When Emotions Run Too High. The Role of the Media in the Polarization of Conflicts

Discussion panel hosted by Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict during Deutsche Welle Global Media Forum in Bonn, June 2015

Andre Kamenshikov, Non Violence Peace Force, Moscow-Washington and Nataliya Zubar, Maidan Monitoring Information Center, Kharkiv, Ukraine

Andre Kamenshikov:

Okay, thank you very much and I’ll speak a little bit about how I see the role and effects of media in conflicts that developed around the what is referred to as the old Soviet space, the various independent states, that emerged after the dismantling of the former USSR in 1991. I’ll speak about that because myself since 1992 I have been involved, as basically civil society peace activists do, working in different areas of conflict in that part of the world and there what’s involved in various projects. So one thing that I would like to first mention is that I think that we can categorize the different violent conflicts that took place in that part of the world as three, basically three types of conflicts.

First, it should be understood that the people that lived through those changes in the early 90s had lived through a very profound, not just profound change, but a change of very profound proportions in the sense that when new states emerge it wasn’t just about drawing new borders, it was basically a change of everything. It was a change in the way people went about their lives, how people made a living, and even the basic concepts of right and wrong were largely changed during those years. And obviously such a profound change could not come without some very serious tensions and problems. And in retrospect, I think we can say that actually it’s amazing how few serious violent conflicts emerged during those years. If we look at the experience of former Yugoslavia, the dimensions there were much smaller, the level of tension involved has been much greater. Nonetheless, most of the conflicts that took place especially over the first half of the 1990s  were a direct result of those changes. So I call them “ transformational” conflicts, conflicts that were directly related to the changes of the existing political and economic realities.

Another set of problems that emerge as the new rules and new realities start to take shape, certainly there were issues related to struggle over power and resources within these new realities. And for example, if, you know, it’s history now that in 1993 there was massive violence right in the center of Moscow. There was what some people still call a coup d’etat, some say was a civil conflict between groups, power groups led by the president and the parliament. The parliament was actually shelled by tanks in 1993, the Russian parliament in Moscow. So that was the second level of conflicts that came.

And then most recently, a new set of conflicts has emerged which were related to the development of new alternatives to the reality that has taken shape over the last two decades. And basically, there are two alternatives right now that are in play. One is referred to as an concept that is in line with some of the declared policies of the Russian government or the so-called “Russian world” concept that is supported by some people and opposed by others, but nonetheless, it’s something on the table today. And the other is related to radicalization that is taking place in areas that are predominantly Muslim areas in areas like the North Caucas and Central Asia where there are issues of radicalization and the so called “Imamate” in the column Caucasus, that was declared and so forth. These are out of the mainstream right now and obviously there’s no physical territory held by these radical groups, nonetheless they do still exist and they are part of the political, maybe not the political spectrum, but part of the events that are taking place in the region today.

Now, how would media react to the emerging conflicts? In most cases you could see three types of reaction:

One, and I totally agree with what was said previously, there’s no objective media. And very often it’s natural that the media starts to reflect the position of the very sides of the conflicts or the concerns, or the rumors, or the various stories that flowed around in these situations. And what was interesting is that in this post – Soviet environment, there were actually certain stories that had no background in terms of no facts, that I know of. But nonetheless the same story would continue to appear and reappear in almost every specific situation where you had a violent conflict. Like one, just to give you an example, there was a story about supposedly these sniper women, snipers from the Baltic states that supposedly fought in Georgia, possibly in Chechnya  and so on. There was not one single case, one single evidence of that. That was a story that had been floating around these various conflict areas, many years ago, again almost 20 years past, but again it reappeared in eastern Ukraine, the same narrative, the same story. So this is just an example of something that does not exist in reality, in facts, but nevertheless exists in the public’s perception.

Another story I can give is the story of “hidden casualties”, and what it is, is various ways that people in conflict and media in conflict unfortunately often speak about the fact that the “other side”, whichever it is, is trying to hide its huge casualties that it has suffered as a result of the war, and you get various versions of that. I mean some were quite elaborate like that the bodies of Russian servicemen killed in Chechnya were being thrown from helicopters into tanks of sulfur acid or something like that, something totally ridiculous, but nonetheless. Again the last example was about supposedly these bodies being hidden on the bottom of a lake, you know, and so forth. So you have these stories that reappear. And you have this case where media follows, the general perceptions follows the position of the sides.

There’s also sensational reporting that was already mentioned. Many times not so long ago, a few years ago, I heard this joke, a friend in the North Caucases and I, where I used to work for many years, when a local newspaper gets a call from some community and the people ask the editor, “send a crew, please do a report about our bridge.” And the reaction is, “was it blown up?” “No, it was built.” “Oh, that’s not interesting.” So that’s another fact.

Third, what should be said is of course there have been attempts of objective reporting, and if we speak about the early 90s, there was quite a bit of that because at that time the media in most of the countries of that old Soviet space was not actually under the kind of government control that it is now, or let’s say government influence that it is now. It is known that when people speak about what is today referred to as the first war in Chechyna, that’s ’94-’96, that it’s common to say today that the Russian government lost that war in the media, and what really was the background was that even the Russian media was not upholding the official position and the official stories of its government.  and it was caught in a situation in some way similar maybe, you know, to be in that war situation like in the United States during the war in Vietnam.

Also it should be recognized that most countries of those old Soviet states, especially in the ’90s still largely existed within this, let’s say, space of Russian media. People still see Russian TV channels, they are still seen all around those areas and the Russian position being official position or non-official position nonetheless is being heard and reflected. In the ’90s, that was actually very often a positive signal because in many cases the Russian media, though Russia was somewhat involved in every conflict situation, tried to play a more or less role of a third party in trying to cover a certain conflict from various sides. That was true to different levels in different places and of course by different media sources.

Today, however, that changed quite radically and especially in the case of the violent conflict that is currently taking place in Ukraine. This is a little map of the Ukraine and the areas that have been affected by the violence. A new thing for me with more than 20 years of experience in various areas of conflict  former  USSR was a new experience because for the first time the media was not just  reflecting the positions of a side, it wasn’t just involved in the conflict, possibly contributing to it, but it actually played a very proactive and provocative role in the development of the conflict as at the early stage, basically creating a very distorted view of reality or even a view of an alternative view of reality when people would get a totally different picture of what is actually going on. I mean in some cases it wasn’t just creating fake stories about reality, but generally speaking it was useing very many tools that allow to distort the basic perceptions of reality in a very, very deep way.

The other factor is that other media sources that maybe have not been so directly engaged but are also under this umbrella of certain government policy and maybe want to show their loyalty or maybe have  simply reflected the concepts that are being intentionally imposed on the population. They may, so to say, try to run in front of the engine. So like you  have stories in the regional media that are even more further away from reality than you get in the central media in a sense. And another factor that I should say in my view is also taking place is what I call contagious distortion. The provocative role of Russian media in conflict unfortunately creates a example to be reflected on the other side and one thing that you notice in conflicts is that the various tools that are used in information war and so forth, they tend to spread. So if one side starts using certain, just like in military terms when one side starts using a certain  type of weapon, usually the other side follows along. Similar things, unfortunately, do happen in the media war as well and that’s something that needs to be addressed.

Now just to give you some examples of how this affects the perceptions of events on the most basic level, today it’s possible to say that among probably the majority of the population of the Russian Federation, there’s simply a sense of denial of Russia actually being a party to the conflict. So in most other cases where you have a violent conflict  or open war you at least have a common understanding between the sides that there is a conflict taking place, that certain things are taking place. In this case you have a fairly unique situation where the majority of the population at least on one side simply does not recognize itself or its side as being a party to the conflict.

This to some extent is also reflected on the other side because there’s not, in my mind, not enough appreciation of  the internal dimensions of the conflict, that is taking place currently in the Ukraine on the Ukrainian side, they call it a hybrid war because it’s really this two-sided thing where it never would develop the way it developed without external involvement, but also external involvement would never take place in the way it’s taking place, had there not been certain internal issues at work, exploited to bring the situation we’re in today.

And so this creates in turn contradictory perceptions even among those groups that are actively participating in various anti-war movements. I’ll just give you one example: when there was one of the last large anti-war demonstrations in Moscow, one of the things that people chanted was, these are people that are protesting against the policies of the Russian government and against the policies of Putin and so forth, one of the things that they were chanting is “Russians and Ukrainians are brothers.” However, on the Ukrainian side a very common, actually it’s almost like a song now, a very common poem that was written maybe a year ago its words are, “we will never be brothers” you know, and there’s a feeling of profound difference after everything that has happened.

So this is something that affects the way, not only the way people perceive each other, but the way they perceive the very basic situation that actually exists today. Now just to finish with one example, how information gets distorted, I’ll just give you one example. Recently, about a week or ten days ago Vladimir Putin met with Pope Francis at the Vatican, so here you can read from the Vatican radio and news release that “Russia’s President Vladimir Putin met Pope Francis Wednesday evening in a private audience. This is their second meeting. During an exchange of gifts following the meeting, President Putin gave the Pope an embroidery of the famous Church of Jesus the Savior while the Pope donated a medallion by artist Guido Borelli showing the angel of peace calling for the construction of a world of solidarity and peace based on justice.” A simple formal piece of information you know concerning diplomatic events. The same basically reflected in the Kremlin, official Kremlin site, “During a detailed and friendly conversation which lasted more than an hour, the current situation with international affairs was discussed including the crisis in the Ukraine . . .” and so forth. “The discussion touched upon questions of humanitarian values which to a great extent unite the Catholic and Orthodox worlds as well as all religions, both sides expressed concern about the situation faced by Christians in the Middle East.”

Okay, now we go to the Russian Task News Agency, and it has the heading, “The pope presented to Putin a medal with the image of a peacemaker angel.” So it wasn’t just a formal ceremony. The medallion turned into a medal. Then another private TV station repeats that Pope Francis gave Putin a medal with an image of an angel and said that this is a symbol of peace and solidarity. So this is the second level, this is the way national media reports it, and then we go to this regional media that tries to beat the national media and what do we have? “Putin literally kicked the stool under the feet of Western politicians,U.S. urged the pope not to trust Putin and be tough with him. But quite the opposite happened, Putin has been awarded the medal of the peacekeeper angel. The pope could give him something neutral with no symbolic value but the medal with such a name is not a randomly chosen gift. An important conclusion: The pope gave a completely unambiguous signal that Putin is on the side of peace in Europe and throughout the world, and therefore the other party is a supporter of war. Such a position of Pope Francis having great influence and moral authority undoubtedly puts an end to the pathetic attempts of the U.S. to show Russia as an aggressor. This award shows that only Russia is able to save the world from a new destructive war and that a threat to peace again comes from the West.”

So you can see how some very simple thing gets translated and gets communicated to the Russian media, and I would finish on this and give my colleague form Ukraine to comment maybe start with commenting on the same example, because it’s an example of not only how things get translated to the Russian media and also the reaction in the Ukraine.

Nataliya Zubar:

After the Russian news agency posted a piece about the Pope giving the medal to Putin, the Ukrainian media immediately picked this news. Our media still has bad habit to just copy and paste news from Russia. Without checking anything, they are reposting that Pope Francis gave Putin a medal and this info invokes a wild reaction in the Ukraine with frenzy of comments like “A traitor pope names a fascist Putin a peacemaker!” Media asks some influential Ukrainian intellectuals to comment on the situation and they promptly come with wild conspiracy theories of what has happened in the Vatican.

Within an hour of emotional debates in the traditional and social media, the major religious portal of Ukraine actually had brains to call the Vatican for comments. They found that the information about the meeting of the Pope and Putin on the Vatican official site was scarce and asked for details. After their call, the official site of Vatican posts transcript from Vatican radio transmission with more details about the medallion, which Ukrainian religious portal “Credo” translates into Ukrainian, publishes and distributes via Ukrainian media.

By this time, most Ukrainian mainstream media had already published the news that the “traitor Pope” had awarded Putin with peacemaker’s medal. After the publication in “Credo”, most media edits previously published news, edit headlines and content. Only very few media post new piece of information with amendment detailing that “oh no, you see the pope didn’t give the medal, he had given a souvenir”.

A storm of comments comes again, with different interpretations like “oh he gave him a souvenir medallion, probably the pope is not a traitor and he treated Putin badly because by giving him the medallion he has shown him his disgust”. However, some comments still blame the Pope like “He should not have met this Putin at all. The pope is not on our side. He shouldn’t be meeting a fascist”.

There was not a single publication or comment except on the religious portal, which narrated the news in peacemaking context. Nobody remembered that it was a normal practice of any Pope to meet with whoever, to speak about peace and give some kind of a souvenir.

People started to react emotionally to this very simple fact about two leaders meeting on a diplomatic level and discussing something that nobody knows because this meeting was not with the press. It was a private meeting; the fact was stated in the first press release.

I do not agree that there is no objective reporting. The objective reporting is when the facts are reported. The facts were that the Pope met with Putin and they exchanged some kind of gifts. Both parties confirmed these facts on the official websites. And surely that were the facts, the rest were just interpretations.

I think the fundamental problem of media worldwide is the confusion between the facts and interpretations. Many media are presenting the news and reports together with interpretations, with comments. When I studied journalism many years ago, I was instructed that there could not be reporting with comments. They are different types of journalism activities. Now, those activities are combined, in part due to the spread of social media. I think we can do objective reporting when we are reporting facts and when we are distinguishing the facts from the interpretations.

It is very important from the peacebuilding point of view. When we are reporting on facts, we cannot allow for such manipulation as Andre and have demonstrated you using this is a very typical news piece about the Pope and Putin. There are lots more cases like this in Ukraine-Russia conflict and other conflicts obviously. If we stick with facts, we will win the war for objective reporting. We will sanitize the media and diminish the level of fear and panic. I think it is very important.


Remarks during the Q&A session.

Andre Kamenshikov:

Okay, I’ll start with that, first of all, personally, I don’t think it’s right to describe the roots of the conflict in the Ukraine related to the fact that the U.S. wanted Europe to buy gas from itself and that from Russia. I simply don’t believe that. Again I think that’s an interpretation that some people might take as a fact, but I think it’s one of these examples. The other question is about the criticism of Russian media and so forth. One of the things I mentioned is what I sadly can recognize and notice as I monitored the way the conference developed is that these practices are contagious and unfortunately many of the tools and instruments that are being used by Russian media, mainstream media, I should say, that there’s different Russian media, there’s the Russian opposition media, there’s Russian regional media that might sometimes try to surpass the mainstream media. It can sometimes do very serious and courageous fact-checking missions and reports and so forth. For example, it was actually the Russian regional media that did the first factual reports about these burial sites of Russian soldiers, these Russian servicemen that were sent to fight in Ukraine last autumn. So there are various groups. But I do think that it should not be seen through the lens of let’s count or act specifically Russian. Again, I think it should be looked at, any attempts from here, from the West, from Europe, to work in this information space should be seen from the point of view of trying to uphold the truth, that might be truth. It very often is very uncomfortable to different sides, and I think that is the only approach that is reasonable and that will bring fruit. The need to check facts, yes, definitely. I mean we are coming back to the same issue. For example, in Ukraine there are some very interesting initiatives like the “Stop fake”  program that do factual checks and tries to debug various myths on both sides. Most of them are usually myths of  Russian propaganda, but it also speaks about many stories, many false stories that appear for example in the Ukrainian media, I think that’s a very good example of a civil society issue than a media initiative that is trying to, let’s say, restore misunderstanding of realities and then facts. As for those, see, I don’t know, maybe you could add a little more.

Nataliya Zubar:

You see, everybody lies, as Dr. House says. But the number of how many times everyone lies can be easily counted, you know, and compared, it’s easy. You can compare a number of times Russian media, I mean mainstream or government-controlled Russian media, lies and for example European or U.S. media lies and it’s huge difference in percentage. Everybody lies a different number of times.

However, I think the main issue is to distinguish propaganda and facts. When fact checking, you could find what are the facts that can be established, whether there was a rain and whether it was outside, and detect propaganda, or fabricated news. There are lots of news, for example, that Russian media fabicates totally including even video coverage. For example, there were some films on Russian TV picturing fighting in Lugansk Mountains. There are no mountains in Lugansk, it was some footage from Chechnya, you know.

I think that the fact checking is the necessity in every aspect of everyday work of journalists worldwide in Ukraine and in Russia and Europe. If we came back to this basic, no information wars would be successful. I think the reason for Russian information war is efficient to some extent, is that the essence of media, essence of reports somehow been distorted.

Social media actually helps to reveal the truth, to debunk the truth, as mentioned. Now with this example of Pope Francis and medal or medallion, I learned what happens in few minutes via Twitter. But not every consumer will go to Twitter to verify news coverage he saw on TV. They believe TV, people worldwide do believe TV and they will believe in TV for many, many years for ahead. So it’s a battle which can be won with the help of social media for TV. It is important to become more close to facts. That is my point.

Full panel soundtrack  https://soundcloud.com/dwgmf/gmf15ws13 

Speakers at the conference
Speakers at the conference