Putin’s war at home: Censorship and disinformation

To counter the Kremlin’s information campaign in Russia, European policymakers need to account for individual and group psychology

A detained demonstrator shows a sign ‘No War!’ from a police bus in St. Petersburg, Russia, Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022. Hundreds of people gathered in Moscow and St.Petersburg on Thursday, protesting against Russia’s attack on Ukraine. Many of the demonstrators were detained. Similar protests took place in other Russian cities, and activists were also arrested. (AP Photo/Dmitri Lovetsky)
A detained demonstrator shows a sign ‘No War!’ from a police bus in St. Petersburg, Russia, Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022.
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Vladimir Putin’s time as Russian president has long featured a quiet campaign of disinformation and censorship at home. However, it is only since Russia began its all-out war on Ukraine that the world has truly woken up to this. In recent months, the Russian authorities have shuttered the country’s last independent media outlets, banned platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, and implemented laws that make free speech – in the form of anti-war statements – punishable by as much as 15 years in prison. So far, the regime has arrested more than 15,000 people for demonstrating against the war, which is acting as a powerful deterrent. For those willing to risk arrest, censorship makes it difficult to discover how many others share their opposition to the war, and hinders the organisation of protests.

Along with the repression of dissent, the Kremlin has manipulated Russia’s already twisted information ecosystem to promote its own version of events in Ukraine. This goes beyond the daily state-media lies about defeats, casualties, and objectives. The Russian authorities have also gone to great lengths to manufacture photographs and videos, including deepfakes (albeit those of questionable quality). For example, the Kremlin published photos and videos purporting to show that the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, the Moskva, sank after catching fire in a storm – when all the evidence seems to indicate that it was hit by Ukrainian missiles. Moreover, school-aged Russians are now subjected to the Ministry of Education’s mandatory videos explaining the war.

This toxic marriage of censorship and disinformation damages the prospects for peace in Ukraine. It is difficult to see why a critical majority of Russians would pressure President Vladimir Putin to end his brutal obsession with Ukraine when they are made to believe that the war is a limited “special operation”, exaggerated by a Russia-hating West, a necessary act of self-defence, and a heroic bid to liberate decent Ukrainians from their “neo-Nazi” government. But understanding how and why these beliefs pervade Russian society will be fundamental to overcoming them. Here, psychology can help policymakers understand, predict, and modify censored and misinformed behaviour.

Social identity is particularly decisive in Russian repression. The Kremlin has skilfully exploited people’s need to belong to an in-group, tendency to resent an out-group, and desire for a prestigious identity. Throughout his reign, Putin has repeatedly referred to a shared community of iskonnye rossiiskie (primordial Russian) values – along the same lines as his imperial and Soviet predecessors – to establish a nationalist in-group while dramatically increasing hostility towards the West. For instance, in his recent Victory Day speech, he portrayed himself as a katechon – a force that prevents the coming of the Antichrist – to crystallise Russians’ sense of group identity.

This toxic marriage of censorship and disinformation damages the prospects for peace in Ukraine

Cognitive biases can help facilitate information warfare. For instance, availability bias can cause people to engage almost exclusively with readily available information and thereby avoid critical thinking (or further thinking of any kind). Similarly, confirmation bias – the tendency to believe information that confirms pre-existing beliefs – helps explain why a recent public opinion poll found that 89 per cent of Russians believed the aim of the current military operation was to protect and defend civilians in Ukraine, prevent an attack on Russia, or combat Ukrainian nationalists and “denazify” Ukraine. These responses – which to the West may be blatant disinformation – reflect what most Russians see as a heroic truth, as it confirms the group identities they have been fed by the Kremlin. Counter-narratives, which are the current defence of choice for key media outlets and EU initiatives such as the East StratCom Task Force, will not be enough to overcome this by themselves.

Of course, Ukrainians and EU citizens are also subject to cognitive biases and the dynamics of social identity. For example, Ukraine has sometimes used group psychology to create imaginary heroes such as an ace fighter pilot in Kyiv’s skies, aiming to boost morale and discredit Russia. Meanwhile, sensationalist headlines that label Russia a “terrorist state” draw a large audience not just because there is some truth to them but also because they satisfy readers’ desire to confirm pre-existing beliefs.

It is unsurprising that such techniques succeed in conflict zones and a repressive Russia at a time when conspiracy theories have even become widespread in some of the world’s freest media environments, making it harder for governments to contain a deadly pandemic and leading millions to reject the legitimacy of the 2020 US presidential election. As technology expert and former MEP Marietje Schaake argued in a recent ECFR policy discussion: “disinformation and state propaganda doesn’t just start when a tanks roll over a border.”

However, there are also reasons for hope. Despite the Kremlin’s propaganda, demonstrations recently unfolded in more than 60 Russian cities. This is remarkable not just for the bravery of the organisers and other participants but also for their potential impact: protests in highly repressive contexts tend to be more successful than those in less repressive ones, because the signal of dissent is stronger. And many Russians are on a quest for the truth. Downloads of virtual private networks – online tools that allow for some degree of freedom of expression – increased by 2,692 per cent between 24 February and 31 March, making up Russia’s top three app-store searches during roughly the same period. Meanwhile, George Orwell’s works on repression are popular in Russia – perhaps prompting the Russian Foreign Ministry’s recent revival of the Soviet claim that 1984 is about “the end of [Western] liberalism” rather than totalitarianism.

In the context of Russia’s war on Ukraine, in which public perceptions are linked to the prospects for peace, European states need to adapt their information campaigns to the realities of information warfare. So far, their attempts to combat the Kremlin’s tactics have come from intelligence sharing, open-source fact-checking, and messaging. But disinformation and censorship cannot be countered purely through efforts to promote accurate information. If European states are to succeed in the task, their policies will need to account for the individual and group psychology that shapes the information landscape.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.

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