The People Who Believe Russia’s Disinformation

April 12, 2022  ·   Commentary

Will Russia’s propaganda campaign continue to work on its citizens and others? Or will the lies fall apart?

New York City protest of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Credit: Wikimedia

This article was originally published at Slate.

Every day we wake up to new Russian atrocities—and new Russian lies about those atrocities—in Ukraine. The latest example is in Bucha, a Kyiv suburb where retreating Russian forces “left behind dead civilians lining the streets—some with their hands bound, some with gunshot wounds to the head.” The Kremlin quickly issued denials and claimed the evidence was fabricated.

After weeks of war, much has been written about the success and failures of Russia’s disinformation and propaganda. These tactics, of course, are not new. Russia has been running propaganda campaigns since the Cold War. What does feel new is the preponderance of true information available—and perhaps equally importantly, the speed at which it spreads. Social mediasatellite imagery, and 24/7 reporting are directly refuting Russian disinformation in real time.

That news is only reaching some people, however. It’s worth stepping back to consider the various audiences for Russia’s disinformation campaigns and examine where they’re working and where they’re not.

First, where it’s not: Ukraine and the West. Russia and Putin have spread a long line of falsehoods about Ukraine. They claimed that Russian language speakers in Ukraine would welcome a Russian invasion. They’ve denied Ukrainian statehood, claiming Ukraine has always been part of Russia. They said this “special military operation” was necessary to “liberate” Ukrainians from their “Nazi leaders.” And with the war underway, government officials now claim Ukrainians, not the Russians, are shooting and bombing their own people.

None of this is true, of course. These falsehoods fell apart immediately, both in Ukraine and in the West, largely because true information won out. The Biden administration released intelligence that was remarkably accurate in predicting Putin’s next moves. Social media users in Ukraine have posted videos documenting the brutal invasion from Russian forces. Journalists have used that evidence, along with satellite imagery and other tools, to debunk false claims. As a result, foreign audiences can not only see for themselves what’s really happening in Ukraine, but also read the heart-wrenching stories of citizens caught in the crossfire and fleeing for their lives.

That leads us to where the disinformation campaigns may be working, at least for now: Russia, China, and the world beyond NATO, the EU, and their allies.

As with Soviet-era propaganda campaigns, Putin is trying to seal off his population from information to control the narrative. Authorities have shut down independent media and blocked most Western social media. For many, the only viable option left is state-controlled media, which pushes Putin’s false narratives.

Reports indicate this is working—at least to some extent. We read stories of Ukrainians with family members in Russia who don’t believe the war is real. “Every day I send them the necessary information, but the response is that ‘This is some kind of fake information, that this cannot be the case at all, that no one can or will shoot at civilians,’” said one Ukrainian woman, speaking about her sister and cousins who don’t believe what’s happening.

Likewise, a recent poll found Russians’ support for Putin has actually increased from 71 to 83 percent since the war started, although the more repressive a regime, the harder it can be to know what people are truly thinking.  Indeed, a recent study using a more sophisticated methodology designed to elicit opinions on sensitive topics found actual support for the war to be 15 percentage points—53 percent vs. 68 percent—lower than reported using traditional survey methods. On the one hand, it is interesting that even in the current climate close to one-third of Russians were willing to explicitly tell pollsters that they oppose the war. On the other, even with the more sophisticated methods, more than half of Russians still expressed support for the war, so the fact that many Russians genuinely support the war should not be discounted – the phenomenon of “rallying round the flag” in times of war is a real one. Either way, true information will be critical to topple this digital iron curtain and pressure Vladimir Putin to end the war.

We also see evidence of Russia’s disinformation narratives spreading outside of Europe and the Western world. One recent New York Times story, for example, revealed how China’s Communist Party is using university classes, the media, and videos to push “a campaign that paints Russia as a long-suffering victim rather than an aggressor and defends China’s strong ties with Moscow as vital.” Another piece in the New York Times reports on research showing how Chinese state media is directly parroting Russian propaganda talking points.

Beyond China, one study discovered a coordinated network of new, fake, and hacked Twitter accounts in Africa and Asia sharing pro-Putin messages. Another study found more than 170 websites in various languages pushing war disinformation, and NBC recently reported on Russian disinformation in Latin American media. The extent to which these messages will resonate outside of the NATO countries and their allies that are directly supporting Ukraine remains to be seen, but recent votes at the United Nations show that governments in the Global South remain much more conflicted about withdrawing support for Russia, suggesting such campaigns remain important.

As the information war rages on, we’re left wondering what will happen next. Will Russia’s propaganda campaign continue to work on its citizens and others? Or will the lies fall apart, as they did in the West? There’s no way to know for sure, but there are several reasons to hope the truth will ultimately win out.

First, you can’t hide sanctions. Businesses are closing across Russia due to sanctions against the country. There’s a shortage of goods, jobs have disappeared, and inflation is rising. For now, Russia is successfully blaming this on the U.S. and the West, a tried and true propaganda strategy. But many of these sanctions are likely to have larger impacts in the medium to long range term. As time passes and Russian citizens begin to feel the impact of these sanctions more, their incentive to continue to believe the party line may begin to wane.

Second, you can’t hide dead soldiers. Russian media reported that an estimated 10,000 Russian soldiers have already died in Ukraine. Unsurprisingly, government officials denied this story and forced the paper to retract the story, claiming it had been posted by hackers. Even if that number wasn’t accurate, it’s clear the war is having a bloody impact. Those soldiers are people’s sons, fathers, and brothers. As casualties continue, it will be harder and harder to ignore the fact that their country is fighting a war and is not just engaged in a “special military operation.” Whether Russians respond by doubling down in support for the war—“these soldiers shall not have died in vain”—or turning against the war, they will likely eventually come to be informed by the realities of battlefield casualties.

Finally, in the digital age, it is harder to hide the truth. We’ve already seen signs that Russia’s disinformation wall can be breached. Independent media are creating “mirror” sites to evade government restrictions. Demand for virtual private networks that allow citizens to circumvent bans on media and social media has increased. And many outlets have created channels on Telegram (a popular social media platform in Russia that is still operating in the country) to share news. It’s clear that, if people want to look beyond state TV and find out what’s really happening, some, if not many, can. While we often focus on the supply disinformation, it is important not to lose sight of the demand for true information as a crucial component of information wars. The Soviet Union collapsed in part because its population stopped believing the regime’s version of reality; in the digital era, the distance between demand for true information and the ability to actually acquire such information is bound to be shorter.

As Sergei Guriev and Daniel Treisman highlight in their recent book Spin Dictators, it is easier for autocrats to be genuinely popular than to rely on repression. While Putin has extended a great deal of effort taking control of the Russian information ecosystem, the irony here is that these same repressive steps make it more difficult to know what his population is actually thinking. The truth is out there—and the day is coming when Putin may no longer be able to tell what Russians know or when they know it.