Ilmar Raag: This is Estonia and not the Russian Empire
Blocking Russian media channels [in Estonia] will not impact the quantity of disinformation that reaches its target audience in the near future, while it deters and puts pressure on that part of the Russian Nazi identity that holds violent domination to be natural. Our message must be that we will not allow justification of the war in Ukraine in Estonia, Ilmar Raag writes.
For a long time, I was against closing [Russian] federal channels in Estonia, while I am a proponent now. I bitterly admit that it is the best option among exclusively poor choices.
The subject matter is riddled with ethical paradoxes, while I believe decisions will have to be made at some point, with altered circumstances urging us on. I remain a liberal, but being pro-freedom means choosing a spot where you dig in your heels and refuse to retreat any further. If I agree that all nations have the right to their interests and concerns, I cannot allow one nation's interests to suffocate another's.
The main thing is that blocking media channels with ties to the Russian administration has less to do with information policy and more with pressure policy for me now.
On my previous position
Allow me to start by recalling why I was against such a move. There are three main arguments.
All manner of blocking makes us blind. It is sometimes said that an enemy you cannot see is the worst kind of enemy. In the world of information, it is known as the echo chamber effect that sees one become out of touch after only speaking to likeminded individuals in a closed system. These kinds of groups eventually become radicalized and sooner or later fall victim to self-deception.
Vladimir Putin's Ukraine campaign is one example of a mistake made based on inadequate and limited information. I very much hope that research institutions and public think tanks can still keep an eye on the development of the Kremlin's narrative.
We must not become our enemy. It is very simple but the more the conflict escalates, the more this will happen. Unfortunately. I sincerely hope we will find a way back at one point.
If the motivation for blocking these channels was to stop them from brainwashing the Russian population, this claim is only half true, scientifically speaking. False information is just one part of factors that influence behavior.
Every communication has at least three different influencing factors the relative importance of which could be described as follows.
Concrete information is responsible for 20 percent
Armchair analysts often feel that everything boils down to whether the media writes, "Russia launched a special military operation" or "Russia unleashed a war to destroy Ukraine." The right words provide the desired direction. Dear friends, it is as if we have forgotten the lessons of the coronavirus crisis: the existence of accurate information does not prevent its misinterpretation.
Or reversely, when Toomas Mattson regularly reviews Conservative People's Party (EKRE) and the Kremlin's television content on Facebook, based on this theory, he would have to be thoroughly brainwashed himself by this point. But something tells me he still has all of his faculties.
False or accurate information can give human behavior shape, while it does not determine interpretation and the initial impulse of consequent actions. For example, while everyone might understand calls to, "Tear down Estonian flags," or "Let us all paint the letter Z on our cars," the same way, this universal interpretation still tells us nothing in terms of how many would take up the call.
Emotion counts for 30 percent
Aristotle's "Rhetoric" tells us that emotion must not be overlooked when making one's case. Pathos.
Our advertising gurus have told politicians during election campaigns that a politician needs to be sold like sausage. Using emotion. Unfortunately, it is not much of a manipulation because people cannot really make decisions outside of emotions. The higher the stakes, the more excited the emotional backdrop and the less room is left for rational information.
Identity context provides the remaining 50 percent
This is by far the most important factor when it comes to how information is interpreted. An individual needs to subconsciously protect their identity and goes through the process of identity actualization every time they interpret information.
For example, Toomas Mattson knows full well who he is and, therefore, interprets Russian propaganda news in a way that is diametrically opposite the Kremlin's. The Russian population in Estonia found itself in a situation where it had to reevaluate its identity 30 years ago.
Between 30 and 50 percent of its members have decided to be more or less Western European or Estonian. A third of them have built their identity on economic opportunism and take little interest in politics. Around 20 percent have chosen Russian imperial Nazism and Great Russian chauvinism. The Russian community's equivalent of EKRE.
And now, let us ask an important question: do we really believe that this identity would not exist without Russian media channels? Would the Estonian society and its attitude toward Russians have been attractive enough for Russians to give up their Great Russian identity?
Looking at the shaping of other migrant communities elsewhere in the world and without comparable brainwashing, we see that the result is still the same. The national/religious identity that is carried forward in families and establishes rules continues to remake itself for at least a couple of generations even without the media component.
In other words, if we ban Russian television networks and websites and believe that solves the problem, we are deeply mistaken. We have only achieved 20 percent of the goal.
If you ask the nationalist in me what would be the most important factor in the long run, my answer would be universal Estonian-language education. After that come all manner of policies to guarantee that the everyday experience of Estonians and Russians is as similar as possible. This would also result in more uniform interpretations of the Kremlin's channels.
Effects of blocking channels
Policies come with effects analysis. Recent data from pollster Emor suggests 15 percent of the Russian population considered RTR Planeta the most trustworthy source of information in 2020, while it was PBK for 14 percent of respondents. This comes together as fewer than 100,000 people. The ratings for RTR Planeta's most garish propaganda programs in February of 2022 were as follows:
- News program "Vesti" (real-time) – 30,000 viewers
- "60 Minutes" – 23,000 viewers (including [Estonian media analysts] Toomas Mattson and Raul Rebane)
This figure corresponds with magnitudes presented in other studies that speak to the size of the chauvinist Russian community in Estonia. Its hardcore center coming in at 5 and the softer spectrum at 30 percent.
Experience from Lithuania and Ukraine suggests the real viewing figures of Russian federal networks drop by 40-60 percent after being removed from the local air. Nearly half of recent viewers attempt to continue tuning in using satellite dishes or VPN.
At the same time, and as logic would have it, media consumers continue to migrate to social media. The 2015 migration crisis demonstrated that social media was the primary source of information for at least 30 percent of Estonians, which proportion has only grown since then.
Now, when Estonia is closing a few Russian websites, it is highly likely that they will be replaced as sources of identity media by groups on [social networks] VKontakte, Odnoklassniki or Telegram.
At the same time, we have seen a clear escalation of the emotional background and pressure on identity-driven action. Radicalization of a certain part of the Russian segment is undoubtedly happening in Estonia today. An entirely natural reaction. Every community becomes bristly when its identity comes under attack.
What has changed for me?
Dialogue is severed when the aggressor's arms take over. What is left is emotional pressure that only expects the other side to surrender. Those not with the Kremlin in this war are against it. Let us be frank, demands are being made for Estonia to abandon its recent friends.
The aim of Russian federal networks and state-controlled websites is to mobilize their supporters to condone the Kremlin's military campaign. This activity does not include the element of informing the public. It also lacks dialogue aimed at peace.
Russian federal networks have become classic agents of hate speech with the start of the war that potentially provokes identity-based violent behavior. And this is where we must admit that we cannot compromise if we want to remain ourselves.
The luxury of being a pacifist is reserved for those who are willing to accept the death and humiliation of their loved ones in the name of their nonviolence. I refuse to be a pacifist on those conditions. Once dialogue proves impossible, you will hear me say, "Here I stand and can do no other!"
Therefore, what are we doing?
First, we need to take a breath. Universal conflict rules that prescribe several courses of action still apply:
- Get more supporters. For that, one's flag and positions need to be crystal clear to avoid a situation where supporters do not know around what they should rally. Your platform must also be open to friends joining. Exclusively nationality-based thinking would be a mistake.
- Reduce the enemy ranks. Compromise where possible, invite your adversary to change sides etc. When all else fails, simply dominate.
Blocking Russian channels is not primarily about dialing back brainwashing but rather general sanctions policy. We are seeing several simultaneous effects here too. Firstly, incapacitating Russia's economy and political leadership, while, on the other hand, meeting the population's demand for something to be done against the aggressor.
The demand for suppression of the aggressor in Estonia goes far beyond approvingly nodding in the direction of EU and U.S. sanctions. It is very difficult and ultimately immoral to ignore these calls. And, in the end, sanctions reflect our attitude.
Blocking Russian media channels [in Estonia] will not impact the quantity of disinformation in the target audience in the near future, while it deters and puts pressure on that part of the Russian Nazi identity that holds violent domination to be natural. Our message must be that we will not allow justification of the war in Ukraine in Estonia.
We find ourselves in an entirely new paradigm in communication terms but restoring dialogue requires first stopping the aggressor. He is attempting to dominate and we cannot be content to submissively wait around.
Of course, I would like it if Estonian humanists would manage to convince, through dialogue, Putin's supporters in Estonia that war is wrong, while it is just not realistic from a psycho-technical viewpoint. It would be wishful thinking as the general backdrop of emotional anxiety, fear and aggression is too strong.
And this entails the chief danger that our inaction might afford the enemy the chance to silence us or our Russian-speaking allies in Estonia. Like a bully brandishing his fists that no one dares stand up to, despite him being outnumbered compared to the rest of the class.
That is why I say: "Here is Estonia and not the Russian Empire.
Such a strategy of confrontation is not without its dangers. But what do we have to lose? It is clear that Russian democrats and Estonians are both enemies in the eyes of Russian Nazis. The relevant question is whether they believe in the fortitude of our independence. That we will fight them no matter what.
The main risk is severing the entire Russian dialogue. That cannot be allowed to happen. In every conflict, we need to keep in mind how we are going to be living once it is over. We know that there will still be Russians on the other side of Lake Peipus and that we will have to have certain agreements with them. That is precisely why we need to continue supporting our friends and allies in Russia.
The same goes for Estonia. There will be Russians with values similar to ours also after the war. However, the other group needs to know for a fact that if they want to live in Estonia, they will have to put up with our values. And those values will be decided by Estonia through democratic processes.
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Editor: Marcus Turovski