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The Failure of Kremlin Propaganda in Ukraine: Causes and Experience


Until the start of the full-scale Russian invasion in February 2022, Russian-language media were believed to have a considerable audience in Ukraine and their influence was irresistible. However, reality and then data from studies of the Ukrainian public showed that fears about Ukrainians’ sensitivity to Kremlin propaganda were exaggerated.

George Washington University in the American capital, within the framework of the New Voices on Eurasia program (New Voices on Eurasia, The Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University), presented a report by Aaron Ehrlich the other day, professor in the department of political science at McGill University in Montreal, Canada (Aaron Erlich, McGill University, Montreal, Canada), on the success of Ukrainian opposition to the long-term “massive attack” of Kremlin propaganda .

Aaron Ehrlich during the presentation of his research

Drawing on his own research and the work of other sociologists and social psychologists, Professor Aaron Ehrlich provides evidence that Ukrainians have proven to be quite capable of distinguishing disinformation and false narratives spread by the Kremlin from news credible.

Erlich argues that the country’s widespread loyalty to Ukrainian news, coupled with recent institutional reforms, has contributed to these opportunities.

Transformation of the perception of information by Ukrainian society

A Canadian researcher who has worked in one form or another in various Eastern European countries, including Ukraine, over the past 20 years, said that the Ukrainian public has undergone significant changes in their attitude towards Russia in recent years.

Although “anti-Ukrainian propaganda” in the Russian media was “activated” in 2014 since the crisis of the Yanukovych government, it did not immediately become “a problem for the Ukrainian population, as many experts maintain”, Erlich said.

“Ukrainians were simply honest in their distrust of Russia and supported Ukraine with a majority of votes,” the researcher noted.

“However, the wide access to Russian state media that existed at the time helped create the ‘trust’ of part of Ukrainian society in pro-Kremlin disinformation and propaganda,” Aaron Erlich described.

The influence of Russian propaganda in the pre-war period

At the time, there was much discussion in many think tanks in Washington, as well as similar institutions in Ukraine, about the Ukrainian government’s censorship of state media and social media belonging to the Russia.

“It was seen as undemocratic and wrong. And there was a lot of controversy about whether it worked,” Erlich pointed out.

Moreover, according to the professor, Ukrainian civil society has undergone a large-scale transformation since 2014.

Today, according to the study, the country is working successfully and earning the respect of society through quick checks and disclosures – many anti-propaganda agencies, doing incredible innovative work every day.

The Kremlin’s “Soviet Methods” and the Ukraine Confrontation

“If the previous Russian invasion encouraged Ukrainians to think critically and developed their ability to detect ‘software’ propaganda, then the initially controversial ban on Russian TV and Kremlin propaganda-filled social media probably eventually made the Ukrainian public resistant to misinformation,” Erlich said. of course (Ukraine banned Russian state media in 2014-16).

Under the influence of Russian television channels, the Ukrainian territories bordering Russia and the Crimean peninsula remained occupied by it.

The influence of Russian television on the border regions of Ukraine

The professor also noted that while in the West society was concerned about the Kremlin’s “infiltration” into social media, in Ukraine the Kremlin was applying the old Soviet strategies of mainstream media:

“The Kremlin is trying to show Russia better than other countries. Usually they try to “undermine” the authority of the government of the country in which they work. Also, they pay a lot of attention to historical, military, political and cultural topics,” Erlich said.

Also, part of Russia’s strategy is to create “a lot of informational noise.” Erlich considers this to be a research topic in its own right: how to deal with “infonoise” in the broad sense?

A joint study by Aaron Ehrlich with EUvsDiSiNFO, a European Union project to collect stories about Russian propaganda, found that on every topic except the economy, Ukrainians are pretty good at telling the real ones from the fake ones .

“This is not surprising, given Ukraine’s many economic problems that have existed for years. If someone is going to pay more attention to misinformation, I think the economy is a place where you can put effort,” Aaron Ehrlich noted, not without irony.

“However, the news of the large-scale occupation and invasion caused a shock throughout Ukrainian society which had a widespread ‘galvanizing effect’ at the individual level of everyone. As a result, psychological mechanisms have changed and people have become much more critical of information carriers than before,” explained the Canadian scientist.

Methods of persuasion: Ukraine and the global experience

Professor Ehrlich is convinced that it is possible and necessary to convince people influenced by propaganda if communication is established with them.

“First of all, these are tips and tricks that various social media platforms are already using to try to get users to be more critical of the material they see. For example, emerging ‘ads’ , such as: “Are you sure you want to share this information? Have you read the article? Such things remind users to think about ‘what’ they are sharing, or ‘what’ they think of “what they” read “, advised the Canadian researcher.

The war has aroused the critical spirit of the entire Ukrainian population. According to Erlich, more work needs to be done, “like messaging between regions that can help other people, and not just in Ukraine, try to be more critical of any event and situation that they find themselves in. find at this time”.

Aaron Ehrlich referred to a series of publications in the American media about relatives “on both sides”. They are “brothers and sisters separated by Ukraine and Russia who no longer speak to each other because of the war”.

Ehrlich’s research found that about half of Ukrainians said they had at least one relative in Russia. Of these, about 60% admitted to having spoken with those relatives even after the start of the war.

Ukrainians’ assessment of their own efforts to change their Russian relatives’ attitude towards propaganda through personal contacts with them

It’s a huge communication channel, says the Canadian scientist. Collectively, 38% of respondents, out of a sample of over 500 people, said they felt they had “some kind of influence over those close to them”.

“People are notoriously bad at convincing themselves. But there are many methods that social psychologists have used to teach people how to better convince others of what they believe. One of them is called “conversational receptivity”. It is necessary to disseminate these methods and develop them in the Ukrainian environment and, if possible, in the Russian-speaking environment,” the professor said.

The linguistic reorientation process and its role

Although the Ukrainian population is bilingual, it is gradually becoming more Ukrainian than Russian. The process of linguistic reorientation, which began a long time ago and accelerated in 2014, was practically unleashed in 2022.

“There is experimental evidence that a large part of the Ukrainian population is now trying to switch from communicating in Russian to Ukrainian, which will further reduce the credibility of Kremlin propaganda. However, I’m sure it should be done with a lot of empathy for those who speak Russian. This will be important for Ukraine’s continued success in countering propaganda,” said a Canadian scholar.

Confirmation of the impact on the perception of propaganda of the linguistic shift from Russian to Ukrainian

“The population of Ukrainians with relatives in Russia is complex. For example, there are people in Ukraine whose families have absolutely Russian roots, but who were transferred to Ukraine by the Soviet armed forces in the 1980s, and who still live in Ukraine. The Ukrainian authorities will also have to work with them,” the researcher stressed.

Aaron Ehrlich believes that “reaching out to Russian speakers” will have “significant implications for the region as a whole and will work in places like Moldova and Belarus, potentially impacting the awareness of many citizens of those countries.”

Ahead – the fight against Kremlin propaganda inside Russia

A much bigger issue was the influence of pro-Kremlin media on domestic audiences, as Russians proved highly susceptible to false media narratives.

The researcher suggests behavioral “nudges” that encourage citizens to think more critically can also help counter Russian propaganda.

“One of the main characteristics of the Russian media is that they have invested a lot, a lot of money and time in creating very, very valuable publications and programs with high value-added content, and not just news Russians like songs and dances, series and entertainment programs produced by public TV channels. Today, all this has also become completely politicized and it cannot attract the Russian public. We must “recreate “all Russian media anew,” concluded Aaron Ehrlich, a McGill University professor and researcher on the influence of Kremlin propaganda.

Copyright © 2023 The Eastern Herald.

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