William Dunkerley is author of Ukraine in the Crosshairs. He is a media business analyst, principal of William Dunkerley Publishing Consultants, and a Senior Fellow at the American University in Moscow.
In the face of malicious fabrications aimed at denigrating Russia and its leaders, it is essential to confront the fact that many false news stories have gone mainstream, and that they have been impervious to disaffirmational facts and logic. We've seen that simply presenting world audiences with the truth has had very limited impact. The bad guy reputation lives on unrestrainedly. The perpetrators of the provocative fabrications carry on their maleficent work with impunity.
Troubling allegations against Russia and Putin have been found persistently to be based upon falsehoods. For instance:
--Putin clamped down on the Yeltsin era's free press
--A reign of murder against opposition journalists erupted under Putin
--Putin ordered the polonium murder of Russian fugitive Alexander Litvinenko
--The Pussy Riot assault on Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior was a principled act of dissidence
--Russia Invaded Georgia
--and many more instances.
In each case it has been publically established that the allegations have been based on falsehoods and fabrications. But have broad public perceptions of Russia been changed by the factual refutations? I see no significant sign of that. Despite the ready-availability of contravening evidence, the cleverly-constructed specious stories persist in the minds of people all over the world.
Putin stands out as the personification of Russia's bad guy image. But omnipresent negative perceptions aren't limited to him personally.
"Russians: Still the Go-To Bad Guys," is the headline of a 2014 New York Times story. It reports,
"Nearly 25 years after the Berlin Wall fell and marked the end of the Cold War, Hollywood's go-to villains remain Russians. The last few years alone have seen a sadistic ex-KGB. agent ("The Avengers"), crooked Russian officials ("A Good Day to Die Hard"), Russian hit men ("The Tourist"), a Russian spy ("Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy"), a Russian-American loan shark ("Limitless"), and so many Russian gangsters they have displaced Italians as film's favored thugs ("Jack Reacher," "Safe," "A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas," among others)."
Doesn't it seem that Russia has been typecast as inherently villainous? And from what I've seen, no rational attempts to set the record straight have changed that. Russia is in a rut.
The story of the Ukraine crisis is replete with unsubstantiated rhetoric about Russia. In my book Ukraine in the Crosshairs I explain:
"The horrible international reputation that was imputed upon Putin made work easy for those seeking to fool us regarding Ukraine. There was a strong confirmation bias involved. It seemed natural to most that Putin would have Hitlerian-type motives regarding Ukraine and Eastern Europe. In fact, some people actually likened Putin to Adolph Hitler. Mincing no words, Lithuanian ambassador to the US, Zygimantas Pavilionis, told a World Affairs Council audience in October 2014 that 'Putin is worse than Hitler.'"
And most of his audience took it all in.
My book goes on to examine the psychological process that makes this all possible. The bottom line is that now after almost two decades of maliciously managed negative stories about Russia, the negative reputation that has attached to the country has become an entrenched belief around most of the world.
Again, from Ukraine in the Crosshairs:
"So the false news stories sank in as the undisputed truth. Putin acquired a bad reputation. And it serves as a framework with which we interpret each new Putin story. That framework is what psychologists call a schema. They say that once we have internalized a schema, our brain fights hard to protect and sustain it. That's because a schema is generally useful. It helps us to organize and interpret information. A downside occurs, however, when our efforts to protect a schema lead to rigidity. While we welcome new information that fits into the schema, when it doesn't fit we tend to either reject it out-of-hand or selectively interpret the new information to make it comply with the schema."
The book provides the example of the Litvinenko death case. I explain that the fallacious news stories invoke "the use of archetypes, i.e., concepts that are universally imbedded in individual psyches. Litvinenko was characterized as a hero, a dissident. Putin was painted as a devil. Jungian psychologist Dr. Brian A. Shaw examined the story and concurred that it has been built through the use of common archetypes."
That's why rationally countering the false stories has not worked. It's going to take more than addressing people's minds to change these beliefs. It will be necessary to address both their hearts and minds. That's the formula for change. Right now what's missing from the equation is any substantially efficacious effort to communicate with people at an emotional level in order to dispel falsehoods.
The malicious negative stories have tended to depersonalize Russians as a people. They are depicted as mindlessly following the dictates of Putin who is feared as a tyrant.
Would recasting Putin filmatically in a more positive light be the best next step? Leonardo DeCaprio has said recently that he'd like to play Putin in a major motion picture. Some have suggested such a film just might be the ticket. But I disagree. Even if a DeCaprio film were to be Putin-friendly, no one would believe it. It would be seen as counterintuitive, and likely would be labeled as Putinist propaganda, and dismissed.
Recently I had an opportunity to read the screenplay for another major American film, one that is already under development. It is titled For Love and Country. The story is a human drama set in the tumultuous period in Europe around 1940. In the screenplay I saw Russian characters who are portrayed by American stars who ultimately will be seen on American movie screens. The personalization of the Russian characters will be subtle but effective. It will certainly lead Americans to feel a human connection with the Russians. They will connect in a positive and emotional way. That's what's needed to start shedding the bad guy reputation.
It's taken years and years for Russia's bad guy image to become archetypically entrenched. Certainly this film alone will not erase all the damage done by all that malicious negativity. But it's a beginning. Showing Russians as real and likeable people will be a strong move toward undermining the negative international image. Indeed, it will be a very significant start, and will set a strong foundation for future initiatives to counteract the damage that has been done over the years.