Audience members in a TV studio, randomly selected from the country’s population to accurately represent its demographics, watch intently as a speaker - a presidential candidate, an oligarch, an opposition leader (sometimes all three are one and the same) - presents his or her view on the latest hot-button issue. The hot- buttons are quite literal in this case, as the viewers buzz in answers to polls that measure their agreement and emotional response, giving an immediate portrayal of the country’s opinion. This format, entitled Freedom of Speech with Savik Shuster, was first presented live on Russian television in 2001.
Shuster’s book, Freedom of Speech against Fear and Humiliation, gives an inside look at the creation of the show and the lessons learned from this model of direct audience interaction.
Mass emotions revealed by a journalist
Shuster’s career as a journalist has taken him across the world, from being a reporter on the front lines of Afghanistan to becoming the Head of the Radio Liberty/Free Europe office in Moscow (https://www.rferl.org/Russia). He created one of the most popular and unique political talk-shows in Eastern Europe, yet everywhere he goes, Shuster finds himself the target of government censorship. Nevertheless, his dedication to free speech and honest, objective reporting remains unwavering.
Traditionally, the media has been a one-way street used by those in power to inform or even manipulate citizens. Shuster offers an alternative - journalism as a tool to gage what a nation is thinking, and more importantly, feeling.
“Mass emotion is one of the main driving forces behind social movements. It can ignite violence or spark positive change and progress.”
Shuster identifies three key universal emotions to assess the wellbeing of a group: fear, humiliation, and hope. Freedom of Speech describes the experiment he conducted with his show’s audiences to calculate the prevalence of these emotions amongst Ukrainians. The findings reveal that in 2016, when the experiment was held, 63.7% of citizens regularly experienced hope, 18.8% experienced humiliation, and 17.5% experienced fear.
These numbers are then analyzed further and traced throughout demographic groups based on age, gender, and region. The balance between these statistics paints a picture of the overall emotional stability within a group, with a stable state being the goal.
A new litmus test for society
In his book Savik Shuster argues that such emotional wellness checks can be just as effective a marker of a country’s condition as GDP, and a tool for promoting democracy and giving the people a voice. Specifically, the data he uncovered in Ukraine led him to believe that the most effective way to provide hope and address the country’s fear and humiliation - the worry of staying cold and hungry in the winter, anxiety over losing a job, or the shame of being unable to provide for one’s family - is to cement Ukraine’s place as a progressive European nation by providing citizens with UBI (universal basic income). This will tackle the financial insecurity which is at the root of many people’s struggles, curb corruption from the bottom up, combat poverty and crime, stimulate economic growth, and restore the dignity of a nation entrenched in conflict by uniting its people into a conscious citizenry.
The current methods used to gain feedback on life and leadership in most countries are lacking - elections are often contested, and whether or not the results are true, the very fact of people’s distrust weakens the civic process.
Until 2019-th presidential elections in Ukraine, voter fraud and corruption run rampant and each election cycle was full of false promises made to be broken after inauguration. The media bears the brunt of the country’s frustrations. It is the middleman between voters and the government, forced to play political games with oligarchs in order to stay on the air.
On the other hand, publicly owned television will be motivated to stay accountable to viewers, argues Shuster, and can serve its true purpose both in informing viewers, and amplifying their voices.
“Shuster’s approach gives an in- depth look not only at what people are really thinking and feeling, but how these emotions play into intergenerational conflicts or how a region with different emotions between genders will face greater difficulties in uniting to overcome its problems.”
The book stimulated further research
Published in 2018, Freedom of Speech has only gotten more relevant as distrust for the media grows and the struggle for free speech intensifies. As the jobs currently performed by humans become increasingly automated, UBI, once considered a fringe socialist fantasy, finds itself at the forefront of progressive party platforms across the world. Most recently, stimulus checks and unemployment benefits due to COVID-19 have shown that it is indeed possible for governments to provide their constituents with basic financial resources.
In February 2019 Savik Shuster founded a research foundation to study mass emotions, Open Mind Foundation, which welcomes all open-minded thinkers to collaborate in order to develop methods of studying mass emotions and to search for the ways of balancing the emotional state of territories prone to conflict.
In September 2019, Savik Shuster has returned to Ukraine to continue hosting and producing the most influential political talk show in Ukraine Freedom of Speech by Savik Shuster. The equipment of the new studio allows different methods of emotional recognition, for example, neural network software and online voting for millions of viewers.
In the book’s epilogue, the author calls for more research on the “diagnosis” of mass emotions in order for leaders to be aware of the state people are living in and preemptively treat issues which may otherwise lead to bloodshed.
“The emotional stability of individuals is the foundation of a successful nation. Once we understand and sense this, we can begin to transform the population into a society and kleptocracy into liberal democracy. There is not much time left.”