Americans are blasted daily with news about Russia.
The CIA and FBI believe the Russian government stole information from the Democratic National Committee during the 2016 election to hurt Hillary Clinton’s chances and help Donald Trump. Intelligence committees in the House and Senate are probing the extent of Moscow’s interference in the elections. Reporters have dug up ties and meetings between various Trump aides and Russian government officials, prompting the resignation of Trump’s national security adviser and threatening the future of Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
The country dominates our headlines. But what are everyday Russians hearing on their end, and how are they processing these accusations?
Ellen Mickiewicz is an American author and professor of public policy at Duke University who studies Russian and American news consumption. Her latest book, No Illusions, examines the mindset of students at elite Russian universities. In the forthcoming paperback edition, she adds substantial research on how Russia uses news as a weapon.
Mickiewicz studies the Russian mindset methodically. She uses focus groups that span from elite to everyday people from across Russia. She takes care not to appear in the same room as the focus group in case the presence of a foreigner alters their responses.
I asked Mickiewicz to offer her insights into how Russians are absorbing news about Trump and the United States, as well as her take on newfound interest in the propagandizing effect of Russia Today, the country’s state-run news network.
Can you start by talking about how Russians think about the United States?
After the Soviet period, there was a big well of good feeling toward America. Over 70 percent of the country had good feelings about America across all kinds of surveys. Then the US bombing of Serbia happened [in 1999] and the rate plummeted, among the population at large but also among elites.
I think there are two parts to this. One is by the time of the bombing of Serbia, the United States had become the single most powerful country in the world. The Soviet Union was dead. The Russian Federation was in great throes of great economic distress. The United States appeared to them to be throwing its weight around without any kind of constraint because there was no nation powerful enough to do it. So partly, it was real fear. This was true among the really, really elite leaders, the ones going into the leadership.
For those lower in the social hierarchy, there was the question of what would stop the bombings and where would it go next. There was a sense of fear, an insecurity that it could happen here [in Russia] next. So they were very worried both about the global implications and the personal, the here-and-now implications of personal security and safety.
Could you talk about how both everyday and elite Russians think about Putin, his governing style and administration?
I speak on the basis of methodologically sound work, not just a general impression per se from walking around the town square, though I've also done that. Russians are conscious, deeply conscious, that they have no choice. They know they don't have real choice in parliamentary elections. It’s the lowest-ever turnout in history in spite of what the media were talking about and encouraging people to go vote. They didn't.
Sometimes in the West, there is criticism that people aren't standing up, that people aren't making a revolution, that they're not throwing off the authority. But Russians know that there is no choice. There's nothing that can challenge from the inside. They know that.
Secondly, ordinary people have a very hard life. Whatever they get, they spend on just staying alive and providing enough food and basic clothing. Medicine is extremely expensive because there's not much available. So life is hard, and that's what they concentrate on. And there's not in sight any kind of alternative. They just know that.
The majority of the country, and we've found this out from very recent surveys, believes the Putin government is not able to solve economic problems. But what can any individual do about it? And that's a real question. President Putin is going to come up for reelection. One would think, say, as a Westerner, that the time for thinking about the election and preparing for it is now, but there's nothing on the horizon that's going to suggest that.
I’ve read reports that Putin’s popularity remains high.
I think that people who hear that figure and see that figure take it at as face value and don't do enough work to see what's really going on. Think of how the survey is carried out. Internet surveys are not really possible because computers are not widely enough distributed. Even telephones are not completely saturating the country. So it's done the old-fashioned way, where survey companies and agencies will send out individuals with clipboards, knock on the door, and ask a question. Now, this is a stranger who shows up at someone’s door and asks the question outright, “Do you like President Putin?” That could add social pressure that might not reflect one’s true feelings.
From 2001 until now, the number of people who say they are indifferent or don't know, every single year, have been larger than the [number who] like Putin. If you take them away, then “like Putin” is higher than “don't like Putin.” But that’s not the point. The point is, frankly, I would do a whole lot more work if I were a media person in looking behind that and asking how it's done, how it's asked, if people might be afraid to answer that, would rather not, don't care. All those things which play a very big role.
Can you talk about how Russians right now are thinking and feeling about the hacking accusations going on? The claims are not just limited to the US election, but the Ukrainian and now French election as well.
Russians at all levels, but especially the elites, react very negatively to demonization. I was looking at the news today from Moscow, for example, and they are referring to a CNN program calling Putin the most powerful man in the world. The previous representatives of the United States to the United Nations, Ambassador Samantha Power, would call Russian diplomats thugs and murderers. That's the kind of language they react to in a very negative way, asking why the Americans are demonizing them.
The upshot is that Russians react to hacking claims as more of the same — as more insults, more demonizing. That’s because there are so many accusations. It's really become impossible to sort out the kind of messiness so that one can be convincing, and the demonization, as they call it, just leaves them to reject wholesale any complaint the United States might have.
Do they think there's hacking? They think there's no privacy, period. Especially the people in more elite positions, they know there's no privacy, not in Russia, not anywhere. They've seen this before. They lived through Soviet times.
President Trump’s approval rating goes up and down. This is based on a number of different surveys that I find trustworthy, such as a study from the Levada Center, whose methodology for this survey is sound. When Trump makes statements that sound conciliatory, the polls show an uptick of a few points, and then he'll say something else and it'll go down. It's still nowhere near what it was before the Serbia bombings, and nowhere near what a "friendly" country would be. So there's no doubt that they think there are enemies, and because of that, they tend to not believe all these charges.
Can you talk about Russian news sources and what kind of news Russians tend to consume?
When it comes to Russian television, the elites from the focus groups will often say, and this is a quote, "it's all just lies." What they do is go on the internet and they compare it to other sources, like the Economist, the Guardian, Agence France-Presse, National Geographic, etc. They range far and wide, and they feel they must do this because you cannot get anywhere near the truth unless you compare different sources and how they're covered. There’s no sense of credibility of domestic media. Now, that's a lot of work to do. It takes a lot of time to be preparing for a very busy profession and yet to take the time to do all of this comparative work.
Then there is Russia Today, RT, which is news mainly for foreign consumption. Right now there is concern among the intelligence community that RT is disrupting Western institutions and Western democratic processes. Here, I would like to make a plea for common sense.
RT is watched very, very little by tiny audiences in the US, Britain, and the rest of Europe. The American intelligence community has been very concerned that RT had videos on YouTube that were gathering huge numbers of views. Well, that's true, but what RT does is buy videos from foreign countries, get them to search engines, and put the RT logo on top. That means that most, 81 percent, of everything that was seen from RT on YouTube was done by foreign countries about foreign issues, mainly catastrophes, like the Fukushima nuclear plant explosion, or violence and other sensational stuff. These aren’t videos that address important political issues.
If one already agrees with the RT point of view, then naturally you might go to consume it wherever it is. That's because you already agree with it and are looking for it. But we have to have evidence that people who do not agree with it go to it and have their minds changed forever. And no one is doing that kind of research. I think people are very attuned to the content of what's coming out of RT but have almost — not almost — have zero solid evidence that that content has acted upon people who would not normally agree with or even care about that content.