases. This is why second prize goes to the picture of Xi Jinping’s jet being escorted by JF-17s during a visit to Pakistan:

Xi Jinping visits Pakistan

Also, because it’s just fucken awesome

There is nothing I can add here that will better explain the message intended by this gesture than the image itself. It’s almost feudal: Pakistan is deliberately casting itself in the role of vassal, but accompanying this with such an immediately impressive display of military capacity (yes, I know it’s just eight JF-17s, but that’s not your first thought when you see it, and it’s the instinctive reaction that counts) that it nevertheless retains its dignity. The impression is more of a samurai retainer or a mob boss’ enforcer than of cringing neo-colonialism. Everything about the display works and is deeply satisfying.

So…

Third place goes to another incredibly well-done piece of military image-crafting, this time from Russia. It’s gritty, brutal and immediate, but it’s also a media product, created with an aesthetic underpinning and an intention to use skill and artistry to produce a specific response.

Russiaworks Syria video

As we said at the time “Who knew reality could be this beautiful?”

Frustratingly, since the video was first published the team that made it seems to have signed some sort of rights deal to restrict the availability of their footage online. For the time being, you can watch it here, though the link may go down at any time. There are also some other videos available on their website.

It’s in there not just as a tribute to the success with which the Russian leadership has been able to sell its own Syrian narrative via the media, but also as a stand-in for all the other brilliant, witty, perceptive and creative Russian media experiments that have kept us amused and impressed throughout the year.

Finally, an honourable mention has to go to the coverage of Lee Kuan Yew’s funeral.

LKY funeral

LKY funeral

LKY funeral

LKY funeral

LKY was genuinely one of a kind, so the reactions to his death cannot be said to be symptomatic of wider global trends (though they did include weather modification, which is one of the big political stage-management trends in Asia at the moment). Nevertheless, we predict that with greater insecurity and a return to personality politics, we will be seeing more of this sort of thing in coming years.

So that’s that. Think we missed anything? Please comment!

 

Brand Identity Theft

山寨 (shanzhai) is a Chinese word for a particularly Chinese product: knock-offs. They look pretty much the same, but there’s generally something ever-so-slightly off.

Shanzhai Lamborghini

Seems legit.

Well over the past year or so, CCTV’s foreign social media has gradually been turning into a shanzhai version of Russia Today. We’ve observed this before, but one particular facebook post made today seems like a milestone in the transformation.

As part of the RTification of CCTV we’ve tended to get a lot of footage from Chinese tv talent shows. This is because the Chinese authorities would love to be able to mobilize the viral video phenomenon in the same way that RT did. However, while RT had the balls to play up to national stereotypes by making itself a go-to source for meanwhile-in-Russia videos, the powers that be ruling CCTV are less willing to take risks, and hence wary of posting videos that might make China look bad. Or, more realistically, wary of posting videos that a 60 year-old CCP cadre might think might make China look bad.

So we get Cultural Artifacts, weird stuff happening abroad that has nothing to do with China, and the aforementioned talent shows. Lots and lots of talent shows.

And it’s moderately interesting – certainly compared to actually watching CCTV News in Chinese – but it’s no bear-riding-in-a-taxi.

Meanwhile in Russia

Meanwhile in Russia…

Today, however, they seem to have taken things a step forward:

CCTV Facebook

Link.

The only reason the post embedded above stands out is because it’s moderately sarcastic. It’s not actually sarcastic, obviously, but they’re clearly testing the waters. CCTV’s transformation has been much more gradual than RT’s was, and it appears that the authorities will only allow daring experiments such as this at very widely spaced intervals. Nevertheless, it is happening. When you compare CCTV now with what it was just a few years ago, the difference is impressive. It’s grown more open, but it’s also grown far slicker. Which raises the question: which is better, propaganda that can easily be seen through or real news content presented in such a way as to manipulate the audience?

Interestingly, I happened to mention the RTification of CCTV to a friend who works in the Chinese media. He replied, “Oh yes. The CCTV executives go to Russia every year for training.”

You read it here first

Philippe Verdier

Since we covered Philippe Verdier’s move to RT France, it has been covered not only by RT’s English language site, but also US conservative site The Daily Caller:

France’s Top Weatherman Hired By Kremlin After Being Fired For Questioning Global Warming

France’s top weatherman has found a new gig after being fired in November for questioning global warming in his new book: he’s working for Russian state-owned media.

French news outlet Le Figaro reports Philippe Verdier is covering the United Nations climate summit in Paris for Russia Today France. Verdier has a daily news segment dedicated to covering what goes on during the U.N. climate talks.

(continues…)

(Though they don’t provide the first-rate analysis and super-fast translation that we do.)

Interestingly, they’re tending to portray Verdier as a climate sceptic, which he isn’t – he just objects to the UN climate science establishment and their hooplah.

Meanwhile, the French backlash has been covered by the local edition of Huffpo (appropriately, since is is pretty much the Western liberal equivalent of RT), which describes Verdier’s coverage of the COP21 summit as “free” (their quotes, not mine) and features a video of a selection of other French weather presenters doing a hatchet job on him.

Translation:

Clip of Verdier speaking: “The climate summit is also a great opportunity to finish the year on a high-note, by avoiding discussions of subjects likely to get people angry: notably, unemployment, where the figures are very bad.”
Presenter: “Do you have anything to say to that?”
Laurent Bodin: “Of course.”
*laughter*
Presenter: “He wasn’t being climate-sceptic there. He was just raising questions. Is that not allowed?”
Catherine Laborde: “It’s all old news that. It’s just that, like, it’s old news. That’s not what matters. What matters is what happening now, with all of these people coming together, who are trying to work together to do something to save the planet.”
Laurent Romejko: “You can’t question it. Scientific monitoring has been carried out for many years now. It’s been observed…”
Catherine Laborde: “He’s way, way behind the times.”
Laurent Romejko: “And we’re not going to discuss it any more.”
Catherine Laborde: “Yeah.”
Laurent Romejko: “That’s what it seems like to me.”
Presenter: “As if they brought 150 heads of state here just to avoid talking about unemployment. The guy’s a bit pathetic.”

Question More

You may remember this guy:

Jonathan Pie

 

Link.

In fact, he isn’t a real reporter losing his shit on tv (though there’s a good chance that the viral content aggregation site where you originally saw the video told you that he was). In fact, he’s a comedian called Tom Walker.

After this clip went viral, he subsequently made a whole lot more on a similar theme. Russia Today was involved in some capacity, whether they actually helped produce the original skit or merely commissioned him to produce more after the first one succeeded.

We’ve covered Russia Today’s cheerfully anarchic promotion of any and all alternative (and “alternative”) viewpoints before, and this series of sketches isn’t that new, so what gives?

Well it’s suddenly become relevant because RT’s French channel just began a series of reports featuring Philippe Verdier giving his own views on the COP21 climate conference. If you’ve never heard of Verdier before (and if you’re not French then there’s no reason why you should) he used to present the weather on France 2, until he was fired for publishing a book expressing mildly sceptical views regarding the environmentalist lobby.

Philippe Verdier

 

You can watch the first in the series here.

Quick and dirty translation:

Hello. I’m very happy to be here speaking to you freely every day about the COP21 summit on RT France. So… the family photo of around 140 world leaders standing side by side with François Hollande… The French President has been waiting for this for a long time, it’s a rare moment, an historical moment; we’ve never seen such participation on the part of global VIPs in a conference on climate change. It even feels like there’s a climate emergency happening right now. That’s not necessarily true, however. This conference happens every year at the same time. This is the 21st – that’s why it’s called COP21. If there’s any emergency, it’s more to do with foreign relations and politics. There was no follow-up on the Kyoto Protocol that was decided upon at the end of the 1990s, and if there’s nothing to follow on from that then it’s not the ice shelves that are going to collapse, but rather climate change diplomacy. We’re here at the Eiffel Tower next to the Peace Wall because I would like to remind you of something. In 2007 the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Al Gore and the IPCC – the group of climate change experts that was incorporated into the UN. They said this: “If we don’t deal with climate change, if the Earth continues to warm up, there’ll be a greater risk of wars.” However, other observers have pointed out that the past 20 years have been some of the hottest on record, but also a reduction in the number of wars and the number of victims of warfare. It’s a reasonable question to ask during the COP21 summit: were they right or not? The French people haven’t been taken in by the COP21: a recent survey showed that around three quarters of people think that if an agreement is reached following the COP21 summit, it will simply be a greenwash, and that it is mostly being driven by electoral considerations. We know that President Hollande ws elected with the help of the green vote; he needed their help and invited them to join his first cabinet, before getting rid of them. Now, with the Presidential elections of 2017 approaching, he needs to win back the green vote, particularly in light of the declining inluence of the Green Party. What’s more, the climate change issue also gives him a chance to finish the year on a high note, allowing him to avoid discussion of vexatious subjects like unemployment – where the numbers are looking extremely bad. See you tomorrow.

RT, of course, has never had a particular editorial line on climate change (it enthuses over heartwarming pro-environment stories just as happily as it reports climate sceptic conspiracy theories). It doesn’t really have an editorial line on anything that doesn’t affect Russian foreign interests, but it will happily jump on other people’s anti-authority narratives wherever it finds them (it takes a similar approach to the Palestinians).

That’s not the interesting part, however. The interesting part is that it’s applying the exact same strategy using a helpful comedian and a genuine-if-disaffected reporter, and apparently achieving a broadly similar effect in both cases. Verdier’s piece has not had the same viral coverage as Walker’s skits, but he has had a certain amount of support (and a few criticisms) on Twitter:

(The message reads “Thank you @RTenfrancais for letting me cover my 4th COP summit freely and with no weasel words”.)

And on Facebook:

Philippe Verdier RT

Link.

(The comment above reads “Dissidence has found a political asylum.”)

These people are geniuses. I’m deadly serious: RT, if you have any jobs going, message me. I want in on this. No money required; to sit at your feet and absorb your brilliance will suffice.

Russia Today: dangerously enjoyable

Remember when we deconstructed this puerile-but-amusing gag from Russia Today, involving adding the Pink Panther theme to footage of an awkward guy trying to eavesdrop on a private conversation between Obama and Putin?

Awkward spy

Turns out we weren’t the only ones in stitches. It was picked up by Have I Got News for You (fast forward to 9:06). Check out the BBC and RT logos in that screengrab above.

If you don’t know what Have I Got News for You is, it’s kind of like the British version of the Daily Show but more politically neutral. It’s extremely popular and very influential.

This is all the more interesting because the show has regular digs at Russia in general (later on in that episode they get a good five minutes’ worth of material out of a story about cheating Russian athletes). The lesson for any PR professional is clear: no one can resist funny internet videos. No one.

If the Russian team had complained about poor security at the G20, mostly no one would have listened, maybe one or two people would have accused them of paranoia. Putting a gag video on the internet makes sure everyone knows.

Here’s something confusing for a Monday morning

Putin gun

Sure, but what’s the margin of error?

Here’s an odd little tale. Just recently this story has popped up in the Russian media:

Early in the morning , I heard an intriguing piece of news on Russian state TV: America loves Putin even more than Russians do themselves! He enjoys an 88 percent approval rating in Russia, but the figure is higher in the United States, the report on Rossia 24 television said.

“A lot has already been said about the incumbent [U.S.] president’s low ratings, a night news anchor said. “He has just been dealt a new below-the-belt blow. An opinion poll by the popular New York Daily News shows that U.S. citizens liked Vladimir Putin’s speech at the General Assembly session better than [Barack] Obama’s speech. Ninety-six percent voted for the Russian president and, accordingly, only 4 percent voted for the American president.”

Link. (I’m not entirely sure why it’s suddenly gained in popularity now, since the original poll and the initial reports on it came out over a month ago.)

If you want the RIA Novosti version, you can find it here.

The story has been picked up by various US right wingers:

Though some sites both in the US and Russia have been more cynical, speculating that the win may have been the result of voting by Russian 50 cent parties or even that the whole thing was a fabrication. Meanwhile, the armchair generals of Reddit have congratulated themselves soundly on seeing through the propaganda.

This is intriguing for a couple of reasons:

Firstly, it’s interesting to see the different spin put on the information by the different media outlets, largely because it reflects the way in which Russia’s PR guys take care to modify their message based on the kind of audience they’re targeting. For instance, while domestic and foreign media use similar techniques and have a similar ethos behind them, the aesthetics and the tone is entirely different. Domestic PR appears ridiculously unsubtle to foreign eyes but in fact plays relatively well to the sort of domestic audiences on whom the sly nudge-nudge-wink-wink tone of something like Russia Today would be largely lost.

If what the blogger says is correct, Rossiya 24 was reporting this as a straight-down-the-line popularity poll, which it obviously isn’t. They can get away with it, however, because they know that 99.99% of their audience isn’t going to go online and check. By contrast, Ria Novosti – which tends to target a more serious, grown-up audience – has given one of the more restrained versions of the story, sticking to the facts without trying to make it sound more than it is. Nevertheless, it has reported it – something that you wouldn’t necessarily expect a serious, grown-up news agency to do for every tinpot little online survey. Perversely, RIA Novosti manages to give the tale more credibility by the mere fact of covering it, even while Rossiya 24 is doing the exact opposite.

Secondly, its an excellent example of how Russia’s soft power strategies have developed under Putin. (Soft power is an over-used term;Russia’s media strategy in recent years is one of the few phenomena that merits it.)

Usually, when you are running a PR campaign you decide on a message you want to put across and then look for the best way to do so. The Russians have not taken this path. Instead they provide us with dozens of different possible messages, theories, conspiracies and hints and allow us to pick the one we like best, while nevertheless leaving us uncertain as to whether or not we have picked correctly.

Even the green-black-and-silver aestehtics of the RT site are borrowed straight from The Matrix, something which its intended audience will definitely register at least on a subconscious level, purely because it is such a familiar part of the demographic’s visual vernacular.

Russia Today aesthetics

There is no spoon

As a strategic response to the widespread perception that the “Washington Consensus” has imposed a single narrative on the world, it is a stroke of genius – like something made up by Umberto Eco (or, more probably, by Vladislav Surkov). They’re just providing alternatives: who could possibly object to that? Their slogan is “question more” because they want us to do just that: ask questions, not come up with answers.

The other side of the coin, obviously, is that when all truths are possible, no possibility is definitively true. The cat is both dead and alive at the same time. In other words, the same strategy works equally well to legitimise alternative narratives as to sew confusion.

Moreover, this is approach to mass communications is not simply a sort of invisibility cloak to conceal whatever is really going on inside the Russian state. It is what is going on inside the Russian state. The maintenance of perpetual uncertainty is central to the current government’s management strategies.

To pick one example: the rumour that Putin funds his own opposition has been doing the rounds for ages. It could be entirely true (it’s what I’d do if I was an autocrat, and if I’ve thought of it then he certainly has), or it could be made up to induce paranoia at a relatively low cost.

I’ve even heard from people who should know that Putin’s PR team has, in the past, pressured polling organisations to reduce his popularity scores to make the numbers more democratically plausible. It could well be true, or they could be putting the rumour about purely in the hope that incorrigible gossips like me will repeat it as widely as possible. Either way: mission accoplished.

Meanwhile, at the State Department

maxresdefault

A few days ago I managed to extract a few gags from the badass Putin quote that turned out to be made up.

So, just to mix things up a bit, here’s a quote that sounds made up, but is in fact 100% kosher.

Today RT ran an incredulous sounding piece about Admiral John Kirby criticising Russia for not being committed to fighting ISIS. Here’s the key part:

An appeal to expand the US-led coalition fighting Islamic State came from French President Francois Hollande three days after deadly attacks in Paris a week ago. Stating that “France is at war,” Hollande called for the creation of a “large coalition,” which could unite forces with Russia “to achieve a result that has taken too long.”

The grand coalition is going to be the focus of separate talks President Hollande will have with his American and Russian counterparts in coming days. The French leader is expected to hold talks in Washington on November 24 and in Moscow on November 26.

However, the US State Department says that Russia’s involvement in the coalition would depend on Moscow’s“commitment.”

“But in order for that to work, every member of the coalition has to have the same focus on defeating ISIL, and thus far we, talking about Russia, haven’t seen that same commitment,” Kirby said, referring to Russia’s support for the Syrian President Bashar Assad. “It’s inconsistent with the goals of the coalition, which is to defeat ISIL, if you’re also propping up the Assad regime.”

Wat lady

Well it clearly makes no sense at all, so surely it must have been taken out of context, or had some caveats removed, or been messed about in some way?

Nope.

In fact, if you go and double check the quote on the State Department website, you’ll find that RT has, if anything, been generous on this one:

There is a 65-member coalition fighting ISIL. That’s the coalition. And as we’ve said before, if other nations not in the coalition want to join it and to be a part of it and to focus on the fight against ISIL, well, then that’s a conversation that we’re certainly willing to have with them. But in order for that to work, every member of the coalition has to have the same focus on defeating ISIL, and thus far – you talked about Russia – we haven’t seen that same commitment. It’s inconsistent with the goals of the coalition, which is to defeat ISIL, if you’re also propping up the Assad regime and flying missions in support of the Assad regime and helping the Assad regime stay in power. It’s simply inconsistent with the core goal of the coalition itself.

Not that this sort of chutzpah has not worked for the State Dept and related organs before. In 2003 70% of Americans thought that Saddam Hussein had ties to Al Qaeda. Over half of respondents to a Harris Interactive Poll in 2006 thought that Saddam Hussein had WMDs (a figure that had actually risen since the previous year). As far as PR techniques go hammering home clearly untrue information until it is believed is not a hugely subtle one, but it worked extremely well because it hits several well-known plausibility heuristics that most human thinking seems to share: simply put, if you don’t think too hard about it, almost any story about nefarious Middle Easterners getting up to dark deeds does sound more or less like the sort of thing that happens in real life. (These have been discussed here frequently before under the headings of “everything funds terrorism” and “that’s just not what crime does“.) Moreover, the Bush administration was extremely good at it because they were happy to keep up the repetion over a long time and – perhaps even more importantly – to keep the message simple: a statement of fact rather than an argument.

When it comes to applying this technique, the Democrats are hamstrung by what should be their biggest asset: their committment to being the brainy-but-honest party. The key message that they want to put across here, that supporting Bashar Al Assad is also in some way helping ISIS, is both too complex and too subtly propounded to have the impact they are hoping for. If they had merely said over and over and over again that Assad is supporting ISIS there is every chance that a substantial proportion of the US public would have ended up believing it. The second you question such a statement, it does, of course, reveal itself to be entirely ludicrous, but a large proportion of the audience would not question it.

Making a clever logic puzzle out of it (defeating ISIS is the key objective, ergo if you are doing anything in the region except bombing ISIS you are insufficiently committed to the task) must have pleased the Ivy Leaguers of the State Department no end, but doing so also invited the audience to think about it for themselves – the one thing that anyone using the sledgehammer approach to propaganda must avoid at all costs. People given a fact may very well accept it unquestioningly. People given a chain of causality will check it for flaws.

Slick moves

Watch this video with the sound on. It’s worth it.

It’s difficult to overstate how much I, as a connoisseur of fine PR, enjoy RT’s work.

I assume that this guy genuinely is a spy of some variety. Not just because he has the too-clean look of a secret policeman (he also looks like he’s openly wearing an earpiece, so he’s probably someone‘s security guy to start with, just going the extra mile with the aid of a retro manbag full of directional microphones), but also because I’m not convinced that RT would decide to out a complete stranger just for the hell of it – for all they know he could well turn out to be a Russian spook collecting audio of a supposedly off-the-record meeting.

Also let’s face it, most of the people in that shot look pretty shady to begin with. You could add the Pink Panther soundtrack to footage of any one of them and end up with something almost as hilarious. If they’re picking on this one individual, we can only assume it’s because they know who he is and want to fuck with his employers.