Evgeny Morozov | Wednesday, August 20, 2008
While the real war between Russia and Georgia may be over, the Internet war lingers on, with virtual battalions continuing to fight on sites like YouTube.
The point of contention is a short clip of a Fox News program, in which Shepard Smith, the host, interviewed two South Ossetians: a 12 year-old-girl from Walnut Creek, Amanda Kokoev, and her aunt, Laura Tedeeva-Korewiski, who happened to be in the region when the war broke out. The interview went fine until she blamed Georgia for the war. Smith, in a rather abrupt manner, interrupted and asked for commercial break – only to have the aunt call on the Georgian government to resign when they returned on air. “That’s exactly what Russians want,” whispered Smith, as he cut them off again – this time forever.
With nearly 900,000 views and 14,000 comments on YouTube, the video has become the potent symbol of Russia’s suspicions toward the West and its media. With many Russian bloggers identifying the host’s behavior as an innate Western desire to suppress the truth about Russia, it did not take long for the four-minute video to become a major news event in the country (a state-owned TV channel even invited the girl and her aunt to do an interview about what it felt like on their prime-time Sunday news program).
But the buck did not stop with Fox News. As the video started accumulating thousands of views, some Russian bloggers began to observe another conspiracy – this time perpetrated by Google-owned YouTube. Because of the way YouTube gathers statistics about views for their video, the updates are delayed; thus, even if a million people suddenly watch a video, it would still take a few hours for those numbers to show up. Many Russians quickly accused YouTube of conspiring with Fox News to suppress the wider dissemination of this video, as the large number of viewers would inevitably push it to the top of all charts. A definitive report from a major Russian online news agency only confirmed their suspicions. And even though, within a few hours, all the view counts were properly attributed, this was too late: The myth was created and the only course of action was to appeal to the Moscow-born Sergey Brin, a co-founder of Google, which many did on their blogs and YouTube itself.
The Russian reaction to the video is very telling about the country, its vague identity and its shifting attitude toward the West. That such an interview – in which a guest would voice an unscripted position that would contradict the official line of the Kremlin, all of it live – is almost infeasible on today’s state-controlled Russian TV has not even occurred to most commentators.
Russians easily believe that the White House leaves Fox News and Google no other choice but to comply with its hard line against Russia. For many Russians, such government mingling into corporate affairs is business as usual – and they assume that it is so for the rest of the world.
Paradoxically, in the age of YouTube, the four minutes that the Ossetian family was on air became more potent propaganda that anything Moscow spin doctors could produce on their own. Moscow’s reluctance to engage with the Western media only confirmed that its leaders are more concerned with the domestic reaction to the war. Instead of waging a full-blown attack on the Western media, the Kremlin decided to exploit the incidents like the one on FoxNews, framing them domestically as part of a global conspiracy to destroy Russia.
But that the Kremlin needs such narratives in the first place only suggests that the biggest threats to their regime are probably internal, not external. It’s by studying and manipulating those threats in a careful manner that the West can nudge Russia toward democracy once again.
Evgeny Morozov is the founder of the news aggregator Polymeme. He is based in Berlin.
This article appeared on page B – 7 of the San Francisco Chronicle