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From Understanding Putin’s Propaganda to Fighting It

The main goal of Putin’s propaganda is to convince those who should be convinced, keep the doubters doubting, scare the easily scared and make sure that no enemy information could make anyone doubt that what’s going on is right.

Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP via Getty Images

Everybody knows the word “propaganda”. Initially impersonal (Latin “propaganda” means “that which should be distributed”), it started developing a negative meaning as industrial and post-industrial society was taking place. The anti-democratic nature of the Kremlin’s propaganda has long been described by analysts. However, the context of war against Ukraine and what happened to the Russian society after this war started makes it necessary to review this propaganda’s role, as well as to think of whether it’s possible for the democratic community to develop counter-propaganda. 

Since Vladimir Putin’s rise to power, the Russian opposition has been constantly discussing the nature and effects of the state propaganda. For example the history of the NTV channel, destroyed in 2001, is still being discussed in the context of censorship and propaganda. The same can be said about the Moskovsky Korrespondent newspaper, which was closed for its sole article about Putin’s private life. 

The most important landmark in the radicalization of the information policy was the Kremlin’s reaction to the 2011-12 protests, when attempts to speak various groups’ language that were typical for the previous period were replaced with downright censorship and in-your-face propaganda by Kiselyov and Solovyov. By the time of the “constutional amendment vote”, protests in Belarus and poisoning of Alexey Navalny in 2020, it became clear that even the existing measures to promote the state agenda are not enough for Putin. We could only guess how much propaganda and censorship was going to be too much.

Full-fledged war, turned out to be this watershed. That’s when the policy of lying to and threatening own population became, as we imagine, the strongest possible. At the same time, with the beginning of the war the efficiency of Putin’s information policies and options to counteract it became some of the main discussion points among politically active Russians.. The Kremlin propaganda, the outside world’s and regular Russians’ reaction to it are extremely important in emigrant networks, while in everyday life regular citizens frequently notice lack of understanding. This was, for example, mentioned by Yekaterina Shulman, a political scientist, in an interview for the Diskus magazine: “The circumstances are abnormal, extreme, almost intolerable for a human being, therefore various deformities take place. If you were hit over the head, and your ears are ringing, it doesn’t mean that there had always been always a ringing noise around you and you hadn’t heard a thing.” Therefore questions like “what’s going on with the country?”, “how did things end up like this?” and “what are we supposed to bo about it?” are an absolutely normal tendency for a thinking individual.

Informational warfare against one’s own citizens

Although it cannot be fully measured via sociological means, the radical aggravation of the situation, as well as drastic changes in many private lives lead to changing perception of everything that has been happening to the country and to its people for all of Putin’s years. Today, not just people in the opposition, but also many regular citizens are starting to realize the nature of the Russian state propaganda. In January 2022, the US Department of State reminded us of the five main narratives of disinformation that are supposed to convince Russians of things that are beneficial to non-changing powers, such as the failure of the Western civilization, the necessity of rewriting history, etc.. In February, the entire opposition community got to see that such propaganda can reach imaginable and unimaginable heights. 

After the war began, the Kremlin launched its propaganda machine with all the stops pulled out. It was especially important for the Kremlin to operate fake data about opinions and emotions of Russians. The ways to keep a clear head while being confronted by the information distorted by the Kremlin are described by Maxim Alyukov. He particularly emphasizes mass surveys: “The combination of self-selection, self-censorship and fear that is maintained by the state propaganda and manipulative mass surveys is becoming a blessing for autocrats. The inflated results of surveys can be used by the regime as an evidence of widespread support by the masses, as well as a signal to the elites to help prevent defection. Even more important is how the surveys that exaggerate the mass support of the government influences the public trust”. Later, in the Republic interview, Alyukov would stress the following: “When we’re talking about propaganda, it seems to us that it both provides people with a picture of the world and persuades them. The truth is, the causal dependence is often the opposite: people use propaganda as a source of arguments, i.e. they have views to begin with, and they add new information to their existing views”.  

The Kremlin fully understands the magic of numbers. This goes not just for mass surveys, but also for the way the Central Bank of Russia is lowering currency rates. However, it would be a major mistake to think that no one in Russia understands how the Kremlin’s information warfare functions.

 “Channel One has fully become a news channel; they have no shows like earlier. It’s news after news every hour. And this news is directed at presenting the West in a negative light. Let’s imagine that there’s news that Biden fell off his bike. They go: “Ha ha ha! Won’t you look at that! That’s the kind of president the US has: he falls off bikes!”. The news these days has a separate op-ed where they gather posts from the Internet and reveal them as supposed fakes,” says a woman from Saint Petersburg who is not involved in politics in a private conversation.

Truly, the variety of propaganda can give any unprepared human being a headache. Instead of trying to understand what’s going on, a person would rather prefer to avoid the topic, clutching to whatever they were provided with as arguments. “Their [propagandists] task is to create an information field big enough to stop you from reflecting on any information you’re receiving and make you just give up.  I.e. everything is complicated, nothing is clear, I’ll go grab a bite,” says Michael Nacke, a Russian blogger and journalist, on the Popular Politics YouTube channel.

In the end, the main goal of Putin’s propaganda is to convince those who should be convinced, keep the doubters doubting, scare the easily scared and make sure that no enemy information could make anyone doubt that what’s going on is right. 

Counter-propaganda strikes back 

Despite the fact that a Russian-language Ukrainian channel FreeDom has been actively working since the beginning of the war, resistance to Russian propaganda might be provided by the Russian opposition. After the 24 February, many projects aimed at countering military propaganda appeared. Some such initiatives, were listed in the Most Important Anti-War Projects Guide article at Meduza. There’s quite a few new media resources and communities that create useful guides for regular citizens.  Call Russia provides practical recommendations on how to behave during a phone conversation with a stranger on the topic of war.  “80, maybe 90 percent of people living in Russia get their entire information from state-owned sources. It means that they’re just a target for Putin’s propaganda. Call Russia might become a platform that provides people with alternative opinions,» – says journalist Edmundas Jakilaitis, the project’s co-author.

The importance of information-based resistance to Putin is frequently discussed by leaders of the Russian opposition. Alexey Navalny made a statement on this from prison in the beginning of the war.

Message from Alexey Navalny’s personal Twitter account (@navalny)

A more detailed vision of how counterpropaganda should work is seen in a dialogue between opposition leaders. Leonid Volkov, head of the international FBK and political projects of Alexey Navalny, while debating with Garry Kasparov on the Popular Politics channel, stresses that apart from the military front, at least two more are needed: economic and informational ones. The latter might be called the “fight for the opinions of Russians”.

At the same time, Volkov stresses positive developments demonstrated by mass surveys. According to these surveys, opinions of people change. Some believe it’s related to counter-propaganda efforts that include many various media resources and media content.  The aforementioned Popular Politics channel frequently publishes talk-based videos, reviews, etc. Many others function in the same way; for example, there is the Free Russia Forum channel, which is aimed at a different target group, but is similar in its message.

When it comes to forming an anti-Putin information front, it is extremely important that a new approach to mass surveys has appeared. Thanks to them, we can see a more realistic picture of what Russians are thinking. Thus, fresh data by the sociological Russian Field service demonstrate that more than half of all Russians think that the War in Ukraine has been going on for too long, while 63% of the men surveyed are not ready to personally go to war. An important thing was noted by Insider: this is 6 points more than in the May surveys. The fact that Russians are changing their opinions is also evidenced by the new survey by FBK. 

It’s extremely important that apart from organized work, there is spontaneous activity in this field. When confronted with limitations concerning distribution of independent information in social media, people go “back to roots” more and more. “Back to the old times! People print leaflets right at home and bring them to their neighbors!” – says one of the Russian activists in a private conversation. Which is why it’s equally important to use direct action when confronting authorities.  “Silent” protest is what allows protesters to deliver information to the people via means that are different from standard rallies and picketing. A good example is an artist named Alexandra Skochilenko, who was replacing the price tags at the shops with what looks a lot like the originals, except containing anti-war information. Right now, Alexandra faces a possible 10-year sentence for discrediting the Russian Armed Forces.

To help Russian masses better understand the impending economic catastrophe, an online platform called Magazin was created; it shows what could be bought with the money that the Russian government spent on the war. 

Indeed, the matter of reaching all types of target audience is essential when it comes to counter-propaganda. Without analyzing it, we can not understand who we’re broadcasting for, we won’t be able to use out own number-based arguments when we’re talking about the support for warfare in Ukraine. Without multi-voiced, multi-age media we won’t be able to reach the same amount of readers and viewers that are reached by the Kremlin. Without various types of resistance, online and offline, information will not reach everyone. 

We, the opposition community that aims to continue informational warfare, have to support informational and analytical studies, as well as media platforms that help promote them, whatever they are. It sounds incredibly easy, but this goal is always destroyed by our mutual distrust and bias. Even within the context of the current war, when we’re talking about how propaganda affects society.