Jennifer J. Carroll is a medical anthropologist whose research examines the effects of social distinction and culturally bound explanatory models on public health interventions in Ukraine. She completed in 2015 her PhD in cultural anthropology at the University of Washington and is currently a post-doctoral fellow at the Miriam Hospital, affiliated with Brown University.
The Miriam Hospital
Draft: Not to be Cited Without Permission
A Good Enough Lie: The Rhetoric of Misinformation in Ukraine’s EuroMaidan and the War with Russia
by JENNIFER CARROLL The Miriam Hospital
Optics were a central concern of the EuroMaidan revolution from the very beginning. Spent shells and weapons canisters collected from police assaults on the protesters were put on display in the middle of the encampment. Professionally printed photographs of the most violent conflicts were hung on the Maidan and along Hrushevsky Street. Images of the revolution were captured by participants and spread outward on social media through personal networks and informal news groups. Independent news agencies streamed live footage from the protests online 24 hours per day. Scripted English-language videos, such as Yulia Marushevska’s I Am a Ukrainian, went viral, offering carefully constructed imaged of the revolution to the rest of world.
Undeniably, protestors wanted the revolution to be seen; however, they were not the only ones who fought for the attention of the local and global publics. Many counter protests and provocations made use of the imagery that EuroMaidan protesters were deploying as well as the specific iconography with which EuroMaidan was branded. This tactic, which appeared in countless forms from Anti-Maidan ‘stickering’ campaigns in Kyiv’s Mariinsky Park to Russian soldiers posing as local ‘self defense brigades’ in Crimea, amounted to blatant mimicry.
While this visual mimicry may appear to be facile or transparent, I argue that sophisticated semiotic techniques were (and still are) being used to disrupt the public’s interpretation of particular images for the benefit of those deploying counter narratives. Specifically, the ostensibly straightforward iconic representation of photographic images or films (i.e. the myth that photographs show unadulterated, objective evidence of reality) is exaggerated. Viewers are coached to believe that they see, for example, self-defense brigades in Crimea, because they can look at an image and see what are clearly military brigades. This technique exploits the fluidity of what Roland Barthes calls ‘the third meaning’ of images (Barthes 1978) for the purpose of granting the appearance of legitimacy to politically motivated counter narratives. Though these counter narratives cannot be fully evidenced (because they are not true), they accomplish their goals by generating faith in a false objectivity of the image (a false significance, to borrow Barthes’ term). They dislodge the viewer’s faith in the myth of photographic truth, even while encouraging the viewer to believe in that truth. Put another way, I argue that, through the use of the techniques discussed in this paper, counter narratives don’t need to be complete or even very good. The rhetorical tools used in their design allow them to succeed by simply being ‘good enough.’
To articulate how these techniques accomplish their meaningful ends, it is necessary to understand how images and text convey meaning differently. Anthropologist and professional photo-journalist Danny Hoffman articulated this well in his 2012 photo essay entitled Corpus: Mining the Border. In this project, Hoffman offered short essay about the socio-political and military contexts that cause young men to find themselves engaged in grueling labor in alluvial diamond minds on the Sierra Leonean border. He paired segments of this essay with hypnotic and devastating photographic images of young, strong, male bodies engaged in manual labor. These images present what he calls “an ethnographic portrait of the shape and texture of work” (Hoffman 2012).
Hoffman argued that text and image are both necessary to successfully present his argument that military conflict and manual labor bear on these men’s bodies in indistinguishable ways. He writes:
There is an excessiveness to the images that terms like work and labor, when rendered as text on the page, simply cannot register. The work, like the miners who do it, has a militant masculinity about it. Text can chart the larger political economy in which the mines and miners are situated (something the images alone cannot adequately do). But only the momentary alienation sparked by the visual image of this mode of work conveys the materiality of West African diamond mining as labor…I have argued elsewhere for understanding the labors of these young men on the battlefield and on the mines as qualitatively identical, but bound by terms like ‘war’ and ‘work,’ the text alone invariable re-inscribes a qualitative difference between the two. The image collapses that distinction and allows it to register as an affront. (Hoffman 2012).
What Hoffman points to, and what is key for the analysis presented here, is that both text and image convey meaning; both can be used in argument either as evidence or as a tool of persuasion; both are culturally inflected and open to interpretation by the viewer; however, they are incapable of doing the same kind of symbolic work. It is a very different act to explain with words the similarities between war and work than it is to capture the taught and rigid physique of exploited men on film, just as it is thing very different act to print a headline reading “Protests in Kyiv turn Violent” and to circulate an image of an activist in the act of throwing a Molotov cocktail.
As I will argue here, it is this very difference that those creating counter-narratives in Ukraine sought to exploit. With the help of foundational theories of semiotics and cognition put forward by Ferdinand de Saussure and Charles S. Pierce, my aim is to put into words the strategies employed by the authors of counter narratives in the ongoing political and military conflicts in Ukraine—to pull back a veil that is thick only insofar as the average media consumer lacks a standardized vocabulary for talking about these phenomena. This exercise will not only be profitable for responding to these counter narratives but also for gaining a deeper understanding of the culture and ideology out of which they are formed.
A screen shot from Danny Hoffman’s photo essay Corpus: Mining the Border.