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Media scholar Mantas Martišius: White propaganda skews Lithuanian media to the right

Laikraščiai
Oksanos Školnajos/15min.lt nuotr. / Press
Šaltinis: 15min
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Lithuania's entire media advocates right-wing political and economic ideas – and this could be construed as an instance of “white propaganda,” says Dr. Mantas Martišius, lecturer at the Institute of Journalism at Vilnius University. According to him, white propaganda is neither lies, nor full truths.

According to Dr. Martišius, the information on international affairs that reaches the Lithuanian news reader is skewed, because it always comes from the same sources and gives just one angle on the issues. How does one escape white propaganda? The media scholar's advice to Lithuanian readers: learn foreign languages, actively seek information about developments in foreign countries, and share what you learn with others.

– In your essay, which is part of the collection published last year, Media, News Channels, Journalism in Traditional and Network Society, you claim that the media should give consumers a sense of consistent participation in the society, a sense that has tangible implications in everyday life. What does that mean? How can reporters help people get involved in everyday life?

– We are not and cannot be experts in every field, but there are plenty of social, economic, etc. questions that need to be settled. In most cases, the settlement is political – we have to do things one way or another. The best way to settle the said questions is by knowing both the positive and the negative consequences of proposed action and familiarizing ourselves with practices in other countries.

We're often prone to thinking that the problems we encounter in Lithuania are unique, particular to this place only, and we fail to take a look at how things are in other places. And this failure is due to various factors, but arguably the main reason is that our media does not give us a clear view of the problems people face in other countries, about their solutions, avenues, etc. The media does not create a sense that one is an active participant in political issues.

– But it is quite easy to access information about what's happening in the world, so what's the problem?

The media does not create a sense that one is an active participant in political issues.

– One side of the problem pertains to the media, the other side, to the audience. The problem with the media is that they pick up certain stories from abroad and turn them elitist, say, now the hot topic is Syria (will they invade or not, etc.), while how other countries deal or have solved social, political, economic issues – that is something we do not get to know.

The main problem with the audience is that they are not consumers of Western media – if you do not get something from your local outlets, you can take a foreign paper or listen to the radio and find it out for yourself. It might take longer, require more effort, but it is something you can do.

In Lithuania, however, there is no critical mass to do it. For example, if during a political debate a politician or an expert claimed something, a viewer could call to studio and say – what you're saying is not entirely true, because in Sweden, Germany, or the Netherlands they had a similar situation, although you say it is a unique problem. And then, once you have a much wider perspective, you could make better decisions.

The situation we have right now is one where they do not lie, but nor do they tell the entire truth. I do realize that a perfectly comprehensive coverage is impossible, there is always some selection involved. But, relying only on information by foreign news agencies, it becomes elitist. For example, we are now having a big discussion about social care, pensions, etc. But these are issues facing the entire ageing Europe. All countries discuss it, make decisions, carry out calculations. So how are things elsewhere? Hardly anyone talks about it here.

– What you're saying is that international news coverage on the Lithuanian media is insufficient?

– Firstly, international news are scarce everywhere. Foreign correspondents are hard to afford. In many places, audiences are rather insulated – “I do not care what is happening in other places.” But one must note one simple thing. For example, if a Brit insulates himself in the UK, the insulation is not as total, because he speaks English and there is a huge English-speaking community (the US, Australia); after all, English is an international language now.

Another issue is bias. Information is biased. It is so because it always comes from the same sources that present it in one angle or another. Since we and our media are merely consumers and not producers of information, we can only take and recycle certain opinions and stories. And underlying these stories is a certain philosophy, a narrative, and they reflect certain values and ideologies, even though they might not be glaringly biased or false.

– Values that prevail in our country?

– Not necessarily in our country. Perhaps, say, ideologies that reflect views of the consumer society.

– Could you cite and international event as an example?

For example, the Occupy Wall Street movement. In Lithuania, you would get this: world leaders convened, they discussed something, decided, proposed, and in the meantime the town was looted, vandalised, trampled and the police arrested several hundred protesters.

– For example, the Occupy Wall Street movement. What is it? A movement of anti-globalists? I am not saying they are very nice people who gather, riot, and break shop windows during G8 or G20 summits. The coverage that we get here does not portray those people in the best possible light. But why do they hold rallies? For want of anything better to do? Are they like punks, hippies? What are their demands? What are their proposals? Do we have to pay attention to them or not?

I've only recently discovered that one of their proposals, a quite rational one, is to cut drug patenting to 10-15 years. This way, drugs will be cheaper and poor countries will be able to solve many of their health issues without sinking deep into financial troubles. But I learned that in the British media. In Lithuania, you would get this: world leaders convened, they discussed something, decided, proposed, and in the meantime the town was looted, vandalised, trampled and the police arrested several hundred protesters. What were they protesting about? Why did they come there? What was their message? None of that. We're completely insulated here in Lithuania.

– You also write about international news and propaganda. Propaganda, as I understand it, means presenting consistent one-sided information in order to achieve a desired effect on the audience and benefit the group behind the effort. Whereas you use the term “white propaganda.” What is it?

– White propaganda is propaganda that does not lie, it tells the truth. But in fact, the truth it tells is only partial – whenever you write or speak something, there is always the option to put a full stop earlier. They will put the full stop where it suits their ideology. Their sources will be open, but they will articulate topics that suit them. In such a case, you can verify the information, it is truthful, but it is not thorough, it is slightly skewed to favour a narrative that suits the party that presents the information.

For example, green activists advocate renewable energy. They will list all the advantages, but will be vague about the shortcomings. Like the fact that green energy is expensive. So they will spin certain topics in a way to favour their case, but will not speak about, say, what to do behind the polar circle where there's little sunlight. Perhaps it's windy there, I don't know.

– Do you catch instances of white propaganda in the press, radio, and TV broadcasts?

– The entire Lithuanian media represents right-wing political and economic ideas and only rarely do they make leftist political and economic points – for example, not having shopping malls open on weekends and giving much more rights to labour unions. No one talks about that.

What topics are most popular in Lithuania? For reasons unknown to me, they still talk extensively about the burden of taxes. The idea that taxes are too high and should be reduced is part of the right-wing arsenal. Whereas social exclusion is consistently under-discussed. I do not know of a single politician who would come and say: I will raise taxes (for example, up the VAT to 25 percent), introduce progressive taxation, and use the extra money to reduce social marginalization.

– But white propaganda is not something particular to Lithuania, it exists in other countries, too?

– Doubtlessly. There are many arguments over it. Some say that it means spreading certain ideas globally, thus building a certain framework. If you step outside that framework, you are perceived as politically incorrect, unjust, backward, conservative not in political, but social sense of the word.

Since we and our media are merely consumers and not producers of information, we can only take and recycle certain opinions and stories. And underlying these stories is a certain philosophy, a narrative, and they reflect certain values and ideologies, even though they might not be glaringly biased or false.

– Propaganda has been universally used throughout history. For me, one of the most memorable examples is a 1940s American cartoon about Donald Duck who suffers in Nazi Germany, but suddenly awakes from his nightmare, in the US, and starts kissing a small Statuette of Liberty. The cartoon is from World War Two and looks very funny now, but back then, many people must have taken it seriously. Today, we probably also become victims of black, grey, or white propaganda without realizing it. What should we do to filter information and avoid getting duped?

– If I could answer this question, I would make a lot of money. Sure, it is a good idea to learn foreign languages, especially Western languages, and read more coverage, not just in the local media, but in international channels. We do not live isolated from the world and we must see what's happening around. For instance, everyone is now talking about rising food prices and any businessman will tell you that they are rising throughout the world. Lithuania might have a very good grain harvest, but food prices will still go up. And it's interesting to check if that also happens in Sweden, Norway, or Denmark and then to compare.

So we have to educate ourselves all the time. Unfortunately, many people in Lithuania, especially the older generation, only know Russian. But since Russia is an authoritarian state, that is not enough.

– Whereas English would allow to research and keep informed?

– English, German, French. Search for as varied sources as possible. We must understand one simple thing. Let's imagine that 600 thousand people learn English. However, not all of them are civil-minded enough, politically and economically active. So what? Someone might know the language, but will use it to watch films, read fiction, thus not participating in exchange of information. So we still need a critical mass of people, some 300 thousand, who could collect the needed facts, circulate them in the Lithuanian public sphere, share them with the rest of us, so we can see things more thoroughly, from different angles, and make better-informed decisions.

The interview was conducted on LRT radio broadcast Morning Sounds

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