Thursday 29 May 2014

Why RT succeeds where CCTV 9 fails.

A little while back The Guardian ran a story by the reader's editor reporting the suspicions of the Guardian website team that stories on The Guardian website about the Ukrainian crisis were being "astroturfed" by Kremlin-supporters.  These allegations were no surprise to anyone familiar with the Chinese internet scene as the pattern of behaviour was very familiar - a story would be posted, remain relatively uncommented on for around 15-20 minutes, and would then be flooded by recently-joined commenters repeatedly posting the same, near-identical talking-points in support of Vladimir Putin's aggression in the Ukraine. You didn't have to be a raging paranoid to think that you were seeing the Russian equivalent of China's "Wu Mao Dang" (loosely translated as "50 Cent Party") in action - a "50 Kopeck Crew" if you will.

However, this is not the whole story. There were also many who were undeniably unrelated to the Kremlin, but also undeniably convinced of the correctness of Vladimir Putin's actions against the Ukraine, and who obviously based their opinions on content emanating from a single source - RT, formerly Russia Today.

For anyone who has watched the P.R.C. government's various failed attempts at making itself heard outside the areas under its direct control over the years, this was something of a surprise. Whilst there will always be a strand of opinion willing to seize on any reason to believe that the ills of the world can be laid entirely at the door of the US government, the credibility the RT had gained amongst these people was surprising.

What then is it that RT does that Chinese state-controlled outlets directed to the outside world have failed to do? At a guess, I would put it down to the following factors:

  • Understand your target audience and tell them what they want to hear - In as much as any target-audience can be identified, CCTV 9 and outlets like Xinhua's CNC world seem directed to foreign businessmen visiting the country. This is regardless of the very obvious fact that these people have better sources of information when it comes to China, even when it comes to business news.

    By contrast RT concentrates on the audience that they know will be most receptive to their messaging. Rather than try to fool all of the people all of the time, they instead go after political extremists and conspiracy theorists who are willing to believe the worst about the countries they live in and the governments that govern them. It is for this reason that, for example, their instruction to a reporter heading to Germany were to make the place look like a "failed state".

  • Use familiar faces - From early on CCTV 9 made use of foreign-born presenters like (recently deceased) Chris Gelken in a strategy that was described as "putting Chinese wine in a foreign bottle". This use of white-faces merely to present pretty much the same content put out on other outlets by Chinese presenters reflects mistaken (not to say racist) thinking about why exactly it is that foreigners find Chinese state propaganda somewhat less convincing than news from credible sources.

    RT, though, takes a different tack - it uses interviews with reliable, and fairly well known (even popular within certain circles) subjects like John Pilger and George Galloway to spread its message. The identification of these individuals with RT, their willingness to be used by Putin's oligarch-dominated nationalistic state whilst they use RT in return as an outlet for their own ultra-left ideology, is an asset enjoyed by RT that CCTV can only dream of. The fact that most people familiar with these men know them for the propagandists they are is immaterial, because the target audience is not "most people".

  • What's important is the effect of the message, not its wording - Reading descriptions of what it is like to work at a Chinese state-controlled English-language media outlet, there seems to be a general agreement that much of the focus was on political correctness and avoidance of things like, for example, describing the president of Taiwan as exactly what he is. The result is often something that almost appears as if it were written in code

    RT instead pursues a tabloid-style format, it isn't afraid to carry stories condemning, for example, gay-rights abuses in other countries despite Russia being far worse in that regard because its aim is to piggy-back pro-Russia messaging that its target audience is fairly neutral on on the back of anti-US/EU sentiment that they can't get enough of. Whilst there is occasional blow-back, RT can afford this because its core message is getting across to the people who it knows will listen to it.

  • Integration with the intelligence services - By carrying taped, intercepted phone-calls between European and US diplomats that RT had 'discovered' on Youtube within a remarkably short time of their having been uploaded, RT was able to pose as a news channel breaking stories before anyone else, and, just as importantly, spin them in a way that served their interests. It did not matter that the intercepts simply featured diplomats exchanging gossip - once spun as overwhelming evidence of a conspiracy it was impossible to counter this line. Similarly RT's target audience did not care that this clearly pointed to RT merely being a cog in the Russian propaganda machine since they were far more interested in anything that they believed would validate their own paranoid world-view.  
This at least is my view on it, and of all the above factors the first is the most important. No-one believes, or even likes CCTV 9's Yang Rui, especially not after his various diatribes against China's foreign population, other than relatively few people among the Chinese diaspora no-one sees China's English-language news outlets as being credible or even worth checking regularly - but at the heart of all of this is the fact that CCTV 9 seems to be engaged in a conversation with itself rather than targeting a specific audience.

UPDATE: Another heavy-handed propaganda channel that probably needs to think a bit more about who its target audience is.

[Video: RT get pwned on their own channel]

No comments: