Irony Curtain: On Miscommunication, Ukraine and Crimea
This post begins a new series about miscommunication and media wars, which we feel are pitting Russia and the West into what people are describing as the New Cold War.
We would like to generate a balanced discussion—but we are not, and nor do we aspire to be, a political blog. The best we can do is share links to different articles offering informed commentaries, and some of our thoughts. Stay tuned. This is our introduction.
Image from the cover of the english edition of Guy Debord's Society of the Spectacle.
Dealing with A Difficult Relationship
In many ways, the media reports analyzing the unfolding situation in and around Ukraine highlight the problems of any dramatic and unstable relationship. Anyone outside of the region trying to educate themselves on the issue finds it difficult, because of the lack of a shared language, which creates an information and communication barrier. There is also a very disparate cultural history and context which separates Russia and Ukraine from the West, and much of the rest of the world. All these things need to be considered.
Most major media outlets and journalists do not seem to be helping the case around misinformation and miscommunication. They fuel the spectacle by reporting in a manner that is demanded (and welcomed) by their audiences, and not necessarily with the aim of generating a balanced discussion. Unfortunately, these media spectacles can result in a real war.
Whoever Controls the Media Controls the Mind?
The situation of reporting about Russia, Ukraine and the Crimea, highlight the short-comings of the mainstream media, and the need for reliable alternative sources of information, particularly for Russia and post-Soviet spaces. The coverage of the 2014 Sochi Olympics was an example of poor journalism resulting in a media spectacle, with reporters dwelling on shortcomings and making fun of situations they were unaccustomed to. These misunderstandings, while somewhat understandable, are not excusable. In the last year we have witnessed shutdowns of non-state media outlets in Russia, but people's voices are still accessible on the internet and through social media.
Not long after the Olympics, media coverage began of the situation in Ukraine and then in Crimea—both of which are extremely complicated—but are once again being understood only in extremes. There is little balanced discussion, and a lot of misinformation based on the original Cold War and its sentiments. An example of this is in the maps explaining Ukraine and the Crimea by major media outlets like The New York Times. Recently, a lack of knowledge about Ukraine and even the Crimea was reflected in the Washington Post's survey of American's, asking them where Ukraine is.
Beyond Propaganda—What is 'Good' Information?
An op-ed in The Moscow Times suggested that this information war and lack of quality information is the fault of the mass media, which does not choose to speak to academicians or experts with balanced opinions, but only extremists who fit the sensationalized desire for shocking news. And we agree.
In such an emotionally charged situation, issues are being amplified by the media on both sides. Not just online, but also offline. Urban interventions in the streets are highlighting various points of view from both sides. The tools of street art are being used to express political sentiments to the public.
The lack of quality information and discussions being communicated help to fuel and represent World War III—an information war, based on who controls the media and how they manipulate it. This, however, also presents an opportunity for independent voices to be heard, and we hope to fill this space. But so far, it has only brought out extremes in the form of patriots and dissidents. No one likes to hear discussions that are reasonable, and to be heard means to take an extreme position. Perhaps this is an unfortunate reality of our times. The emotional tension caused by the situation is reflected even on social media platforms like Facebook, where people began removing friends who disagreed with their opinions.
UK-based Calvert Journal has tried to get a variety of different view-points by asking cultural figures to respond, as well as leading international journalists based in Moscow. They also were among the first to start a discussion with a more diverse group of experts about the future of Russian media. We think that people need to stop consuming propaganda and be encouraged to think critically about the information they are being presented with. And while it is easy, it is not enough to blame just one person (Putin) for a complex situation at the intersection of historic, cultural, political and media ecologies. The best we can (and should) try to do is reflect, discuss, and use our own actions as a means for change.
Activism, Like-tivism: From Online to Offline and Vice Versa
Our colleagues have spoken about WWIII starting because of the situation in the Crimea, but it has already begun in the media and on social media. And the calls for peace also began in the same space. PeaceFace, a project by Marijka Semenenko, is an online activism project which reflects the trouble with social media like-tivism translating into real action. Her first post on facebook generated a tremendous amount of support, but her demands for participation in a photography project thereafter generated little involvement. The positive sentiment generated response is difficult to ignore, and the reality of inaction is also a reality to be considered. What makes it interesting is that in a sense it is trying to connect online and offline realities, which remains the point of these kinds of actions; and, it creates an interesting perspective regarding the role of social media in times of conflict and change.
The question we are left with is this: while it is easy to do anything and everything on Facebook, including demonstrate activist tendencies, how do you translate these discussions into changes in the real world? And in such a time, how can people learn to discuss and think critically for themselves, rather than simply create a market for the media?
There is a difference between doing what is 'popular' and creating intelligent dialogue in the media. Popularity won't necessarily get respect in the long-term, and being intelligent may mean saying or doing things that people may not have the capacity to deal with. But the two can be resolved. And hopefully, people will try and make informed opinions for themselves and focus on their ability to think / act critically and independently, despite a media and propaganda dominated world. We hope, with this series, that we can create an alternative source of information and alternative discussions on the issue.