Exposing the weaknesses of society and then hitting the most painful spots - according to researchers this is what Russian propaganda does. The results are both impressive and unsettling, as the big lies sound much more believable than the small ones.
“Punching in the face”
On June 30 Latvia banned Russia Today’s TV channels from being distributed on its territory. The formal reason for the ban was the fact that these channels are “under control” of Dmitry Kiselyov, who is subject to EU sanctions for undermining the territorial integrity of Ukraine, the report said. In addition, these channels have repeatedly called Latvia a "failed state”.
According to the chairperson of Latvian watchdog organization NEPLP Ivars Āboliņš: “The evidence we have obtained is very strong and we will ask all EU regulators to follow our example and restrict RT on their territory. There is no place for such programs either in Latvia or in the European Union”. Earlier, last year, Latvia already banned the broadcasting of Russian federal television channels.
European government officials acknowledge that Russian propaganda exists. The European Parliament calls Russia “the main source of disinformation”. However, most of the countries don’t share the radical approach, as they see the potential risks for censorship. In their opinion, the fight against propaganda should be conducted in more flexible ways. It is this “flexibility”, according to many experts, that makes the European Union more vulnerable.
Jakub Kalensky, a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab) based in the Czech Republic told "Georgia Today" - Russians understand they are in an information war with the West, while the West mostly doesn’t.
“Europe still likes to play chess with the Kremlin, while the Kremlin is already punching them in the face. Obviously you can pretend we are still playing chess because we are gentlemen and we do not punch our partner, but if the other one is punching you, it's going to have only one rather violent outcome”.
The outcomes are truly unpleasant, to say the least. According to the project EU VS DISINFO: “Finding and exploiting differences within pluralistic societies, carefully calibrating disinformation messages to target audiences, wrapping false statements around a kernel of truth, amplifying narratives both through willing and unsuspecting voices – these are the core features of the Kremlin’s disinformation campaigns. And they are highly effective”.
In order to understand how Russian propaganda works, let’s look at one example. On July 12, 2014, The First Channel hosted a story about a crucified boy: the Ukrainian military who allegedly occupied the city of Sloviansk has executed a child in the square in front of his mother and other citizens. One of the refugees “told,” Russian media about the “atrocities” of Ukrainian soldiers.
Various journalists went to Sloviansk to investigate. “This is the first time we are hearing of it” - this is how locals responded to questions about whether this story really took place.
Within a few days, the origins were traced back to a political scientist with ties to the Kremlin. Days before the report, he had posted a similar tale on Facebook, with nearly identical details. By the time the hoax was uncovered, it was too late: the story had already gone viral on social media and reached a much broader audience.
Experts note that Russian disinformation campaigns are especially intensified during key moments. For example: 2016 - vote on Brexit, 2017 - large-scale protests in Catalonia, 2018-2019 - the yellow vests rallies in France, and 2019 - the European Parliament elections. However, Brussels still can’t recognize that nothing has changed since Soviet times and the rhetorics are still the same. “A postmodern populist version of Marxist narratives about “capitalists" who subjugate the "proletariat” - this is how Ingo Mannteufel, Head of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus services at Deutsche Welle describes Russian propaganda.
As previously mentioned, Moscow uses sensitive and controversial themes. The Kremlin tries to discredit immigrants, sow doubts about the stability of the European Union, and strengthen anti-American sentiments. In 2019 Gordon Ramsay and Sam Robertshaw of the Policy Institute of London's King's College published a study on RT and Sputnik. Researchers concluded that of 2,641 articles on domestic issues in Britain, the U.S., France, Germany, Sweden, Italy and Ukraine, 2,157 articles (81.7 percent) contained frames relating to political dysfunction.
This kind of ping-pong is also an old strategy. Almost all the accusations that the Kremlin hears are returned to European society by a boomerang. They try to show that every system is equally corrupt.
Offering an alternative - Why Does It Work?
While Russia spends hundreds of millions USD every year on propaganda, quantity doesn’t always mean quality. Dr. Robert Ortnung from Elliott School of International Affairs finds Russian propaganda in Europe interesting and entertaining. According to him, this is the main reason behind its success.
“Even if you can distinguish lies and disinformation, you still would like to watch an entertaining story. And the more you watch it, the deeper you go into this matter, the more you start to believe it”.
He adds that people who don’t see reflections of their thoughts and opinions in Western mainstream media are more prone to believing Russia Today.
Ivan Kurilla, professor at the European University of Saint-Petersburg suggests that Russian propaganda works because it plays on the need to have an alternative. In his opinion, the ones who disagree with the position of the majority are more prone to disinformation.
“It says: Look, there is another explanation of what is happening in the world... Look at how interesting, how fundamentally different from what you are used to, this perspective is”.
The offered alternative should be as radical as possible. Radicalism attracts people. As simple as that.
With Vladimir Putin changing the constitution and establishing the Orwellian order until 2036, the threat of Russian propaganda is far from being over. TV, digital media, and social media - the tools the Kremlin uses are really diverse. How Russia’s troll factories work, what are the advantages of deepfakes, how China turned into Russia’s ally thanks to COVID-19 pandemic, and what does the concept of “post-truth” mean for the democratic world? Stay tuned for our next article.
Cover picture: Khareba Kavtaradze