How effective is Russian propaganda?


Share post:

This article is an on-site version of our Europe Express newsletter. Sign up here to get the newsletter sent straight to your inbox every weekday and Saturday morning

Welcome back. Russia’s foreign ministry says an African version of the propaganda outlet Sputnik is now available as a smartphone app “for all those tired of the one-sided and biased western-centred coverage of all things Africa”. This shows how seriously the Kremlin takes the battle for public opinion in non-western parts of the world.

With the war in Ukraine in its 18th month, how effective is Russian propaganda — abroad and at home? I’m at [email protected].

Russia and the world

Let’s look first at the impact of Russian propaganda around the world.

Last month, the Pew Research Center published a 24-country survey in which people were asked for their views of Russia. The most negative opinions were to be found in north America, Europe, Australia, Japan, South Korea and Israel.

But in five countries — India, Indonesia, Kenya, Nigeria and Mexico — an absolute or relative majority of respondents held positive views of Russia.

Much of this can be attributed to the legacy of western colonialism, anti-American attitudes, memories of the era when the Soviet Union backed anti-imperialist movements and a sense that western powers should have helped more on such issues as debt relief, trade, economic development or vaccine distribution during the pandemic.

Russian propaganda certainly plays a part in keeping alive these sceptical or hostile attitudes. Unlike in western countries, it has been widely available in Africa, Asia and Latin America since the Ukraine war broke out.

Limited influence on European audiences

In the 27-nation EU, governments immediately suspended the broadcasting activities of Sputnik and RT — formerly known as Russia Today — after Vladimir Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Last month, the EU clamped down on a Russian digital disinformation campaign called RRN, or “Recent Reliable News”.

However, it seems doubtful that RT and Sputnik were making much impact on European audiences even before the war. A study, published last year by the Harvard Kennedy School’s Misinformation Review, concludes that, in the months leading up to the invasion, the two Russian outlets did not reach even 5 per cent of the digital populations of 21 countries surveyed in Europe, north America, Asia and Latin America.

Since then, however, Russia has continued to invest heavily in non-English-language propaganda targeted at television and social media users outside Europe. Kyle Walter, head of research at Logically, a company that tracks online misinformation and disinformation, told Shannon Bond of the broadcaster NPR:

“They’re broadly going across the spectrum, both to try and change . . . opinions of the invasion, [and] to position themselves as a better strategic partner moving forward.”

Internet influencers

A good example is RT en Español, a Spanish-language 24-hour cable news channel. According to Gretel Kahn’s research for the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, this channel claimed a cable audience of 18mn in 2018 and more than 25mn social media followers.

These numbers, though hard to verify, seem to have held up at least until late 2021, according to the Centre for Democratic Integrity, with almost half the Russian outlet’s website traffic coming from Argentina, Colombia, Mexico and Venezuela.

However, the Kremlin also distributes its message through local influencers — YouTubers, or people with many Twitter followers, who may be sympathetic to Moscow’s views for their own reasons or even in Russia’s pay.

Julio Montes of, an independent Spanish fact-checker, says: “It is much more effective to spread disinformation narratives through ‘influencers’ who have created their own communities and serve as ‘viralisers’ of hoaxes and manipulations.”

The KGB’s Aids disinformation campaign

This is a lesson I learnt in the 1980s as I came to understand how the Soviet Union had sown the lie that the Pentagon was behind the spread of Aids.

A story to this effect first appeared in a small, pro-Soviet Indian newspaper. This article was then quoted and expanded upon by Literaturnaya Gazeta, a Moscow cultural weekly.

Without in any way endorsing the allegations, western correspondents in the Soviet capital reported what Literaturnaya Gazeta was saying. So did media in the communist and non-aligned world. And so the outrageous lie that Aids was a US biological weapon went around the globe.

Years later, it emerged that the whole thing was an elaborate KGB disinformation campaign.

Be careful of Russian opinion polls

How effective is propaganda inside Russia? Does it make people think better of Putin?

The first point, which I cannot emphasise too strongly, is that opinion polls in a system as repressive and as empty of genuine political competition as Putin’s must be interpreted with extreme caution.

The Levada Center, once Russia’s most reputable independent pollster, operates under very tight restrictions. Its latest surveys purport to show that Putin has an approval rating of more than 80 per cent.

© Levada Center

But we should pay attention to Nina Khrushcheva, a New York-based professor and great-granddaughter of the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. In Project Syndicate last month, she wrote:

When I was growing up in the Soviet Union, we all publicly praised Leonid Brezhnev’s leadership, despite knowing that the emperor had no clothes . . . Russians may be afraid to speak out today, but Putin’s weakness — and the cracks in the system he so meticulously built — are unmistakable.

Sergei Medvedev, a Moscow-born scholar based at the University of Helsinki and Charles University in Prague, is particularly good on the evolution of Russian opinion under Putin.

In his forthcoming book A War Made in Russia (which I plan to review for the FT later this year), he writes:

The bulk of the population are prepared to support the war [in Ukraine] symbolically or in a declaratory manner, but they are not ready to go and die for the sake of Russia’s imperial greatness.

It’s also worth listening to those who have worked at the heart of Putin’s propaganda machine. You will probably remember Marina Ovsyannikova, who was an editor at state TV and who crashed a live news broadcast to protest against the invasion of Ukraine.

In the background of a live news broadcast, Russian Channel One editor Marina Ovsyannikova holds a poster which reads ‘stop the war. Don’t believe the propaganda. Here they are lying to you’
In the background of a live news broadcast, former Channel One editor Marina Ovsyannikova holds a poster which reads ‘stop the war. Don’t believe the propaganda. Here they are lying to you’ © AFP via Getty Images

In this interview with the Washington-based Kennan Institute, Ovsyannikova says: “[Putin] has built a propaganda factory and this entire cardboard stage set around him, which will crumble very soon.”

Kremlin’s loosening grip on the narrative

Perhaps these critics of Putin are exaggerating the fragility of his autocracy. But one trend seems clear. Since the invasion, the regime’s traditional tool for shaping public opinion — state TV — has become much less useful.

There are two excellent recent articles on this subject: Andrey Pertsev’s “Russia’s broken television” and Paul Goode’s “How Russian television normalizes the war”, both for the Riddle website.

Pertsev says that the number of Russians using the Telegram messenger app soared to 51.2mn in May this year from 25.5mn in January 2022. By contrast, the share of those using state television as their main source of news has gone into decline. Pertsev observes:

After [the war] began, most citizens guessed the government was hiding something, and not the whole truth was on TV . . . These people turned away from television and began to look for the missing sources and found them in Telegram.

Much of Telegram’s content is, in fact, pro-war and critical of the authorities — though rarely, if ever, Putin directly — for not managing the invasion of Ukraine more ruthlessly. But the app is also a source of rumours about public events. The Kremlin has tolerated this trend but is not in full control of it.

Prigozhin’s mutiny

Look, for instance, at the manner in which Yevgeny Prigozhin, the mercenary boss who led an abortive mutiny in June against Russia’s defence ministry, became an increasingly popular figure in the first half of this year. On the eve of his revolt, by which time he was launching vitriolic attacks on official corruption, some 55 per cent of respondents in one survey spoke of having a positive attitude towards Prigozhin, Pertsev says.

As always, take care with Russian polling. Still, the floundering response of state TV to the mutiny points to the Kremlin’s loosening grip on how information reaches Russian citizens.

In his article, focusing on state TV news reports, Goode says:

The extent of panic caused by the mutiny is reflected in the sheer variety of narratives broadcast on state television over the course of just one day . . . announcers made increasingly desperate pleas for viewers to ignore “non-official information sources”.

In summary, I think we should be cautious before speculating that Putin’s system is near the point of collapse. But I also think we should recognise that, under conditions of war, the Kremlin’s propaganda at home and abroad is proving to be less effective than the regime would surely like.

More on this topic

Second Russia-Africa summit lays bare Russia’s waning influence — an analysis by Vadim Zaytsev for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Tony’s picks of the week

  • The efforts of Denmark and Sweden to find a legal way to ban some burnings of holy books such as the Koran have unleashed a fierce debate at home and abroad about potential limits to freedom of speech, Richard Milne, the FT’s Nordic and Baltic correspondent, reports

  • Indonesia will never join Australia in trying to balance China, but the government in Canberra needs to do more to convince Jakarta that the two countries share common strategic ground despite different outlooks, Hervé Lemahieu writes for the Sydney-based Lowy Institute think-tank

Britain after Brexit — Keep up to date with the latest developments as the UK economy adjusts to life outside the EU. Sign up here

Trade Secrets — A must-read on the changing face of international trade and globalisation. Sign up here

Are you enjoying Europe Express? Sign up here to have it delivered straight to your inbox every workday at 7am CET and on Saturdays at noon CET. Do tell us what you think, we love to hear from you: [email protected]. Keep up with the latest European stories @FT Europe

Source link

Lisa Holden
Lisa Holden
Lisa Holden is a news writer for LinkDaddy News. She writes health, sport, tech, and more. Some of her favorite topics include the latest trends in fitness and wellness, the best ways to use technology to improve your life, and the latest developments in medical research.

Recent posts

Related articles

Global trade falls at fastest pace since pandemic

Receive free Global trade updatesWe’ll send you a myFT Daily Digest email rounding up the latest Global...

Nissan boss says world must ‘move on’ from combustion engine

Receive free Electric vehicles updatesWe’ll send you a myFT Daily Digest email rounding up the latest Electric...

Asset manager DWS to pay $25mn to settle greenwashing charges

Receive free DWS Group updatesWe’ll send you a myFT Daily Digest email rounding up the latest DWS...

US Treasuries sell off as investors fret over lengthy period of high rates

Receive free Markets updatesWe’ll send you a myFT Daily Digest email rounding up the latest Markets news...

Met Police still providing ‘vast majority’ of armed services despite officers handing in guns

Receive free Metropolitan Police Service UK updatesWe’ll send you a myFT Daily Digest email rounding up the...

Shoppers still struggling with food bills despite inflation waning, says Aldi

Receive free Aldi updatesWe’ll send you a myFT Daily Digest email rounding up the latest Aldi news...

Royal carpet maker Victoria’s shares tumble on auditor’s fraud risk warning

Receive free Victoria PLC updatesWe’ll send you a myFT Daily Digest email rounding up the latest Victoria...

Greek leftists elect former Goldman associate as leader

Receive free Greek politics updatesWe’ll send you a myFT Daily Digest email rounding up the latest Greek...