Unpicking Putin’s propaganda

| March 3, 2023

When Russia launched its unprovoked attack on Ukraine in February 2022, it started another parallel battle: the war for hearts and minds. Domestically, Russia had to justify its actions to its citizens and — where possible — find sympathy abroad. In its bid to win over onlookers, Russia is turning to the crudest forms of disinformation, deliberately distorting evidence for its own benefit.

Russia’s war on Ukraine offers ample evidence of state propaganda and high levels of disinformation. Broadly, it’s been successful. Even if precise percentages are hard to ascertain, evidence on hand suggests that many Russians who regularly watch state television, especially those over 45, tend to accept the Kremlin’s justifications for the war.

For counter-disinformation efforts to succeed, understanding why people buy into state propaganda is essential.

In the first three months following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and following directly from a recently completed substantive research project,  University of Manchester researchers monitored two Russian domestic television channels and RT, the state’s international broadcaster, daily, and tracked key developments in the subsequent six months. They also monitored some Russian-language channels on YouTube and Telegram — the main global social media platforms with unrestricted access within Russia — set by anti-war activists to bust disinformation.

The findings shed light on how disinformation and counter-disinformation work and interact. Those in charge of producing Russian state propaganda appreciate what media studies scholars have been demonstrating for a long time: people often do not remember the exact details or facts of media coverage of events, instead recalling how they felt about what they watched, heard or read.

Disinformation works best when claims the propagandist wants to disseminate are made as part of broader stories that feel true to their target audiences. Such ‘feel-true’ sentiment can be stimulated by stories which tap into deep-rooted senses of collective identity and particular representations of national history, reinforced over long periods of time. American sociologist Arlie Hochschild aptly described such accounts as “deep stories”. ‘Deep stories’ based on the manipulation of history and a sense of collective identity have dominated Russian state media coverage of the war.

‘Deep stories’ resonate with audiences when they are securely grounded in the cultural, linguistic and political contexts from which they emerge. Russian state propagandists’ appreciation of this nuance is reflected in differences between war coverage on domestic Russian television and by the internationally-facing RT.

The treatment of imperialism, which varies between broadcasters, is a clear case in point. For older Russians who regularly watch domestic television, depicting the US and its allies as an imperialistic force that wants to colonise Russia and Ukraine sounds familiar and reassuring. The often-repeated cliché ‘the bestial face of American imperialism’ goes back to the Soviet period.

But accompanying this predictable treatment of imperialism in Russian domestic television coverage of the war is another, less obvious, interpretation of imperialism: Russia itself is also represented as an imperial power.

Following the collapse of the USSR in 1991, Russia’s imperial and colonial legacies have barely been interrogated in official state discourse. Under Russian President Vladimir Putin, the country’s imperial history has featured very positively in this discourse.

Domestic coverage of the war has framed Russian imperialism as a force for good, using imperial lexicon from the 19th century, such as the ‘triune Russian nation’ — an umbrella term for ethnic Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians and the term ‘historical Russia’ which was applied to the entire territory of the imperial state under the tsars.

Appreciating that overt glorification of imperialism would find little sympathy abroad, RT’s main Anglophone service, RT International, has stuck to criticising the US. RT International pushes a narrative that justifies the war on grounds that Russia is defending Ukraine (and themselves) from US-led Western imperialism.

The ‘deep stories’ on RT specifically exploit negative sentiments towards US and Western foreign policies prevalent in Africa, East Asia, Latin America and the Middle East, as well as among some left-wing Western audiences.

At the same time, RT, like other Russian propaganda tools, courts right-wing audiences in the West by linking its justifications of the war with attacks on the current ‘liberal order’ and ‘cancel culture’. The various efforts made by RT appear to have had some success.

Despite Western bans, RT International and some of RT’s other language services (particularly RT French, now targeting Africa, and Spanish, which targets Latin America) managed to grow its audiences in the first six months of the war according to yet-to-be-published University of Manchester research, even if RT’s artificial inflation of audience figures makes it hard to pin down by how much.

Russophone counter-disinformation activists appreciate the impact of ‘deep stories’. On Telegram and YouTube, fact-checking Russian state propaganda claims takes second place to articulating and disseminating counter-narratives which are themselves grounded in national identity and history.

Here, the notions of Russian imperialism and colonialism are accorded a negative meaning. YouTube channels by such prominent Putin critics as journalists Evgeniya Albats and Igor Yakovenko depict the war as ‘the last act of Russian imperialism’ presaging the potential break-up of the Russian Federation.

On oppositional Telegram channels, posts titled ‘the Russian World’ include images that depict the Russian army’s destruction of Ukrainian settlements and people, or the ruinous state of Russia’s own towns. By sarcastically inverting the irredentist term used in official Russian discourse under Putin to represent Russian imperialism as a benign force, war critics counter state disinformation less by correcting false claims than by re-interpreting the ‘deep stories’ in which those falsehoods are embedded and which lend them credence.

State propaganda enhances disinformation’s persuasive capacities by embedding false narratives in stories that exploit people’s deep-seated perceptions of themselves as a group. Russia deploys these stories differently depending on the context.

But the fight back isn’t centred around fact-checking, rather it’s a battle to challenge and subvert the familiar deep stories that are bringing legitimacy to false facts.

This article was written by Vera Tolz, the Sir William Mather Professor of Russian Studies at the University of Manchester; and Stephen Hutchings, another Professor of Russian Studies at the same institution.   Originally published under Creative Commons by 360info™.