Image: Advent Spiral, Adobe Stock
Tow Center

Q&A: How does propaganda work? One Russian scholar is probing the power of Putin’s disinformation regime

November 7, 2023
Image: Advent Spiral, Adobe Stock

“Who controls the past, controls the future: who controls the present, controls the past…”

One cannot encounter The Commissar Vanishes – a photobook by the British author-designer David King – without reflecting on Orwell’s oft-repeated quote about control. King’s remarkable study reveals how scalpel and airbrush were used to erase the high-profile victims of Joseph Stalin from the visual record. 

Killing these men was not enough – any trace of their existence had to be swept away too. 

But do deceptions like these actually work? Did people simply forget that Stalin’s former comrades existed – or that “Uncle Joe” had a closer relationship with Lenin than he did in reality – just because the regime edited a few photographs? A century later, similar questions arise about the power and plausibility of propaganda under Vladimir Putin – another leader who uses misleading historical narratives to justify cruelty and oppression in the present. When the Kremlin claims to be fighting against Nazis in Ukraine – or denies involvement in the conveniently-timed death of Yevgeny Prigozhin, the man who had recently led an armed rebellion against the regime – do the Russian people believe it? 

These questions are central to the work of Dr. Anton Shirikov, a political scientist at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute who specializes in propaganda and misinformation. This is a subject that Shirikov knows first-hand, having worked as a journalist in Russia before turning to academia. Russia remains the central focus of Shirikov’s research, which surveys how state propaganda is targeted at specific audiences and, crucially, the impact of this content on their beliefs and behavior. 

As a new information war rages in the Middle East, Tow talked with Dr. Shirikov about his research and its implications for understanding propaganda and disinformation today – in Russia, in Ukraine, and across the globe.

Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

SA: It seems that much of your research is focused on testing assumptions about the power of propaganda and its impact on different audiences…

AS: Yes, most research on propaganda tries to understand what propaganda wants to do by looking at the content and trying to guess what the people who designed it were trying to achieve. I’m trying to understand how people perceive propaganda – how they react – and to what extent you can actually influence people. 

Would you say there is a tendency to overestimate the power of propaganda to motivate audiences to do specific things?

I think so. We often think about propaganda as being very powerful because there’s this whole apparatus, especially in regimes where governments control the media. There’s a lot of resources poured into it. And we tend to think that since there’s a lot of resources invested into it, then it must be effective and it must change what people think. But one of the puzzles I’m looking at is the extent to which regimes can change what citizens think…

There sometimes seems to be a view – at least in the West – that the Russian people are especially susceptible to this type of state-driven propaganda; perhaps as a result of the collective experience during the Soviet era. Does your research bear this out?

So that’s one perspective; since a lot of people in Russia seem to be okay with Putin and what his regime does, then it must be that they are brainwashed by propaganda. Another perspective, which also goes back to the Soviet era, is that Russian people are actually very resistant to propaganda because they have a lot of experience with it. When someone lies to you over and over again you learn to recognize the lies; so the idea is that propaganda taught people to be more discerning and more critical. What my research shows is that it’s somewhere in the middle! Russians are not really that different from people in most other countries. They are often susceptible to misinformation, but that’s true for people everywhere, including in the United States. 

You have described the relationship between public opinion and propaganda as a “feedback loop…”

Yes. This is not really a new idea; if you want information to be believed, you need to appeal to something that people already deeply believe in – something that people hold dear. And so you design propaganda messages to build on those existing beliefs. For example, many Russians share the memory of World War Two and the strong sense of pride, nostalgic feelings for a time when Russia was victorious and heroic. The post-Soviet Russian authorities really built on this sentiment.

There was not much for them to exploit except this shared belief in Russia’s victory in the past and so they use this to sell news stories about how, according to them, the West is still trying to destroy Russia. But now, Nazi Germany becomes not just Germany, but a representation of the West in general. By gradually adding more and more over the years, the regime managed to create this new narrative. For example, it focused specifically on Nazi collaborators who were in Ukraine, portraying Ukraine as part of a Nazi movement. At the same time, Kremlin propaganda built on Ukraine’s movement towards the West and its interest in becoming a western-style democracy. And so, if you combine lots of these things together, you can create an impression that the Ukrainian government sympathizes with Nazis – which, of course, is completely absurd. But since there are these foundations which the Russian public already believed, the regime could construct this narrative, and now it doesn’t seem so absurd to the public. 

Is there a risk for Putin’s regime that they are making claims that are so implausible that they get  ridiculed, potentially in ways that undermine the power of the state to shape public opinion? 

I don’t think that propaganda has to necessarily stick to a very particular narrative. The public is not monolithic. Some people believe that Ukrainians are Nazis. Some others just think that Ukrainians are being duped by the West. For the regime it’s about pushing different narratives that could appeal to different parts of the public and seeing what sticks. For example, last summer Russia bombed a cathedral in Odesa and tried to blame it on Ukrainians. They said it was Ukrainian air defenses working badly, and they brought up some experts to explain why it couldn’t have been Russia that did it. They needed to provide some sort of alternative justification. But if they say something that is too unbelievable then sometimes they just backtrack or hope people forget about it. Given the amount of propaganda on television – and online and social media – it’s fairly easy to replace something that didn’t work at a particular moment with something else. 

It’s interesting that you mentioned that cathedral incident because we’re currently seeing a similar situation regarding responsibility for the bombing of the Al-Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza City. Are you seeing many parallels between the information warfare playing out with the Israel-Palestine conflict and Russia-Ukraine? 

From an outsider’s point of view I have the sense there are similarities. There are two sides who are actively pushing their perspectives. Another similarity between the two conflicts is that a lot falls on pre-existing beliefs. If you think that Israel is in the right, then you will say, well, they couldn’t possibly have done the hospital blast. If you think that Palestine is right then you could say the same thing but in reverse. Similar things are happening with Ukraine and Russia. Russia has influence in various developing countries across the world – mostly because of the Soviet assistance provided – and so it’s easier for them to take Russia’s side and believe their claims. Whereas, of course, lots of people in the West – not all of them, but many people – are predetermined to take Ukraine’s side because they know what Russia is capable of doing, and because they’ve seen Russia as an enemy for quite a while.

You previously worked as a journalist in Russia. How have your personal experiences shaped your academic work?

It was the motivation to start studying propaganda because when I worked as a journalist I was constantly frustrated. I worked for major media outlets in Russia, which produced a lot of investigative content – a lot of news content –  but only a very small minority of Russian people were interested in the work of our outlets or other independent media. There was a small group of people who followed these media, but everyone else just didn’t care. This was a motivation for me when I started doing my research; trying to understand what’s behind this indifference. 

And I think it’s a combination of two things. So, on the one hand, the state has lots of resources. And if you have pushed independent journalists out of television – and lots of Russian people still watch television – then you control the narrative. But on the other hand, lots of Russians are online and so another part of this is that people don’t want to hear anything bad; or, that they don’t want to hear certain bad things about Russia. Some people don’t want to hear about the rights of minorities and political prisoners. Others don’t want to hear about Russia bombing Ukraine, of course. They don’t want to hear about certain things being better in the West than in Russia. And that’s what independent media was mostly focusing on. I think that most Russians are just not interested in this kind of news. They may even be upset or angered by it, thinking that independent media are actually biased against Russia and that it is hostile propaganda.

How do you conduct research like this in Russia? Has your work become more difficult over time, given the war in Ukraine and Putin’s renewed clampdown on any opposition?

Most of my work is online surveys. Some of it was previously in-person, but that’s too risky now for everyone. But my research doesn’t aim to document the general public opinion amongst Russians. I wasn’t interested in how many people support Putin or how many people support the war. I was more interested in what kinds of information they find plausible and what kinds of information they find less plausible.

Right now, online surveys are basically the only way for us to investigate this. Remember that saying certain critical things is punishable by jail time. So if someone calls you or comes to your door and asks you to answer sensitive questions, you probably would be very cautious about it. Online surveys are better right now, because at least people are answering these surveys anonymously. There is some degree of protection for them. It’s not completely bulletproof – and people are still conscious about the whole regime of repression – but at the moment it’s the only way for us to do this work.

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The Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism, a partner of CJR, is a research center exploring the ways in which technology is changing journalism, its practice and its consumption — as we seek new ways to judge the reliability, standards, and credibility of information online.

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