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March 24, 2022updated 30 Sep 2022 11:10am

Russia’s propaganda war at home: How pro-Kremlin outlets dominate media

By Aisha Majid

A month into the war in Ukraine, the Kremlin’s simultaneous battle inside Russia to push ordinary Russians to toe the propaganda line is also intensifying.

Earlier this month Putin enacted a new law that punishes “fake news” with up to 15 years in prison. The Russian president also shut down radio station Echo of Moscow and TV station Dozhd (Rain) – two leading independent media sources.

The result has been a silencing of dissenting media voices in Russia about the war in Ukraine. Numerous outlets have been blocked and closed and those that remain are effectively banned from publishing critical coverage of the war.

“Current propaganda is not dissimilar to what Russia has been doing throughout the whole Ukrainian conflict but now it’s more unhinged,” says Anton Shirikov, a misinformation researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “They just invent stuff out of thin air and the language and the tone is even more confrontational than before.”

Although limited in reliability, surveys indicate that a majority of Russians support the war effort. A February poll by independent pollster Levada Center found that 60% of Russians blamed the US and other NATO countries for the rise in tensions with Ukraine. More recently there have been anecdotal reports of Russians who refuse to believe Russia is targeting civilians in Ukraine even after speaking to relatives inside the country.

Before the war, Reporters Without Borders ranked Russia 150th out of 180 countries for press freedom, stating that TV is “firmly in government hands”.

“There is almost a parallel reality on Russian TV,” says Vasily Gatov, a media researcher at the University of Southern California.

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If you watch state news broadcasts there is no war in Ukraine. Instead, Russia is conducting a “special military operation” designed to rid Ukraine of Nazis and strip the country of the nuclear and biological weapons it has supposedly been building.

Data from the Levada Center shows that while audiences are falling, TV remains the main news source in the country. Almost two thirds (62%) of Russians reported last year that they got their news from TV broadcasts.

Bolstering TV news coverage are a raft of daytime TV talk shows that are devoted almost entirely to presenting propaganda about the war.

"Russian television looks very strange for foreign viewers because almost all daytime broadcasts are occupied by political talk shows or quasi-political shows. They bring on so-called experts who scream and curse. It’s a conveyor of anti-Ukrainian and anti-western sentiment and it's all extremely chauvinistic aggrandisement of Russia," says Gatov.

"This atmosphere is absolutely toxic. For people who by circumstances don't have any other news sources or opinion sources, their understanding of the reality is completely skewed."

Yet, despite the fact that many independent media have been forced into the government fold through financial pressure in the last decade, until recently a critical media tradition still existed, especially online.

Even though more Russians have, in recent years, been turning to online sources, state-controlled outlets dominated here too. Data from digital intelligence platform, Similarweb shows that pro-Kremlin outlets get the lion’s share of web audiences. In the last 12 months, state-owned domestic news agency, RIA for instance received an average of 20m visitors each month compared to 3.5m for independent publisher Novaya Gazeta.

Among news consumers who only use online media, those that support Putin are still more likely to get their news from state-controlled news websites, even if they know of independent media, says Anton Shirikov, a misinformation researcher at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

"These people still mostly use state media and trust those state media because the alternatives are just not attractive," he says. "Even before the war when you could just easily go online and read independent media most people didn't. Some even thought of them as hostile, pro-western outlets sponsored by some outside forces. Many of them were officially proclaimed foreign agents."

He adds: "To want to read independent media, you generally have to be someone who is really interested in learning something else. If you are the person, then you are probably already at least a little bit critical of the government and a little bit sceptical about propaganda."

But in a country where, until recently at least, views critical of the government were not hard to find, why do so many people choose to consume and believe state propaganda?

One reason, says Shirikov, is the way in which propaganda successfully plays on long-standing feelings among many Russians that they were treated unfairly by the west when the Soviet Union collapsed in the 1990s.

"Russians see Putin’s rule as a response to that and a way of Russia getting stronger and getting back at those offenders," he says. "With this narrative in their heads it's relatively easy to persuade people of other things that are broadly consistent with it such as the West being a bad actor in Ukraine or Russia being successful and peaceful.

"If you hear for eight years that Ukraine is governed by Nazis, even if you did not fully believe it in the past, right now it's a default explanation. Even if people see some evidence from Ukraine - the violence, the bombed cities, Russian soldiers coming back - it's still very hard for them to admit that they've been essentially deceived all these years."

It’s also partly, says Shirikov, because Russian propagandists are so good. They know how to get their audience’s attention and make propaganda stories dramatic and entertaining.

His research has also shown that Putin supporters - not unlike partisan supporters elsewhere - are more likely to believe information that aligns with their beliefs, even when it’s not true.

The volume play - pushing out as many similar stories as you can via different platforms - also helps. The EU vs Disinformation database which collects instances of disinformation put out by Russian outlets at home and abroad, has recorded 13,655 such cases since 2015.

But sustaining such an effort is far from easy. Is Russia’s propaganda machine showing cracks?

One nationwide survey reported by the Washington Post suggested that less than six in ten Russians (58%) supported the war, while 23% opposed it. Among younger Russians, who are less likely to watch TV, only 29% supported the war.

"The priming effect of 'rally the flag' propaganda is strong but short-lived. If you start using priming as a major tool of manipulating people minds, you need to grow the dose all the time but it’s already on maximum," says Gatov.

And although polls suggest that the majority of people still believe what they see and read in mainstream sources, Shirikov says that sustaining that may be getting harder as evidence that contradicts official lines emerges, such as news of Russian casualties.

And while Russian independent media might be all but silenced now, their reporting, which Shirikov says is critical to keeping those who want to question informed, is filtering through.

According to Gatov, non-public estimates from the US say that some 5% to 7% of Russians probably still have full access to alternative media sources through things like VPNs, with a larger chunk also receiving information from Telegram which is still not blocked in Russia.

And digital traffic data shows that while independent sources have been hit, people are still finding ways to access those that are still active. There are as many visits to Novaya Gazeta for example now as a month ago - although there might be fewer readers.

Shirikov, pointing to the recent protest by Marina Ovsyannikova, an editor at state TV broadcaster Channel One, who ran on screen during a live news broadcast, says that there are potentially small signs of change.

But he is less hopeful about the prospects for independent media in the country to bounce back especially if the war and related media restrictions continue for months.

"Some will reemerge or continue working from abroad but it will be harder so we’ll have fewer sources of information about Russia and for people within Russia," he says. "And especially when people are using Telegram, for example, they are using a lot more unsubstantiated, unverified information. Even if it's in the oppositional direction it will still be a lot of rumours."

Gatov says that despite the fact that the government has gradually hollowed out the space for free media over the last decade, he is optimistic that the search for alternative news sources will grow.

"I'm almost sure that many independent outlets will return in the form of offshore media. Most of the people working with them have fled Russia so although they’re exiles from Russia they're not exiled from the profession. And if you are a good journalist and you are addicted to this narcotic of news making you will continue. I know they will. It just takes time."

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