Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Strategy of survival in the age of Twitter and my personal evolution

Media treats us as fools. This is common knowledge. They lie, they cheat, they mistort, they suppress information.

How people can get facts, how they can find their way though contradicting pieces of information – these questions need to be answered by anyone who wants to be informed of what’s going on in the world, make judgements and adapt to changing realities.

I asked these questions in my mind when yesterday pro-Western media in Russia made a big fuss over story about alleged death from torture of Libyan journalist Hala Al-Misrati, favourite of Gaddafi.

I also reported this story in my Twitter because I’ve found it in many Russian news sources (not Kremlin-controlled but on independent business website RBC). Then I googled the story and found the original source on Al-Arabiya website. There were no other English-language articles, but news story was covered in many other languages.

On Monday Libyan NTC issued undated video footage of Hala, sitting in Islamic hijab, where she denies rumours of her death and call ex-rebels “her brothers”. I don’t speak Arab, so I cannot vouch for what is reported in pro-Western Russian media as transaltion of her words. Also I cannot verify whether footage is genuine, made after last Friday, when her death was reported or before. Or whether she was speaking under threat or freely.

So what I should say? Did I made mistake of reporting this story in my Twitter? To rectify my mistake I tweeted a link to the video of Hala on YouTube, released by NTC.

But I still don’t know facts for sure whether Al-Arabiya story was fake or genuine. If it was fake then I tweeted fake story. But if video with hala is fake I tweeted link to fake cover up by Libyan ex-rebels.
But larger problem is that we ordinary people now left without trustworthy media. They all engage in vicious propaganda wars, trying to produce more lasting, more impressive images and affect our behavior. I find it very intrusive.

Western media became known to me in 1990s during coverage of Yugoslavian civil war. Mostly I trusted what I heard on BBC World Service while my father was very anti-Western. He didn’t want to listen to Western arguments about crimes committed by Slobodan Milosevic regime.

Time passed and I started to feel disillusioned with Western media. Of course it was Iraq war coverage. But then there was no Twitter, no newschannels livestreaming on the net. So if you lived then not in Western country like me you would not know extent to what propaganda can make with people, turn them into warmongering zombies.

Let’s turn to Russian media. In Soviet Union news reporting was often farce. Even innocent cultural, sporting reporting was heavily influenced by propaganda about triumph of Soviet-Socialist-Communist values. What is worth to remmeber then nationalist coverage was not allowed. In reality some ethnicities might complain of consistent Russification but officially it was non-existent.

Then there was freedom of press, Gorbachev’s Glasnost. Popularity of press soared. Many wanted to become fearless, honest journalists.

After Gorbachev Yeltsin came to power, more thuggish, more autocratic. Many justified his regime excesses as temporary events, explaining them as Communist residue. Freedom of press seem to exist, however all media became private. New owners, oligarchs as Russians call them, unleashed vicious business wars. 

Kremlin tolerated them because in 1996 they all united in support of ailing hard-drinking Yeltsin.
In 1996 Russian people discovered that freedom of press has disappeared, the new media is essentially the same old, feeding often pure propaganda. That’s why when Putin came to power and dismantled Gusinsky and Berezovsky’s media empires people cheered him. They were tired of self-appointed guardians of freedom of press when they saw them in action as through and through Yeltsin’s propagandists.

Control of media helped Putin in second Chechen war. I remember how Western press was viciously attacking him. But time proved that Putin was right. Bombers of apartment blocks were found and sentenced. 

Those pro-Western media outlets who were screaming about extermination of Grozny city and Chechen nation now turned into Russian ultra-nationalists, screaming about “unruly Caucasians, Putin as friend of Chechens” etc. Grozny was rebuilt, that caused these pro-Western Liberals feel envy.

In 2003 at the time of Iraq war I left Russia for India so I missed most of two Putin’s terms and almost all of Medvedev’s presidency. I returned to Russia just once for few months in early 2011. It was different country. 

Everywhere there were terminals accepting cash for mobile, utility services, for internet. Everyone has plastic cards. Newschannels mostly government controlled and despite their modern studios and look cover mostly activities of Putin and Medvedev. No wonder that many people shunned them, preferring social networks.

Zastoy (Stagnation) was in the air. As in Brezhnev time people started to make fun of Putin and his protégée Medvedev. Corruption started to appear in public. When I returned the blogosphere was buzzying with picture of yet another Putin’s palace in the Black Sea, which costed half billion dollars. Putin’s press secretary first denied reports, then he said it was indeed official residence of Russian PM, therefore not his private property, then this palace was sold to business group cheaply, the question closed. Putin not suffered as he and Medvedev has some 25-26 official residencies, some still under construction.

I didn’t like not only this. In Far Eastern Russia I saw glaring contrast between prosperous Asia (and China in particular) and everpresent poverty of Russian regions despite skyrocketing prices, bad infrastructure, non-existent facilties, rude, corrupt officials. Life didn’t change a yota in whole decade that Putin ruled the country. I thought it’s time for him to go.

Aleksey Navalny last year gained popularity with anti-corruption blog. He was like fresh breathe in stale atmosphere of Putinist Russia. His activities were not to taste of Kremlin hangers on, they hacked his e-mails and published them. They spammed internet with their compromat, obsceneties and also organized DDoS-attacks on opposition-leaning newspapers and bloghosts like Livejournal. It was disgusting.

Of course I expressed my opinion very clearly then – Putin must go, we are tired of him. I admitted he did something good for the country but his continuing rule is impeding Russia’s growth. I suggested in some blogs how Navalny can turn attention from corruption deals to politics, he should start monitoring election process to prevent election frauds. And if authorities continue with past practices we should deligitmize elections. I didn’t hope for good results though as Putin continue to dominate coverage of government controlled newschannels, thus he has advantage over rivals. So he still wil win. But victory should not be overwhelming, it should be Pyrrhic.

Last summer I left Russia once again and did not follow developments closely. When Medvedev announced swap deal with Putin I was enraged and from Burma I was tweeting my disappointment. Then my favourite Navalny showed his true fascist colors. It was second bitter disappointment. 

At first Novodvorskaya, Borovoy, whose opinion I always respected posted a video where they discussed results of their private meeting with Navalny. Their verdict was clear: “He is neo-Nazi”. I was surprised but Russian march of neo-Nazi was organzied by Navalny, he was appealing to his followers to attend the march. Novodvorskaya's warning proved true. I disfollowed him.

Then came December Parliament elections, flawed as they were, but no evidence of massive fraud emerged so far. Not enough to challenge results significantly. As I thought main rigging in Russia done by mainstream, Kremlin-controlled media, not by stuffing ballots.

But what happened after elections turned me against opposition. I've found they use disinformation and lies not less than Kremlin-friendly bloggers and media, but even more often. So many cases of their lying and cheating, that it’s impossible to document all of them. Just open any pro-Western newspaper or Livejournal-promoted blogs and it’s for all to see. They insinuate and fabricate stories not worse than Western media about Russia. 

On top of that in order to gain more popularity these pro-Western media and bloggers began courting Russian far-right nationalists, what they write is pure fascism and racism mixed in one. Absolutely disgusting.

So I am back at square one, tacitly supporting Putin against these dangerous extremists. It’s not result that I wanted because I believe due to his inherent conservatism he will try to freeze development of Russia. And after some years of his rule nobody knows what kind of explosion wait us.