Media Rhetoric: Era of Corrupting Public Opinion for Clicks

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Putin sketch western and russian media rhetoric

In the age of mass media and information society, political rhetoric is thriving. Back in the days, political power could not possibly reach all the corners of one country (especially in case of an immense territory), whereas it is easily done across the borders. The only possible obstacle is another man’s rhetoric.

So, what do we see now? More and more headlines willing to go as catchy as possible. How is a person being swallowed into this? The purpose of this article is not to dwell upon freedom of speech. However, it tries to put into perspective the influence that the current media has on a person (using the example of today’s media rhetoric).

In the 90s, when Soviet Union, one of the most powerful countries collapsed, media all around the world immediately changed its attitude towards  it.  This change of attitude was noticeable even among the public, watching it.  Yet, this rather indulgent political discourse was transforming along with the development of Russia. During that time, Russia was not viewed as a threat, but rather as one among many.  Today, after more than twenty years, the situation is different. Portrayed as an expanding empire, this image makes a lot of money on the front pages.

If you had a chance to go through the Western media, for sure you would find yourself thinking about it. To begin with, after reading you will probably think that Russia is indeed quite bad. Surprisingly, this has nothing to do whether you agree or not.  Rather, this has to do with your sub consciousness. Strong negative language first addresses emotions, only later it is processed by our mind. Afterwards, you may use other sources, but surprisingly other sources sound rather the same. So here is a question: Would you consider turning to a Russian source when everyone else is saying differently? Or better question, would you even consider another opinion in the situation?

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On the one hand, the negative image is being constructed for a long time. “Bad boy Putin won’t find friends at G20 summit” (torontosun.com),  “How Vladimir Putin became evil” (theguardian.com), “West faces up to Putin aggression” (bbc.com) etc. Along with these headlines, there are high officials who insist on further sanctions against Russia; there are decisions taken to suspend the country from G8, limit its abilities at the PACE and so on. On the other hand, economic relations are actually getting stronger (forbes) . Many European producers, exporters, businessmen are actually against sanctions. Simply, they are no good for the business (the Guardian).

This kind of blaming rhetoric is similar in Russia itself. Of course, it targets the West in return.

As a result, we see rhetoric of finger-pointing. The countries are demonizing each other according to the principle “we are good – they are bad”. This kind of strategy aims to form certain opinion of another country and stirs up enmity. This strategy is another form of geopolitical influence that is used by the governments.

It should be noticed that when referring to Russian sources (not just media, but also politicians and government officials), it is widely accepted that these sources are not reliable or trustable. They are corrupted; hence they should not be taken into account. So, does it mean that another point of view is not taken into account as well? I would draw your attention to the question why European rhetoric is believed to be more trustable than any other’s.

During twentieth century, the West had become the main documenter of historical events, from the World War I to the Cold War. Of course, it did represent the events that actually happened, yet we should stress what kinds of things were highlighted in this narration. The West pays attention to what it is important for the West. There is nothing wrong in this; this is simply the way how humans express their opinions. But other countries tell their stories too.  Rejecting their point of view means staying in the nutshell. Just because it is not delivered by stronger power does not necessarily mean that it is a wrong opinion.

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For example, the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact (Nazi-Soviet neutrality pact) is usually condemned nowadays. In contrast, Europe does not bring up the Munich Agreement of 1938, which permits Germany to annex portions of Czechoslovakia, which was signed by France, Italy and the United Kingdom, the major powers of Europe.

Other notions are also created and moved forward by the West. The term of “cold war”, first appeared in Orwell’s Animal Farm, was later picked up by Walter Lippmann in 1947. Now the period of US-Soviet tension is referred in this way.

This rhetoric has power to reach out anyone in the world that makes it a little bit frightening. It became dominant rhetoric too, developed and imposed by strong counsttries. This discourse easily leads to false stereotypes about international relations.

In this sense, everything that happens outside of Europe, e.g. the conflicts in the Middle East, remain in the periphery and do not influence the main course of events. But for those countries who are actually involved into the conflict, the conflict occupies the central place. In humanities, this is called textualization of reality, which means interpretation of events. So far, textual ethnocentrism of the West is very strong because of its power. As Winston Churchill once said, “History is written by the victors”. It will never get old.

One of the examples of this Western dominance would be terrorist attacks in Belgium and France. Similar and even worse attacks in the Middle East did not draw as much attention as it did with European ones [1]. In the previous century, the description of events was more spontaneous (the wars of 1914-1918 and 1939-1945). Today it is more well-directed and oriented by power interests.

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This leads to certain public opinion all around the world. As a result, powerful countries are getting political and economic benefits, making international agreements that are more beneficial for the West (See Artic Sunrise Case).

Yet, democratic demagogy is vulnerable and easily shaken.  For example, it has been years but Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan are still not democratic, regardless of US attempts. Europe is being weak in the light of the “Eastern Front”, meaning that Eastern countries are turning out to be not particularly democratic. If Serbia and especially Turkey enter the European Union, what is left of democracy and euro-identity?

Every power pursues its interest. Every power has its own agenda. By using electronic or paper means, available to them, they strive to achieve what’s best for their country.  An ordinarily person has to be aware of this and restrain himself/herself from immediate joining to the finger-pointing discourse. Two heads are better than one. Even if another head is believed to be evil.

Author’s note: This article does not aim to finger-point any party, rather it questions trust in media. The West/Russia are taken as an example because there are more sources available (and because I haven’t learnt exotic language yet 😀 ).

I would appreciate people from countries other than Europe expressing their opinions (below in the comments) about their media/officials, interpreting different events.

[1]  If you are interested how the events are interpreted and talked about, read more about Rwandan Genocide. Particularly, the way media and officials addressed the events of 1994.

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Alexandra Goman
Specialist in linguistics/translation. Excited about cognitive, psycho- & neuro-linguistics, curious about political semantics and international relations. A complete traveller.
  • Claudiu

    Great article Alexandra! If I were to make a brief comment, I would only mention that the media and the way its discourse is formulated is related to the dominant worldview of the country or of the political construction it belongs to (EU), in addition to the already mentioned political agenda of the dominating political force or of the individual profit-driven agenda of the media outlet itself.

    However, a simplistic view that the view of the West is equal to the constructed reality presented in the media is false. Especially in Europe, and in democracies overall, the positioning of the media along a political spectrum is a serious thing. In countries like Romania, the different tv channels or written publications are thought of as political instruments in the hands of the different political parties. The same in Europe. Not only, but publications oftentimes change perspective. Not to mention that there are indeed professional journalists left out there. The rise of populism and of post-faktum, even the appeal that Putin has in Europe despite the negative titles stands proof that the media rhetoric here is not a monolith. You do have both diverging views between the players in the media and within the media outlets themselves.

    In concusion, in this part of the world the media is fragmented enough, the system democratic enough, and the people curious and open enough so that alternative worldviews live head to head. And this is where the difference lies with regard to the role of media in non-democratic societies, where there is only one worldview present or strong enough to matter.