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Lie to Me

Most Russians say they trust their media, although they’re OK with a bit of censorship and manipulation.

by Barbara Frye 2 April 2014

In many countries, it’s a routine polling question to ask people if they trust the media. And it’s usually routine to hear that they don’t.


But alongside such questions, a Russian polling agency has for years been posing another, more telling one. And the answers this year might help explain why the Kremlin has been able to orchestrate coverage of the Ukraine protests and Crimean crisis so easily.


To the question “In your opinion, are there important social issues and topics about which it is permissible to distort information in the public interest?” more than half of respondents – 54 percent – answered yes in a 23 March survey by the Public Opinion Foundation. That is 18 percent higher than in 2001 and 22 percent higher than last year. Only 28 percent disagreed, while 18 percent deemed the question “difficult to answer.”


To the question “In your opinion, are there important social issues and topics about which it is acceptable to remain silent in the public interest?” 72 percent said yes, while only 17 percent said no. That finding has been fairly consistent, with 71 percent agreeing in 2001 and 60 percent last year.


Even with such attitudes, almost four times as many respondents said they trust state media over non-state media. A huge majority, 88 percent, said they get their news from national television, which can be counted on to avoid criticizing President Vladimir Putin and which received the highest ratings for perceived objectivity of any media type.


A majority across all age groups said they think the country’s media cover current affairs in Russia objectively.


This willingness of so many Russians to allow their media, which for most of them means state-controlled television, to manipulate the news has echoes of a siege or wartime mentality. Some Americans, after all, were willing to trade away some of their civil liberties in the wake of the September 2001 attacks (although according to Gallup, they were never a majority). Unfortunately, the Russian poll did not ask why respondents were OK with disseminating distorted information or what issues they considered fair game for censorship. So we are left to guess if it was the Volgograd bombings, the general threat of terrorism, the Crimean crisis, or if they simply think that’s how media should operate.


In some anti-Russian corners of social media, these findings have been used to call Russians “sheep,” while other commenters argued that we might find the same thing in polls of other countries.


That will have to remain a supposition until someone has the resources to conduct a thorough search of international polls. I trolled through the Gallup archives, curious to see if anything similar had come up in the United States after September 2001. Among the many “do you trust the media” type polls (trust has not gone above 55 percent since 1999), I found nothing asking if respondents approved of distorting some news reports, even when worries of terrorism were at their peak.


Let’s hope it’s because that question is unthinkable in any real democracy.

Barbara Frye is TOL’s managing editor. Home page image from a video by TV-News.

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