Misinformation colors how Russians are seeing the Ukrainian war
Russian citizens have been at the center of their government’s propaganda campaign to twist the events of Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine in a way that makes Russia look like the hero and Ukraine look like the aggressor.
Even before the war began, the government and state-run media in Russia were showing a distorted view of reality by painting a false narrative of the Ukrainian government.
Russians have been told falsely that Ukraine’s government is full of neo-Nazis, that Ukraine was creating nuclear weapons to attack Russia and that Russia needed to intervene to save the Ukrainian people.
Russian officials have used the phrasing “special military operation” to downplay the invasion.
And the Russian media is hiding images of casualties and destroyed cities in Ukraine. Russian military officials are showing state-manufactured videos of the conflict with authorities handing out aid and helping refugees.
Bret Schafer, senior fellow and head of the information manipulation team at Alliance for Securing Democracy, told The Hill in an email that a Russian living “exclusively in the bubble of state media coverage” would see Russia as being “engaged in essentially a limited humanitarian operation to liberate Ukraine from Neo-Nazis.”
“In short, the image you would have watching state propaganda is that the war is going to plan and that victory is imminent,” he added.
Reliable information in Russia is hard to find as the government has enacted measures to retaliate against any news outlet that tries to publish information contrary to what the government is saying. It has blocked social media platforms and removed internet posts that contradict its message.
“One thing we all should be watching closely is whether Moscow’s crackdown chases Big Tech out of Russia. That could make it harder for citizens to organize and access non-government information,” said Jessica Brandt, policy director for the Artificial Intelligence and Emerging Technology Initiative at the Brookings Institution.
Russia’s propaganda campaign appears to have swayed a majority of citizens, though there is also a generational divide. A survey conducted between Feb. 28 and March 1 found 58 percent of Russians supported the war while 23 percent opposed the invasion, The Washington Post reported.
Among those aged 18 to 29, however, just 29 percent backed the war. People 66 and older were much more likely to support the war.
Younger people, not coincidentally, get more of their information from social media while older people are more likely to watch the news on television.
One student from a top university in Moscow who spoke to The Hill about how the war is being seen in the country said older people in Russia often see real news about the war as being “fake.”
“Many of my fellow students have told me that when they had shown real photos and videos to their parents or grandparents they simply brushed it off as if it was some Ukrainian propaganda,” said the 17-year-old, who is not Russian.
The Hill is not identifying the names of students it spoke to in Moscow for their own safety. The students also requested the name of their university be withheld.
An 18-year-old studying at the same university in Moscow told The Hill it is hard to judge how well the propaganda campaign is working since major independent media sources have been uprooted.
When speaking on the effectiveness of the propaganda campaign, the 18-year-old, who is from a country in the region, said, “I like to believe that it is not [effective], that Russians simply do not care deeply enough about it to question the government — but more and more, I realize that this looks like wishful thinking on my part.”
The 18-year-old said another reason the campaign is more effective for older generations is because of what the generations are comparing Russia to.
“Older people have lived most of their lives in the Soviet Union; for many of them, the stability, tranquility, and prosperity of Soviet ties were undermined by [former Soviet leader Mikhail] Gorbachev’s liberal reforms, and the ’90s were a time of such chaos that most Russians gladly accepted Putin’s concentration of power,” he said. While the younger generation “tends to compare life in Russia not to what used to be in the past as older citizens do, but with other countries.”
Although there is a strong generational divide for support of the war, a rising section of young people have stood firmly by Russia’s side.
Atlantic Council’s lead Baltics researcher Nika Aleksejeva told The Hill a young person’s opinion about the war could have less to do with access to social media and more so what predetermined opinions they have before logging online.
“Regarding the younger generation, who are using social media and other information technologies, it’s mainly about their ideologies,” Aleksejeva said.
Aleksejeva described the “Z movement” in Russia that has caught on among pro-war individuals and the younger generation.
The movement takes on a “Russian nationalistic worldview” that focuses on “Russian superiority” and defending the Ukraine conflict by portraying Russia as “historically being one of the only liberators from fascists.”
The image of Russia as the liberators has been a recurring theme Russians have seen from the state.
“A recurring message in the state’s propaganda campaign is that the West is being hypocritical: the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003 based on what turned out to be false pretexts, and NATO regularly intervened in other countries without authorization from the U.N. According to the Kremlin, this makes Russia and the West morally equivalent,” the 18-year-old student said.
Although a majority of Russians stand behind the Kremlin, the fact that more than 1-in-4 Russians in the poll are against the war despite efforts to limit information shows a powerful message of the efforts from anti-war Russians.
Another student studying in Moscow, who is Russian, told The Hill that famous musicians, actors and other celebrities have spoken out against the war. The student said that while information on the internet can lead people to oppose Putin, it does not guarantee they will no longer trust the Kremlin.
Vera Zakem, a non-resident senior associate for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told The Hill another factor that could turn people against the Russian government are close friends and family who may be against the war.
Apart from getting information from the news or social media, citizens will rely on “trusted networks” of close friends and family.
“If you have a segment of the population that is protesting the war, and they are likely going to spread those narratives with their trusted circles of friends and family,” Zakem said. “I think that’s part of the reason why you see those numbers.”
In the past two weeks, more than 13,000 Russians have been detained in anti-war demonstrations, according to OVD-Info, a protest monitoring group.
The efforts to sway opinions of Russian citizens will continue to be difficult as the Russian government clamps down on information while some individuals are too disconnected from politics to question it.
“Tens of millions either sincerely believe the government or are too uninterested in politics to care about the veracity of the state media’s statements,” the 18-year-old in Moscow told The Hill. “The former may find it very difficult to orient themselves in this chaotic flood of (dis)information.”
As the conflict continues, the Russian student said “it’s really important to remember that Putin is not Russia. A lot of people didn’t vote for him, a lot of people hate him and his actions and support Ukrainian people.
“A lot of people in Russia are scared by these events [sanctions against Russia], hate war, but they can’t do anything. And I think they should be somehow supported not isolated.”
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