by Aleksandr Podrabinek
Today’s Russian state propaganda is in some sense more sophisticated than Soviet propaganda. Previously, propaganda inside the country was crude and clumsy, hitting Soviet people right over the head with it. But Soviet heads were impenetrable and the propaganda bounced off without causing much damage. More sophisticated propaganda, with a ‘human face’ and shades of objectivity, was aimed at the West.
Today, primitive and crude lies are also directed in a flood at the Russian viewer: propagandists like Soloviev, Kiselev, or Simonyan are no worse at their rotten craft than the Soviet propaganda ‘aces’ such as Nikolai Yakovlev, Genrikh Borovik or Valentin Zorin. But more subtle work is now being done not only abroad, but also inside the country.
A couple of weeks ago, Meta, the company that owns Facebook and Instagram, shut down more than a thousand fake accounts from which a great number of posts had been made in support of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. According to Meta, the trolls were working ‘seven days a week, with a daily brief break for lunch.’
There is, alas, nothing unusual in all this, but there is one nice detail. Some of the trolls posted both pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian comments at the same time, sometimes a few minutes apart. Meta speculates these may have been internal saboteurs, hired by their Russian masters but secretly sympathetic to Ukraine.
PITTING RUSSIANS AND UKRAINIANS AGAINST EACH OTHER ON SOCIAL MEDIA
I see a completely different picture. The task of these propagandists is precisely to pit Russians and Ukrainians against each other on social media. Therefore on Russian blogs they write nasty things in the name of Ukrainians (genetic slaves, serfs, imperialists, orcs and so on and so forth) and on Ukrainian blogs nasty things in the name of Russians (Nazis, Ukrops, Banderites, Russophobes and so on and so forth). Any socially significant event is used by them as an occasion for a massive propaganda attack aimed at pitting people against each other.
Basically, it’s a fairly simple schema, notable only for the fact that the propagandists on the payroll are anonymous. While everyone is already very familiar with the faces and voices of the generals of Kremlin propaganda, nothing definite can be said about the soldiers of the troll factory.
For the user of social media, most of the time it isn’t clear whether it’s a stupid opponent who is commenting spitefully on your page or a paid troll. Therefore, Meta’s research can only be applauded.
DIVERGENCE FROM REALITY
A lot of effort and budgetary funds are being invested in the attempt to create an appearance of unity in Russia in relation to the war against Ukraine, a facade of unanimity in support of Putin’s policies. Only polling figures pleasing to the ears of the Kremlin leaders are made public. Many Western media outlets, without the slightest embarrassment, quote the results of ‘public opinion surveys’ from such monsters of Kremlin propaganda as VTsIOM or the Public Opinion Foundation.
These institutions have long been known as nothing more than mouthpieces for the Kremlin. but Western mass media cite them as sources of information!
It is interesting that the pollsters themselves sometimes admit that respondents are afraid to answer honestly, but they nevertheless regularly publish the happy results of their polling. Recently, a Russian pollster with the beautiful foreign name of Russian Field admitted its results might not coincide with respondents’ real opinions, since ‘Russians are afraid to talk about this subject – refusals have increased, sincerity has decreased.’
Yet despite this they release the prescribed figures: the general level of support for the war against Ukraine is 69%; about a quarter of respondents are against it. After all, no one wants to lose their job: if the polling figures were the opposite, for example, how many more days would this polling agency last?
Strange as it may seem, the real public mood can be judged by the activities of the GRAD group, headed by the writer-cum-riot-police-officer Zakhar Prilepin. These enterprising whistleblowers, engage, so they claim, in the investigation of anti-Russian activities, accusing Russian cultural figures of an unpatriotic silence and secretly condemning the military actions in Ukraine.
The majority of those on GRAD’s proscription list are the ‘silent ones’ who avoid publicly expressing their attitude to the war. Among these, as they used to say, ‘comrades who did not disarm before the party,’ are officials and cultural figures who are highly influential and obedient to the Kremlin. Among them are, for example, Konstantin Ernst, general director of Channel One; Vladimir Urin, head of the Bolshoi Theatre; Vladimir Tolstoi, adviser to the president on cultural issues; Natalia Timakova, former press secretary to President Dmitry Medvedev; film director Fedor Bondarchuk; and others.
Prilepin, who is a riot police officer by nature, and his cronies are forcing the ‘silent ones’ out into the open, unwittingly demonstrating the real attitudes of many in the elite close to the Kremlin to Putin’s adventure in Ukraine. But if this is the case with the Kremlin’s servants, what can be said about the people in the street?
No one knows the true configuration of social forces in Russia today. There are no instruments by which to measure the public mood. Everything is replaced by propaganda, which, unfortunately, many people who are far from stupid, and even independent media outlets, fall for.
Translated by Simon Cosgrove