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How Russian Media Spent a Year Selling the War

6 minute read

In a devastating Feb. 14 report, a group of Yale researchers estimated that over 6,000 children from Ukraine have been held in camps and facilities in mainland Russia and occupied Crimea. The researchers found that Russia was unnecessarily putting the children up for adoption and foster care. Such treatment could constitute a war crime—committed not just by the government but by the initiative’s apparent leader, Maria Lvova-Belova, the Presidential Commissioner for Children’s Rights in the Russian Federation—the report warned.

But in Russia, where the media is controlled or coerced by the government, this same report was framed very differently. In a conversation with President Vladimir Putin on state-controlled station Channel One, Lvova-Belova explained that Russia had saved the children. In fact, Lvova-Belova said, she had adopted a 15-year-old from Donbas herself, thanks to the president.

This incident is part of a longstanding Kremlin strategy to use television as a tool to manipulate popular opinion, says Maxim Alyukov, a postdoctoral fellow at King’s College London’s Russia Institute researching television and other media. The goal of this strategy, he explained, is not only to control a single story, but to sow confusion about the truth and cast doubt on whether any information—from a Russian news source, a foreign organization, or an institution like Yale—can be trusted. This distrust has been particularly impactful since Russia invaded Ukraine, and partly explains why many Russians have continued to either support the war or to withhold judgment.

These circumstances enable the Russian government to “harness distrust” and cast doubt on alternative narratives that challenge the government, says Alyukov. “Many people don’t really trust state television, but they also don’t trust alternative sources. They end up not trusting anything. And when you don’t trust anything, you don’t act,” Alyukov explains.

Read More: Inside the Kremlin’s Year of Ukraine Propaganda

State-sponsored misinformation has been an agent of social control in Russia since before the emergence of the Soviet Union, but it’s found a champion in Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has pursued what he calls “information warfare” with the West. In over two decades of his leadership the state has tightened control of media, but it took things one step further in 2022, with the implementation of a law banning news that contradicts the government’s narrative of the war.

As a result of this control, most of the media that Russians encounter daily has been subject to some form of government manipulation. Throughout the war, this means that people have been “bombarded” with information, whether they turn to the Russian news aggregator Yandex, social media, or TV, says Kristina Aleksandrovna Pedersen, a Ph.D. fellow at the University of Copenhagen researching authoritarian control of the media. And for many Russians, television is still a mainstay of their media diet: according to a report by Russian media research company Mediascope, in 2022, 64% of Russians watched TV daily, while 88% watched at least once a week.

State control does not mean coverage is coherent, however. In many cases, Russian news itself will flip-flop between opposing narratives, says Pedersen. During the war, for instance, Ukrainians are represented as victims of the Ukrainian state, Nazis, or as a fake nation. Part of the problem, she says, is that the state-approved narrative is not always made clear to journalists, and journalists can not always be sure when they’re breaking the law. As a journalist in Russia, “you need to cover all ground,” she says. “I think they themselves are trying to guess where [narratives] are going.”

Changes in the official state narrative can also lead to jarring shifts in reporting. For instance, when a Ukrainian Instagram influencer was reported by Western media as one of the victims of a Russian bombing at a maternity hospital, news broadcaster Vesti insisted that she was a planted act by Ukraine, and was “given things to hold, made up and put in front of a camera.” A few weeks later, however, she became a source for another report by Russian news channel NTV, reportedly telling RT that she witnessed Western media faking the air raid on the maternity hospital altogether.

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Russian media also frequently reports on “fake news” or “manipulation” by Western news sources, says Alyukov. In March 2022, shortly before the war began, Channel 1 even launched a special program dedicated to foreign news, “AntiFake,” which encourages viewers to practice “mental hygiene” in order to “deal with the tsunami of lies.”

“They use these specific words and accusations a lot to deflect any accusations of wrongdoing,” explains Alyukov. “In order to reinforce your own narrative, you create false, alternative narratives.”

While general news programming is a conduit for state-sponsored information, Alyukov argues that talk shows are “the primary platforms for spreading propaganda and discussing war in more detail.” In his research on Russian media, such programming seems to shore up support among the most extreme supporters of the Kremlin, and particularly with older demographics.

Talk shows also create a platform for media personalities to spread false information. Among the most famous talking heads is Margarita Simonyan, the editor-in-chief of RT, a Russian-owned international news network. Simonyan has challenged that any news media can be free from bias, calling a free press a “beautiful myth,” and declaring in April 2022 that “no large government can exist without control over information.” In the last year, she has framed the war as a conflict between Russia and the “monstrous western world,” and that defeat would be disastrous, and even result in nuclear war.

For all of this state manipulation, however, Pedersen emphasizes that the Russian people shouldn’t be given a pass for supporting the war. Many Russians, she notes, have access to VPNs which they can harness to read news outside of Russian censors. “It’s really hard to brainwash someone,” says Pedersen. “Usually people will be more receptive towards the things they already believe.”

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