Society
Opium for the masses:
How propaganda won Russians' trust
October 28, 2022
  • Anton Shirikov

    Postdoctoral Scholar at the Harriman Institute, Columbia University

What makes the Kremlin's propaganda effective? Anton Shirikov discusses why the message of state media is often convincing, as well as when propagandists fail to appeal to the public.
Putin at a rally in support of incorporating the four Ukrainian regions into Russia. September 2022. Source: VK
Eight months after Russia invaded Ukraine, the Kremlin still very tightly controls the discussion of the war inside Russia. We may not know exactly how many Russians genuinely support the war, but a large majority seems to have adopted  the Kremlin's narrative: NATO and Kyiv are at fault; Russia is only protecting itself and Russian speakers in Ukraine; the Russian army has nothing to do with war crimes in Bucha and elsewhere, etc. Some citizens have even dismissed testimony from Ukrainian family members who suffered under Russian bombings – they choose to believe state-controlled television instead. 

Kremlin-controlled television remains popular and influential. In August, about half of Russians said that television was the most trustworthy source of information, while a tiny minority found independent media such as MeduzaNovaya Gazeta, BBC or TV Rain to be trustworthy. (Trust in television is substantially lower among younger Russians, however.) 

Why have propaganda narratives – often completely absurd – worked so well? And why are Russians not abandoning state-run media and seeking more balanced alternatives? Of course, the Kremlin dominates the local media space, especially after it introduced military censorship in March. But major independent news organizations still operate from abroad, and it is not difficult to access them via VPN services, which many Russians started using after the invasion. The audience of these websites, however, has fallen back to pre-war levels, which were quite low. Even when independent media were freely available, Russians avoided them, choosing to consume state propaganda. 

My research suggests three important reasons why Kremlin media command such widespread trust.

1. Propaganda appeals to Russians' political identities

The Kremlin's propagandists have figured out the ideological and emotional themes that resonate with Russians, and they have learned how to exploit the public's affinity with Vladimir Putin and his regime.

From the early days of his presidency, Putin has emphasized the pain and embarrassment that many Russians experienced after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Most Russians associate the end of the Soviet rule not with the advancement of democracy or the free market, but with economic anxiety, social disruption and the loss of great power status. Putin has promised to bring back stability and international prestige. Meanwhile, his ostentatious sympathy with the post-Soviet trauma has been one of the key reasons for the strong public support for his presidency. Putin also conveniently identified who was at fault: the US, NATO and Western liberal values.
Putin has figured out that Russians respond very well to pro-state, anti-liberal, and anti-Western ideas, whichbecame both a motivation for his supporters and also a winning formula for his propaganda machine."
The state media told Russians that they are a great, kind, heroic, victorious nation that has suffered greatly after the Soviet Union collapsed. These messages were comforting and reassuring, and they appealed not only to hardcore nationalists – they highlighted the difficulties of the post-Soviet transformation that many Russians had experienced. Emphasizing such narratives helped propagandists to gain and maintain trust among the public; in this way, propaganda was telling Russians that it was on their side – why would it manipulate and deceive them?

The Kremlin's propaganda has turned into an "echo chamber," an information environment in which what news-consumers hear is their own beliefs repeated back to them. Such constant affirmation reinforces existing grievances and identities while also making the information sources within the echo chamber look more trustworthy.

Echo chambers are comforting, meaning there is no need to look for an alternative, especially as the available alternatives don’t really appeal to Russians. Independent media – mostly pro-Western and liberal – investigate corruption, electoral fraud and police brutality, exposing the ugly aspects of the Soviet system and Putin's rule. But covering Russia in this "negative" way is irritating and disturbing for most, especially pro-Putin Russians, soindependent news outlets appear unattractive and hostile.

In surveys that I conducted in Russia in recent years, I have found extensive evidence supporting this argument. More than 80% of pro-Putin respondents listed state-controlled media among trusted news outlets, and basically none of them reported trusting any independent media. And it wasn’t just talk: these respondents actually were more likely to rate news reports as true when they were attributed to state-run news outlets such as RIA Novosti than when the same reports were attributed to independent news organizations such as Meduza.

Importantly, Putin supporters who consumed propaganda were not completely blind to the pro-government bias of these media. For example, I asked my respondents what they thought about the two main state television stations, Channel One and Russia-1 (home to Dmitri Kiselyov's propaganda show Vesti nedeli). About one third of the pro-Putin respondents said that these two stations were politically neutral and independent. Though even a third seems too much, most regime supporters did understand that state television is the government's tool. Still, a large majority of the respondents – around 65-70% – said that Channel One and Russia-1 usually provided accurate information and that there was no censorship. Thus, while recognizing the political bias of propaganda, Putin supporters grossly underestimated how much disinformation they were being fed.
Russians may not trust propaganda completely, but many trust it enough to take it seriously and keep watching."
It is this trust, which has developed over the years, that allowed Putin to make Russians believe absurd stories about Nazis or "bioweapon labs" in Ukraine.

I want to stress, however, that it is misleading to call Russians "brainwashed victims" of propaganda. The repetition of falsehoods by state media over many years has undoubtedly played some role. Nevertheless, the Kremlin's narrative about Ukraine has been so effective because it heavily exploited Russians' existing beliefs and feelings, including post-Soviet ressentiment, a condescending attitude toward other ex-Soviet nations, etc. Many Russians are eager to believe what propaganda is selling, and state media satisfies this existing demand.

2. State media outlets make each other appear more credible

The Kremlin's information bubble, however, can affect even those citizens who don’t strongly sympathize with its pro-Putin, anti-Western narratives, and even those who try to consume news more carefully and consciously.

To understand the power of the propaganda bubble, it is worth considering how we usually decide whether to believe news reports that we see. If, for example, we see a report from a source that we don’t trust fully, we might look for external confirmation of the story. And when we find that other news outlets are also reporting it, we may decide to believe it. 

Such verification is a completely reasonable thing, and news-consumers across the world commonly engage in it. Russians aren’t an exception: in a recent survey of internet users, I found that about 80% rely on this criterion when they evaluate news stories. "I heard it elsewhere," or "I googled it, and it is confirmed by other sources" – this is what respondents told me in many cases.

However, when the government controls virtually all media organizations, relying on such external verification becomes counterproductive and dangerous. When the Kremlin decides to spread a new bit of disinformation, the story is usually promoted through many state-controlled outlets, including online media, more or less simultaneously. And even the most ridiculous statements, as a result, are "confirmed" by multiple other news outlets. Moreover, if you use Yandex – Russia's most popular search engine – you won't even see any articles by independent news outlets in thesearch results (Yandex used to index diverse news sources, including independent media, but over the past several years the government forced it to exclude virtually all independent outlets).

By "confirming" each other's stories, state media prop up each other's credibility. If you consistently find that the reporting of RIA Novosti is "corroborated" by other sources, you would ultimately come to believe that RIA is a trustworthy, reliable source. And the same applies to other major state-run news outlets that routinely repeat each other and thus create the illusion of credibility.

Even critically-minded citizens fall into this trap.
In my survey, some respondents who were savvy enough to recognize obvious government propaganda still believed a number of false stories precisely because those stories were published by large state-run outlets such as RIA."
The story does look questionable, said these respondents, but it is published by an "authoritative" or "serious" outlet, so it is probably true.

Because of this illusion of credibility, many Russians believe that their information environment is more or less normal– even if some media are biased, they think, there are still many different news sources that can independently corroborate information. Indeed, it may be difficult to realize that all these outlets could lie or withhold information in a coordinated, concerted way. 

3. Russians often fail to recognize misinformation

Scholars of Russia and other autocracies often believe that even if citizens of such countries mostly consume state media, they can still recognize the lies of propaganda. Precisely because of their extensive exposure to propaganda, the argument goes, citizens learn to anticipate media bias and manipulation, extract useful information from propaganda messages and treat skeptically everything that official sources report. 

However, my research challenges that view. In two large-scale surveys, I asked Russian internet users to read more than 70 news reports and to determine whether these stories were true or false. In recent studies of fake news in various democracies, where researchers gave respondents similar tasks, citizens could correctly distinguish between true and false news 60-70% of the time. Sadly, my Russian respondents did worse. On average, they gave correct answers only in 51-52% of the cases – just slightly better than one would do by guessing completely at random. 
“That is hardly consistent with the idea that living in an autocracy makes you a more sophisticated, discerning news-consumer."
Vladimir Solovyov, Russia's highly popular television presenter and propagandist, was awarded the Order of Merit for the Fatherland in July 2022. Source: Wiki Commons
One might still hope that in an information environment flooded with propaganda, citizens would be very skeptical about the news. Thus, they might not distinguish between true and false reports accurately, but they would at least correctly recognize false stories. My respondents indeed recognized false stories somewhat more often, but still in less than 60% of cases. Thus, Russians were not overwhelmingly skeptical about the news.

Moreover, these respondents were social media users interested in surveys about news consumption. In another survey, which was focused on less sophisticated citizens, I found even lower accuracy, which means that the broader Russian population is even less equipped to recognize false information.

Finally, it's worth noting that the problem was not limited to Putin supporters: opposition-minded respondents in my surveys on average also judged news stories rather poorly. This widespread susceptibility to false and misleadingnews is another reason why the Kremlin's disinformation campaigns are often quite successful.

The limits of propaganda

Belief-affirming propaganda works well as long as its message fits with the broader picture that citizens have in mind. But when such propaganda changes course and attempts to convince people of something new and different, especially if it directly affects their lives, it can fail spectacularly. Remember, for example, that for all their efforts, state media didn’t convince Russians to support Putin's pension reform in 2018 or Covid vaccinations in 2020-21. Kremlin media failed to change the deeply ingrained distrust toward the state bureaucracy. Similarly, in September 2022, when the "partial" mobilization was announced, propagandists were unable to persuade the public that it would affect only a tiny proportion of Russians with military experience – men fled Russia en masse, fearing the draft. The more sacrifices Putin demands from citizens, the less trustworthy his propaganda will look.

However, we shouldn’t expect the Kremlin's propaganda machine to collapse anytime soon. Television and other state media remain the primary sources of information for Russians, and while trust in propaganda is eroding, the processhas so far been slow. Only a dramatic political shift may sharply accelerate this trend, and if the propagandists are lucky, they may well outlast Putin himself.
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