Group polarization

This week’s ‘Irrationality and Foreign Policy Decision Making’ class will look at group dynamics, in other words how being in a group affects behaviour. The phenomenon of ‘groupthink’ is well known, and its effects on foreign policy have been extensively covered elsewhere, so instead in this post I will focus on a less well known phenomenon – group polarization.

Group polarization refers to the tendency of groups to move towards extremes. At the end of a discussion, group members will probably adopt a more extreme decision than that which they were inclined towards at the beginning. If at the start they were inclined to take a risk, they will be even more inclined to do so at the end; if instead, they were initially inclined to be cautious, they will end up even more cautious. In other words, groups tend to accentuate the existing dispositions of their members.

There are a couple of explanations for this. The first is that people want to fit into the group, and so adopt what they perceive to be the prevailing attitude. As more and more group members do so, the group as a whole becomes more extreme. The second explanation is that as people hear more and more arguments in favour of a certain position, they become more and more convinced of its correctness, as a result of which attitudes harden.

Let us apply this to relations between Russia and the West. Russia is an individual nation. Group polarization does not apply to it. But the West is a group, normally represented by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union (EU). We should expect group polarization to apply to both NATO and the EU in their relations to Russia. It seems reasonable to suppose that at the start of the current crisis in Ukraine, the majority of members of both organizations viewed Russia’s involvement in Ukraine negatively. Given this initial inclination, group polarization would probably have pushed both NATO and the EU to take an even harder line against Russia than the individual member states would have taken if left to their own devices. The existence of NATO and the EU has thus probably exacerbated East-West relations.

Does that mean that Russia should try and avoid dealing with NATO and the EU and instead try to deal with Western nations bilaterally? In the current situation, the answer is yes. Russia will do better by speaking to France and Germany individually than it will by speaking to NATO or the EU. The format of the Minsk negotiations, which included Russia, France, Germany, and Ukraine, are therefore advantageous to Russia compared to some format which might see NATO or the EU involved. This is true, however, only as long as the initial inclinations of Western states towards Russia are negative. Should those inclinations shift in a positive direction, group polarization could push NATO and the EU even more positively inclined towards Russia than individual members were. At that point, it would make sense for Russia to deal with the organizations rather than with their member states. There is little immediate prospect of that, however.



Upcoming events

This Wednesday (4 March) I will be giving a talk at 3 pm in the Junior Common Room of Trinity College at the University of Toronto on ‘The Problem with Military Intervention: Why we shouldn’t go to war with ISIS’. Details here.

On Friday 20 March, I will be talking on ‘The Ukraine Crisis, Russia, and NATO: Military and foreign policy perspectives’ at a conference at the University of Windsor on ‘From Maidan to Donbass: The Ukraine crisis in the context of Western-Russian relations.’ The conference is in room 203 of the Toldo Health Education Centre, from 2 pm onwards.

On Friday 27 March, I shall be at Kansas State University for the conference ‘Perspectives on Modern Honor’ to present a paper entitled ‘The Honour of the Crown: The State and its Soldiers’.

I expect to be in Moscow on 21 May for a conference on ‘The Philosophy of Ivan Ilyin: Russia and the West’, speaking on ‘Representations of Ivan Ilyin in Western countries, and the problems of mutual misunderstanding of Russia and the West’.

Finally, I have accepted an invitation to speak at IdeaCity 2015 in Toronto, 17-19 June, on the subject of how the world is not becoming more dangerous.


The dangers of overcompensating

Last week I posted on the subject of media bias, and also discussed the topic with my students. After a long debate, one of my students asked what we could do about it. Not a lot, was my reply, except be aware of it and bear it in mind when forming opinions on any given topic. Then I added a caveat: don’t overcompensate and start assuming that because the media distort many issues, they distort everything and that you cannot trust anything that you watch or read. And just because you no longer believe all the propaganda produced by your own country, don’t start believing that produced by others, or turn into a conspiracy theorist. It is a short step from scepticism about Western media and governments to becoming a 9/11 truther.

What brings this to mind are the reactions this week to the murder of Russian politician Boris Nemtsov. The immediate response of many of those who dislike the prevailing negative Western narrative about Russia was to claim that the murder was a ‘false flag operation’ carried out to discredit Russia’s president Vladimir Putin and to destabilize Russia. The perpetrators, according to this version of events, might have been members of Russia’s liberal opposition or perhaps the Ukrainian secret services.

Claims of this sort are not uncommon. As I have said elsewhere, the rebels in Ukraine were most likely responsible for shooting down Malaysian Airlines flight MH-17. Similarly, I think that it is probable that it was rebel artillery which hit a civilian bus in Volnovakha on 12 January, killing about a dozen people. Neither incident, I believe, was intentional. These were probably unfortunate mistakes of war. But many of those who reject the mainstream Western narrative about the war in Ukraine disagree – these attacks, they believe, were also ‘false flags’, designed to prejudice international opinion against the rebels.

Why do people believe these things, despite the evidence to the contrary? The answer I think is that having become disgruntled with the Russophobia of the Western media, people turn to alternative news sources, such as RT (if all they speak is English), the internet, or Twitter, and instead of treating these sources with the same distrust as the Western mainstream media, instead believe every word they produce. In short, they overcompensate. Having decided, for instance, that the Western version of events in Ukraine is inaccurate, and that Russia is not entirely to blame for the conflict there, they come to believe the opposite – that Russia isn’t to blame at all, and the whole business is the product of a devilish plan hatched by the USA to weaken Russia. Believing that Western claims about Russian involvement in Ukraine are exaggerated, they preposterously insist that Russia is not involved at all – that there are no Russian troops in Ukraine and never have been.

Mark Galeotti notes that one of the problems of the current state of Russia-West relations is ‘the death of neutrality. It is increasingly difficult not to be one side or the other.’ Either you believe that Putin is an evil despot, or you believe that he represents the genuine will of the Russian people. Either Russia is an imperialist aggressor, or is itself the victim of Western aggression. Either the Russian media is a source of non-stop propaganda, or the Western media is. The possibilities that Putin is not an evil despot, but that he isn’t a liberal democrat either; that Western media are flawed, but Russia media are too; that the government in Kiev is largely to blame for the war in Ukraine, but that Russia also shares the blame; that Ukrainian artillery kills civilians, but rebel artillery does too; all these and more are ignored, as balance is abandoned in favour of simplistic partisanship. It is worth remembering that nobody has a monopoly of the truth, and nobody has a monopoly of untruth either.

The New Censorship?

This week my class on ‘Irrationality and Foreign Policy Decision Making’ will be looking at the media. In an ideal world, the media would ensure that the public was properly informed and would hold governments to account for their mistakes. This would ensure better public policy. In reality, as Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky conclude in their classic study Manufacturing Consent, the mass media are often ‘effective and powerful ideological institutions that carry out a system-supportive propaganda function.’

It is worth bearing this in mind when considering a report published this month on the state of the media in Russia by the neoconservative Henry Jackson Society in the UK. Written by Russian journalist Vasiliy Gratov and entitled Putin, Maria Ivanovna from Ivanovo and Ukrainians on the Telly, its message is in line with the general complaint that Vladimir Putin has destroyed a free press in Russia. ‘Russia’s media’, writes Gratov, ‘seem back at a place they escaped from in the late 1980s: the doorway of a censor whose permission to publish is mandatory’. He concludes that the principles of media control introduced by Putin’s government ‘are nothing less than an outright rejection of democracy. Exploiting manipulation of the news media, powerful officials (and the president himself), “manage” audiences and voters, forcing them to accept a fake news agenda as genuine.’

Yet, as Herman and Chomsky’s analysis suggests, this is hardly an exclusively Russian phenomenon. In his book Flat Earth News, Nick Davies of The Guardian cites research by former U.S. Air Force officer Sam Gardiner into news stories concerning the invasion of Iraq:

He logged stories about the Iraqis using children to fight US forces (he found this was untrue); Iraqi troops waving white flags and then attacking US troops when they stepped out to talk to  them (almost certainly untrue); Iraqis wearing US uniforms to commit atrocities which would be blamed on the Americans (untrue); Iraqis ambushing US marines on the road to Baghdad (he found the marines had been attacked repeatedly by a US plane); Iraqis shooting prisoners of war (claimed personally by both George Bush and Tony Blair, later said by Downing Street to ‘lack absolute evidence’) … In each of these cases, Gardiner tracked back and found that the falsehood had been fed into the media by ‘official sources’ of one kind or another.

Herman, Chomsky, and Davies list a number of causes of this phenomenon, including: concentration of media ownership in a few hands; economic pressures which have reduced the number of real journalists; increasing necessity to produce news rapidly; and a resultant over-reliance on government press releases. This allows state leaders to set an agenda, after which journalists will generally follow it, without challenging the basic narrative. Rather than holding political elites to account, the mass media become in effect a willing accomplice.

Gratov’s description of the relationship between the Russian state and media fits this model.  First, he says, in the 1990s, media owners sought subsidies from the state, in return for which they provided political support to Yeltsin’s government. This created ‘a deliberate intermixing of journalists with the political and economic elite.’ Second, the post-Soviet mass media were from an early stage ‘controlled by a small number of industrial finance groups.’ The owners of these groups are closely linked to the Kremlin, which exercises control informally through the personal relations between the politicians and the media moguls. This ensures a form of voluntary compliance of the media in spreading the state’s message.

It is interesting that although Gratov claims that Russia has returned to the censorship of communist times, he admits that the problem isn’t that Russian journalists are being censored but rather that they ‘in practice acquiesce in the conditions proposed for their existence … [and that] not a few not only give their consent to the  manipulator-state, but try to outbid it, offering creative elaboration of the concepts of official Putinism’. Speaking of alleged distortions in Russian coverage of the war in Ukraine, Gratov writes that:

We should not imagine that these distortions are improvised by a team in the Presidential Administration, seconded to manage the news on Channel One or Russian TV and Radio. … A distinguishing feature of the New Censorship is that it encourages journalists (the word should probably be in quotes) not only to serve up the news agenda they are handed by the Kremlin, but also to creatively embellish it.

In other words, nobody is making Russian journalists report what they do – they elect to do so themselves, as unwitting participants in the system of government manipulation. This is not so very different from the critique of the Western media made by Herman, Chomsky, and Davies. Likewise, the parallels between concentrated media ownership and an overly close relationship with the state in the West and Russia are obvious.

In addition, Gratov divides the Russian media into three types: those outlets and publications which are ‘foes’ of the Kremlin; those which are ‘friends’; and those somewhere in the middle. As far as the first of these are concerned, ‘From the outset of the 2000s … there was no point in asking foes to do the Kremlin any favours, or to ask them to refrain from doing something. With then, as with the Western media, there was either a brisk, business-like relationship or no relationship at all.’ This is quite an admission, for what it says is that the government leaves opposition media alone. It doesn’t censor them, or otherwise try to influence them. They are free to publish what they like. This is not at all a ‘restoration of the Soviet system’, as Gratov describes it.

Clearly the relationship between the state and the media in Russia leaves a lot to be desired. There is a lack of genuine accountability, and the state is able to shape the news agenda in its favour. But it isn’t obvious from Gratov’s report or from any other analysis that the dynamics are that different from those in the West.

Weekend reading

Due to the conference I am attending this weekend in Toronto, I am unable to write a proper post, so instead here are links to some interesting Russia-related articles and reports:

  1. An article from the Globe and Mail by Mark MacKinnon, entitled ‘Is Ukraine More United Now’, which was published on Friday (unfortunately only available to subscribers).  I found this section particularly interesting:

 When I arrived in Kiev in December 2013, to cover some of the early protests against Mr. Yanukovich, I called up an old contact whom I had first met while reporting on the Orange Revolution nine years before. That first pro-Western uprising foundered against Ukraine’s old divisions, allowing Mr. Yanukovich to regain power in 2010. What, I asked, was different about this time? Wouldn’t the circle just repeat itself. “This time,” she told me, “we don’t care if Donbass and Crimea are with us.”

That final quotation, it seems to me, summarizes perfectly the reason why there is a war in Ukraine.

  1. A statement by Lieutenant General Sir Adrian Bradshaw, Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe. According to Bradshaw, “the threat from Russia, together with the risk it brings of a miscalculation resulting in a slide into strategic conflict, however unlikely we see that as being right now, represents an obvious existential threat to our whole being.” Sadly, this kind of crazy hyperbole is now so mainstream that nobody bats an eyelid when people in senior positions say it.
  2. Two reports published this month by a neo-conservative British think tank, the Henry Jackson Society: one on the subject of censorship in the Russian media, to which I will return later this week, and one on the alleged danger of Russian ‘soft power’.
  3. And finally, also from Britain, a report by the House of Lords entitled The EU and Russia: Before and Beyond the Crisis in Ukraine. I will try to return to this report as well in the future. There are some things in it with which I disagree, but this statement from the introduction deserves to be repeated:

Multiple witnesses have pointed out to us that Russia’s policies are based on long-standing threat perceptions, historical grievances and issues surrounding Russia’s identity. Such perceptions are shared by many of the Russian people and parts of the Russian elite as well. It is important that these perceptions should be better understood in the West.

Russia, the West, and the world

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