Do the Russians really support the war in Ukraine? Do they blindly believe Putin’s propaganda? Answering these questions is difficult. Public opinion polls in Russia are not necessarily trustworthy – they are likely to overestimate the percentage of the population that supports the actions of the Russian government.
What the polls show is that the Russian population is divided, which means we cannot generalize about Russians as a whole. Instead, this article highlights how different groups of the population are affected by propaganda.
We can first distinguish between “producers” and “consumers” of propaganda. The former include Putin and his entourage, loyal elites and media producers – those who have access to lots of information but instead choose to tell lies that suit their political agenda.
The “consumers” of propaganda include, first of all, people who only use media loyal to the Russian state. Many older people in Russia, especially those living outside major urban areas, use television as their primary or only source of news, and Russian television news has been dominated by state propaganda organizations for years. People in this position are likely to believe what they see, and even if they take a critical stance, they have little alternative information to rely on.
They are not, however, the only consumers of propaganda in Russia. In fact, everyone is exposed to it: propaganda is communicated not only through traditional media such as television, radio and newspapers, but also through social media, educational institutions, parades and celebrations. Even if you access alternative information, the constant repetition of certain messages in the media makes you more likely to believe them.
Russian propaganda stories about Ukraine support a general message that a “fascist” threat has spread through Ukraine and into its government, backed and orchestrated by the West. This story is not new – it has been told at least since 2014, starting with the Maidan movement, the annexation of Crimea and the ongoing war in Donbass. The writing of Russian history portrays Russia as a heroic fighter standing against Nazism and the West, and it’s easy to tie these threads together and advance a narrative that Russia should “liberate” the Ukraine.
There are of course those who consume alternative media but do not believe in it. They may dismiss independent or Western reporting as propaganda or as misinformed. They may also find it difficult to make sense of alternative explanations that do not match what they think they know about the situation.
For example, imagine you think Russian soldiers are in Ukraine to liberate the population from Nazism, and then you read an article that claims Russians are killing civilians. You could explain this to yourself as anti-Russian propaganda, or think that the journalist is misinformed and that those killed were Nazis or soldiers in disguise. Russian propaganda encourages such interpretations by regularly “debunking” Western reporting with its own fake news.
Even for people who take a more critical stance towards Russian propaganda stories, they have an impact. In 2016, I conducted interviews with university students from Moscow who were fluent in English or German and often used international media in these languages. Many of them were well aware of the differences in reporting between Russian and Western media. Realizing that many media stories are fabricated has led them to take an extremely critical stance towards all news, regardless of origin.
Their belief that all media lies has led to two reactions, both of which are problematic. The first was to disengage from politics. This suits Russian leaders, as disengaged citizens are unlikely to put up resistance. Depoliticized people also generally do not have consistent opinions and may believe conflicting accounts without noticing their incompatibility.
The second reaction has instead been to try to learn about developments from “individuals” without a political agenda, for example via social media. However, the opinion of a single individual is unlikely to be representative of the entire population, and Russian propaganda plays on this trend by creating fake social media accounts, eyewitness videos, etc. .
It is therefore extremely difficult to escape the influence of propaganda in Russia. Nevertheless, some people resist depoliticization and propaganda and define themselves as an opposition to the Russian government. Their life has become much more difficult since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The most important independent news media had to cease their activities due to increased censorship.
Russia has also blocked websites such as Facebook, Twitter, BBC News, as well as Ukrainian and independent Russian news sites. Publishing something as simple as “No to War” or disseminating reports based on independent research can lead to arrests and imprisonment.
It is therefore difficult to access independent information and dangerous to disseminate information or to protest. The immediate future could therefore see more Russians consuming propaganda as their only information, and others ceasing to speak out. It is difficult for citizens of democracies to understand the pressure that Russians are under. There is not only the fear of arrest, but also the fear of what might happen to their children if they were to lose their income or their freedom, and the benevolent concern of their social circle who implores them to keep your head down.
The people speaking out, however, despite being a small group, are a life force. Over time, they may garner support from people turning against the government for other reasons: economic hardship caused by the sanctions (even though propaganda blames the sanctions on the West rather than linking them to Russian actions ); blocking of social networks; the families of returned or fallen soldiers; families of Ukrainians (there is a lot of migration and intermarriage between the two countries).
And, perhaps, other countries will finally learn how to handle Russian propaganda better. So far, Western efforts to counter it have been disappointing. Post-facto corrections and busting myths are unlikely to succeed in changing opinions.
By contrast, Ukrainian President Zelenskyy has taken the internet by storm with his dramatic video calls. They show that using emotional narratives that resonate with their audience can work for both sides. There is a danger in adopting these methods that a convincing narrative becomes more important than telling the truth. But they also show that the information war is not over yet.
By Dr Maren Rohe, researcher at the University of Birmingham.