Kremlin Propaganda Hasn't Broken Our Brains — Yet

As Russia’s military wages a more and more brutal campaign against Ukraine, Vladimir Putin’s propagandists are in overdrive. Calls the “annihilation” of Ukraine are shouted ever stronger, and supposed Western plots are growing ever wilder. And what’s worse is that social media and the work of Kremlin apologists is beginning to make the Kremlin’s conspiratorial mindset have an impact on discussion of the conflict abroad.

Western media networks show the brutal bombings of Mariupol and Chernihiv, portray indiscriminate attacks on civilians in Kramatorsk, debate the possible use of chemical weapons, and, thanks to the help of Ukrainian reporters and witnesses, reveal brutal atrocities committed against Ukraine’s civilian population in Bucha and across occupied territory. 

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Entering the Russian infosphere feels like tumbling into another world entirely. On social networks like VK, which counts over 70 million regular users in the former Soviet states, and on television, the Kremlin and its supporters have spun an ever-evolving – and ever more hyperbolic – web of lies to justify the war: the Ukrainian government has been taken over by Nazis; NATO plans to capture Ukraine and use it to threaten Russia; Ukraine and the U.S. are developing nuclear weapons together; Ukraine is hosting U.S. biolabs developing Covid. Now, as the war enters a new phase of unprecedented aggression, the nation’s leading news agency has published an article that calls the entire Ukrainian nation “Nazis” and “collaborators” and insists that Russian must inflict “punishment” on the whole population. 

For every Ukrainian military success, state mouthpieces promise to exact revenge two-fold. The sinking of Russia’s Black Sea flagship Moskva on April 13-14, for example, was answered by talk of escalation on Pervyi kanal (First Channel): “The special operation is over…[this] is a cause for war…we have to bomb Kiev.” Talk was followed by action as bombs landed on Kyiv hours later. Urged on by television propagandists and politicians, the war’s causes, justifications, and aims spiral ever further into the absurd and the obscene.

State-monitored social media are awash with sleekly produced videos that resemble movie trailers and video games. Russians are told that their troops are in Ukraine “in the defence of peace” and shown footage of Russians handing out food and shepherding grateful seniors to buses headed for the safety of the motherland. Users’ public comments reveal only gratitude: “Great job, lads”; “You’re our pride and joy, you can’t be beaten”; “Our President will be so proud of you.” On many extreme nationalist groups on social media platforms such as VK and Telegram, hatred for Ukrainians spills over into genuine racist aggression and even calls for rape, mass violence, or genocide.

News of reality filters into the Russian social media space through networks like Telegram, which remains unrestricted and has recently overtaken WhatsApp to become the nation’s most popular service. There, Russians can easily access Ukrainian, Western, and domestic opposition channels that spread news about the reality of the war. But in response, the state’s propaganda machine works itself into a fury conjuring up new conspiracy theories.

Every day, the Russian media announces new “discoveries” about the depths Russia’s enemies are willing to sink to in order to attack the motherland: secret documents, plans, and stashes of Nazi paraphernalia from Ukraine are paraded on mobile and TV screens; newly discovered historical documents claim to reveal the ties of today’s Ukrainians to Nazis of the past; and Ukrainian spies are found and brought to justice all over Russia. Everywhere, always, Russia must face down the threat of the mysterious provokatsiya, a “provocation,” that anti-Russian forces – the West, NATO, Ukraine, neo-Nazis, fifth columnists, civil rights activists – will launch against the nation.

In recent weeks, the conspiracy theories have reached a new level of intensity in response to one such “provocation,” the discovery of mass graves after Russian retreats in Bucha and other Ukrainian towns. Vladimir Solovyev, a long-time state propagandist with a weekly chat show on Russia’s main TV channel, told viewers that the West faked the videos and that the “actors” aren’t even dead. Russian reporters announced to television viewers that Ukraine deliberately massacred Russians in order to stage the attacks. Elsewhere, stories claimed that the supposedly neo-Nazi Azov battalion, a particular bugbear for state media, created a “torture chamber” for Russians in Bucha. In other words: the atrocity is not real, it’s a fake, or perhaps it’s real but somebody else did it.

In its totality, this assault leaves the mind reeling. Viewers are left furious at the someone or something that is apparently annihilating Russians, and beg for the confusion to end. Like the victim of any other torture, they give in to their torturer’s version of reality.

The West has had a bit of heavy-breathing over Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and some of Kyiv’s claims about the war have been taken a little too quickly at face value. But Putin’s conspiracies around the Ukraine war have so far not gained widespread traction in the West. However, as the war drags on, and even as Russian atrocities are uncovered in Bucha and beyond, the Kremlin’s propaganda lines seem to be catching on in corners of the far right and far left in America and Europe – and there is evidence we may see schisms grow in the coming weeks.

According to Alison Meek — a history professor at King’s University College in London, Ontario — Soviet and Russian disinformation campaigns have been most effective in the West when they appeal to issues of domestic policy: “This war just doesn’t have the same domestic impact as, say, the assassination of a president [like JFK].” 

In a profit-driven world, even right-wing media outlets usually given to indulging Putinist conspiracies have largely ignored Russia’s version of events when they’re unlikely to get viewers tuning in or advertisers buying commercials. Even, for example, Fox News has shown relatively little anti-Ukraine content. So far, Fox’s line on Bucha has largely aligned with those of more mainstream networks. It has not repeated the Kremlin’s disinformation about the atrocities.

With one glaring exception. Tucker Carlson’s takes have mirrored Russian propaganda lines almost to the letter. Carlson has long argued for a position of U.S. isolationism on Ukraine – essentially leaving the country to its fate in Russia’s sphere of influence, a position that Moscow strongly advocates for.

But he sometimes goes further than toeing the isolationist line. Some of Carlson’s claims can be traced directly back to Russian state media. Pravda, the Russian state’s newspaper of record, refloated an old conspiracy about American biolabs operating in Ukraine, on February 27. Today, the conspiracy has evolved to include characters and places familiar to American audiences – George Soros, Hunter Biden, and American universities – alongside Ukrainian ministries and research institutes. Russian state media and astroturfing groups rapidly spread this material across Russian-language social and analog networks in early March. 

By March 9, Tucker Carlson was openly discussing the theory on his evening Fox show. The presenter falsely claimed that U.S. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland (a favourite bête-noire of Russian disinformation on Ukraine) had confirmed as “true” what had been dismissed as a “conspiracy theory.” Carlson was breathlessly praised by Russian state media as a voice of reason the following day. Since then, the biolabs story has exploded on right-wing internet forums. On Reddit alone, hundreds of English-language threads with thousands of comments discuss the theory, while Russians continue to share videos of Carlson’s praise online.

While even Carlson has been relatively restrained since the emergence of undeniable evidence of Russian atrocities in Bucha, other elements of the US’ far right have continued to shoehorn the Kremlin’s propaganda into American discourse. Candace Owens, the conservative influencer and talk show host, has been an overt Putin supporter since the invasion began, even dismissing claims of anti-Ukrainian genocide as “stupid.” Yet rather than just repeating the Kremlin’s narratives, Owens attempts to link that material to the familiar tropes of the American far right. On Twitter, she has in recent weeks declared that “Russian lives matter,” projecting the Kremlin’s purported – and illogical – defence of “ethnic Russians” in Ukraine into the language of American conservatism. 

After Volodymyr Zelensky’s appearance at the Grammys in early April, Owens used Twitter to attack the president’s wife, Olena Zelenska, for granting an interview to Vogue. Closing her Tweet, Owens issued a pair of familiar far right battle cries: “Don’t ask questions. Trust the science.” Two days later, she wrote that the Ukraine’s president was a “new false idol”: “George Floyd became Dr. Fauci became President Zelensky.” The “masses,” she claims, “continually fall it [sic].”

For Owens, the Ukraine war has become the latest mediatized spectacle played out by a cast of interchangeable pantomime villains and designed to conceal an undefined but inevitably perverse reality from the public. Peppering her questioning of the mainstream narrative on the conflict with unconnected but familiar slogans drawn from other far right narratives – “All lives matter,” “Trust the science” – she draws her audience into a familiar but disorienting world of conspiracies that emulates the Kremlin’s propaganda reality not just in fact but in spirit.

However, the appeal of Russia’s conspiratorial thinking has not been confined to the far right. In response to the discovery of mass killings by Russian troops in the town of Bucha, Russian media published on April 3 a number of contradictory explanations. One explanation was the idea that Bucha had been faked as a “provocation” to justify anti-Russian aggression. The next day, Chris Williamson, a former MP and shadow minister in the United Kingdom, cast doubt on the reality of what had become a torrent of corroborative evidence by repeating the “provocation” theory to his ninety thousand Twitter followers. 

George Galloway, another far left British politician with a show on the Russian propaganda network RT, reiterated a second state propaganda line to suggest that the West, not Russia, was blocking investigations into the reality of Bucha. The nominally left-wing director and conspiracy connoisseur Oliver Stone meanwhile, has been on a Twitter rampage in recent weeks. Stone has cast doubt on events in Bucha by posting materials created by groups of dubious provenance. Like Candace Owens, Stone attacks the “mainstream” narrative of Bucha by questioning the possibility of knowing the truth and suggesting that a cabal of ideological opponents – old left-wing hate figures of neocons, NATO, and the CIA – is hindering attempts at understanding reality.

Figures such as Carlson, Owens, Williamson, Galloway, and Stone are able to reach huge numbers of Western readers and viewers on social and analog media. With their approach of “just asking questions,” they – whether intentionally or not – bring Moscow’s conspiratorial web of contradictions to a wider audience and provide fodder for Russian-language propagandists to create further schisms and support at home and abroad. Indeed, Russian media broadcast comments made by such pundits to domestic audiences as evidence that a fragmented West is in disarray. As the spiral of falsity, fake confirmation, and questioning embraces Russia and the West through social networks, we are all drawn into a state of increasing confusion.

As a result, we are vulnerable to the “asking questions” approach of Moscow’s Western enablers – and thus to the Kremlin’s conspiracy mindset. Rumors, misinformation, and guesswork swirl around every move Russians make, regardless of their political stripe. Take, for example, the affair of Maria Ovsyannikova, who brandished an anti-war sign during the national news on Pervyi kanal, the flagship broadcaster. Her prior and subsequent actions and intentions have been dissected in every conceivable way: the newsreader she interrupted wasn’t shocked enough for it to be real; Ovsyannikova was only given a slap on the wrist fine, proving it was a stunt; she was just there to garner Western sympathy so she could spread Kremlin messages abroad; she was a “fake,” a “plant,” part of the KGB’s “Operation Ovsyannikova.” Or perhaps Ovsyannikova, who claims to have a Ukrainian father, is a “hero” and a “fighter for truth” willing to risk it all. 

For now, it is impossible to discern the truth. But challenged with the unthinkable and the inexplicable, social media users abroad replicate the Kremlin’s conspiratorial mindset, raking through sparse evidence for hidden meanings. Those who are not resilient or ready to seek out genuine expertise are likely to give in to the most convenient, appealing, or emotionally persuasive explanation.

Indeed, Alison Meek argues that in the West, we are living through “a pandemic of conspiratorial thoughts.” Thus far, the voicing of Russian propaganda narratives by the Kremlin’s Western mouthpieces has translated into concrete action only at small protests in the West. But now the contagion is beginning to spread more widely as the more extreme actors in the American political system begin their usual discursive battles and feel emboldened to pursue pro-Kremlin lines more openly. By untruthfully accusing conspiracists like Tucker Carlson of spreading falsities about Bucha, opponents of extremism create yet further confusion.

As Russia’s atrocities in Ukraine threaten to drag Western nations more directly into the conflict in Ukraine – or make far greater economic sacrifices in order to pressure Russia – our eagerness to pierce the Kremlin’s veil of irreality and pursue the truth leaves us all vulnerable to fragmenting meanings and the dishonest work of the Kremlin’s Western apologists. And the more vulnerable we become, the more that extreme political actors will choose to adopt the Kremlin’s fake narratives for their own ends. 

For now, as General Eisenhower urged his government to do after visiting a German concentration camp, we must steer clear of guesswork and focus on ensuring that documentary evidence – photographs, videos, and eyewitness accounts – is collected and publicized in order to resist those who obfuscate or deny the reality of the war.

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