The Mocking Tone of Russian Foreign-Language Media

Satire has a rich and noble history as a form of humour and as a means to hold politics to account. It varies from most other forms of humour and is in many ways above them due to its unique capacity to weed out the pomposity, dishonesty and absurdity inherent in any political system. Political commentators are obliged to take the topic seriously; after all the issues it deals with are invariably very serious. But satirists have more freedom and leeway, and when done correctly, the effects can be devastating against its intended target. Effective satire can render ridiculous and reduce credibility, often far more effectively than arguments and argumentation. Thus, satire, as well as sophisticated humour, is a potent weapon.

In an open country, political satire has the capacity to alter perceptions and derail careers. Saturday Night Live has been doing this for a generation. Witness Tina Fey’s impersonation of Sarah Palin, which not only nailed her speech and mannerisms but, more importantly, drew attention to the incoherence of her pronouncements. Where is Palin now? In the UK, Yes Minister / Yes Prime Minister gave such terrifyingly accurate depictions of the halls-of-power machinations, self-serving buffonery and incompetence because the writers were privy to Whitehall insiders.

But it was in the Soviet Union that satire was most powerful. Soviet socialism gave rise to inherently absurd situations and the gallows-humour jokes that went with them. The disconnect between the official Soviet propaganda relating to how wonderful the Soviet Union was and how efficiently the system worked and the actual reality was met by humour. The people had no other option but to laugh. However, this laughter was enormously undermining to the credibility of the system. Put simply, if people didn’t believe in the system, it would almost certainly fail.

And fail it did.  The Soviet Union didn’t collapse just because of how its own people satirised it, but the new generation of Kremlin strategists have been assiduous in learning the power of satire and mockery nonetheless. There has been determination that the powers-that-be in this Kremlin would not be brought low by satire and ridicule as their Soviet predecessors were. Furthermore, as well as dodging the sharp-tipped prong of satire, they have strategised deviously on how to harness satire and wield it against their adversaries.

Russian foreign-language media outlets have been a roaring success because they managed to fill a global media niche for alternative, non-mainstream-media news, much like a cuckoo bird laying its eggs in another bird’s nest for the poor, unwitting mother to rear. There is enormous resentment at US dominance and the West in general, ranging from the hypocrisy of professed liberal values and piratic capitalism enterprise, to disastrous foreign policies based around air power and regime change. With such a broad cross-section of apathy towards the dominant narratives of what has come to be known as the ‘mainstream media’ along varying cultures, societies and demographics, there was an enormous latent market waiting to consume anti-American, anti-Western media output.

With this ready market and through its foreign-language, state-funded media outlets such as RT, Sputnik, Ruptly and Russia Insider, the Kremlin has set about mocking and ridiculuing the US at every level, be it foreign policy, culture, politics, or economics (strangely not NASA, however, which is usually covered in almost reverent tones). The tone across all media outlets is generally uniform; snarky, mocking and sardonic*. This is indicative of an all-encompassing editorial policy which could only be directed from up on high, and therefore the product of a media strategy.

The strategy is always to a) mock the USA and US foreign policy, b) promote US rivals and adversaries such as China and Iran, c) defend and justify Russian foreign policy, and d) promote divisive topics and issues in western countries. There is never any balanced reporting when it comes to these topics, and usually the ‘side’ that presents the most socially or politcally disruptive alternative is favoured. Occasionally neutral, apolitical stories are thrown in the mix to provide cover.

This agenda is not just carried out by media outlets, either. Russia has been notorious for operating ‘troll factories’ for some years, with increasing levels of sophistication. Originally these individuals would write in poor English, with little subtly or restraint, and flame those espousing anti-Kremlin sentiment in comments sections. However, now they are well co-ordinated, with native English speakers, and a little more care put into their fake Facebook profiles (although they are still not too hard to identify). They will be directed with specific lines and dismissals to be used against specific stories. The line that they are fed will be in the same tone of mockery, and are used in a defensive posture to ridicule any anti-Kremlin story. This is evident by the fact that occasionally two or more separate commentators will post comments with identical content in the tenor described above. A quick perusal of said Facebook accounts will find that they were recently opened and with little personal content.

Mockery and ridicule have subtle psychological effects. These are social weapons that have been available to every single person since before the dawn of language and we are all acutely aware – even if subconsciously – of their power to undermine credibility on one level harm socially on another. For the third party, there is a subtle social compulsion to disassociate oneself from the mocked party and align with the mocker. No one wants to look foolish by appearing to support a position that is perceived to be widely mocked.

Mockery is, however, a playground tactic and not without the capability to backfire. Attempts to mock or ridicule someone which have no effect leave the aggressor looking impotent and insecure. The urge to mock another usually stems from deep internal insecurities and a feeling of being threatened. A mature and well-formed operator should not be enticed by mockery of one against another. Unfortunately, the Russian media strategy has met with some success precisely because it targets such people.

This is a strategy of co-opting human psychological patterns and weakness for political ends. It’s an aggressive strategy that takes the initiative and the front foot, to keep the spotlight extended on the adversary and as a consequence away from itself. Some half-hearted efforts have been made to counter these effects of Russian media, to shine a light on their actions and even deflect the effects of this mockery back onto the Russian media (eg the Committee to Investigate Russia, fronted by Morgan Freeman who was subsequently savaged in orchestrated attacks by the Russian media). But fighting fire with fire in this case is doomed to bring the journalistic integrity of western media institutions down to the mud, where Russian media are happy to be, seeing as they do not have pretensions to genuine journalism.

The Kremlin media has made inroads into western countries by appealing to those with an anti-American disposition and presenting an alternative narrative to global events. It has fortified this narrative by its use of mockery and ridicule to undermine its adversaries. But it has fallen well short of utilising satire against them. Perhaps this is because satire is a capricious beast which cannot easily be wielded for a self-serving agenda, and must always serve its true purpose; to draw attention to pomposity, dishonesty and absurdity. Certainly, a Kremlin clumsily trying to turn satire against unfriendly nations would be ripe material for true satire. Satire is a highly skilled form of art and perhaps the Kremlin masterminds, who excel in the dark arts, are more clueless in the light arts.

* It should be noted that in recent weeks, the FBI has been investigating RT under the Foreign Agents Relations Act, which was a bill originally passed in 1938 to counter Nazi propaganda within the United States. The FARA bill requires anyone in the U.S. who acts “at the order, request, or under the direction or control” of a foreign government to register with the Justice Department and to disclose financial information. This would seemingly apply to RT and its sister networks, who allegedly take politically weighted orders from Moscow, and so it is perhaps for this reason that of late these networks have watered down their usual coverage and have endeavoured to apply a tone of impartial neutrality.

Soviet-era Russian jokes, as taken from the Wikipedia page on Russian political jokes:

  • Three men are sitting in a cell in the (KGB headquarters) Dzerzhinsky Square. The first asks the second why he has been imprisoned, who replies, “Because I criticized Karl Radek.” The first man responds, “But I am here because I spoke out in favor of Radek!” They turn to the third man who has been sitting quietly in the back, and ask him why he is in jail. He answers, “I’m Karl Radek.”
  • “I want to sign up for the waiting list for a car. How long is it?” / “Precisely ten years from today.” / “Morning or evening?” / “Why, what difference does it make?” / “The plumber’s due in the morning”.
  • An American dog, a Polish dog and a Soviet dog sit together. The American dog says ‘In my country if you bark long enough, you will be heard and given some meat’, the Polish dog replies ‘What is “meat”?’ and the Soviet dog says ‘What is “bark”?’.

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