How does Russian propaganda work, and what makes it so effective?
The basic principle is universal and focuses on dissonances and discrepancies in the power structure of target countries, combined with the positive representation of one’s own ambitions.
The most important technique to achieve these goals is not “fake news” or “disinformation” – which can be refuted – but a skillful choice of topics, aspects and interview partners. As one doesn’t promise neutral journalism, the audience doesn’t expect it, either.
This approach is most effective when an incoherence or incompleteness of Western reporting can be proven and as a result confidence in the Western media system as a whole can be shaken – consider slogans and formats such as “Question More” or “The Missing Part”.
While seemingly progressive, the overarching strategic goal is to provide media support for Russian foreign policy – in peacetime as well as in wartime. This can be observed particularly well in volatile diplomatic relations, for example with countries such as France, Israel, Turkey or the US.
One should also keep in mind that Russian foreign state media outlets are financed by a government whose income largely depends on the international export of oil, gas, and arms.
For Western critics from a wide variety of political backgrounds, such a programme may nevertheless be quite attractive. Western media, on the other hand, find themselves in a serious dilemma: should they accept, ignore, or combat Russian-sponsored criticism?
The alleged Russian social media and hacking operations to influence foreign elections, however, remain unproven. Moreover, in 2018 a consulting firm tasked by US Congress with investigating these operations was itself caught faking a “Russian botnet” in order to manipulate a US senate election.
Actual disinformation is employed by the Russian side mainly when the facts are difficult to verify. More often than not, affiliated third parties are used to disseminate such questionable stories.
Test yourself: Russian propaganda
Many people are victims of Western propaganda. But others fall victim to Russian propaganda. Are you one of them? Test yourself and find out.
- Russia intervened in Syria because A) terrorists had to be fought, B) Christianity had to be defended, C) Syria should be maintained as a client state.
- Russia is building the Nord Stream II pipeline because A) natural gas is more ecological than coal, B) Putin likes to go diving in the North Sea, C) the pipeline bypasses Poland and Ukraine and generates income and influence.
- Russia’s main exports include A) doves of peace, B) strawberries, C) weapons and oil.
- In Russia A) the world is still in order, B) women are still in order, C) alcoholism and domestic violence are serious problems.
- Russian top-class sport A) is clean, B) doping is also practised in the West, C) practised state-sponsored doping aided by the secret service.
- Russian state-sponsored hackers are A) a NATO invention, B) unlike the CIA hackers, led by noble motives, C) a real threat.
- Moderators of the Russian RT channel A) may say what they want, B) may say what they like, C) may say what they want as long as it doesn’t contradict Russian foreign policy.
- When I watch RT, it is because A) the news is more objective, B) the moderators are more sympathetic, C) I am interested in the Russian view of things.
- Putin integrated the Crimea because A) the Crimean people wanted it that way, B) the Crimea was threatened by Ukrainian fascists, C) the Crimea hosts an important Russian military base.
- The “little green men” present during the secession of Crimea were A) which little green men?, B) volunteer activists, C) Russian special units without badges blocking the Ukrainian military.
- The USSR in the Second World War A) wanted only peace, B) waged war, but only in defence, C) invaded Finland, the Baltic States, Poland, Romania and China before being attacked by Germany itself, and in the end occupied large parts of Europe.
- Additional question: This test is A) an insult, B) not meant seriously, C) important.
Evaluation: If you haven’t answered C) for any of the twelve questions, you are probably a victim of Russian propaganda and should consume Russian media more critically.
Published: November 2018; updated March 2020