The Nuances of Russian Propaganda

Photo by Tookapic (Pexels)

It seems that many people in Russia are affected by propaganda, and it’s no wonder. It is up-to-date, continuous, illogical, and it uses the principle of constant repetition. Interestingly, some of these features directly contradict the generally accepted ideas about effective ways of doing propaganda.1 Despite ignoring some traditional postulates of persuasion, Russia seems to have managed to achieve some success within its modern propaganda model either by direct persuasion and influence or by undermining and discrediting truthful reports.

The current political regime in Russia has been defined as Informational Autocracy.2 Those in power in such regimes engage in  censorship, suppression/marginalization of independent media, co-optation of the intellectual elite, and equip the police and special services with information to suppress attempts to revolt.3

Hence, in this post, I will explore the propaganda strategy used by Russian state news and how it has changed in wartime.

State Propaganda on TV

According to the law, the first 10 “TV-buttons” (First Channel, Rossiya-1, Rossiya-24, etc.) are free of charge and are default channels on every TV. This accessibility of the state TV and radio is called the first multiplex.4 The almighty First Channel’s and VGTRK media holdings’5 reach is unbelievable, as their broadcasting gets even to the most remote villages.

This way, state-sponsored news is unavoidable if you watch the most accessible TV channels. The information transmitted in these programs is easy to replicate, as it is always there, in the back of your mundane life. News is shown when people have breakfast, lunch, return back from work, or prepare to go to bed. It is omnipresent and ready to tell the Russian state’s point of view on the war. Moreover, Russian citizens use TV rather than a radio, they listen to it, and they barely watch it. They listen to it while they cook, clean, and run errands. For example, on a regular Thursday, people watch propaganda for hours upon hours in a row (as you can see in the screenshot below). This broadcasting scheme relies on those staying at home in the daytime hours – mostly retired people, who are, perhaps, a majority of Putin’s supporters.

It can also be seen that, since the start of the war , the majority of entertainment programs have been canceled and  have been replaced with non-stop news cycles. Another alteration to the daily broadcasting is the program called “Anti-fake”, which allegedly debunks anti-Russian news.

Furthermore, first impressions really do matter, at least when it comes to news, so they are broadcasted almost non-stop. Russian state propaganda is extremely fast-moving, as it tends to be the first to break the news. It is important because the first version of events a person hears usually becomes the most trustworthy in their mind. This incredible speed for new information is achieved through the lack of fact-checking or outright faking the news. The propaganda specialists just spread their version of events as fast as possible in order to be the first ones to break the news. Additionally, a classical feature of any propaganda is constant repetition, and Russian propaganda is no exception. Hearing the same version of events over and over in different news specials increases the chances for it to be perceived as something truthful or something easy to memorize.

This abundance of information can also lead to the unwillingness to properly check the information or to a complete neglect of verifying any information. Plus, due to the passive mode of consuming TV propaganda, most people will not even think of verifying any of the facts.

On the other hand, almost every citizen knows that news lies, at least to some extent. For instance, there is a difference in the degrees of these lies: some day-to-day information is easily accessible and verifiable. For example, the state propaganda cannot convince the citizens that the prices at the shops are the same as they used to be, as the people can see  for themselves that it’s not true. But at the same time, some information is out of reach of a regular citizen, and the viewers have to blindly believe it. In fact, this became a justification for many people to become apolitical. By being so overfed with news, people care less and less about alternative points of view, if not any news at all. So, at the end of the day, people do not believe any news source at all. It is very common to hear “I am just a simple person, not a politician”, “We cannot know the whole truth”, “the situation is not so simple”, etc.

Naturally, state propaganda can in no way be limited to TV broadcasting when it comes to younger generations. Some people have been using the Internet as their main source of information especially since the annexation of Crimea.6

Sociological Surveys

Sociological surveys have become a powerful tool of the state to make people with oppositional views (as well as the Western observers) believe that non-war supporters are in the minority. This also makes the world wonder whether the statement “Putin wants the war, Russians do not want it” is entirely true.

I would claim that many sociological firms that collect public opinion data belong to the state and produce these surveys for the state.7 The nature of the authoritarian state with its strict hierarchy dictates the lies and exaggeration in the reports of state organizations, as everyone wants to please their bosses, including state-sponsored sociologists. Because of that, many companies have shown unbelievably high numbers of war supporters (anywhere between 56 to 81% of respondents in the first days of the war).8

It is also important to keep in mind that there is a new law against the discreditation of the military formations of the Russian Federation. The law is so vague that anyone can be prosecuted, and the maximum punishment is 15 years of prison. Hence, the interviewees do not wish to reply honestly, or may just avoid answering the question. They know it is dangerous, and even calling the war “war” is sufficient for the police to prosecute you. This leads to mass refusals to participate in these surveys, or to participants expressing the opinions they know would be acceptable by the state. Because of the concern for their safety, the respondents in autocratic regimes tend to choose answers that emphasize their benevolent attitude towards the authorities.

The structure of these answers appears to be interesting by itself. Yet again, most people are apolitical or listen to daily propaganda in the background, so they do not form consistent opinions on issues beyond their daily lives and interests. When someone asks them about such an “opinion”, they use various “signals” or hints available to them – for example, they turn to what they have just seen on television, read somewhere, heard from loved ones.9 This effect is known as social desirability bias and is a well known characteristic of  polls conducted in autocracies and where the state threatens to employ coercive measures against its citizenry.10

Internet Research Agency

The so-called Internet Research Agency, better known in Russia as фабрика троллей [the troll factory] is yet another instrument used to discourage and demoralize the opposition. This establishment aims at the formation of opinions on the Internet and disinformation.

These goals are achieved by the creation of bot accounts on multiple social media platforms, as well as by hiring real people who would have to write pro-state comments and posts. People behind these accounts have a minimum of comments that they are supposed to write per shift (which is usually in the hundreds). They are also given the targets (for example, a certain video by a liberally-oriented YouTube-channel), where they flood the comment section with pro-government support. The fake accounts can also promote each other’s comments by liking them and moving them to the top of the comment section. These bots and people are unavoidable and can be met under any, even slightly political, post.

Bots can be identified by the lack of a profile picture, lack of followers, etc. However, a regular Internet user does not have time to check every user under every post, and the number of such pro-state comments can be truly overwhelming. Therefore, many people see that they would be in the minority if they leave an anti-war message and simply prefer not to start this conversation.

Where Are the Liberals?

The Russian mediascape can be characterized by the insufficient presence of independent media, which can be explained in multiple ways:

  1. Decreasing but still present digital gap and digital illiteracy. The liberal media are mostly available on the Internet because of the state censorship among traditional media. On top of that, the Internet is still not accessible everywhere, and not every person (especially the elderly) knows how to use it.
  2. Not everyone is even aware of the existence of these news sources: they are never mentioned on TV or other pro-state propaganda channels. The media bubble is quite hard to burst in such conditions, so liberals are just writing for other liberals.
  3. Nowadays, many independent media outlets are even harder to reach. The majority are shut down because of the “Discreditation of the Russian army law”, as well as due to the blocking of access to such outlets in Russia or proclaiming them “foreign agents”.11 While it is possible to use VPN to access them, VPN services usually significantly slow down the speed of the Internet and are not always free and easy to use.

Conclusion

The gears of Russian propaganda are spinning tirelessly in many spheres of life. While many blame TV as the main source of brain-washing, the Internet cannot be called a safe haven either. Public opinions are carefully produced and spread through fake accounts and bots that discourage the opposition and encourage them to flee the country.

Overall, it is hard to identify the amount of real anti-war protesters in Russia due to the lack of independent sociological surveys. Moreover, many people are afraid to express their opinions because of the fear of being bullied or, much worse, prosecuted. Besides, it is safe to say that many “ordinary people” are either completely apolitical or are on the fence with their opinions. Only a major change in media access or massive political disruption will cause these people  to wake these people up to the crimes committed by the Russian army during this horrendous war.

Mariia Zimina (Graduate Center for the Studies of Culture, JLU Giessen)



Diesen Blogbeitrag zitieren
Arkadiusz Christoph Blaszczyk (2022, 18. Mai). The Nuances of Russian Propaganda. Vom "Rande" zum Herzen Europas. Abgerufen am 5. März 2024, von https://doi.org/10.58079/qn0f

  1. For example, propaganda chiefs try to make propa ganda as simple as possible. []
  2. Guriev, Sergei and Treisman, Daniel, A Theory of Informational Autocracy (April 3, 2019). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3426238 []
  3. Ibid. []
  4. The term is used for the federal package of 10 all-Russian mandatory public TV channels and 3 radio channels. []
  5. The All-Russia State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company, which incorporates multiple state-sponsored channels. []
  6. Television Continues to Decline in Russia, As Internet News Takes Hold https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2017/05/03/alexei-navalny-is-now-russias-outlaw-presidential-candidate-a57893 [accessed on April 27, 2022] []
  7. For example, 100% of shares of the biggest sociological firm, VTSIOM, are property of the state. VTSIOM is also the firm that identified the biggest percentage of war supporters, 81%. []
  8. https://rg.ru/2022/04/04/glava-vciom-raskola-v-obshchestve-iz-za-specoperacii-na-ukraine-net.html [accessed on April 30, 2022] []
  9. Erpyleva, Svetlana, Why do Russians support the war against Ukraine? OpenDemocracy, April 16, 2022. https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/odr/russia-ukraine-war-support-interviews-opinion/ [accessed on April 27, 2022] []
  10. Krumpal, Ivan, Determinants of social desirability bias in sensitive surveys: a literature review, Quality & Quantity, vol. 47, pp. 2025–2047 (2013). []
  11. “Foreign agent” is a legal term describing people and media who have been funded by organizations from abroad. This title leads to labeling any post as a post coming from a foreign agent; a strict system of reporting the income for foreign agents, as well as distrust of them or fear of association with a foreign agent. https://www.dw.com/en/what-is-russias-foreign-agent-law/a-60652752 []
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