Independent media, social networks and conspiracy theories

Boyan Stanislavski “If you sit in front of your computer or smartphone collecting likes or taking part in some shitstorm – you’re doing exactly what your government and the corporations want you to do. It has ZERO political value!”

The mass media have evolved beyond our imagination. We are communicating, at least in one part of the world, more easily than ever. Still, as the technology evolved, the quality of journalism did not. Journalists rarely talk about themselves, about how difficult it is to maintain a critical platform, about how difficult it is to stay true to your principles and practise independent journalism. Financing a critical platform seems almost impossible nowadays. Staying true to your principles is proving a difficult task. The informational conflicts leave little room for rational debate. Smearing campaigns are organized in the public sphere. People are being paid to write that X or Y is an American or Russian agent. We are living in a climate of general suspicion. George Soros, to take only one example, is portrayed as a master of puppets that finances obscure causes. The Russians are an omnipresent phantom. Almost any independent and critical journalist can have their name trashed and associated with obscure interests being called a ”Sorosist” or a ”Russian agent”. My intention is to publish a series of interviews with critical journalists about all these issues. Today I talked with Boyan Stanislavski, the editor of Baricada.

Boyan, I’m talking to you as you are the founder of a independent media project called Baricada. From what I gather it started out as a Bulgarian left platform but it’s now being edited in Romanian and English as well. How did it all come about? For many it seemed to appear out of the blue.

Certainly not out of the blue. I’ve had a long, although not very spectacular maybe, career as a publisher. Baricada is so far my most successful internet outlet, but it should be clearly stated that being the founder in this case means being rather an idea-giver than a factual organizer. The credit for the actual establishment and initial development goes out to the fantastic team of journalists that we collected back in 2016 in Bulgaria. And it all really started as a minor thing, with all of us being quite excited but also afraid about how it would pan out. You realise that it’s a great risk to give up your current job, no matter how stupid or boring, and to get engaged in something uncertain. Thanks to loads of effort and sacrifices it did work and now we have even expanded the editorial board. Having started with three people and spontaneous coordination there are now seven of us with a proper editor-in-chief and a modern, flexible working structure, surrounded with collaborators in Bulgaria and abroad. At the same time we’re very democratic and pluralistic which makes things much easier in terms of management. We’ve got communists, anarchists and social-democrats on board. We’re also transparent. Every person that is co-opted into the company receives the official status of co-owner, so they can access all our documents, bookkeeping records and so on. We are now contemplating transforming the publishing house from a typical limited company into a cooperative. Technically speaking that would not actually change much, but in political terms it would be a major stride forward. We want to disprove the right-wing hue and cry over how difficult it is to run a company and how the state is blocking entrepreneurship and how if someone models their business on left ideas they would go bankrupt within half a year. It’s all pure nonsense.

You said you’ve got a substantial past record as a publisher. Tell me more.

If I’m to talk strictly about publishing, my history starts 10 years ago. It was then that a couple of colleagues and I set up our first publishing company. At the time I was living in Poland and had developed a very good relationship with one of the two biggest labour confederations in this country – the All-Poland Trade Union Alliance (Ogólnopolskie Porozumienie Związków Zawodowych, OPZZ). We had a contract with OPZZ for producing and distributing literature for their organisations and structures. For four years we were publishing OPZZ’s weekly journal as well as many books on labour law, the history of the labour movement, classic Marxist works and so on. Apart from that we published fantastic books in English meant for the international market. Let me just mention Dr Lal Khan’s Partition – Can it be Undone? about the crimes of Great Britain and the postcolonial splitting of a great territory into Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. Or Mick Brooks’ fantastic book, Capitalist Crisis – Theory & Practice, which explains the dynamics of the Great Recession of 2007-2011.

But there’s a prehistory to that and it dates back to 1998 when I became politically engaged in Poland. For a period of about three years I had been active in the youth organisation of the Polish Socialist Party, which used to be part of a larger social-democratic coalition called the Democratic Left Alliance. Unfortunately, due to typical-for-the-left mismanagement, due to sectarianism and opportunism, the left scene that had developed in the 1990s ceased to exist in the early years of the current century. Most activists fell into a state of complete demoralisation and those who remained active became involved in utterly sectarian, meaningless, and to a large extent, detrimental activities. I could not take any part in this and I turned my attention to the mass organisations of the working class – that is, the unions. In Poland, by the way, the unions are the only mass organisation apart from the Catholic church. I started collaborating with a publishing house that at the time put out OPZZ’s journal and other left-wing literature and this was the moment I fell for it – from then on I knew I wanted to run my own publishing business. We’re talking about the period 2001-2003. I gradually got more and more involved, started writing and translating, then later on I got around to organising business partners and initiatives. Finally in 2008, when the old editor-in-chief of the OPZZ’s journal was about to step down from this position, I took over and formed the publishing house I mentioned earlier.

What happened next?

It was a great business and very pleasant and fulfilling work. However in 2012 a major conflict with the OPZZ’s bureaucracy developed and for better or for worse we gave up. We were all exhausted and felt we couldn’t win the battle. Although in retrospect I think this was a wrong judgment. A period of relative disillusionment followed; I focused on my family – by that time I had two kids already – and I worked as a freelance translator, editor and copywriter. In 2013 I started working for a left daily paper called Trybuna but I stayed there only one year. I decided to go into a completely different line of business, and worked for nearly two years as a key account manager in a big state-owned Polish company. Honestly speaking, this was a nightmarish experience. It was exactly then that I understood the everyday struggle not just for bread but for life to make sense, that the working class has to go through. I was able to feel how capitalism is all about exhausting people, making them feel small and how it is structurally organised to crush you and spit you out. After my resignation it took me a couple of weeks, really not even to get back on my feet, but to actually realise what kind of trauma I had been through. After I started getting over it, I kind of figured out that this was not my place and I found my way back to the world of the media. A colleague from Trybuna contacted me about a new initiative for setting up a left platform on the internet. I was reluctant, as the past record of the Polish left in this respect was regrettable if not lamentable, and I had no desire to take part again in yet another major failure. “This time it’s serious,” was what the colleague said, so I agreed to discuss it with her and this is how I started my adventure with what I consider to be the most successful lefty website on the Polish internet – Strajk.eu. I helped to develop the site and I’ve seen it grow in all aspects; I’ve seen it gaining readers, I’ve seen how the team has become more and more professional. And just like in the past, from strictly journalistic work I steadily moved into the field of business, working closely with my boss, who later on became my staunch friend, organising not so much the outlet but the business to support and develop it. I felt like I was reborn. All the vital forces and the enthusiasm were back and soon I started thinking about multiplying this success and my attention became focused more and more on Bulgaria. Since 2010 I’ve been the official correspondent for Bulgarian National Radio in Warsaw. I got to know many journalists and I quickly detected the lack of any – literally any! – consistently left-oriented media. Also, there was a personal element in this. Having lived in Poland for more than two decades and seeing the political atmosphere deteriorating drastically, I needed to detach myself from the Polish reality as it became unthinkably mean. And this is how Baricada emerged.  

How do you finance it? It’s such a tricky question these days…

It’s tricky only on the left. We have developed an anti-commercial culture which makes sense in terms of opposing the current order in general terms, but makes very little sense when you actually need to make money. No matter how much we dislike it, it’s capitalism and things cost money which we should be willing to pay. Especially when it comes to labour – we should be willing to pay and to pay fairly! Not peanuts. If you pay peanuts – you get peanuts. And you know, frankly, I’m too old for that. I want to see big things happening. Small steps are for kids who are learning how to walk. And I’m almost 40. I know how to walk and now I want to jump as far as I can. I knew it perfectly from my past experience that the only way to sustain an independent platform is to support it commercially. Believe me, there’s no other way. You can plead for money here and there, you can sign up for grants of European funds, but you will always end up being dependent on the framework designed by the donors. Thanks – been there, done that.

I didn’t have a large amount of capital, so I borrowed money from friends (including my former boss), I invested my own savings and used the business connections I had developed over the whole period of my publishing activities to start doing actual business. Initially not so much for the outlet but, you know, to be able to survive. We are now very much into translating, graphic and web design, DTP, printing, editing and marketing. We do pretty much everything related to images and words. Most recently we took part in an international speech-recognition project which was a fantastic deal. We’re also running ads, and we are now discussing with one of the largest political entities in Bulgaria about whether we’re going to advertise their TV and so on. I and two other colleagues in our company focus exclusively on that. Although I don’t intend to give up writing, I’m pretty limited. We’re now conceptualising further fundraising activities which would be related directly to the outlet. We will soon start gathering money via Patronite and PayPal, and we’re opening a small internet shop where we will offer t-shirts, mugs and other such stuff with our logos. Maybe later on with general left motifs. There are plenty of ideas. However, I follow Lenin’s golden advice – better less, but better. So we take it step by step and each and every choice is thought through and talked out.

How costly is it to maintain such an outlet?

Well, I don’t think I’m entitled to speak with exact figures nor do I think it’s anyone’s business – except for the tax entities – but I will say this: generally speaking publishing does not bring in a lot of money but it’s also not a costly thing if you know what you’re doing and how to get around it. The worst thing to do is to start with great visions. Instead you should start with what you can have – even if it’s just two journalists on board – and to never, but never, employ if you don’t earn enough to pay fairly. Being a lefty who pays shitty royalties in a left wing media is just a poor joke. True, it happens to us as well that we don’t receive money on time from our clients, that we need to delay some payments, but that’s rare. And you know, it’s business so if you fail, your ‘mission’ – which is the platform in our case – fails as well. So let me repeat it. If you have any experience in business and you want to have your own independent platform you can have it for relatively little money. And you really need a sense of proportion – you should never forget that you have to make money and you’ve got to keep the company running. You need to chase clients, make sure your bookkeeping is OK and all the rest of it. It’s a demanding thing.

OK, if you say it’s relatively easy and relatively cheap, why don’t others follow your example?

I never said it was easy! On the contrary – I think it’s difficult and it’s not for everybody. I told you my story and I explained that I had always wanted to be a publisher and I’m sticking to it. Also, what do you mean by “following my example”? Do you really think I’ve invented this model? Hell, no. There are so many alternative media today and many of them are supported financially the same way. Everybody’s free to follow not so much mine, but all the examples in the world.

And again, it’s not for everybody. The neoliberal mythology says that everybody can be a businessman and that this is the most desirable thing to do. Complete and utter nonsense. It’s only for those who like and enjoy it and are good at it. So to conclude that now every single lefty in Europe or anywhere else should set up publishing houses is not correct. We’ve got enough problems on the left these days internationally. Do we really want to see a global wave of left businesses going bankrupt?

What are the “lefties of the world” supposed to do, then?

I don’t know. “What am I supposed to do now”? is a question you ask a doctor or a teacher. I’m neither one and I don’t aspire to give universal advice. Everybody should do what they are good at. Look, this is exactly where we are getting it wrong. The party will not decide for you what to do! If you want to be active on the left you go and get active doing what you like or what you’re good at. Activism has to be educative, but also fulfilling. Stalinist mentality is so deeply embedded in the left thinking… It’s just stunning. I’m not trying to say you’re displaying it, but I want to make it clear to everybody on the left that these times are over! Don’t wait for the central committee to give you orders. Go to any organisation you like and offer something. Just make sure it’s an organisation which does have an organic link to the working class. Avoid sects at any cost!

Most leftists seem to have fallen for Facebook, Twitter… That’s where the left life is visible.

It’s visible only to you and me and our friends. Personally I find it all stupid and toxic. The social networks should not be neglected but they should be treated as any other field of work. And still the most important activism and journalism happens in real life and not in front of a computer screen. Facebook is a lie. You surround yourself with people you either agree with completely or you know exactly where you disagree and instead of discussing with them you could just inflate a doll, put it on a chair in front of you and speak for it. Chris Hedges, one of my favourite American socialists and the author of some fantastic books, stated in one interview that the social networks are “incessant bombardment by electronic hallucinations.” I totally agree with him. If you sit in front of your computer or smartphone collecting likes or taking part in some shitstorm – you’re doing exactly what your government and the corporations want you to do. It has ZERO political value!

The reason the left falls for this sort of thing are multiple and one could write a book on the topic. But I will say this: it became too important for the left to define itself, to isolate itself from ‘alien’ elements, to organise structures and hierarchies, to make sure everybody thinks the same way and to no-platform the opponents. It became all too difficult to confront the ‘alien ideas’ and to win debates. Instead the left embarked on the liberal mechanism of shaming opponents and smearing them, for example as fascists. So we’re massively pushing the people to the far right by telling them they’re already there and refusing to discuss. Really, there is so much ignorance on the left that sometimes it’s difficult to cope with it. And Facebook is a perfect place to develop all these pathologies and a platform where they gain psychotic dynamism. I believe most people on the left in Europe have either been a part of such a process or have witnessed it and seen the consequences. I have not examined it so I can speak only from my superficial individual observations, but Facebook is nothing but a ground for smearing and conspiracy theories (apart from being a bucket of cheap excitement with things like kitten photos) which the left is so badly infected with. Be there but make sure you don’t spend more than 10 percent of your time there. That’s my advice if anyone asks.

What conspiracy theories?

All kinds! If it were not sad it would be funny. Take Soros or the Russians, for example. Any sane person, and you don’t need to be a Marxist for that, can see what kind of dark place we have all been chased to. The left has largely given up its own political analysis and uses conservative or liberal models. Both are wrong of course, but today the situation is such, at least in Europe, that if you don’t stick to the mainstream liberal or conservative narrative, you’re an agent of Putin, Soros, Maduro, you name it… There is so much hatred against any critical thinking that any deviation from the mainstream is never considered as your own opinion, but as a position someone has paid you to put forward. Really, this is paranoid nonsense of the highest order! All this, mixed with the most recent wave of American-style identity politics, is the most toxic pulp I ever came across on the left.

Also the mainstream media has become extremely conspiratorial in recent years. So the left copies them ardently. If you look at the New York Times, the New Yorker or the Telegraph you will see there is less and less difference between them and Infowars. Okay, still a different level, I know, but more and more the aesthetics constitute the difference and not the content. Take, for example, the hysteria over ‘fake news’. This is just moronic to say that it’s a new phenomenon and to analyse it as if the Russians or Soros had invented it. Or the so-called Russiagate which is now like a religion in the US. Nearly two years of investigation – still nothing. Not a shred of evidence. Noam Chomsky put it best in one of his interviews: “America is a laughingstock to all intelligent people with the claim that the Russians have flipped the election results and brought us Trump; maybe some Russians tried to hack something here or there, I don’t know, not a big deal, definitely”. We live in some kind of surreal world where for simple, normal and logical statements you need to search for great minds like Chomsky.

And fake news? Do you want to talk about fake news? Well, you’ve found the right person! Since the very beginning of this hysteria I’ve been actively seeking for a period of nearly six months for fake news, and I’ve got printouts of at least 500 articles and over a thousand pages, with my favourite always on top: Pokémon Go used by extensive Russian-linked meddling effort. Brought to you by CNN – “the most trusted name in news”, as their slogan goes. Now, you have to be mentally unstable to accept this kind of bullshit and not to treat it as intelligence offending, cheap propaganda. Sorry if anyone feels insulted, but politics is a business for adult people and it requires a lot of thinking and confrontation because in the final aftermath it’s all a struggle for power and money. And in order to be able to think independently sometimes you have to risk being offended.

Have you been offended many times?

Yes. I don’t care. Some smear me as an anti-semite, others as Russian agent or a Chinese agent, even. If someone does that publicly I don’t stage a drama on Facebook, I take that person to court and make him apologise and pay. In most cases, when smearers are confronted with a lawyer they take it down. But when they’re a bit too self-confident they have to be brought to a court of law. My favourite case of that kind was when I still worked at Strajk.eu and one of the biggest Polish right-wing papers, Gazeta Wyborcza, accused us of being sponsored by the Kremlin. The apologies they had to publish were fantastic! Big time! So, no, I don’t care. Let them say what they like but I will hold each and every one accountable for what is publicly stated. I will not let anyone accuse me without consequences! That’s for sure. I will keep up the good work. And I wish that to all the people on the left who have not lost their sanity and have not detached themselves from reality.

So, you were smeared as a Russian agent? What do you think about what is happening right now in Russia?

I’m trying to ignore all the smears as long as they’re not public. As to Russia, I think it is no exception in my general analysis. As in the case of every country there are thing I like and things I don’t like about. Take the latest steps in terms of modifying the retirement age. I’ve been against that from the very beginning. Also, long before it was cool to criticize Putin I was against the nonsense regarding the so-called “gay propaganda” or later the closure of the Levada research center although I never liked those people either. But despite that I can see and appreciate the general major improvement that Russia has gone through in the last 10-15 years. Anyone who knows anything about the situation there in `90 will have to admit that there’s been a qualitative change. Of course, there’s still a long way to go and many, many problems to be solved, but now at least it is thinkable in Russia to start solving them actually. Now that it has become a sovereign country. The biggest problem I see in Russia is not really the social and cultural conservatism that the left likes to expose but the fact that the oligarchic model of the economy has not been overcome. The leash is much shorter on the oligarchy and it seems like there is a lot more supervision from the side of the state which is I think very good, but I do not think this is a sustainable model in terms of more than, say, two or three decades. In order to achieve progress, investments are needed and they can’t be happening in a limited manner within the straitjacket of the oligarchy. So, I’m trying to approach everything with a sense of proportion. Oh, in this respect, here’s a piece of advice for the leftists who like to go hysterical regarding conservatism in Russia. Don’t forget abortions there are free, safe and available. Not like in Poland for example. 

Maria Cernat is a graduate of the Faculty of Journalism and Communication Sciences (FJSC) (2001) and the Faculty of Philosophy (2004) at the University of Bucharest. She obtained an MA from FJSC in 2002 and in 2008 she was made a doctor of philosophy. She is currently a PhD Lecturer in the Department for Communication and Public Relations at Titu Maiorescu University. Since 2011 she has published articles on Romanian websites for political debates (CriticAtac, Cealaltă Agendă, România Curată).

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