The social construction of reality: State, media and public opinion in Russia

di Laura la Zazzera

The focus of this article is the concept of social construction of reality. Starting from a brief overview of Berger’s and Luckman’s theory, the paper will explore some interpretations of social constructivism by a few contemporary scholars, analyzing afterwards how these theories are put into practice by the State and the media in Russia. This analysis will consist in an overview of the modern media environment in Russia – with a special focus on television – and of the strategies through which both State and media attempt to construct reality to achieve certain goals. It will also be discussed whether the «reality constructions» of the government coincide with the ones of the media, and how the public reacts to it.

According to Berger’s and Luckman’s theory of the social construction of reality, men all together produce the human environment through socio-cultural and psychological formations and by establishing a social order in it. Order is a men’s biological need but it is not part of the nature of things, thus it has to be created. The social construction of reality also consists in the process of interpretation of concrete events (physical reality), the result of which (social reality) is the common base of communication, or shared knowledge. Shared knowledge is therefore socially constructed and influences the definitions and constructions of reality in the minds of individuals; this is how specific ideas, actions and knowledge are spread in a society. Human beings create the social world by externalizing and objectivating their internalized and subjective meanings, experience and actions[1].

As Stefan Weber points out, there exist many currents of constructivism, according to what is considered the main reality-generating entity[2]. This paper is going to focus on media-cultural constructivism, which attributes the function of «reality generator» to individual and mass media systems, and on socio-cultural constructivism, which attributes this function to cognition, communication, media and culture all together. Weber describes the opposition, inside constructivism itself, between ontological and empirical constructivism. According to ontological constructivists, «the constructive nature of our reality and world is the conditio sine qua non of knowing»: reality construction is a pre-condition of knowledge[3]. It is a subjective process but at the same time it is not conscious, arbitrary or intentional. This is what distinguishes ontological constructivism from empirical one, which holds that the construction of reality is indeed a conscious process. Weber solves this opposition maintaining that constructivism includes both the unconscious, non-arbitrary process of reality construction and the conscious, arbitrary construction of the world through the power of imagination and certain linguistic techniques and styles. Empirical constructivism leads back more to realism: Weber places it the middle between realism and ontological constructivism, or better he sees it as an alternative to them because it is not obsessed with the construction vs depiction dualism but it leaves it behind. Empirical constructivism ignores the dualism between realism and constructivism not trying to establish which one between the subject (the observer) and the world/reality (the observed) is more important.

Weber, furthermore, maintains that this approach is the one that best suits modern media: applying this concept to the media means that their dual role of reality-generating agent (reality=product of media) and of reality-depicting agent (reality=precondition of media) has to be assumed without being questioned and without trying to establish which of the two is prevailing. Empirical constructivism or «constructivity», according to Weber, is a trend that permeates the media today, the conscious and practical process of constructing its own sui generis reality, through modalities that «are becoming increasingly more refined, technically advanced and economically motivated»[4]. In this respect, the author mentions the media tendency to transform «everything into entertainment or fiction, acceleration, commercialization, economization»[5]. An example of this are reality TV, «militainment» (the more and more popular mixture of journalism and entertainment), the construction of «real life» in soap operas and so on.

The problem is to analyse the situation of the media in Russia in light of the theories about social constructivism discussed so far. First of all it, we support Weber’s opinion that empirical constructivism is the best option to describe modern media, because they describe a reality that exists outside of them but at the same time they transform it and construct their own meanings, delivering them to the public. In democratic countries with a free media environment, the media’s reality does not always reflect the State’s reality or the «dominant ideology». On the contrary, they often clash. In the case of Russia, this is what happened to a certain extent under president Eltsyn, a period of relative freedom and reforms. With president Putin, the situation changed in the opposite way[6]. As the State became more and more authoritarian, the «reality» of the media, especially of television, and that of the Government started to overlap. In Kratasjuk’s words, Russian media and its TV programs are now almost completely exposed to the State’s ideological constructions[7].

After the dissolution of the USSR, the media environment in Russia underwent deep changes. From 1993, with the development of a new free market Russia came to familiarize with Western commercial forms of broadcasting; a lot of private and competing TV stations were born, replacing the old two Soviet channels. Viewpoint diversity and new economic interests also emerged, interwoven with political ones, yet certain Soviet attitudes to the media and the soviet style of broadcasting survived. Television today is the main source of information and free time occupation for 75% of Russian citizens, this happens because it is free and can be watched while doing other activities, whereas other sources of information are expensive and require too much attention[8]. Ekaterina Kratasjuk describes the situation of modern Russia as undefined or indefinable, characterized by incoherent legislation and lack of boundaries between the official and the unofficial, the private and the public, the personal and the collective[9]. This climate of uncertainty strengthens the mass media’s and television’s opinion-forming role in the community (obviously under the watchful eye of the government)[10].

With Putin’s advent into the Russian political scene, the central power’s control over television and other mass media has greatly increased. The main channels have been bought by the State or by large companies close to the Kremlin (especially those operating in the energy sector, like Gazprom); private independent channels that opposed the Kremlin were shut down, mostly through tax police unleashing and legal harassment. It comes as no surprise that nowadays news stories on Russian television tend to be power-centric and are built to please the rulers, «diversity» is ensured by the fact that each channel has its own political agenda[11]. Power mobilises all its resources «to control the flow of information, so that no outside power could destroy their plans»[12]. Media producers accept this state of things either for the impossibility to contrast it or because they do not want to, or because they agree with the dominant ideology. Whatever the reason, they leave the state full power to decide what message they have to deliver to the audience and in which way. Another problem of the current Russian media environment that the author highlights is the lack of a clear legal frame governing the media and protecting freedom of speech from the coercive and often violent measures adopted by the central power to have total control of information. As a consequence of the Kremlin’s strict control, the Russian public receives insufficient and biased information from the media[13].

As mentioned above, in Kratasjuk’s words, Russian television still employs «primitive» methods of influencing the audience. However, Kratasjuk’s herself raises a question about the Russian audience’s trust: why do Russians keep relying on the media even though they realise that the information they receive from them is inadequate? The author points out that this is what some sociologists define «social schizophrenia»: individuals need to feel united within a nation and need to construct values of which all of them can be proud of. Television helps to create these values, it reproduces «universally significant socio-cultural information», which is what the audience expects. Still according to Kratasjuk, one of these values for example, is the reconstruction of Russian identity and of one, «monolithic» state, an echo from the Soviet era, which is in greater demand on behalf of the Russian audience than objective information. The need for a «unified Utopian version of events makes optional for Russians the values of a free society and individual points of view»[14]. In this respect, Levada speaks about the Russian audience’s «doublethink» or ambivalence of attitudes[15]. This is a kind of self-deception, determined by the instinct of preservation that people had in the Soviet period: as the demands of the regime upon the population were impossible to fulfil, people had to find ways to adapt to the system and to get around these impossible demands, looking for loopholes and creating informal networks of activity. According to Levada, the Soviet system would not have been so long-lasting and successful if people had not tolerated deception. They actually did require deception for the sake of their self-preservation. This «doublethink» also reflects in the attitude Russians have towards television: on the one hand, viewers participate on the events they see on the screen but on the other hand, they do no feel responsible for them.

Backing to Kratasjuk, the structure of modern Russian mass media is a consequence of the fact that no independent social institution with its own system of ideas and interests has been formed. This means that a public sphere has not developed where different viewpoints could compete, be clarified or compared, or where debate could occur[16]. Kratasjuk also places the lack of a real diversity of viewpoints, the homogeneity of the information field and the lack of discussion are in the first place as the main flaws of the Russian media environment. The main features of the most popular Russian news programs are their «straightforward and obtrusive manner» of presenting the news, their «unambiguous presentation of information without discussion» and the «paucity of transmitted values» inherited by the Soviet times[17]. The requirement that «information should be balanced and unbiased and reflect alternative points of view presented in a non-sensational manner» is evidently ignored by the Russian media[18]. As mentioned above, news programs broadcast by central TV channels are an attempt to construct reality on the basis of what is imposed by the dominating elite: for instance, isolated and insignificant events like the construction of fountains are presented as the evidence of the successes and effectiveness of Russian politics and of the president. All the channels and newspapers, and even the Internet, tend to deal with the news through «standard-made reports deprived of information», while the interpretation of the events is nearly always the same due more to the paucity of sources used by the journalists than to «clever spin-doctoring»[19].

This work has been an attempt to explain the construction of reality from a theoretical and practical point of view. We have seen how the opposition between realism and constructivism and between ontological and empirical constructivism can be solved simply but stating that the truth is in the middle: reality, objective facts are out there and humans draw on them to create their own version of reality, through both unconscious and conscious processes. We think that, as regards State and media, the construction of reality could not be a more conscious process. Both in democratic and authoritarian States there is a continuous attempt to shape and control public opinion. Even when the media environment is free and diversified, the construction of reality still occurs for different reasons that can range from the boosting of audience ratings to the fulfilment of commercial purposes. Moreover, even in democracies like the US the media can turn into a mouthpiece of the government, as happened in occasion of the war in Afghanistan, when television and newspapers mainly supported the White House and contributed to creating a climate of fear among the population to grant support for the military campaign.

As regards the attitude of the public, we can conclude that even «if the TV world is significantly different from reality, the active TV-consumers make evaluations which, to a large extent, agree with what they have been shown»[20]. Whether the viewers are aware of the reality construction or not, they eventually accept what they are shown, probably even in an unconscious way.


[1] Socio Site, The Social Construction of Reality. A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge, accessed december 5, 2010, http://www.sociosite.net/topics/texts/berger_luckman.php); Colorado State University, A Theoretical Framework For Studying Socially Constructed Identities, accessed december 5, 2020,

http://lamar.colostate.edu/~ijosc/5102identities.pdf and A.J. Henderson, Social Construction of Reality. How Reality is Defined, accessed December 1, 2010,

http://www.ajhenderson.com/pdf/Social%20Construction%20of%20Reality%20PowerPoint.pdf. Mediamanual, Stefan Weber, Media And The Construction Of Reality, accessed December 7, 2010,

http://www.mediamanual.at/en/pdf/Weber_etrans.pdf.

As products of men’s creations, Berger and Luckman identify three types of reality:

–        objective reality: physical reality, facts of the outside world;

–        symbolic reality: art, literature, media contents;

–     subjective reality: individual consciousness, i.e. the result of the merging of objective and symbolic reality, the base for individual social actions.

[2] Weber, Media And The Construction Of Reality.

 

[3] Ivi, p. 2.

[4] Weber, Media And The Construction Of Reality, p. 5.

[5] Ibidem

[6] For more information on freedom of expression in Russia, please see: Freedom House, Freedom of the Press – Russia 2010, accessed December 16, 2010,

http://www.freedomhouse.org/inc/content/pubs/pfs/inc_country_detail.cfm?country=7904&year=2010&pf.

[7] Ruhr Universitatet Bochum, Ekaterina Kratasjuk, Construction of ‘Reality’ in Russian Mass Media.

News on Television and on the Internet, accessed December 13, 2010, http://www.ruhr-uni-bochum.de/russ-cyb/library/texts/en/control_shift/Kratasjuk.pdf).

[8] Ellen Mickiewicz, Television, Power and The Public in Russia, 133, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

[9] Kratasjuk, Construction of ‘Reality’ in Russian Mass Media.

[10] Kratasjuk, Construction of ‘Reality’ in Russian Mass Media and Mickiewicz, Television, Power and The Public in Russia.

[11] Mickiewicz, Television, Power and The Public in Russia.

[12] Elena Koltsova, Change In The Coverage Of The Chechen Wars: Reasons And Consequences, in «The Public», 7, 3 (2007): 40, accessed December 5, 2010, http://www.javnost-thepublic.org/media/datoteke/2000-3-koltsova.pdf.

[13] Kratasjuk, Construction of ‘Reality’ in Russian Mass Media and Mickiewicz, Television, Power and The Public in Russia.

[14] Ivi, p. 36.

[15] Levada in Floriana Fossato, Vladimir Putin and the Russian Television «Family», in «The Russia Paper», (2006):12, accessed December 14, 2010, http://www.ceri-sciencespo.com/publica/cahier_russie/cahier_1.pdf.

[16] Dubin in Kratasjuk, Construction of ‘Reality’ in Russian Mass Media.

[17] Kratasjuk, Construction of ‘Reality’ in Russian Mass Media, p. 42.

[18] McQuail in Kratasjuk, Construction of ‘Reality’ in Russian Mass Media, p. 43.

[19] Kratasjuk, Construction of ‘Reality’ in Russian Mass Media, p. 47.

[20] Gerbner et all in Construction of ‘Reality’ in Russian Mass Media, pp. 46-47.

Questa voce è stata pubblicata in Europa Orientale & Russia/Eastern Europe & Russia e contrassegnata con , , , , , , , . Contrassegna il permalink.

Una risposta a The social construction of reality: State, media and public opinion in Russia

  1. Pingback: World in Progress No.8 | World In Progress

Rispondi

Inserisci i tuoi dati qui sotto o clicca su un'icona per effettuare l'accesso:

Logo di WordPress.com

Stai commentando usando il tuo account WordPress.com. Chiudi sessione /  Modifica )

Google photo

Stai commentando usando il tuo account Google. Chiudi sessione /  Modifica )

Foto Twitter

Stai commentando usando il tuo account Twitter. Chiudi sessione /  Modifica )

Foto di Facebook

Stai commentando usando il tuo account Facebook. Chiudi sessione /  Modifica )

Connessione a %s...