Who is Russian propaganda for?

Two days ago, Russian forces bombed a maternity hospital in the Ukrainian city of Mariupol, killing at least three people, one of them a child, and trapping others under the rubble. Yesterday, the Twitter account of Russia’s embassy in the UK claimed that photos showing victims of the attack actually depicted actors, including a popular Ukrainian beauty blogger, with fake injuries—a textbook example of the “crisis actor” conspiracy that will be familiar to followers of far-right discourse in the US. Russian state media and government officials amplified similar claims, though other officials, confusingly, said that the facts weren’t clear yet. Twitter eventually took down the embassy’s tweet, citing a violation of its policies around the denial of violent events. Facebook took similar action against a post on its platform.

Russia has pumped out industrial quantities of war propaganda since it invaded Ukraine, and this was not the first time that Western social-media companies had moved to block it: Twitter and Facebook previously took steps to limit the spread of posts by state-aligned Russian media outlets; Google booted Russian state media outlets from its News service, while Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and TikTok said that they would all block access to the state broadcasters RT and Sputnik in Europe. The latter moves followed a comprehensive European Union ban on the broadcasters, not just on member states’ airwaves but via social media and search engines, too. (RT’s French affiliate is currently challenging the ban at a European court.) The EU ban had the effect of knocking RT off the air in Brexited Britain as well. TV providers in the US and Canada removed the channel from their bundles. Last week, RT America said that it would cease production and lay off most of its staff.

Related: Russia’s diminishing information access

The deplatforming sparked a debate in Western countries as to whether it was the sort of thing that democracies should be doing, with one European journalists group warning that stifling media of any description is a slippery slope. It also sparked a debate as to the effectiveness of Russian war propaganda, and the demand for it—a crucial part of the calculus when discussing curbs on its supply. The Washington Post’s Jason Rezaian drew on his experience as a target of Iranian state disinformation (he was jailed in the country for over a year) to argue that exposure to propaganda can inadvertently help reveal the truth of how an adversary is thinking. He also noted that RT didn’t reach that many people in the West anyway. Nieman Lab’s Joshua Benton reported that the channel’s online reach in Europe appears to be low and that it has had to pay cable providers to carry it in the US; it appears to do better at attracting engagement on social media, but these metrics can be easy to misinterpret, not to mention manipulate. (One 2020 study found that RT’s Twitter followers are “far more likely to be bots” than the average user.)

State media, of course, is only one arm of Russia’s propaganda apparatus; the Mariupol crisis-actor lie and others have been spread online by official and very unofficial accounts alike. But the success of Russia’s international information war around the invasion has also been questioned in more sweeping ways. Disinformation experts told The Atlantic’s Charlie Warzel this week that, so far at least, “Russia’s online propaganda and influence apparatus is not nearly as sophisticated or effective with non-Russian audiences as many thought.”

There’s a lot to unpack here, and—as always with the spread of disinformation—we can’t reach many clean conclusions. In addition to being hard to accurately gauge, the size of the Western appetite for Russian propaganda is only one part of the equation; as Benton put it, “RT doesn’t need a huge audience to be influential—only the right one.” Nor is this solely a Western question, of course: Chinese state media has so far consistently amplified Kremlin propaganda, including by aggregating directly from RT, and Russia has also pushed disinformation into Africa and across the Spanish-speaking world. Then there is the crucial matter of Russia itself. If the primary audience for Putin’s war propaganda is domestic, then that sphere, too, is home to its own murky, yet crucial, debate around the targeting of disinformation and its intended recipients.

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Since before the invasion began, Putin’s regime has blanketed Russia’s airwaves with blatant lies about crisis actors, false flags, and Ukrainian—and broader Western—aggression and Nazism, all while obliterating the last vestiges of the country’s free press. One common school of thought among Western commentators has held that this domestic propaganda push is destined to fail, at least in the long run: the economic pain of Western sanctions, the argument often goes, will ultimately prove more potent than Putin’s lies, while younger Russians, in particular, have grown too accustomed to the open exchange of ideas online to be denied it now, and are already using VPNs and other tools to circumvent government blocks. As Politico’s Jack Shafer put it in one such column, “Putin mistakenly thinks it’s 1955 and that media suppression can douse inconvenient information.” The Daily Beast’s Julia Davis wrote yesterday that the truth of the war already appears to be slipping through state-media cracks, with some guests warning of the economic pain and calling for the war to end.

But here, too, the picture is crowded and unclear. When MSNBC’s Ali Velshi put it to Ian Bremmer, of the Eurasia Group, that Russians would eventually be hit so hard in the pocket as to make Putin’s war propaganda untenable, Bremmer predicted that “most people” would not see things this way. “The majority of the population is overwhelmingly fed information through state media, and that’s television, it’s newspapers; it’s not digital,” Bremmer said. “The level of support from Putin has historically been exceptionally strong among this group, and it’s going to continue to be.” Polling recently conducted by a Russian opposition grouping found that of the nearly sixty percent of respondents who said they support the war, a strong majority also trust official media. Older Russians, who grew up without independent media, were most likely to be supportive.

Seeking some clarity, I put this debate to Ann Cooper, who covered the waning days of the Soviet Union for NPR and has since studied Russian media. In a 2020 report for Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, Cooper cited surveys showing a growing age gap in state TV viewership, though Denis Volkov, of the Levada Center research group, cautioned that media-consumption habits in Russia were changing “very slowly.” From today’s standpoint, the future for Russia looks bleaker than it did two years ago, not least for independent news outlets. Cooper told me that she doesn’t think consumers of online news are suddenly going to switch on state TV and change their perspective. Conversely, however, she also referred me to a point that Irina Borogan, a Russian journalist, made to the Committee to Protect Journalists last week: that “propaganda will always stick with the people who want to hear it and don’t care to verify what they are hearing,” and that “there are a lot of these people.”

Russia, ultimately, is a huge country and its society is not a monolith; if recent reports out of the country have given contradictory impressions of public sentiment—with thousands of Russians protesting in the streets while others have reportedly rejected even their own relatives’ accounts of life under bombardment in Ukraine—it’s because they can obviously all be true at once. Thanks to Putin’s media clampdown and mass arrests, anti-war sentiment and truth-telling are both increasingly perilous. Indeed, it seems to me that Putin is not trying to convince the entire Russian populace of his lies as much as solidifying his legitimacy with his supporters while silencing his critics. As the war goes on, it’s vital that we try to understand what his propagandists are saying, who they’re trying to say it to, and to what end—as therein will lie key clues as to his intentions and domestic standing. Nor should we assume that Russian news consumers will eventually reject lies in response to rational cues. That’s not how propaganda works anywhere.

Back on the international stage, it’s not clear that the Putin regime cares all that much about believability as it lies its way through attack after attack; we might be dealing, here, more with talking points, even cruel trolling. Yesterday, MSNBC’s Stephanie Ruhle asked Jack Crosbie, a journalist who was recently on the ground in Ukraine, about Russia’s Mariupol lies. Crosbie noted that the Kremlin seems mostly to be trying to assert some form of plausible deniability. “It doesn’t matter to their aims whether or not people believe that they’re doing this or not,” Crosbie said. “The violence is the goal. The fear is the goal. The terror is the goal. And they’re extraordinarily effective at creating those conditions, which we can all see.”

Below, more on Russia and its war:

  • Taking flight: Teen Vogue’s Fortesa Latifi spoke with Grigori, a pseudonymous Russian photojournalist who traveled to Ukraine to document the war but said that his Russian passport made him feel unsafe. “I easily had all the chances to be persecuted as a traitor to the nation. I realized it was time to leave Kyiv when we saw the news and footage of the government giving ammunition and rifles to every local who wanted it,” Grigori said. He is now working on a new media project in Lithuania and trying to move his parents to Europe, too, since he fears for their safety in Russia.
  • On Facebook: Yesterday, Reuters published a story with the headline, “Facebook and Instagram to temporarily allow calls for violence against Russians.” As CNN’s Brian Stelter notes, this was misleading; the platforms have actually, in the words of a spokesperson, made a “temporary exception” allowing “those affected by war to express violent sentiments toward invading armed forces such as ‘death to the Russian invaders.’” The platforms continue to prohibit “calls for violence against Russians outside of the narrow context of the current invasion.” (Reuters updated its headline.)
  • MythTok: The Atlantic’s Kaitlyn Tiffany pushed back on the narrative, recently popular among US news organizations, that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is “the first TikTok war.” The web “incentivizes quickly assembled narratives—ideas you can prove with a fistful of links—and each new war of the internet age has thus been dutifully described as the first of its kind, the first to be associated with the latest trend in digital media,” Tiffany writes. “This is sort of tasteless, but also, because we live in a time during which media formats are iterating faster and faster, a little arbitrary.”
  • A correction: On Wednesday, Prince William was roundly criticized after he was reported as saying that it feels “very alien” to witness war in Europe, unlike in Asia and Africa. Video of the remarks later showed that while William did say that war in Europe feels alien, he did not make the Asia and Africa comparison, leading numerous news organizations to issue corrections, including the British wire service that first reported it.


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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.

TOP IMAGE: Ukrainian emergency employees and volunteers carry an injured pregnant woman from a maternity hospital that was damaged by shelling in Mariupol, Ukraine, Wednesday, March 9, 2022. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)