While we see images of a bombed children’s hospital, between episodes of ‘The Masked Singer’ Russians are served by state propaganda that presents the war that should not be so called as a humanitarian rescue operation. “All the buttons of the totalitarian propaganda machine are pressed.”
“US labs in Ukraine are experimenting with coronavirus in bats.” It was a headline on the site of the Russian state news agency RIA Novosti on Thursday. According to a Defense Department spokesperson, a lab is deliberately infecting animals with Covid and other diseases they spread across the border, funded by the Pentagon.
At the same time, Komsomolskaya Pravda, another Kremlingist medium, concludes on the authority of an official document full of signatures that Russia has saved the world from an apocalypse with its “special operation” in Ukraine.
According to Alexey Levinson, it fits into the endless and surreal stream of false information that the Russians are being spooned into. While most of the world sees Russia brutally attacking its neighbor, the Russian screens pass a different picture, the research director of the independent polling agency Levada Center said via Zoom from Moscow. “It is presented as an ideological conflict, rather than a military one, with Russia having no choice but to intervene in Ukraine to save the common people from Nazi battalions.” From Russia’s point of view, the Russian army is winning and the Ukrainian military infrastructure has been virtually destroyed.
- The Russian propaganda machine has been running at full speed since the invasion.
- Most Russians only see state media and therefore get a completely different picture of the ‘special operation’ in Ukraine than we do.
The majority of Russians, especially the older population, only see the state media. According to Levinson, this was already the case when other sources were available, because the Internet was not used by the bulk of the population to search for alternative information. In the meantime, most of those alternative sources have been wiped out of the media landscape. “For most, everything they’re supposed to think about is served up by the state media.”
On television, parallel Russian reality is spread in news broadcasts and talk shows between Western entertainment formats à la ‘The Masked Singer’, says Ian Garner, historian and expert in Russian war propaganda. Until a few weeks ago, those news programs regularly featured someone who played the part of the lone dissident voice who kept getting verbally blown away by the other speakers and lost the debate. But that other voice has disappeared since the invasion started. ‘The propaganda is now running at full speed. All buttons are pressed.’
There is another form, Garner says. The Russians are constantly reminded of World War II through movies and drama series. The state pumps in huge production budgets. ‘The narrative is: we saved the world from destruction and only we made sacrifices.’ That line is effortlessly extended to today, when Ukrainians are portrayed as enemy Nazis. ‘There is an important difference with the West, where it has been said for 80 years since the end of the Second World War: never again. In the Soviet Union and later in Russia it was always: if you have to, then again. “We will take up arms again when the need arises, unlike the decadent West.”
The broadcasts are used to repetitively tell Russians what to believe.
The state controls the media exclusively and there are clear patterns in the reporting, says Mariëlle Wijermars, who studies the phenomenon at Maastricht University. The broadcasts are used to repetitively tell Russians what to believe. They show a statement from a foreign leader, after which a newsreader with great authority explains how it really works. ‘You see three phases. At first it was denied that anything was going on in Ukraine, then there was scant information, and then there was a constant but completely misleading stream.’
Now the whole propaganda machine is limping on two legs. On the one hand, the false messages serve to mobilize and motivate Russians, on the other hand, it cannot be said that a war is underway. When images of bombings are shown, they are explained as attacks by the ‘fascist’ Ukrainian government on its own citizens. There is no mention of Russian casualties, nor of scant domestic protests. The comments about the economic isolation, the sanctions and the departing Western companies are optimistic: we are strong enough ourselves.
Words like war and invasion are forbidden to refer to what is happening in Ukraine. Since the introduction of the media law a week ago, sentences of up to 15 years in prison have been imposed for spreading ‘fake news’ about the conflict that is officially called the ‘special operation’. It seems straight out of ‘1984’ – ‘War is peace’ – by George Orwell. “Language is an important tool for mind control,” Levinson says. “Everything fits the standards of a totalitarian regime. You can predict that the country will soon be completely locked, both for people and information.’
The brutal regime of censorship meant the death knell for social, foreign and independent media. On the TV channel TV Rain, the journalists walked out of the studio before the screen went black in the last broadcast. The largest alternative radio station Ekho Moskvy went off the air and on the same FM frequency in five major cities is now Sputnik, a Kremlin vehicle. Only Novaya Gazeta of Nobel laureate Dmitry Muratov remains, but the site can’t help but be extremely careful. The war in Ukraine is referred to as ‘that which must not be said’.
This iron curtain of information has been systematically raised online, especially since the annexation of Crimea in 2014, says Eva Claessen, expert in Russian information and internet policy at KU Leuven. Roskomnadzor, the state body that controls communications, rules the internet with an iron fist. Since the ‘sovereign internet’ law in 2019, providers are obliged to install DPI (Deep Packet Inspection) equipment through which internet traffic flows. That gives Roskomnadzor central control over the traffic. It allows, among other things, to automatically block sites if they use prohibited terms, to slow down sites so that no photos can be uploaded, or to completely shut down the internet. ‘Russia has signaled that it is practically capable of that.’
Russia has signaled that it is practically capable of shutting down the internet completely.
There are ways to break through that armor and get honest information, but that takes extra effort. VPN connections, to connect to the internet from abroad, are popular among young people and city dwellers, although that technology is also increasingly banned. Another option is Telegram, the news and messaging app known for its strong encryption. In a short time it has become the preferred online channel for Russians and Ukrainians. But the Kremlin and friendly media such as RT are also on Telegram.
The question remains whether many Russians swallow the avalanche of propaganda. It is a complex question and difficult to measure due to the fear and political apathy, the experts say. But there are signs that public opinion is turning. Before the invasion, a majority of Russians saw the West as the main aggressor, while an internet poll – albeit conducted in cosmopolitan Moscow by the team around Alexej Navalny, the opposition figure who survived a poison attack – showed that after a week of war, slightly more put the blame on Russia for more than half.
It suggests cracks in the propaganda wall. Garner notices that social media, which can be reached via the VPN detour, are criticized and that Putin seems to be losing in the information war on those channels. “Take the propaganda campaign around the letter Z that has emerged as a patriotic symbol. It must appear organic and grassroots (not imposed from above), but is clearly directed from the Kremlin. She bears the stamp of Vladislav Surkov, Putin’s ex-top adviser. But the Z isn’t going viral. Once outside the propaganda bubble, people don’t take the campaign.’
There is a feeling among Russians that they really understand how Putin thinks.
But, Garner wonders, does it matter whether it’s effective in a regime that may not have the surveillance capabilities of the Chinese, but doesn’t shy away from raw violence. ‘Then part of the population may not be allowed to go along with the message, the state projects so much fear that most don’t dare to say anything. The state doesn’t care about ordinary people. He’s ruthless.’ Sociologist Levinson is also not very hopeful. What is very important to know is that there is a very strong connection between Putin and the Russian mass consciousness. There is a feeling among Russians that they really understand how Putin thinks.’