The Kremlin’s ongoing propaganda effort is fundamentally different than that of its Soviet predecessor, less because of the technology it has access to and more because of its different overarching goals. The Soviet effort was countered by providing information that highlighted its falsehoods, a task made easier because the Soviet population was already cynical about Kremlin messaging. However, the Putin-era effort is far more insidious because its information specialists seek not so much to convince others but to divide them—promoting the ideas that all media is biased and that people should take the lead from whatever the Kremlin says and does. In this effort, Russian expert Maxim Alyukov says that the current regime cares little about truth—indeed, it may be quite happy to display its own duplicitous nature—and instead is intent on destroying the concept that objective truth exists. This in turn divides consumers of Russian propaganda so deeply that they do not care what is true and will not listen to anyone or any media source who challenges what they have come to accept due to the Russian government’s messaging (Riddle Russia, June 21).
As a result, the challenge today is different and bigger than it was in Soviet times: It is less necessary to counter misinformation and disinformation by exposing each lie than it is to expose the entire system that Putin’s people are using and to bring that system to the attention of all of Russian society, according to Alyukov, a researcher at the Public Sociology Laboratory, an independent Russian media research group now headquartered in London. That is a far more complicated task, but it is one that must be addressed if Russian society is to recover from Putinism. And it will only be successful if its opponents stop thinking that their task now is the same as what their Soviet predecessors faced. Unless they do, the Russian researcher suggests, their efforts to expose falsehoods may have the unintended effect of helping the Putin propagandists by playing into Moscow’s current narrative that all positions are driven by politics rather than a concern for the truth, thus leading many Russians to conclude that they should follow their leader as well as what they perceive to be the views of the majority.
“The Kremlin’s propaganda machine is more sophisticated than it seems,” he continues, because “it not only disseminates inaccurate information but also exploits relationships among individuals, influencing how citizens perceive one another, evaluating the chances that others will join collective action, and determining their willingness to engage in political conversations, whether through consuming information from media with these points of view or participating in discussions with opponents.” And because this is the situation that Kremlin propagandists want to cultivate, the provision by others of truthful information about this or that event seldom is enough to change the views of those exposed to the Kremlin’s messages. Instead, for those who want to counter Putin’s falsehoods, Alyukov argues, “it is important to take into account these indirect effects of propaganda” and to recognize that taking steps to restore a willingness on the part of the people to seek the truth and talk to those who disagree with them more generally are thus increasingly “vital for any counter-propaganda effort” (Riddle Russia, June 21).
According to Alyukov, today, the Kremlin, “by promoting the idea that all sources of information, including its own, are biased,” is having an extremely detrimental and widespread impact because this strategy leaves its consumers cynical about all information sources and thus unwilling to engage in any reexamination of their beliefs. Instead, “when individuals perceive information as a weapon,” he continues, “they are more likely to dismiss sources of information that challenge their beliefs” and “give up political discussion altogether.” That leaves people fixed in their beliefs, even if they are presented with accurate information from other sources, and it makes them far less willing to cooperate with one another or challenge the existing regime and its messages.
Leaders in other countries have adopted some of these same strategies, but the Kremlin has been more successful because it reinforces its approach with the insistence that Russian society consists of an overwhelming majority of regime supporters and a tiny “deviant” minority of oppositionists. And “abundant evidence suggests this ‘divide and rule’ strategy is effective,” Alyukov continues, one that intimidates some and leads most to go along rather than fight (Open Democracy, March 9, 2020). This includes studies that show that, “contrary to conventional belief,” even among those who back Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, “very few blindly believed state media,” while large numbers of regime supporters insisted that the majority of their friends and relatives “shared” their position of supporting the war (Publicsociology.tilda.ws  , accessed on June 29).
“Paradoxically,” the Russian expert contends, “openly demonstrating bias can serve as an effective political strategy that reinforces rather than undermines the impact of propaganda.” The latter “may fail to persuade, but it can foster political cynicism,” preventing conversations across political divides and even affecting media consumption patterns. In general, he says, both domestic and foreign opponents of the Kremlin have failed to recognize this larger challenge and instead are fighting the Putin regime’s disinformation efforts with tactics based on the same assumptions that worked during Soviet times (Riddle Russia, October 7, 2022).
That situation must change, Alyukov asserts, precisely because what the Putin regime has been doing makes the task of those opposing its propaganda efforts far larger and more consequential than is commonly understood. Unless their efforts succeed in weaning the Russian people away from the cynicism about media in general that the current Kremlin wants to produce, unless they are able to recreate a widespread concern about truth and the willingness to engage with others to find it and unless the ideological opponents of Moscow recognize that this is what is at stake, then the shadow of the Putin regime on the future of Russia and its victims will be far longer and darker than almost anyone now believes. And that, in turn, means that, while achieving those ends will be difficult, any failure to do so will have consequences far larger than the failure of any past counter-propaganda effort.