Russia has a complicated history with media transparency, and misinformation has swept the information economy during the invasion of Ukraine. Putin’s regime has capitalized on their near-total ownership of information in Russia: as dozens of pro-Kremlin tabloids refer to Russian troops as ‘liberators’, and the Ukrainians as ‘beasts’. As of March 6, around 58% of Russian citizens support the invasion of Ukraine– underscoring the effectiveness of the propaganda campaign. Lack of objective information on the conflict limits civic pressure: allowing Putin to wage this war with a population that believes it to be justified. Limited access to reliable sources on the conflict have had quite damaging effects on national opinion, limiting the ability to form an educated opinion. In Russia, censorship and misinformation are central to understanding attitudes towards the recent invasion: tying a harrowing knot between 21st century propaganda techniques and public opinion.
Russian censorship is quite complex: and neutral journalists, along with activists, have to adapt to constantly evolving censorship techniques. Many turn to news that is independent of the Kremlin, but find challenges there as well. Alexey Kovalyov, who previously worked at state-owned channel RIA Novosti, explains that the few media outlets that evade censors are often too small to inform national audiences. Kovalyov adds that “There is no media landscape in Russia. There are just a couple of very small, independent media outlets that are not yet blocked by the censor ministry, and we’re not even talking about the national ones”. Activist Evgenia Chirikova refers to the censorship of independent media as “poison for the people”, claiming that “[activists] had some problems with media in Russia because we didn’t have normal independent media to share true information about our activity […] and we decided to organize independent media for activists, like Facebook for activists”. With Russian censors blocking out most news outlets that don’t please the Kremlin, journalists and activists such as Kovalyov and Chirikova are forced to turn to media outlets like Facebook.
But the Kremlin has its paws on Facebook, too. Facebook parent company Meta released a statement in February 2022 that it has taken down a state-sponsored Russian influence campaign against citizens of Ukraine. With knowledge of activist information sharing channels via social media, Russian agents have opted to mimic their behavior and spread misinformation. Meta claims that these Russian agents set up private websites off-platform: designed to mimic the look and feel of other sources of news that Russians recognize as censor-free. Furthermore, posters of those links were often bots that formed a profile like akin to that of a regular social media user. The perceived reliability of these links, and similarity to actual activist sources, highlights the ability of the Russian government to not only censor information, but overpower credible sources with countless streams of misinformation.
Propagandizing through the spread of disinformation is a relatively new form of state control, and one that is harder to identify. Russian media expert Peter Pomeretsev makes the point that swaths of misinformation is a revolutionary form of propaganda– while older forms of propaganda centered around control of information, modern propaganda drowns out credible sources with unreliable information. A layman, Pomeretsev argues, may even be unable to discern the difference between the two. And findings back up his claim: data from Brazil suggests that the ability of citizens to ‘discern’, or determine which outlets are credible, is highly tied to education– potentially leaving some of the less educated Russian public with fewer tools to evaluate disinformation.
And, like Kovalyov mentioned, the TV world is not any more optimistic. On February 24, the censorship ministry published a notice to media outlets that only ‘official’ information can be published about the invasion of Ukraine, or ‘special operation’ in the words of the Kremlin. This warning was targeted at independent media outlets: those that the government had previously declared as ‘foreign agent media’ just days prior. Independent media channels TV Rain and Radio Echo of Moscow have had their websites suspended by the ministry amidst the invasion of Ukraine, a move that TV Rain editor-in-chief Tikhon Dzyadko dubs “military censorship”. In light of the invasion, the Russian state seems to be reigning in what few independent outlets are left: forcing opposition parties to social media outlets, where the Russian state is yet again influential in shaping the informational sphere. The government has, thus, set up a catch-22: TV news is controlled by the state, but social media has multitudes of disinformation to sift through as well.
But what about the internet? Would Russian citizens not have access to international sources that exist outside the reach of censors? The answer is yes, but at a cost. While social platforms such as Twitter are nearly impossible to monitor in real-time, Russia is using increased technological capacity to monitor internet communications better than ever before. A 2019 law, which the government dubbed the ‘sovereign internet act’, blocked anonymous browsers such as Tor and proxy services such as VPNs: making it very difficult to anonymously browse the internet. Western internet sources may be available to access, but the government retains its ability to monitor traffic to those sites– leaving those who seek alternative news sources in a precarious position. The ‘sovereign internet act’ makes anonymous browsing extremely difficult even for those that know English, leaving many vulnerable to increased government surveillance on their browsing habits. In Russia, looking where you are not supposed to is a risky ordeal: punishable by law.
In times of war, information is a critical tool that citizens can use to hold leaders accountable for their actions. Limiting sources of information to only those favorable to the state is an effective strategy in reducing accountability– and in Russia, lack of independent TV news has given the state sweeping control over information. Furthermore, journalists that report on the Ukraine invasion unfavorably could face legal consequences. Thus, many independent journalists and activists turn to online platforms, such as Facebook, to provide updates on the war. But the Kremlin is aware of this, and not only drowns them out with misinformation, but can even track their activity with the passage of the 2019 ‘sovereign internet act’. These factors combine to a near total state ownership of information in Russia– which they are using to limit objective information from the Ukraine conflict. Consequentially, support for the war remains high. Public support for the war in Ukraine cannot be understood as a symptom of nationalism, rather, a preference shaped by the government’s control of information. Can we really blame the Russian public for failing to see what their government doesn’t allow them to?