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Ideas

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STILL KICKING

Putin is still alive, despite tweets to the contrary

By Caitlin Hu

Putin is not dead, confirmed Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov this morning. Despite recent rumors and the trending hashtag #ПутинУмер (Putin is dead), the Russian president is still in good health, reported Reuters.

However, Putin still has not been seen on live television since meeting with Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi on Mar. 5. Feeding domestic conspiracy theories, the Kremlin cancelled Putin’s appointment this week with a South Ossetian delegation from Tskhinvali, as well as a trip to Astana, Kazakhstan. “It looks like he has fallen ill,” an anonymous Kazakh official told Reuters.

How did the death rumors start? Kremlin officials blame the weather.

“As soon as the sun comes out in the spring, as soon as it starts to smell of springtime, people get feverish,” explained Peskov to Russian news agency TASS. “Someone dreams up Sechin’s resignation, someone dreams up a resignation of the government and some people start thinking they haven’t seen Putin on TV in several days.”

But according to several studies, it’s not the springtime that makes people “feverish”—it’s powerlessness. A 2002 survey published in Political Psychology found that conspiracy theories—whether the cover-up of a head of state’s death to the faking of the Apollo moon landing—seem most credible to people who suffer from high levels of “anomie, authoritarianism, and powerlessness.”

(Not that other factors aren’t involved. After a two year absence from the public eye, Cuban leader Fidel Castro’s proof-of-life letter to retired Argentinian soccer star Diego Maradona in Jan. 2015, not surprisingly invited a good deal of skepticism.)

But even when nothing stands out as extraordinarily suspicious—a missed meeting, or even two, isn’t that much in the grand scheme of a president’s calendar—research shows people at the bottom of the pile are most able to weave meaning and motive into what little information is available. Our brains perceive illusory patterns in everything from images to stock market information, concluded University of Texas researchers in 2008, when we lack control.

The Kremlin of course is the arbiter of the majority of state-sanctioned information in Russia, directly controlling two of Russia’s three major news channels. State-owned company Gazprom owns the third. As if purposefully parodying the administration’s extreme information control, Russian-language website Putinumer.com now allows visitors to “check” for themselves whether Putin is dead or not by clicking a button. The answer is always negative, ranging from a simple “no” to the bitterly wishful: ”Look out the window. Are people happy, are they dancing, have fireworks started yet? No? Then he’s not dead yet.”

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