|Definition: Use of PR to damage an opponent’s reputation|
|Keywords: Russia – FSU – Reputation – Public opinion – PR – Information – Elite|
|Clusters: Domination – Motivational ambivalence – Control – Informal governance|
|Author: Ilya Yablokov and Nadezhda Dreval|
|Affiliation: School of Languages, Cultures and Societies, University of Leeds, UK|
|Website: Profile page at UL|
By Ilya Yablokov, School of Languages, Cultures and Societies, University of Leeds, UK and Nadezhda Dreval, independent researcher
| In Russia, the term chernukha refers to the creation and distribution of information as a means of undermining the reputation of a particular political or business figure. The term derives from the adjective chernyi (‘black’ in Russian) and the pejorative noun-making suffix -ukha. In late Soviet newspeak, it denoted a mode of criticising, or blackening, Soviet reality; later it shifted to depicting the grim reality of decaying a Soviet society ridden with alcoholism, sexual abuse and crime. In the post-Soviet period, the term became associated with the emergence in Russia of ‘political technologists’ and their attempts to smear the reputations of their patrons’ political rivals. Today, however, the term is used far beyond the professional community of political advisers, technologists and spin-doctors.
Related phrases include zapuskat’ chernukhu, rasprostranyat’ chernukhu and chernyi piar (black public relations, or black PR).
The types of chernukha are defined by two variables: the legality or illegality of the method used, and the degree of transgression of moral/ethical values. Means used may include defamation, libel, slander or kompromat (compromising material), as well as the spread of any sort of unverified/unproven information that may potentially damage the reputation of a person or a business. The financial sources of chernukha are rarely disclosed but often involve dirty money.
The use of chernukha is common in the worlds of advertising, business and political communication, but peaks in electoral technologies. During electoral campaigns, political technologists aim not merely to improve the chances of their particular candidate, but also to use all available legal and illegal means to ruin the prospects of his or her rival. Andrew Wilson notes that the difference between legal PR campaigns and chernyi PR is that ‘the latter’s intent or true message is hidden, possibly even contrary to the superficial message’ . For instance, a random individual might be quoted in social media as saying something along the lines of, ‘I am interested only in an effective outcome, not in whether or not a mayoral candidate takes drugs; that is his or her business.’ While such a statement is not illegal, it may well create a negative image of the candidate with voters, thereby undermining the candidate’s electoral prospects.
Another example illustrates how chernukha may be used in business. At the height of the financial crisis of November/December 2014, when the value of the rouble plummeted relative to other world currencies, many Russians withdrew roubles from their bank accounts and changed them into foreign currency. As a result, Russian banks suffered a shortage of cash. In mid-December, the Russian press and social media spread rumours that, as of 18 December, Russia’s biggest bank, Sberbank, would limit cash withdrawals made at automated cash points. Sberbank promptly denied the reports, calling them a provocation. At the same time, however, unidentified men were seen sticking notices on Sberbank ATMs asking clients to ‘withdraw less cash so that there will be enough for other customers, in light of the restrictions soon to be imposed by Sberbank.’ An investigation by Sberbank discovered that the rumours were being spread by a financial pyramid scheme. According to Sberbank, the scheme’s organisers had posted on their social media sites statements such as: ‘The banks will cheat you! Come to us, we are honest!’.
Chernukha involves negative campaigning which, scholarly research suggests, may play an essential role in democratic governance. What distinguishes Russian negative campaigning from its Western counterparts, however, is the ability of Russian political technologists to manipulate the law, treating it as an obstacle to be overcome and as a tool to be used on the path to victory. In addition, the weakness of Russian civil society, the absence of party politics, the underdeveloped culture of democracy and the volatile reputations of politicians all contribute to the effectiveness of chernukha as an electoral technology.
When publishing leaflets vilifying their opponents during electoral campaigns, PR agencies are legally bound to disclose information both about themselves and about the client who placed the order. Without that, there is little chance of a printer taking on the work. Therefore, PR agencies often use a candidate as a front, or pay someone to put their name to the chernukha content and thus accept liability. They may set up a shell organization with an impressive-sounding title (‘The Honest City’, ‘The Leninskiy District Council’) on whose behalf the leaflets will be published. Given that people rarely pay attention to the piles of electoral flyers that come through their letterboxes, and even less to the details of who placed the order, the main message of chernukha is delivered in the title. For example, the title at the top of a leaflet distributed in Tomsk in 2009 and pictured here reads, ‘A criminal case against Aleksandr Deyev,’ thereby appearing to incriminate the individual named (Dezhurniy po gorodu). The subtitle at the bottom of the page reads, ‘Was there or wasn’t there [such a case]?’ While this means that no direct accusation has been made, the damage has already been done to the individual’s reputation.
It is difficult to establish how widespread the practice of chernukha is, but it is hard to think of an electoral campaign in Russia of the 1990s in which dirty tricks were not used by various candidates against their opponents. Suggestions about how to deploy chernukha in political and business relations are commonplace in Russian popular literature . However, the gradual development of electoral authoritarianism following President Vladimir Putin’s rise to power has had a direct impact on competitive politics. Chernukha and other PR technologies have been replaced by a set of cruder practices associated with the use by the authorities of the so-called administrative resource (Wilson 2005:270-272).
At the same time, if chernukha were employed as a means of administrative control, it would turn into a powerful political instrument of popular mobilization. One example of this might be the media campaign that began after President Putin’s return to the Kremlin in Spring 2012, and accelerated following the annexation of Crimea in March 2014. Russian media experts have pointed out that the campaign of popular mobilization launched by the Kremlin to boost public support for its policies made heavy use of propaganda methods. These included undermining the reputations of the Kremlin’s political opponents by disseminating through the media fabricated stories aimed at creating a uniformly negative image both of the West and of the Russian opposition .
It is not easy to analyse chernukha merely by tracing the sources of negative campaigning. Since its production usually breaches some legislative norms and violates others, the producers of chernukha will in most instances either deny their authorship of it or claim that they were framed. Even so, it is possible to research chernukha by means of in-depth interviews with experts and political technologists. In addition, opinion polls held before and after a defamation campaign make it possible to assess what impact chernukha has had on the general public. Opinion polls with specifically tailored questions may help to identify the key stereotypes used in the production of chernukha and how they have changed over time.
Chernukha is closely intertwined with a number of informal practices such as krugovaya poruka (joint responsibility) and the use of kompromat, both of which are integral to the workings of informal networks in contemporary Russia (see the relevant entries in this volume).
In competitive elections, negative campaigning has the potential to affect the balance between parties and candidates. In societies with the rule of law and independent media, it may be helpful for voters to learn in detail about the political agenda of a vilified candidate . In the context of the abuse of law and media manipulation, however, chernukha practices are more likely to create popular distrust in the media, public institutions and the electoral process and to lead to a state of cynicism that will make it increasingly hard for public figures to win the trust of the electorate or to persuade voters to take an active interest in politics.
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