Sunday, May 29, 2016

Quotable: Paula Chertok on how word choices support propaganda myths

image (not from entry) from

image (not from entry) from

Saturday, May 28th 2016
One of the techniques of propaganda is to warp language and word choices.  In my own career, I saw this up close and personal in Korea.  The generals in South Korea controlled the media, and they long curbed discussion of the Kwangju rising of 1980 by calling it an “incident.”  When I was first introduced to “learn Chinese” textbooks produced in the PRC, I was struck by how they referred to the Kuomintang – in China before 1949 or in Taiwan afterwards – as “Chiang’s bandits.”  And we all recall the novel 1984, where use of Newspeak stunted minds by stunting vocabulary. 

Writing in Ukraine’s Euromaidan Press on April 25, 2016, Paula Chertok explained “How Russia’s worst propaganda myths about Ukraine seep into media language.”  Her analysis goes farther than examining word choices like “rebels” and “separatists”; it looks at how expressions and word patterns shape confusion, false equivalence, indifference, and mistrust.

She also revealed how others can unconsciously fall in line with Russian propaganda by repeating its usages.  She was especially critical of the BBC, and she examined in detail a recent article that conveys equivalence by using such phrases as “each other,” “tit for tat,” “both sides,” and “similarly.” 

This useful article bears reading – to alert those who follow events, opinions, and narratives for how they may be shaped by word choices for malign purposes.  This brief gist omits her extensive word-for-word analysis of some BBC reports, so click on the link above to read the whole essay.

  • Over the past two years, much has been written about the “Ukraine crisis.” This phrase is, in fact, a euphemism, used purposefully by some and sloppily by others. In both cases, however, use of the euphemism “crisis” diminishes, distorts and distracts from the reality in Ukraine.

  • . . . the reality is that the “crisis” in Ukraine is Russia. Russia compelled the annexation of one region of Ukraine – Crimea – and invaded and occupied another region – the Donbas. Indeed, Russia created a crisis of the worst sort – war.

  • There is plenty of reliable eyewitness and documentary evidence of Russia’s war in Ukraine. We’ve seen Russian soldiers, Russian weapons, and Russian tanks crossing into a sovereign European nation’s internationally recognized border. Furthermore, Russia’s war has been purely aggressive and unprovoked. Ukraine didn’t fly planes close to or inside Russian airspace. Ukraine didn’t kidnap Russian citizens. Ukraine didn’t claim Russian territory nor did it even threaten to claim an inch of Russian territory.

  • Crisis or War. Yet despite the overwhelming evidence of a war on Ukrainian territory – an aggressive, unprovoked war, begun by Russia, financed by Russia and largely lead and fought by Russians, much of the media continues to use the language of “crisis” rather than the language of “war.”

  • . . . there are reasons for this.  War refers to a relatively concrete set of hostile acts. The euphemism “crisis” on the other hand creates a kind of distance from the reality of war’s violence. “Crisis” also invokes a sense of complexity, perhaps even of murky, difficult to understand events.

  • The use of the euphemistic “crisis” for Russia’s war in Ukraine works to divert attention from the very concept of responsibility in general, and in Russia as a responsible party, specifically.

  • More significantly, however, the use of the word “war” entails specific, identifiable parties to the war. “Crisis” does not necessitate identifying the parties or even determining the aggressor.  A messy, murky crisis can exist independent of an aggressor. Thus, the use of the euphemistic “crisis” for Russia’s war in Ukraine works to divert attention from the very concept of responsibility in general, and in Russia as a responsible party, specifically.

  • Once our attention shifts away from Russia, the door is then open to the Kremlin’s own alternative narrative.

  • This is precisely what we’ve seen for two years: Russia issues one incredulous denial after another that it is not the aggressor of war in Ukraine. At the same time, the Kremlin swoops in with a set of anti-Ukraine propaganda memes – US-sponsored coup, fascist Kyiv junta, Ukrainian neo-Nazi nationalists – that provide another ready-made version of events for mass consumption. The memes are disseminated using specific language patterns and word choices to paint the picture Russia wants the world to see, diverting attention and thereby consequences from its very aggression.

  • We’ve come to expect the Russian media using the language of “crisis” rather than the language of “war” precisely because it diminishes Russia’s responsibility. State-run Sputnikand RT (Russia Today) have run thousands of articles about the “Ukrainian Crisis,” all of which perpetuate Russian myths about Ukraine.

  • . . . it’s even more disconcerting to see the same language patterns regularly used in Russia’s propaganda press seep into the seemingly uncaptured Western media. As a result, people casually reading the news are given Russian perspectives on Ukraine, and come away with more Russian perspective and more Russian propaganda myths than they bargained for.

  • Furthermore, when such imbalances are presented in a “he said she said” format, as the BBC piece does, the suggestion is that it is impossible to determine who the credible party is. And it’s here that the reader has been led by the nose right into the heart of darkness of Russian propaganda.

  • Much of Russia’s propaganda about Ukraine is aimed at confusing the public with murky facts laced with murkier disinformation so that people stop paying attention, and Russia’s policy can continue unobstructed. In other words, Russian propaganda presents stories about Ukraine that leave the reader saying to herself: Who’s right, who’s wrong, who cares.

  • By using words repeatedly about equivalency, without the appropriate contextualization with well-established facts, we’re left thinking we’re reading about parties that are equally bad, equally dirty, and equally to blame for the current war “crisis.”

  • The BBC’s language of equivalency is boosted by language that downplays and diminishes Russia’s indisputable role as aggressor. Whenever Russia is presented for what it is, the aggressor, the phraseology is softened by adding hedges, such as “In Kyiv’s view” and “Kyiv regards” Russia “as an aggressor state.” Ukraine “considers” Russia to be a national security threat.

  • It’s a shame that after two years of war and a wealth of evidence of Russia’s role, Russian propaganda still so comfortably finds its way into mainstream media. What’s worse is that our own Western media outlets, by sloppily mimicking Kremlin language, are letting Russia get away with murder.
Hat tip:  Joel Harding, To Inform is to Influence.

No comments: