Almost exactly eight years ago to this day, Russia invaded and later annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine, shortly after the Sochi Winter Olympics. Now Vladimir Putin has green-lit the invasion of Ukraine again, and it seems apparent that this will be a far more violent and extensive conflict than the previous invasion, which was limited to a fairly bloodless, small-scale occupation of part of the country. The invasion of Ukraine does not seem to be an attempt to consolidate Putin’s power within the Russian government, nor is it likely to increase his public support. What is clear, however, is that Putin has been preparing to deal with the internal repercussions of the invasion for as long as he has been preparing for the actual military undertaking itself. The invasion of Ukraine will inevitably result in the further curtailing of Russian civil liberties and the erosion of Russian democracy.
Given the unpopularity of the Ukrainian invasion, Putin must choose to persuade the Russian people of the legitimacy of his actions, or silence his critics. The two are not mutually exclusive, but it seems that Putin’s ability to censor his critics will be more important in this particular case. To understand why, we should examine the gap in efficacy between Russian domestic propaganda and Russian fake news.
A key difference between traditional propaganda and fake news is that propaganda is constructive, while fake news is often disruptive. Both attempt to advance the authoritarian agenda, but while propaganda usually directly promotes its own version of the truth, fake news can act indirectly by simply casting uncertainty upon the real truth. Creators of fake news are less invested in defending their claims from rebuttal, tending to choose quantity over quality. Fact-checking seldom works against fake news, because much as a demagogue would rather cultivate outrage than take accountability for their words, promoters of fake news will often cut their losses and promote a different claim rather than stick to their guns. (1) This is a successful tactic because the true source of fake news is often unknown or astroturfed. In state propaganda however, efforts are taken to maintain a semblance of narrative consistency.
The fundamentally disruptive nature of fake news means that it is more successful as a tactic in would-be-authoritarians’ arsenals when they are the underdogs or the outsiders, not when they themselves control the mainstream media. But skill at utilizing fake news does not necessarily translate to success at crafting persuasive propaganda. Russia found success in disseminating fake news on social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook to disrupt the U.S. presidential elections. Yet domestically, the Russian state-sponsored media’s greatest threat are those same social media platforms, which provide everyday Russians with access to independent journalism circumventing Kremlin-approved narratives. Putin’s identity in the media is one of legitimacy and order, and although they advance his interests, his name has always been kept separate from Russian bot farms and alternative media.
Before the invasion, Russian media denied outright that Putin would initiate conflict in Ukraine. They depend too much on the air of legitimacy to backtrack on their statements now, as the American alternative media might do. So instead, the Russian media has now tried to justify intervention by claiming that they are stepping in to protect Russians in Luhansk and Donetsk from genocide, rather than simply denying their original claims. In any case, it seems that the Russian media will not be effective in maintaining moral justification for the invasion in Ukraine. Putin has no choice now but to silence domestic criticism.
When it comes to informational warfare, Russia’s capabilities thus far had been asymmetrical, with a greater ability to conduct offensive operations in other countries than to lockdown dissent domestically. There were two major causes for Russia’s historical weakness compared with China, which is the gold standard of internet censorship for autocrats.
Firstly, Russia’s lack of domestic social media platforms leaves Russians dependent on American social media. For example since 2015, Russia has become by far the largest source of requests to remove content from Google Search and Youtube, far outstripping even China. Yet these requests are not a sign of Russian censorship’s potency, but rather a sign of its weakness. Unlike China, which either bans western social media networks outright or strictly regulates them by threatening access to the Chinese market entirely, Russian internet laws can only threaten fines for the failure to comply with the majority of these requests. This is a product of Russia’s need to adhere to the illusion of free speech, by cloaking these requests under the guise of curbing obscenity and extremism, even though the vast majority of Russia’s requests pertain to pro-Navalny content.
In conjunction, Russia lacked the technology and infrastructure to police internet traffic directly. Unlike in China, where the Great Firewall is enabled by the fact that three state-owned internet providers control all access to the country, there are thousands of private internet companies in Russia. To police them individually was impossible given the limitations of Russian censorship at the time, and thus historically, Putin relied on a minimalist system of media control. (2)
To combat these deficiencies, Russia has increased both the technological capabilities of its censorship in the past three years, as well as the scope and vigor with which they are applied. Since 2019 Russia has been investing in deep packet inspection software that allows it to filter through Russian internet traffic directly instead of dealing with American social media companies. And in 2021, Russia blocked TOR and a multitude of VPNs that were important tools for Russian political activists seeking to avoid censorship. The lack of safe communication tools will make it harder for Russians to organize mass resistance to Putin’s actions in Ukraine, even if the desire now is stronger than it was in 2014.
1. Jennifer R. Mercieca (2019) Dangerous Demagogues and Weaponized Communication, Rhetoric Society Quarterly, 49:3, 264-279, DOI: 10.1080/02773945.2019.1610640
2. Scott Gehlbach (2010) Reflections on Putin and the Media, Post-Soviet Affairs, 26:1, 77-87, DOI: 10.2747/1060-586X.26.1.77
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