Everything is PR

The Weaponization of Information

We have gotten used to authoritarian regimes imposing “reality” on their subjects. George Orwell satirized this in his novel, 1984, labeling the techniques employed by the “thought police” as “newspeak” and “double think.” But what’s happening now in Russian politics is a step beyond that.

Vladislav Surkov is the author of “the new Russian system,” as recounted recently in The Atlantic, based on such postmodern ideas as “the breakdown of grand narratives, the impossibility of truth, how everything is only ‘simulacrum’ and ‘simulacra’.” Put somewhat more vulgarly: “Everything is PR.”

So he creates political parties, orchestrates demonstrations and book burnings, meets regularly with the heads of television channels to plan the news, decide who should be promoted or banned, crafting the language to be used. Certain key words are endlessly repeated to characterize the Putin regime: “stability,” “effective managers.”
He and his cohorts see themselves as “political technologists,” old fashioned viziers and Rasputins crossed with modern advertising consultants.

Such sophistication is “both cynical and enlightened,” advanced because it is based on the understanding that reality is ultimately unknowable. At the same time it is designed to confuse and mystify. As Orwell would have appreciated, it allows Surkov’s boss, Putin, to play his enemies against each other as he advances his agenda of totalitarian control.

The brilliance of this new type of authoritarianism is that instead of simply oppressing the opposition, “it climbs inside all ideologies and movements, exploiting and rendering them absurd. One moment Surkov would fund civic forums and human-rights NGOs, the next he would quietly support nationalist movements that accuse the NGOs of being tools of the West. With a flourish he sponsored lavish arts festivals for the most provocative modern artists in Moscow, then supported Orthodox fundamentalists, dressed all in black and carrying crosses, who in turn attacked the modern-art exhibitions. The Kremlin’s idea is to own all forms of political discourse, to not let any independent movements develop outside of its walls. Its Moscow can feel like an oligarchy in the morning and a democracy in the afternoon, a monarchy for dinner and a totalitarian state by bedtime.

Commenting on this same phenomenon, Politico noted that for these technicians, Putin is “nothing more than a set of colored pixels on a screen, morphing as rapidly as a performance artist among his roles of soldier, lover, bare-chested hunter, business man, spy, tsar, superman. ‘The news is the incense by which we bless Putin’s actions, make him the president,’ [his] TV producers and spin-doctors liked to say.”

In the words of Russian media analyst Vassily Gatov: “If the 20th century was defined by the battle for freedom of information and against censorship, the 21st century will be defined by malevolent actors, states or corporations, abusing the right to freedom of information for quite other ends.”

The previous regime went to “great lengths to make their forgeries look convincing.” But “now the Kremlin doesn’t seem to care if it is caught: The aim is to confuse rather than convince, to trash the information space so the audience gives up looking for any truth amid the chaos.”

That means if a new George Orwell were to come along to skewer this latest attack on our capacity to think, we might not notice.