Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Positive Feedback on Full Volume

There's an old anecdote about public relations.

A one-eyed ruler wished to have his portrait painted. The first artist whom he summoned painted him with one eye, and was executed for portraying the ruler as an invalid. The second artist painted the ruler with two eyes and was executed for lack of authenticity.

To Our Readers

Has something you've read here startled you? Are you angry, excited, puzzled or pleased? Do you have ideas to improve our coverage?
Then please write to us.
All we ask is that you include your full name, the name of the city from which you are writing and a contact telephone number in case we need to get in touch.
We look forward to hearing from you.

Email the Opinion Page Editor

The third artist painted the leader in profile. The third artist had a bright future in PR.

In principle, painting one-eyed rulers in profile is standard practice around the world and there is nothing particularly shameful about it. The problem begins when you get rid of all the opposition -- because at first all state media get an urge to present the ruler in profile, and then everyone else follows suit.

That's only until some sycophant, wishing to stand out from the crowd, portrays the ruler from the front with two eyes.

The sycophant's career takes off and his example becomes contagious. Everyone starts painting the ruler with two eyes and painting him in profile becomes bad taste.

After all, if you paint the ruler in profile what are you trying to suggest? That you know what the real state of affairs is?

Then someone gets the bright idea of painting the ruler with four eyes, as they used to depict particularly wise Chinese gods in antiquity.

Then six eyes, then eight, and before you know it, they are painting four heads to accomodate the four pairs of eyes. And where you once had a ruler, you now have a wise-looking dragon.

The problem is that the distortion of reality cannot go on growing indefinitely -- sooner or later, you reach breaking point.

The only way to avoid a rupture is to create a powerful ideology which does not distort reality, but rather creates reality.

This is the path that Lenin, Hitler and Osama bin Laden took.

It is very hard to assert that there was no class war going on when the Bolshevik Dybenko's drunken sailors drowned hundreds of educated officers during the revolution in 1917. And it is very hard to assert that the West is not hostile to Islam, when airplanes crash into the Twin Towers in New York, and George W. Bush in response sends the U.S. army in Iraq.

Ideology is not just a system of coordinates that people superimpose on the world, it is a mold into which the world is poured. But the Putin regime is not remotely inclined towards such a radical transformation of reality.

The difference between lies and ideology is that when reality is distorted with the aid of ideology, the chief disinformation target is the people. With lies, the main disinformation target is the authorities themselves.

The Russian president is the viewer-in-chief who learns from the television news that the people welcome the abolition of social benefits and that the children of Beslan are off to Sochi with smiles on their faces.

From the point of view of effective government, the lack of free speech is bad news not because it deprives people of the possibility of learning the truth about the carnage in Beslan, but because the authorities themselves cannot get their hands on the truth.

The machine is permanently stuck in positive feedback mode. The more the president does as he wishes, the more he hears on television how the people hold him in high regard. The more the people learn of their huge admiration, the more nonplussed they become. The more perplexed they become, the more the president is told that the people are full of admiration for him.

Positive feedback can result in a chain reaction. After reaching a certain threshold, the process culminates in an explosion.

Yulia Latynina hosts a political talk show on Ekho Moskvy radio.