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Maxim Alyukov is a postdoctoral fellow at King’s Russia Institute (King’s College London) and a researcher with Public Sociology Laboratory (St. Petersburg). His research focuses on media, political communication, and political cognition in autocracies with a particular focus on Russia.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has forcibly put the issue of propaganda on the agenda. While scholars have long argued that propaganda is one of the cornerstones of Putin’s political system, few expected it to be so effective in convincing citizens of the necessity of a brutal war against Ukraine. How did state propaganda manage to justify war against a country where Russians have an estimated 11 million relatives? Or, rather, did it actually manage to justify it?
In 2016-17, I conducted a study exploring how Russian citizens interpret propaganda regarding Ukraine. While it was a relatively early stage in the Russia-Ukraine conflict, the results provided a window into citizens’ reception of Kremlin narratives about Ukraine. They demonstrated that the power of regime propaganda might not be in its persuasive potential. Rather, propaganda interacts with an authoritarian environment in a more complicated way.
My study showed that Russian propaganda derives its effectiveness from political apathy rather than its ability to persuade. Because citizens understand that their actions cannot affect the autocrat’s policies, they invest only minimal resources in acquiring political information or thinking about politics at all. This state of affairs, in turn, leads to a very superficial processing of information. Citizens use narratives imposed by the Kremlin as frameworks for interpreting political events, but do not incorporate them fully and do not formulate consistent political opinions. In other words, propaganda works because citizens are not interested enough in politics to form consistent opinions to challenge—or support—authoritarian rule.
Authoritarianism, Political Engagement, and Media Reception
People analyze political information in very different ways depending on their levels of political engagement. Scholars argue that politically engaged citizens form coherent cognitive schemas that represent the political world. However, an active and informed electorate is a small minority even in developed competitive democracies where diverse political information is readily available, and citizens’ choice matters. Most citizens do not spend the necessary time and effort to build coherent worldviews. More often than not, their memory contains pools of internally conflicting political ideas. When reminded about an issue by the media, they can retrieve an idea to express an opinion (e.g., support for military spending based on national pride), only to replace it with a contradictory idea when reminded about something else (e.g., criticism of military spending based on personal experience with low-quality healthcare). Autocracies are characterized by even lower levels of political engagement. Due to higher risks, citizens are less likely to engage in civic, online, or protest activism. In addition, due to restricted media freedom and decreased incentives for political learning, they are less politically knowledgeable and motivated.
Russia under Putin is a quintessential authoritarian regime. Putin’s regime has strategically relied on political apathy, with the result that citizens rarely see political engagement as a meaningful activity. This apathy, produced by an authoritarian environment, is instrumental for rendering propaganda efficient. While many traditional approaches to media effects and propaganda emphasize persuasion, there is evidence suggesting that persuasion is neither the main intention of Putin’s propaganda apparatus, nor its effect. Scholars note that Kremlin propaganda has little commitment to consistency and seeks to confuse and overwhelm the audience rather than persuade it. Instead of providing plausible interpretations of political reality, it often produces political cynicism—the belief that credible information cannot be found in either state-controlled or independent media.
Making Sense of Authoritarian Propaganda
To understand how Russian citizens interpret regime propaganda regarding Ukraine, I ran eight focus groups in Moscow and St. Petersburg in 2016-17. During focus group discussions, I screened news episodes from Channel 1, the largest state-controlled TV channel in Russia. Three news episodes focused on key events underlying the Russia-Ukraine confrontation, such as Maidan protest in Kyiv, “referenda” in Donetsk and Luhansk, and military clashes in Eastern Ukraine.
Focus group discussions clearly demonstrated the connection between political apathy and the effects of authoritarian propaganda. Very few participants were interested in politics enough to form consistent political views and use them to invest attention the news. Instead, feelings of political apathy and confusion were common among participants. As one participant argued, “it doesn’t make sense to try to figure out [the details of the Russia–Ukraine conflict] […] What we see is the tip of the iceberg. […] Talking about it is a waste of time.” Participants thus doubted their ability even to understand post-Soviet politics.
Political apathy translated into interpreting the news in a peculiar way. Most participants relied on the most accessible, “top-of-the-head” ideas television triggered; personal experience; or in-group discussions. When watching ideologically biased news from Channel 1, they typically started by reproducing common propaganda clichés. For instance, one participant argued that “Russia has a very peaceful character.” In this person’s view, Russia is constantly threatened by US-led “color revolutions” that “led to regime change in the Middle East and Ukraine.” They also believed that manipulation of information is an appropriate strategy. Since Russia exists in a hostile environment, this person argued, state media justifiably rely on manipulation to provoke “a rejection of the Ukrainian regime” and “raise patriotic spirit.”
However, when discussions moved away from loaded political issues toward personal experience, such as the experience of watching television, the impact of the war on everyday life, and discussions about the war with friends and family, participants brought forth diverse narratives critical of Russia’s intervention in Ukraine’s domestic politics. For instance, I observed what we might call an “emotional burnout” narrative that focused on the traumatic psychological effects of regime propaganda and used bodily metaphors: “Our eyes are bleeding”; “I can’t physically bear it”; “it makes you sick, it’s deliberate propaganda.” The “compassion” narrative focused on vulnerable groups exposed to news reports about violence. A third, “legal” narrative focused on regime propaganda’s reliance on techniques that are punishable under current Russian law, e.g. “slander and falsehood.”
Paradoxically, I observed that these critical narratives managed to co-exist in participants’ minds with the Kremlin’s ideological clichés, even where the two were in direct logical contradiction. For instance, a participant could, on the one hand, parrot Kremlin ideological clichés by saying that manipulation of information is justified because it is important to elicit “a rejection of the Ukrainian regime” among Russian citizens. However, when discussing his personal experience, this same participant resorted to the “compassion” narrative, complaining about intensive propaganda that negatively affects vulnerable groups and makes “people jump off balconies” due to psychological stress. Similarly, another participant appeared to believe that Russian TV news is objective and argued that “we [i.e., Russia] do not need to falsify information about what is going on abroad [in Ukraine].” Later, this same person invoked the “legal” narrative, lamenting media manipulation and classifying falsifications as “crime, slander, and falsehood.”
Propaganda Feeds on Political Apathy
This co-existence of propagandistic clichés with critical narratives explains some of the psychological mechanisms underlying authoritarian propaganda’s effects. Living in an authoritarian environment, citizens feel politically powerless and certain that engaging with political information cannot help them affect the course of political life. Because propaganda clichés are readily accessible, citizens can borrow them to interpret political life without fully integrating them with prior knowledge, including multiple ideas directly questioning various aspects of authoritarian policies. In other words, the power of regime-controlled media in an authoritarian context might not be located in their persuasive potential. Rather, propaganda feeds on political apathy and works so well because citizens are not interested enough in politics to either enthusiastically support, or challenge, authoritarian rule.
However, political apathy is a double-edged sword. To impose propagandistic clichés on people who have no motivation to think them through is easy enough, but actually using this propaganda to convince people to make more substantial commitment to the regime’s policies can be more difficult. The Russian public’s reaction to the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 demonstrates this principle. Whereas propaganda played a key role in shaping citizens’ attitudes towards the invasion, the mobilization Putin announced in September 2022 was not met with enthusiasm. Unlike war conducted by professional soldiers “somewhere far away,” mobilization violently intruded into citizens’ lives, forcing hundreds of thousands to flee the country, triggering country-wide protests, and driving social anxiety to its historical maximum over the past 14 years. It remains to be seen whether this vulnerability of authoritarian propaganda is significant enough to change public perception of Russia’s invasion, much less promote resistance.