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Table of Contents Show
- Part One. What is Propaganda (Understanding the Term and Basic Techniques)
- Part Two. How propaganda emerged (briefly for history enthusiasts)
- Part Three. What constitutes modern Russian propaganda – and what are its characteristics?
- Part four. Why does propaganda use conspiracy theories?
- Part Five. Why do people seem to lose their minds because of propaganda
- Part six. How to talk to “propaganda victims”
Hello, my name is Dmitry Sidorov.
I am a Russian journalist who has been working for “Takie Dela” for the past several years. Before that, I worked for “Kommersant” and “Russian Planet” during a period when the owners of the publication did not interfere with its work.
But not only that. I also worked in propaganda media – for example, in the “new style” Lenta.ru and on the “360” TV channel, which was created at the initiative of the then governor of the Moscow region, Boris Gromov. So I know firsthand what censorship and propaganda are.
Seven years ago, I prepared a text for publication in Colta about former and current employees of federal television channels. It quickly became resonant – its heroes candidly told how Russian state propaganda works from the inside.
For this article, which you are about to read, I will describe everything I know about propaganda in general and in Russia in particular. How does it work? Why do people believe in it? And is it really true that we – those who do not watch TV – are immune to it?
In the text you are about to read, there are over 37,000 characters and it will take you about 25 minutes to read it.
The material consists of six parts.
In the first part, we explain what propaganda is (in several definitions) and also tell about classical propaganda techniques. The second part is for history lovers; you will learn that propaganda in one form or another has always existed, but there were periods when it developed particularly actively. The third part is devoted to modern Russian propaganda and its features. The fourth will tell how Russian propagandists use conspiracy theories for their purposes – and why they need it. In the fifth part, with the help of experts, we try to answer why people seem to have gone crazy because of propaganda. And finally, the sixth part consists of advice on how to communicate with those people who you consider “victims of propaganda”.
Since the beginning of the war, the Russian authorities have significantly increased spending on state media. According to statistics from the Ministry of Finance, compared to the same period last year, this has increased by three times to 17.4 billion rubles. The majority of this amount, 11.9 billion rubles, was allocated in March when the war was in full swing.
If you start watching TV on a regular basis, you will immediately see where these funds are being spent: information-political programs on Russian TV have literally taken over the airwaves, squeezing out everything else.
For example, popular entertainment shows such as “Let’s Get Married” and “Fashion Verdict” have moved to the late night slot on Channel One, giving way to endless talk shows about Ukraine and its “de-nazification” during the daytime. Another example is Alexander Smol, who used to host the show “Seen on Video” (which showed funny Internet videos, mostly about pets) before the war, and was hastily reassigned to a new show called “Anti-fake“. As the name suggests, it exposes “anti-Russian fakes”.
At the same time, the broadcasts of the leading personalities who did not speak out during the war – Ivan Urgant’s “Evening Urgant” and Vladimir Pozner’s “Pozner” – were removed from the air (supposedly temporarily). And Maxim Galkin, who openly criticized the invasion of Ukraine, will be replaced by Nikolai Tsiskaridze in the upcoming episode of the show “Tonight” dedicated to May 9th.
As of the end of April, the top 10 most popular (according to Mediascope) TV programs look like this: “Vesti” at 8:00 pm (Russia 1), “Vesti Nedeli” (Russia 1), “Mestnoye Vremya” (Russia 1), “Itogi Nedeli with Irada Zeynalova” (Russia 1), “Moscow. Kremlin. Putin” (Russia 1), “Mask” (NTV, an analog of the show “The Voice”), “Nachalnik Razvedki” (Channel One; a series about military intelligence officers), and “Vremya” (Channel One).
Propaganda is pouring out not only from television screens, but also from telegram channels and chats in WhatsApp, from the pages of paper newspapers and online media, from YouTube, slowed down Twitter, and somehow working TikTok in Russia. Perhaps there is no medium in the country that has not been infected by it. Russian propaganda has truly blossomed – making another quantitative leap in development. It influences everyone – and your life too, even if you don’t watch TV.
Experts helped understand how modern propaganda works and why it affects people. Robert English is a researcher of former USSR and Yugoslavia, an associate professor of the School of International Relations and Defense Analysis at the University of Southern California. Nick Cull is a British-American historian of mass communications and co-author of the book “Propaganda and Persuasion: Historical Encyclopedia”. Tamara Eidelman is a historian and author of the book “How Propaganda Works”. Ksenia Larina is a television critic and co-author of the program “Man from the TV” which aired on Echo of Moscow radio station. Ilya Yablokov is a candidate of historical sciences and author of the book “Russian Culture of Conspiracy”. Alexey Titkov is a sociologist and an associate professor of the Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences. There is also a former employee of one of the political talk shows on NTV who wished to remain anonymous.
Part One. What is Propaganda (Understanding the Term and Basic Techniques)
The word “propaganda” has hundreds of definitions, and there is no single “canonical” one that most scholars refer to.
For example, media researcher Grigory Asmolov prefers the definition offered by his colleagues from Harvard University who published the book “Network Propaganda”. According to him, propaganda is the use of manipulations with information in order to change a person’s relationship with the surrounding world. The propagandist thus pursues a specific goal and seeks to influence the behavior of the audience to achieve it.
Another media researcher, Nikolay Chikishev, a candidate of philological sciences, provides another definition. Propaganda, he says, is “an organized attempt to influence the beliefs or actions of a mass audience or to shape its attitude towards a particular topic through communications.” And in addition, it is also a set of methods by which “adequate, informed, reflexive judgment of the individual” is suppressed.
Historian Nick Call defines propaganda in conversation with Kit as a form of political communication that necessarily includes “exaggerations, distortions, additions to reality, and selectivity in the presentation of information.” Call emphasizes the word “political” – because propaganda needs to be separated from, for example, advertising. Advertising also exaggerates and distorts, but with a different goal – to sell.
Propaganda is often confused with agitation, but these are different concepts. The goal of agitation is to induce rapid action (for example, to vote for a specific candidate). Propaganda, on the other hand, shapes self-awareness so that over time people themselves make “correct” decisions.
As advertising and agitation, propaganda is a mass thing. “If my son keeps quiet about grades in certain school subjects and only shows good ones, he misleads me. But you can’t call him a propagandist, right? A lie in a conversation between two people and propaganda are as different as a street fight and a war,” adds Call.
Another interviewee, researcher Robert Inglish, emphasizes that propaganda does not necessarily spread directly by the state. It can be used by social movements, political parties, including non-systemic ones, social and religious groups – the internet allows them to reach a variety of audiences.
“And yet,” says English, “the most powerful propaganda is that of the state, which uses all its media power for it. But do not think that propaganda information is spread only in the media – it is also in the education system. “I grew up in California in the 50s and 60s – and I never heard about the destruction of the indigenous population of the United States from the school program, rarely – about slavery. This is also propaganda in its classical understanding – but in America we never called it that. It was called ‘patriotic education’,” recalls the scientist.
What techniques does propaganda use? There are dozens, if not hundreds. The New York Institute of Propaganda Analysis identified seven basic ones. This classification was developed as early as the 1930s, but since then the techniques have not changed significantly. Each of them is a rhetorical device that can be used not only by propagandists, but also by ordinary people (for example, during an argument). These same techniques are actively used in agitation.
We will mainly talk about propaganda techniques using examples of statements made by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
- “Emotional generalization“. Charged formulas are pronounced that, through generalizations, allow one to influence the emotions of the audience. For example, when Putin, with tears in his eyes, declares at a rally in his support that “we won in an open and honest fight” – this is it.
- “Labeling“. An offensive and derogatory nickname is invented for an ideological enemy or opponent. In the winter of 2011, when Putin was the Prime Minister, he compared the participants of the street protests to “banderlogs” (fictional people of monkeys from Rudyard Kipling’s “The Jungle Book”). This word has been attached to opposition-minded citizens for a long time. “Neo-Nazis”, “drug addicts” and other words that Putin uses in relation to the leaders of Ukraine in the current war are the same labels.
- “Van with orchestra.” The necessary thesis is presented as a generally accepted opinion. Putin used this technique a few days before the invasion of Ukraine. In his video address to the Russian people, he said, “Residents of the southwestern historical ancient Russian lands have long called themselves Russians… It seems to us that, in principle, we all know this, that we are talking about well-known facts.”
- “Playing with the people.” Demonstrating that the speaker and their audience (or some abstract “people”) think the same way, using the same expressions. When Putin inserts proverbs, popular jokes, and phrases into his speeches, he is using this technique. In mid-March he said this about the “collective West”: “They once again want to try to squeeze us, press us, as they say in the people, ‘drive us behind the Mozhai.'”
- “Appeal to authorities“. Referring to the words of celebrities or experts to confirm one’s own statements – or even directly involving these people in their political activities. In 2012, actress Chulpan Khamatova appeared in a video stating: “There is nothing more important in our lives than the health of children. Vladimir Putin has never been indifferent to all the requests of the ‘Gift of Life’ foundation and the doctors whom the foundation supports. All promises made by Vladimir Putin to the ‘Gift of Life’ foundation have always been fulfilled.”
- “Transfer“. The opponent or opponent is deliberately associated with something very negative, while oneself – on the contrary. Over the 22 years of Vladimir Putin’s rule, propaganda has tightly tied his personality to stability and victory, while the liberal opposition – to the “wild nineties” and devastation.
- “Merging the cards“. A technique in which mistakes are silenced and merits (or what the propagandist wants to portray as such) are highlighted. In the current war, propaganda often presents isolated military successes as turning points that will soon lead to victory (as was the case with the breakthrough of the Russian airborne assault to the airport in Hostomel near Kiev).
In addition, two emotional components can easily be discerned in state propaganda, says researcher Robert English. The first is “positive”, promising people prosperity and stability. The second element is fear: we may be attacked; enemies threaten our prosperity with economic sanctions; they threaten our values by imposing their corrupt views on life; they even threaten our very existence. The second element of propaganda, according to English, has a stronger impact on people.
Hate propaganda is part of the fear element. “You can’t throw around intimidating phrases about external threats if you don’t identify the source of that threat, don’t associate it with a particular group of people – or, as is happening now in Russia, with a particular nation. NATO missiles and the ‘homosexual culture of the West’ threatening traditional values are one thing. But when you can clearly name who is directing these missiles and through whom this culture is penetrating us, that’s a whole different story. This is the strongest propaganda of all,” Inglish believes.
Part Two. How propaganda emerged (briefly for history enthusiasts)
It is often claimed that propaganda emerged along with printing, and developed alongside mass media (newspapers, radio, television and the internet). But, according to Call, this is a mistake: propaganda has existed throughout human history, “it has always been and always will be.”
Signs of propaganda can indeed be found in the earliest periods of history. For example, Egyptian pharaohs effectively propagandized their divinity through priests. Julius Caesar, for his part, ensured media support for his power through the official news bulletin Acta diurna founded by him.
One of the first descriptions of methods similar to propaganda is contained in the treatise “Arthashastra”. This ancient Indian manual for kings was written in the 4th century BC. In the chapter devoted to espionage, kings are given several pieces of advice. Firstly, to inflame rumors on enemy territory. Secondly, to bribe and coax those enemies who can be easily persuaded to their side, while pointing out the faults of their own king to the rest. Thirdly, to command predictors, astrologers, and readers of sacred hymns to carry the message of the divine origin of their troops and the wealth of their ruler to enemy territory.
Truthfully, the word “propaganda” did not exist then, it appeared much later. It is believed that for the first time it began to be used in the 16th century, to denote efforts to spread religious knowledge – the head of the Catholic order of Jesuits, Ignatius of Loyola, wrote about the necessity of propagating Catholicism in his works. The term caught on, and Pope Gregory XIII created the Commission for the Propagation of the Faith (de propaganda fide).
However, apparently, the word existed before – but was used in a different sense. American professor and PhD Erwin Fellows wrote in his 1959 article that before the 16th century, “the word propaganda (including its derivatives) was a Latin term used only in biology in connection with the reproduction of animals and plants“.
Interestingly, for a long time, the word propaganda did not carry a negative connotation. It only meant “means by which a follower of a political or religious belief convinced non-believers to accept it” and “had a worthy and elevated meaning,” according to American writer and journalist Will Irwin. Everything changed during the First World War when the word “began to be used to cover outright lies.” Then, the governments of some participating countries organized massive propaganda campaigns in order to convince everyone of the righteousness of their actions, win the support of non-combatant states, and undermine the enemy’s fighting spirit.
During the interwar period, it became evident that propaganda could exist outside of religion and armed conflict, as well as without any involvement of the state. The National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP), which arose as a grassroots movement, actively utilized propaganda long before seizing power. The party published a propaganda newspaper called the Völkischer Beobachter (“National Observer”), the purpose of which, as openly stated by Hitler, was to “upset people, even spur them on”.
The Nazis used unusual carriers for propaganda, such as money. During the hyperinflation years, caricatures of Jews were drawn on the back of banknotes to associate them with the economic collapse. With the arrival of Joseph Goebbels in the party in 1930, NSDAP propaganda began to rise. In the very first year of his rise to power, Hitler created the Imperial Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, which Goebbels headed.
“Thus, the needs of politicians and the technical possibilities of the 20th century took propaganda to a fundamentally new level, making it truly mass, says historian Tamara Eidelman in a conversation with Kit. “Caesar addressed a fairly narrow circle of people. The Chinese emperor did not perceive the peasant as an object that needed to be convinced. And in the 20th century, due to the development of technology, a strange thing happened – even the most repulsive dictator knows that everyone needs to be processed,” says Eidelman.”
Over time, there have been more ways of propagating propaganda, and the advent of the internet has made it all-encompassing. A significant role in this has been played by the widespread dissemination of visual content – photographs and videos – which “always make the strongest impression,” emphasizes Edelman.
“The feeling that it’s better to see once than hear seven times is in each of us. And the internet provides incredible opportunities for manipulation,” she summarizes.
Part Three. What constitutes modern Russian propaganda – and what are its characteristics?
Modern Russian propaganda is largely based on Soviet propaganda methods (more about them can be read in numerous sources, for example, in this scientific article, and also in this one). And yet, it is a self-contained mechanism with its own distinctive features.
In 2016, Christopher Paul and Miriam Matthews, scientific researchers from the American research company RAND, described a model of modern Russian propaganda. They called it the “fire hose of falsehoods.”
Paul and Matyuz identify several characteristic features of this “hose”: in their opinion, Russian propaganda is “operational, continuous, illogical, and uses the principle of repeated repetition.” The researchers recognize that the Russian model is successful. It effectively operates both “through direct persuasion” and by “confusing, entangling, as well as undermining and discrediting truthful reports and messages.”
The authors of the study note that in its current form, the “fire hose of falsehood” began to take shape in 2008, when Russia invaded Georgia. However, this was preceded by years of targeted actions by the authorities to restrict media freedom in the country. “Propaganda is directly linked to the restriction of media freedoms,” says Nick Call. “In order to impose a certain viewpoint on the population, it is necessary to control all streams of information. Some must be withheld, while others must be amplified,” explains the expert.
Attempts at such control have been undertaken by the current Russian authorities from the very beginning. On August 12, 2000, the nuclear submarine “Kursk” sank on the 97th day of Vladimir Putin’s first presidential term. 10 days after this happened, the president met with the relatives of the deceased sailors. Journalists were also present at the meeting, but they were forbidden to turn on their recording devices. Shortly after, journalist Sergei Dorenko criticized the actions of the authorities and personally the president on the air of the ORT TV channel (now – First Channel). After this, Dorenko was fired and his author’s program was cancelled.
Then, the former owner of ORT, Boris Berezovsky, was called to account by the former chief of the presidential administration, Alexander Voloshin. A few months after this meeting, Berezovsky sold 49% of ORT shares to Roman Abramovich. Writer and journalist Mikhail Zygar in his book “All the Kremlin’s Men” calls this chain of events the starting point of Putin’s fight against non-controllable media.
Less than a year later, on the night of April 14, 2001, there was a power change in the leadership of the NTV television channel. According to television critic Ksenia Larina, this was a “sign of the new course taken by the country’s leadership to replace journalism with propaganda.”
At the same time, the second Chechen war was taking place. The coverage of it was supervised by the then Minister of Press (later the initiator of the creation of Russia Today), Mikhail Lesin. It was during the years of the Chechen campaigns that the practice of replacing commonly used words with euphemisms (which many years later turned into a “regime of information favoritism”) was developed. The first Chechen campaign was an “operation to restore constitutional order“, the second was a “counter-terrorism operation“, and the killing of civilians was referred to as “clean-up operations“.
In 2008, Russian propaganda tried its hand at a full-fledged information war accompanying the August conflict in South Ossetia. On August 8, “Argumenty i Fakty,” “Komsomolskaya Pravda,” NTV, and other state-affiliated publications coordinated material about how the Georgian army leveled Tskhinvali to the ground – which means that Russia should immediately intervene in the conflict. As 14 years later, military actions were justified by the need to save lives and protect the Russian-speaking population from genocide. This is how Russian propaganda acquired modern features.
In the following years, the authorities consistently carried out purges in the media market – the saying “links in a f*cked chain” appeared. During the period from 2011 to 2016, at least twelve media outlets became links in this chain, including RBC, Forbes, “Lenta.ru” and “Kommersant”.
Parallel to this, there was a powerful consolidation of Russian propaganda sources, which peaked in 2014 against the backdrop of the annexation of Crimea and armed conflict in the Donbass. “There was an order from the president’s administration that it was enough to show who is more exclusive. Exclusive could only be when someone found the grandmother of one and someone else – the grandfather of the other. But overall, it was a massive flow. Everything became one whole. Different holdings, different shareholders, different media structures. [But] a common propaganda organism appeared,” recalled one former employee of VGTRK in 2015.
Consolidation of sources is a crucial element of modern Russian propaganda. Christopher Paul and Miriam Matthews from RAND indicate that this is a case where quantity turns into quality. The massive broadcast of propaganda narratives simultaneously through many channels attracts attention, expands the audience reach, silences competing rhetoric, and makes people perceive the message as credible.
“The ‘illusory truth effect’ is well studied. People are more likely to perceive a statement as true if they have already heard it before, rather than if it were a completely new message,” the study emphasizes.
Nick Kall believes that if you think about it, many propaganda narratives are quite contradictory. For example, the “collective West” is simultaneously represented as fragmented, debauched by tolerance, and at the same time a powerful global manipulator working in a coordinated manner to weaken and destroy Russia. The hidden message here is “you can’t trust anyone”. “There is no truth. How do you know what is true and what is not? Everyone lies,” describes Kall this theme.
Media researcher Grigory Asmolov also talks about this propaganda effect, but now in conjunction with social networks, where everyone tries to catch each other spreading “fakes.” “There is a formed apathy when a person does not trust anyone at all. Achieving this is one of the goals of propaganda. An internet user who sees that someone is endlessly arguing with someone else has a feeling that no one can be trusted, that all information around is fake. People leave social networks, do not want to participate in anything. Such apathy is the effect of modern propaganda, which reduces risks for the authorities,” he explains.
At the same time, Russian political talk shows, which, as already noted, are now broadcast by federal channels around the clock, are becoming more and more emotional. A former employee of one of these shows on NTV describes to Kit the evolution of Russian television propaganda in recent years. He claims that previously propagandists were still allowed to “play in half-tones” and “gracefully support the opposition”. But a year ago, when politician Alexey Navalny returned to Moscow and was imprisoned, the question arose: “Do we need such propagandists who work in half-tones, if everything can now be solved with the help of a baton from the police?”
Federal channel employees felt it – and began to increase their aggressive rhetoric. “Who needs an ether like what we did – where we gave the floor to [politician Leonid] Gozman, [former State Duma deputy Irina] Khakamada, and [chief editor of the closed radio station “Echo of Moscow” Alexei] Venediktov? Now it’s clear – black, white, and everything,” he says. According to him, in wartime, a propagandist must show his loyalty at any cost – and the more vividly and emotionally you shock the audience, the more loyal you look.
At the same time, any information that contradicts the statements of official authorities and agencies in Russia is criminalized. All of this together creates such a powerful effect. The authorities’ sanctioned representation of war as a salvation “special operation” is transmitted from the maximum number of sources – and this is done very emotionally. Any alternative point of view is practically declared illegal. And contradictions are automatically interpreted in favor of the official line: everyone is lying and no one can be trusted, but what official sources say is at least legal.
Part four. Why does propaganda use conspiracy theories?
Modern Russian propaganda has one more characteristic feature that is not quite obvious – it actively works with conspiracy theories.
Previously, Russian conspiracy television programs – for example, about the Ebola virus being created in the United States as a biological weapon – existed in a marginal status. Igor Prokopenko was primarily responsible for this topic on Russian television, and his films aired late at night on REN TV. However, recently conspiracy theories have become part of the propaganda mainstream. The most vivid example here is the statements of Russian authorities that Ukraine, with the support of the United States, created biological weapons in secret laboratories capable of only affecting Slavs.
The author of the book “Russian Conspiracy Theory” and historian Ilya Yablokov confirms in a conversation that by the beginning of the war with Ukraine, conspiracy theories had merged into Russian propaganda and became an important part of it. He notes that even the propagandist idea that the country supposedly opposes the NATO conspiracy is based on conspiracy theories, as well as the powerful States that control Ukraine and turn it into a springboard for attacking Russia.
According to Yablokov, a significant role in the fact that propaganda began to use conspiracy themes was played by the “pandemic” of 2020. Then, says the historian, the authorities truly faced a huge wave of anti-government, even anti-Kremlin conspiracy theories from so-called anti-vaxxers (i.e. opponents of vaccinations, including for coronavirus).
To win over a part of this audience, propaganda had to absorb conspiracy theories and start broadcasting them. Now those who are interested in this are focused not on exposing “world chipping”, but on the fight against “Ukrainian fascists” and NATO searches, says Yablokov.
Here are some illustrative examples. Doctor and prominent COVID skeptic Semen Galperin has completely switched to war and the “Ukrainian question” on his Facebook page after February 22. Psychologist Natalya Grace, who actively denied the need for vaccination, now makes videos about the machinations of “Western enemies“. And former participant of the reality show “Dom-2” Victoria Bonya calls for the destruction of not 5G towers, but “Chanel” bags as part of the fight against Western sanctions. Moreover, this process is not limited to the Russian information field. The American publication Politico writes about European opponents of vaccination, many of whom now support Russia in the conflict with Ukraine. Among them, for example, is French rapper Booba, who has 5.6 million followers on Twitter.
Yablokov explains that the use of conspiracy theories is certainly not an invention of modern Russian propaganda. Thus, Soviet ideology was largely built on the perception of a conspiracy of capitalist world against the USSR. And in Nazi Germany, the necessity of the extermination of Jews was explained by the fact that they were weaving a conspiracy that hindered the prosperity of the Aryan race. That is, conspiracy theories for propaganda have repeatedly become an auxiliary mobilization tool.
This tool finds a response in the community because at a grassroots level, conspiracy theories are an attempt to understand the complex world. People who have been traumatized by certain events often turn to them. It is precisely the existential stress that prompts them to believe in conspiracy theories, emphasizes Yablokov. And these theories do not become less attractive after the authorities adopt them.
“Conspiracy theories are now simply a certain interpretation of the world, one of the options for reading events. There is nothing religious or esoteric about them. Masons in hats are no longer relevant. Victoria Bonya, who hosts online broadcasts on Instagram about men becoming infertile due to 5G towers, there is no esotericism in this,” Yablokov is convinced. “
At the same time, he believes that flirting with conspiracy theories could turn against the government. The quick victorious war in Ukraine did not occur, and sanctions are ruining the Russian economy. In such a situation, says Yablokov, some opinion leader who declares that Putin is also a US puppet could potentially attract the attention of a large part of the audience that is interested in conspiracy theories.
“The state will have to more actively appropriate all conspiracy theories in order to avoid them, and it appropriates them at a tremendous speed. After all, all accusations of people in propagating “fake news about the Russian army” are also pure conspiracy theory turned into an instrument of repression,” he summarizes.
Part Five. Why do people seem to lose their minds because of propaganda
If you live in Russia, you probably noticed that after the war started, the level of aggression in society has noticeably increased. Debates about politics and war destroy unions and marriages, provoke disunity between even the closest people and make members of families quarrel with each other.
The question arises: why does propaganda affect some people so strongly that they are willing to shout, insult and break relationships while defending its theses? And of course, why are some people susceptible to propaganda while others seem not to be?
Exact answers cannot be given. But researcher Robert English believes that the most grateful audience for any propaganda is “poor, rights-affected, anti-democratic, and xenophobic groups.” According to him, Eric Fromm in his work “Escape from Freedom” analyzed well why this happens. At the heart of the escape that Fromm describes is the individual’s rejection of society with all its complexity, noise, and chaos.
Modern society requires active participation in its life, demands knowledge of politics and economics, processes that are constantly becoming more complex. And in all societies, there are groups that are already overloaded and scared. They want clarity, simplicity and order – effectively rejecting freedom, even if they don’t admit it themselves. Because freedom is demanding and disorderly. And a strong leader, simple solutions and understandable social formulas (such as “stability and prosperity in exchange for non-involvement in politics” – one of the unofficial contracts of the Putin era) free these demands.
Therefore, a large number of media, platforms, and opinions are an uncomfortable environment. “Having your own reflexive opinion in the 21st century is even more difficult than in the 20th century. Literally every pressing issue of society has become a hundred times more complicated. What is inflation, interest rates, global markets, it was already difficult enough to understand. And now you need to understand what blockchain, pipelines, NFT are. This is too much, so people need a propagandistic idea that simply and clearly explains the complex world,” comments Inglish.
Propaganda creates a psychological comfort zone. It is not surprising that a person would prefer to remain in this comfort, even if you begin to prove to them that they are living in a distorted reality, emphasizes Inglish. After all, propaganda gives them support: in the fact that they have a bad relationship with their children; in the fact that they have an unpopular job; in the fact that they are not wealthy. It is difficult to blame oneself for this, it is more comfortable to blame someone else – and this, in general, is a useful feeling for the psyche, recognizes the researcher. This is how a person frees oneself from a sense of guilt and responsibility – and sleeps more peacefully at night.
In turn, a former employee of one of the political propaganda shows on NTV is convinced that “Russian propaganda does not give a person anything that he did not initially want, that was not his deep desire.”
“The ‘victorious’ war in Georgia and the current war in Ukraine arose from a deep demand, which propaganda is oriented towards. It builds on top of it, multiplies it, chews it up and sells it back to the viewer with the hashtag #Putin,” he believes.
At the heart of such a deep demand, he sees nostalgia for the collapsed USSR. But it worked in reverse as well: “Propaganda ‘stirred up’ resentment, from which it itself drew strength, and the political leaders of the propagandists themselves began to believe in the picture of the world they were creating. All of this resulted in an endless closed cycle of increasing aggressive rhetoric.”
At the same time, Nick Hall believes that even a person who is informed about all the dangers of propaganda is not immune to its influence. People, says the historian, overestimate their abilities to determine and filter propaganda information. They tend to see “victims of propaganda” in their acquaintances and neighbors – but never think of themselves that way. This self-confidence (“I can definitely distinguish truth from lies”) deprives vigilance – and often pushes into propaganda traps.
Part six. How to talk to “propaganda victims”
Associate Professor of the Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences Alexey Titkov suggests several methods for communicating with people who you think are under propaganda influence.
Firstly, don’t consider your interlocutor as a “victim of propaganda” – recognize them as someone with different views. Secondly, don’t speak as if from a podium, don’t generalize (“You are all the same”), address the interlocutor directly. Thirdly, accept the fact that in the eyes of the “victim of propaganda”, you are the one. Fourthly, don’t be upset by phrases like “It’s all complicated”, “It’s not so straightforward”, “Some say one thing, others say another”, “We won’t learn the whole truth”; in fact, they mean that you have already made the person think, you have caused that cognitive dissonance they are experiencing.
“For me, it’s important that those who support the war are just like people. We’re roughly the same – and I’m not even talking about physical characteristics, but about similar mental characteristics and worldview. After all, we’ve met these people many times in everyday life and many times were convinced of their normality,” says Titkov.
According to his words, we usually have personal conversations about politics with those who are valuable and important to us: friends, relatives, and close ones. In the Russian society, there is no clear trust in any media right now, so trust in each other is one of the main resources for building collective connections, says Titkov. For this reason, he considers personal conversations about politics to be very important.
Of course, any such conversation is risky. At any moment, the conversation can become very emotional, turn into arguments with the clarification of relationships at an elevated tone. These negative emotions arise because everyone is a carrier of certain values and adherents of certain symbols, emphasizes the sociologist. They are significant for us, and we know that they are significant for some other people. A conversation in which these values and symbols are called into question is by definition explosive. It forces us to classify each other as “us” or “them”.
According to Titkov, in Russia, the main “mine” of any political dispute between representatives of different views is the story of Russia as a homeland that cannot be wrong. Therefore, any negative judgment, an assessment of the country with a minus sign, will face strong emotional resistance from people who are loyal to the state. They will ask you: “Do you consider Russia your homeland? Are you a patriot?” If this is the case for you, state your position in these words – and then talk about second-order disagreements, Titkov advises.
In discussions about how to talk to so-called victims of propaganda, there is a common theme: that people “on the other side” think and speak in templates. This refers to standard phrases like “Where were you for the last eight years?” Titkov draws attention to the fact that such templates are not only convenient, but also useful for people, which is why absolutely everyone uses them in communication. All scientific and technical terminology, mathematical formulas, military commands, and much more are standard template forms, the sociologist enumerates.
People who share your views are also carriers of patterns. They are just less noticeable to you and not as annoying. At the same time, there are no magic phrases that will be stronger than the opponent’s patterns, Titkov is sure. You need to respond and react according to the situation. And take seriously the questions that your interlocutor asks you, hear him out.
The sociologist suggests starting from the premise that all people are rational and critical thinkers. And all of them are willing to believe what fits into their worldview. “Official Russian propaganda is actually aimed at people with a normal set of values and a normal ethical position: ‘it is necessary to protect the weak who are in danger’; ‘it is necessary to protect one’s country if there is an external threat’; ‘in the event that military action is inevitable, it is necessary to conduct them carefully and neatly, without unnecessarily harming civilians’,” Titkov gives examples.
Therefore, contrary to popular belief, such propaganda is aimed at “normal” and “ethical” people – they are simply not informed of everything that is happening. “One should not consider consumers of propaganda as ominous monstrous beings,” he concludes.
To summarize, researcher Robert English voices a thesis that may seem controversial to some of you – but I will still mention it for the sake of completeness.
According to the professor, much of what is happening in the current war is also being ignored by Western media – and this further arms Russian propaganda. He acknowledges that the degree of distortion produced by Western media is incomparable to the Russian one, and such omissions are a “harsh necessity of wartime.”
“But if we want to better understand why Russian propaganda works so well, we must acknowledge that we ourselves sometimes use propaganda tools,” says English. “Russian propaganda manipulates our mistakes, our unspoken thoughts, our black-and-white view of Russians as absolute evil, always wrong and always lying.”
Perhaps it is this idea that some Russians are currently actively opposing, putting Russian flags as their avatars and participating in the flash mob “#Iamnotashamed” – thus supporting the terrible war that has been going on.