Propaganda 3.0: the end of free media (but definitely not of history)

Taking its cue from professional media commentators, the SmallDataForum kicks off with Thomas quoting Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, who is better known by his nom de class struggle, Lenin: “There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.”

Unprecedent times, anyone?

Sam is reminded of the times of Soviet openness and reconstruction, Michail Gorbatschow’s Glasnost and Perestroika initiatives of the late 1980s, ‘when it all began’ – laid out with great insight in this four-part series of The Rest is History podcast.  

To which Thomas adds some on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-hand perspective: Francis Fukuyama’s famously misunderstood End of History essay, versus the insight of US Army educators that a permanent pulling back of the Iron Curtain will reveal a stage beset by increasing volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity, which gave us VUCA – a sort of cat nip for business school educators.  


With the benefit of hindsight, declaring the end of history turned out to be as premature as the description of our ever-modern world as VUCA was prescient. Brexit, Trump, COVID, war in Ukraine – it doesn’t get more VUCA than that.

Or so we hope.

Sam brings us back to the small data of current events when he highlights the brave act of public defiance by Russian journalist Maria Ovsyannikova and her live-on-air intervention on a Channel 1 news broadcast: 250, 5, 15 – according a Tortoise report, in excess of 250m people will have seen her 5 second ‘stop the war, they’re lying to you’ moment of fame; and 15 might turn out to be the time she will spend in prison as a reward.

Especially now that the Russian government has issued a new censorship law making telling the truth about Ukraine a criminal offence (thus forcing international and other critical professional media off air).  

This takes us straight to truth being the first casualty of war, which may or may not have been said first by the ancient Greek tragedian Aeschylus, or by Samuel Johnson – though I’m certain another wordsmithing Johnson would happily attribute it to Winston Churchill.

Credit: Cartoon by Pulitzer Prize-winning political cartoonist Paul F. Conrad (1924-2010)

Neville muses how it is nigh impossible to know who to believe amid an onslaught of numbers, a depressing daily flow of war KPIs on death tolls, locations hit, hardware captured. The very least we should do is verify before sharing – and Twitter’s little ‘read before your share’ nudge from the behavioural economics is a tiny step in the right direction.

Sadly, if you live in Russia and your only available media diet is state TV, then your bubble is impenetrable, and your reality, alternative. “Who controls the present”, etc. Germans have a word for that, from darker times: Gleichschaltung was a core ingredient of Propaganda 1.0.

And so we go on to talk about cyberwar – where Russia appears to have had little success so far – and the Ukrainian hacker army, some 400,000 strong and growing since “for the first time in history, anyone can join a war”.  

All very romantic, this digital resurrection of the International Brigade, and the barrier to entry is certainly lower than signing up in person, to do this on the ground.

So far, sadly, it seems that has had little impact on the blunt force artillery branch of Russian kinetic warfare – as the piece by BBC explainer-in-chief Ros Atkins on the “Russian military playbook” shows.

With Anonymous on one side, and the Wagner Group on the other – all we can do is wait and see how the digital and physical war play out.

From hard, aggressive power, to soft power, and the Global Soft Power Summit 2022, which was held on 15th March in London with many political luminaries attending in person and virtually – including Ban Ki-moon, 8th Secretary-General of the United Nations, and Former US Secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton.

And, of course, our very own Neville Hobson, sharing his valuable insights on a panel on how brands can best support Ukraine (from about 7h55min in the recording).

His reflections on the event naturally take us to the complex issue of brands leaving Russia and the impact this will have on Russian employees.

Not every business is as generous as Ikea, continuing to pay salaries for three months (though, to be fair, the legal requirement in Russia is two months following notice of a layoff).  

Legal issues due to complex franchise deals are also behind many brands’ problems to disentangle themselves from the ‘Russia problem’, as Neville explains. Somehow, and not entirely surprisingly, we get from there to the best sources for inexpensive non-Russian vodka.


We could have gone on for hours, but our hour was up, and so Sam’s hope for a hard reset on dodgy money will have to be explored further in the next episode, together with a concern voiced by Thomas that the only hard reset we’re likely to see in the UK is one on net zero, driven by the populist opportunists formerly known as the Brexiteers.

Propaganda, it turns out, comes in many shapes and guises.

Listen to Episode 55:

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