Russian propaganda and Western reporters who can’t think: Putin’s great rise in popularity, as revealed by polls

They say that robots or software robots can prepare news to be distributed much like a newspaper does.

Evidence is mounting that robots or robot-like reporters are already filing reports for leading newspapers, and making editorial decisions on headlines and what goes into a particular edition of a newspaper.

Now El Pais from Madrid has published a news story that states that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s popularity has soared to 88%, one year after the military invasion and purported “annexation” of the Crimea.


Agencias (Moscu), “Putin alcanza una cifra récord de popularidad del 88%. Crimea quiere nombrar al presidente ruso ciudadano de honor un año después de anexión El Zpais, 11 de marzo 2015 (19:28 CET).

El Pais is one of Europe’s leading newspapers, and it is nothing short of scandalous that it would print this story with this headline.

Is El Pais taking a direct feed from Russian newswires, giving their propaganda the impramatur of a leading international newspaper, and then publishing the “news” story? It cites the poll results as reported by the ITAR-Tass Russian news agency.

Is it the policy of El Pais to republish news stories from Russian wire services, or are its editors just asleep at the wheel?

In fact, many newspapers in many countries have been publishing these and similar poll numbers, as if they had any significance, much as the election “results” announced by the “separatists” in Donetsk and Luhansk and earlier in the Crimea that were reported, as if they meant anything.

See “The meaningless “sham” elections in “separatist”-held areas of the Ukraine on November 2, 2014, The Trenchant Observer, November 2, 2014.

Think for a minute. Russia is a dictatorship where there is no freedom of expression in the state-owned and state-related media, and opponents of Putin are harrassed, arrested, expelled from the country, or, as in the February 27, 2015 assassination of Boris Nemtsov, simply killed.

If you were a Russian and a polling company called you for your opinion, on the phone, or even if you were asked questions in a survey questionnaire administered in person, would you say you approved of President Putin and his policies? What’s the downside?

If, on the contrary, you say you disapprove of Putin and his policies, what is the upside? As for the downside, might you not be a little concerned that, in a police state, your answers could be used to hurt you, in one way or another?

See Saeed Ahmed, “Vladimir Putin’s approval rating? Now at a whopping 86%,” CNN February 26, 2015 (Updated 1256 GMT).

Ahmed reports,

So how is it that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s popularity is at a whopping 86%?

That’s the conclusion of a poll conducted this month by the Levada Center. Last month, Putin’s approval rating was at 85%.

The Levada-Center describes itself as an independent, non-governmental polling and sociological research organization.

And it has found that Putin’s approval ratings have been holding steady in the mid-80s since around May last year, which incidentally is when the Ukraine/Crimea conflict bubbled up.

What gives?

The answer is simple, says Ben Judah, author of “Fragile Empire: How Russia Fell In and Out of Love with Vladimir Putin.”

“That figure is made up,” he told CNN last month.

“An opinion poll can only be conducted in a democracy with a free press,” he explained. “In a country with no free press, where people are arrested for expressing their opinions, where the truth is hidden from them, where the media even online is almost all controlled by the government — when a pollster phones people up and asks, ‘Hello, do you approve of Vladimir Putin,’ the answer is overwhelmingly yes.

“So what that opinion poll is, is not a poll of approval but it’s a poll of fear.”

Regarding the recent poll, The Guardian adds one significant detail: “The state-run VTsIOM pollster reported on Friday that 88% of Russian approved of Putin’s job performance – an all-time record.” So, we are talking about the results of a poll conducted by a state-run polling agency, which El Pais picked up from a Russian ITAR-Tass wire story.

The Russian poll results are meaningless. Fatally flawed. Devoid of significance. Useful only for their propaganda effect.

In a dictatorship, the polls are meaningless, as meaningless as the election results. That is the news story.

Please tell the editors of El Pais.

If citizens and officials in the West are to accurately understand what is going on in Russia and the Ukraine, and the world, Western media are going to have to do a much better job of filtering out Russian propaganda.

To do that, they need reporters and editors who can think on their feet.

Moreover, a good starting point for them would be to never rely on news sources that are well-known for their mendacity. That would include most Russian news wires and newspapers.

The Trenchant Observer

About the Author

The Observer
"The Trenchant Observer" is edited and published by The Observer, an international lawyer who has taught International Law, Human Rights, and Comparative Law at major U.S. universities, including Harvard, Brandeis, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Kansas. He is a former staff attorney at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States (IACHR), where he was in charge of Brazil, Haiti, Mexico and the United States, and also worked on complaints from and reports on other countries including Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. As an international development expert, he has worked on Rule of Law, Human Rights, and Judicial Reform in a number of countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and the Russian Federation. In the private sector, The Observer has worked as an international attorney for a leading national law firm and major global companies, on joint ventures and other matters in a number of countries in Europe (including Russia and the Ukraine), throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and in Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, China and Japan. The Trenchant Observer blog provides an unfiltered international perspective for news and opinion on current events, in their historical context, drawing on a daily review of leading German, French, Spanish and English newspapers as well as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and other American newspapers, and on sources in other countries relevant to issues being analyzed. The Observer speaks fluent English, French, German, Portuguese and Spanish, and also knows other languages. He holds an S.J.D. or Doctor of Juridical Science in International Law from Harvard University, and a Doctor of Law (J.D.) and a Master of the Science of Law (J.S.M.), from Stanford University. As an undergraduate, he received a Bachelor of Arts degree, also from Stanford, where he graduated “With Great Distinction” (summa cum laude) and received the James Birdsall Weter Prize for the best Senior Honors Thesis in History. In addition to having taught as a Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, The Observer has been a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University's Center for International Affairs (CFIA). His fellowships include a Stanford Postdoctoral Fellowship in Law and Development, the Rómulo Gallegos Fellowship in International Human Rights awarded by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and a Harvard MacArthur Fellowship in International Peace and Security. Beyond his articles in The Trenchant Observer, he is the author of two books and numerous scholarly articles on subjects of international and comparative law. Currently he is working on a manuscript drawing on the best articles that have appeared in the blog.

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