Toxic positivity Desperate to convince citizens the war won't change their daily lives, the Russian authorities are flooding the airwaves with “positive” news stories
The war in Ukraine has been going on for two months, the list of sanctions against Russia continues to grow, and the Russian authorities are still trying to convince the world (and themselves) that the war won’t have any serious consequences for Russian citizens. In their telling, for example, the Russian economy is sure to hold strong, and the exodus of Western companies is a “historic opportunity” for Russian business owners. According to Russian government insiders, all of these messages are part of a carefully planned media campaign to “spread positivity.” Here’s how it works.
In light of the war and the resulting decline in Russian living standards, the Russian Presidential Administration (AP) made a decision to increase the amount of “positive” stories in the news and on social media. Meduza learned about this from three sources close to the AP. “They’re flooding [the news] with positivity,” one of them said.
According to him, it works like this: Russia’s regional governments gather examples of “import substitutions, new factories opening, and new products appearing” in their territories, and then the state-controlled media puts out “stories” about them.
“People are worried about increasing prices and the possibility of product shortages. Some people have already seen empty shelves. They’re reading news about Western companies leaving the country. That makes them worry even more. People think, ‘How will we get by without the everyday things and products we’ve gotten used to?’ They need to be calmed down — and shown that the government is dealing with everything and is already doing a lot. That everything will be fine,” a source close to the AP told Meduza.
According to him, this isn’t a new tactic for the Russian government. In bad times and less-bad times alike, the authorities prefer to give Russians the “information reassurance treatment.” “As soon as you start thinking about your problems, you’re immediately told they're being solved,” he said.
Right now, the “flood of positivity” is conducted mostly through traditional and online news media rather than on popular social media services like Telegram or VKontakte. “The user base on VKontakte is young — they’re not interested in this stuff. On Telegram, people are more political: they’re either part of the opposition, and this stuff won’t placate them, or they’re super patriotic. Those people don’t need to be reassured, either, because they’re already seeking out this kind of information on their own,” said one of Meduza’s sources.
The kinds of stories that make up the authorities’ positivity campaign are easy to find on Russian TV news broadcasts. On a recent episode of Vremya (“Time”), the flagship news program on Russia’s main state TV network, a story about a meeting Vladimir Putin held to discuss the petroleum market was optimistically subtitled “We’ll make it through.” A story about import substitution was called “Our chance.” “There’s real desire and opportunity to work, and the authorities are encouraging business people and their initiative in myriad ways. Many of them have seen a historic opportunity in the harsh sanctions,” said program host Yekaterina Andreyeva at the start of the story.
The story itself is about “large-scale plans” to start producing cosmetics at a household cleaning supplies factory in Volgograd and about attempts (successful ones, naturally) to replace the catering companies that left Russia’s Kirov region: “They’ve suspended their work, but these [local companies] have been expanding. They have burgers, sushi, and shawarma.”
On Russia-1, another state-owned network, viewers are told essentially the same thing. One story, for example, was about how “Dagestan can feed all of Russia with its mutton”; another focused on the “flood of workers into the radio-electronic industry.”
The pro-government tabloids are presenting a similar picture. “Look out for falling prices!” said one issue of Komsomolskaya Pravda. The article itself reveals that only the prices of some very specific items — like eggplants and kiwi — are decreasing, and it ends with a list of items whose prices have gone up.
It’s not just regional officials who are trying to spread positivity; the Moscow authorities are doing it too, according to a source close to the city’s administration. Another source referred to the campaign as “the ‘Spring’ media project” and said the goal is to prevent “a sharp drop in social well-being.” “We’re setting military news aside, it’s spring in the city, things are thawing out. The mayor really is working on this,” he said. Moscow city administration press secretary Gulnara Peskova did not respond to Meduza’s questions.
Another source told Meduza that Moscow’s “positive news” initiative was a bit different from the federal one. “It needs to be made clear to the middle class that almost nothing in their lives has changed, and that Moscow is just as full of life, just as comfortable, as it was before. For example, the foreign businesses that left are already being replaced by new, Russian ones.” Hopefully, the source said, the “positive backdrop” will make it less painful for Muscovites to adapt to their “new reality.”
The government-controlled media has been putting out articles about new stores, cafes, and restaurants, as well as suggestions for ways to take your mind off the news.
Recent articles in the newspaper Vechernyaya Moskva (“Evening Moscow”), for example, have included one dedicated to Moscow Fashion Week, which “will unlock new opportunities for designers,” and one about how “more and more scientists are receiving financial support for their research.” A banner on the site’s Food section offers some tried-and-true advice: “When you’re feeling down, eat!” The site doesn’t mention why readers might be feeling down.
Translation by Sam Breazeale