Wednesday, April 30, 2014

InfoWar over Ukraine - from sad to ridiculous

In his much acclaimed book, Munitions of the Mind, the late Philip Taylor wrote:
"Propaganda [is] [...] the deliberate attempt to persuade people to think and behave in a desired way. [...] [It constitutes] conscious, methodical, and planned decisions to employ techniques of persuasion designed to achieve specific goals that are intended to benefit those organizing the process. [...] An essential characteristic of propaganda is that it rarely tells the whole truth."

He warned that with all the modern information and communication technology propaganda has become ever more sophisticated, and in an effort to alert the readers, suggested the following questions: "How freely does that information flow? Is anyone controlling it an any way? If so, why? Are we being told everything? Is what we see, hear, and read an unfettered representation of what is really happening? What are we not being told, and why? Is the information on which we base our opinions and perceptions of the world around us free from influence of propaganda?"

The situation in Ukraine is dire, and unfortunately, it is getting worse by the day. It hurts to watch what is going on there, and the concern for family and friends is always on my mind. Following the news, whether in personal capacity or that of an "aspiring academic" is depressing, to say the least. But I have to stay informed (that's what my work is on, after all), and in an earnest effort to keep an open mind, I've been trying to keep up with the information coming from both sides. Honestly, I can't even begin trying to make sense of it all. Below is a somewhat random compilation of masterpieces that, if don't make you cry, will (I hope) at least make you laugh.

If you are sitting in the West, then you are likely to be predisposed to seeing everything coming out of Russia as untrue or distorted. If you're accessing this post from the "non-West", you are very likely to be as skeptical of the information and interpretations presented by the Western leaders and media. Russia is far from being an open or a democratic society. Liberalism, on the other hand, is a sort of a hegemony in its own right, with one established truth which should, absolutely, be accepted, otherwise "you're against us" (this becomes especially visible when foreign crises are involved). In both cases, complexity is sacrificed for political ends, which always prefer the black-and-white binaries. Meanwhile, people's lives, well-being, and their entire future are on the line...

Lack of understanding

I'll start with a very telling example - a perfect "mini"-version of what is going on right now between the "West" and Russia. Complete lack of listening. Total absence of respect. No desire to understand the other. Bias. One-sided, and selective interpretation and presentation of information.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

#Happy #Yerevan - ArmComedy Update

A few weeks ago I had a post about the "Happy Yerevan" video, made by the US Embassy in Armenia as a part of its digital public diplomacy effort. The video has been quite a hit: it's received almost 156,000 views in two weeks, and is now the most popular video on the Embassy's YouTube Channel (the second being the video of a 2012 "US-Armenia FlashMob", which has been viewed about 47,000 times since October 2012). Given the size of Armenia's population, the language/interest barrier, and the Internet penetration rates, "Happy Yerevan" is clearly a success for American YouTube diplomacy in the country.

The video was also featured in one the recent episodes of the ArmComedy show (the Armenian equivalent of the Daily Show, if you will), where the hosts of the satirical program wondered whether this happiness is "appropriate" for a nation which is "supposed to be always sad". It's not "truly Armenian", they joked. They "warned" the more traditional and patriotic members of their audience about the "dark forces" of the American Embassy, which is forcibly trying to make Armenians smile (a mock response to some of the reaction the video got on the interwebs from the more 'patriotic' Internet users). As an alternative, they ask the "nation" (represented by the guy in the white T-shirt) to focus instead on the sad tune of the Armenian duduk, which is "truly ours" and comes as a reminder that the purpose of life is to suffer and to be sad (as opposed to being joyful).

Beginning at about 5:02.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Defining "Russian Culture"

Russia's "identity crisis" has been much discussed (and lamented) since the demise of the Soviet Union, and caused confusion not just for public diplomacy and nation branding (What is the "image" that Russia wants foreign publics to have?), but also for its foreign policy strategy and priority-definition. Of course, analysis of the official discourse, as well as that of actual foreign policy could provide pretty reliable indications of where Russia "was coming from" and where it was headed. Yet, the lack of any clear definition of what Russia stands for and consequently, what its long-term objectives are, has been an issue for quite some time now, especially for public diplomacy. Seems like this is finally about to change.

As I discussed in one of my earlier posts, my preliminary research demonstrated an increasing consensus on certain key "values" and aspects which were to become quintessential characteristics of the "Russian culture", particularly as that related to the soft power which Russia wants to wield around the world and, more importantly, in the region. Last week, a piece in Bloomberg View on this very subject caught my attention. The piece suggested that "Putin is planning to put the intellectual and ideological foundations of the new regime into words," and discussed the draft "Foundations of the State Cultural Policy" document initially reported on by Nezavisimaya Gazeta.

"The Three Bogatyrs" [Knights] - arguably, one of the most "Russian" paintings ever... Image from Vedimir.Ru.

According to these sources, the document - which was developed by the Ministry of Culture and is currently under review by the President - can be summed up as "Russia is not Europe, as proved by the entire history of the country and nation". The document also supposedly argues against any official support provided to cultural projects that impose foreign values upon Russians. Nezavisimaya Gazeta then provides the following quote:

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Cold War 2.0?

Voice of Russia, the one that was scrapped and will be incorporated into the new "Russia Today" news agency, had a mind-blowing piece today, titled: "Orwellian US propaganda tool VOA finished in Russia". It was basically a reflection-rant regarding the news that Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty will not see their contracts in Russia renewed after the current ones expire.

Reading the article first time was, indeed, very disturbing. Here's an excerpt:

With headlines from the Orwellian alternate universe that the United States exists in like "Experts Liken Ukraine Crisis to Soviet's Afghanistan Invasion" it can be no wonder that the Russian Government and in fact any truth loving country or citizen of the world might want to ban the voice of the aging recidivist Cold War propaganda machine seeking to stay relevant by creating its own bogeymen and brainwashing the masses to promote knuckle dragging caveman policies of force and subservience.
[...] The BBG should not worry though, last July they were allowed to broadcast their Ministry of Truth vitriol disguised as "democracy radio" into the United States after being previously banned. Useful tool I imagine for Obama's brainwashing of the American populace as they are being trampled upon and oppressed. 
I can say what I want about the BBG and their "product" and will not, unlike the Voice of America, try to convince you I am "fair and balanced", I work for the Voice of Russia and love Russia and President Putin, so I have a certain pro Russia bias. The difference is I am not hiding that fact and you dear reader can therefore adjust appropriately. I will say that we at the Voice of Russia are not trying to change reality unlike the Voice of America, and as for myself I am always trying to inform my readers of the truth.

And it goes on and on... Half-way through the second time, it was plain funny. And sad, of course. Between this and all the other info-warfare going on these days, I was reminded of good ol' Dr. Strangelove. Now, didn't HE know how to handle those Ruskies...

P.S. - By the way, I got curious about the author, John Robles -- the self-proclaimed truth absolutist, and Russia/Putin devotee. A quick search revealed that "he is currently the only US citizen granted political asylum in Russia". I guess that clarifies things a little...

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

#Happy #Yerevan - US Public Diplomacy in Armenia

I've been covering quite grim subjects lately, so decided it's high time I share some smiles and happiness here, too.

Here's a video the US Embassy in Armenia posted on its YouTube page just a few hours ago, produced in collaboration with the US Alumni Association of Armenia:

It is, of course, yet another addition to the whole series of "Happy [fill in the blank]" videos, based on Pharrell Williams' hit. It's an earworm, I admit. Yet, what makes this one special is that it was made by the US Embassy in Yerevan, featuring some prominent local stars, (presumably) the alumni of various US programs, and Ambassador John Heffern himself. Most of it was shot at the US Embassy, the American University in Armenia, the Cascade (Cafesjian Museum), and a few other notable sights around Yerevan.

It's great to see so many bright, funky, and happy people in Yerevan... especially these days. The video's currently going viral on my Facebook homepage (and, four hours later, has gathered close to 28,000 views!). Well done on happy public diplomacy! :-)

"Russification" of "Soft Power" -- Part 2: The Russian Twist & Ukraine

In my post last week, I started discussing the Russian understanding of soft power, particularly its conceptualization as "hegemony" and interference (usually American/Western). Yesterday, as the pro-Russian protesters in the Eastern city of Donetsk took over government buildings, declared independence, and requested that Putin send Russian peacekeepers, I decided to revisit this conversation and finally write the Part 2 of the post.

The region of Donetsk. Map from TV Rain [Dozhd'].

Before moving on, let's remind ourselves of the definition of soft power as suggested by Nye: "the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than through coercion." It is, thus, based on persuasion and appeal, rather than military force or any financial payment/sanction. The sources of soft power, according to Nye, lie in a country's culture (its attractiveness), its political values (their attractiveness, and consistent applications at home and abroad), and its foreign policies (their perception as legitimate and moral).

Based on this formula, a preliminary analysis of the Russian discourse on soft power and public diplomacy demonstrates that the overall understanding of Russian soft power resources are as follows:

Thursday, April 3, 2014

"Russification" of "Soft Power" -- Part 1: Russia's view of Soft Power as Hegemony

Reading the coverage of Russia and Ukraine over the past few months, one would think that whatever happened was a disaster for Russia's image and Russian "soft power" around the world. Yet, we need to get beyond that Western-centric view and look at public diplomacy writ large. Not only has Putin's popularity increased domestically and abroad (including in the West), but Russia can now claim the entire episode with Crimea as the cherry on top of its soft power success story. To understand this we need to look at the context, and more specifically, at Russian policy-makers' perspectives and worldviews. Twisted, I know. But bear with me, please.

As I had mentioned earlier on this blog, my paper for the Annual Convention of International Studies Association this year was on the Russian interpretation and conceptualization of "soft power". As it turned out, the subject could not have been more timely, and was - for better or worse - a topic of much discussion during the conference last week. There will be a separate post about observations, impressions, and thoughts on the conference itself (forthcoming soon -- I promise!), but today I wanted to share the basic points from my analysis and some conclusions from this preliminary piece of research that will, eventually, be part of my dissertation project.

Presentation slides: a very brief and watered-down version of the paper itself, but gives you an idea.