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How I Am Using Psychology to Persuade Russians of the Truth About Ukraine

5 minute read
Minson is an associated professor of public policy at Harvard Kennedy School

Many of us have been struggling to find a way to help Ukraine. A Norwegian tech entrepreneur named Fabian Falch found his answer. With a small group of volunteers, Fabian built a system to elude spam filters and dispatch millions of emails to Russia— urging the Russian people to disregard the government propaganda and providing links to accurate information about the war in Ukraine. Fabian figured out how to make a difference; by working with him, so have I.

As an immigrant with Russian and Ukrainian roots, I liken Russia’s argument that it can invade Ukraine because the two countries used to be one to an abusive husband violating a restraining order because “we are a family.” But as a behavioral scientist studying conflict communication, I worried that reaching Russian inboxes was not enough. I also wanted to be sure that the Russians opening those emails would be receptive to the message and not dismiss it out of hand. So, I contacted Fabian to learn more about his operation and share my concerns. We began working together to reshape the messages in ways that can persuade skeptical Russians.

Fabian’s email scheme is both clever and simple: a volunteer clicks on a link and an outgoing email from their own account gets populated with 100 Russian email addresses and a message in Russian and English. The emails get past spam filters because they come from real people and arrive in small batches. The messages also include instructions for downloading software that circumvents government blockers on news and social media websites. Fabian estimates that around 50 million messages have been sent by his army of 500,000 volunteers.

The challenge is that people in Russia have experienced decades of brainwashing about the evils of the West and the plight of Russians in Eastern Ukraine. Like many Americans, many Russians don’t care about politics or international relations, and they don’t question the news they watch. They want to think well of their own country and will likely resent having their troops accused of killing innocents by an anonymous email landing uninvited in their inbox.

This is where behavioral scientists can help. Scholars in psychology, communications, marketing, conflict management and negotiations study how to influence someone who has strong incentives to maintain their beliefs. We can craft clearer, less threatening, more persuasive messages. People who are trying to break through the wall of Russian propaganda—from concerned activists to the U.S. government—would be wise to tap into this wealth of research-driven expertise.

In my lab at Harvard Kennedy School, we study “conversational receptiveness”—the use of specific words and phrases to convey one’s engagement with opposing perspectives. Conversational receptiveness uses specific linguistic cues identified by algorithms that analyze natural human language to ensure that your counterpart feels respected and understood. For example, receptive language features acknowledgement phrases such as “I understand that…” and “You are saying that…” to show that you really paid attention to your counterpart’s perspective. It also uses “hedges” (sometimes, possibly, often) to make the message come across as less dogmatic.

In related research, we find that simply and directly stating that you are interested in your counterpart’s point of view improves how that person sees you and your argument. This technique worked even in a study where Israelis read messages from Palestinian counterparts—messages they received during the Gaza war in the spring of 2021.

When faced with false and dangerous beliefs, our impulse is to make the strongest, most attention-grabbing argument possible. “The Russians are bombing maternity hospitals!” “Putin must be stopped!” “Save the people of Mariupol!” are flooding the internet. But such arguments are more likely to inflame resistance than foster dialogue. And even if I agree that Putin must be stopped, what exactly should I do about it? So, offering concrete action steps, such accessing independent news, is key to motivating action.

Fabian was open to applying these research-based insights to revise the messages in the emails. With the support of other scholars and students, we are rewriting the messages being sent by mail2ru.org and crafting batches of new ones. We focus on brevity, clarity, signaling receptiveness, and finding common ground. The recast emails are half as long as the original batch. The subject lines seek to start a dialogue. The emails make just a couple of clear points, focusing on the humanitarian and economic costs of the war, and avoid blaming the Russian people. These messages also explain in a few words how to access websites and browsers that evade government censorship and internet blocks and provide reliable information on what’s really happening in the war.

In this way, we combined our very different skills to reach Russians with messages that we hope will leave them more open to hearing the truth about the war their country is waging. We hope others join us in paving this path toward peace.

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