The war in Ukraine is happening today not only on the battlefields, at sea, and in the sky, but it is also fiercely waged in the information space. The war is raging on the air on TV channels, on the Internet, and social networks, to a large extent forming public opinion. And even though this weaponry leaves people alive, it makes some of them “braindead.”
By Maryna Sydelnykova
Nothing New under the Sun
Propaganda is not a modern invention. The very definition comes from Latin and, in rough translation, means “that which should be spread.” Propaganda was widely used even in the Middle Ages: then, nothing depended on public opinion, so manipulation was aimed at influential groups of the population. And then those people broadcast the necessary information to the masses.
But the world is constantly moving forward and evolving. With urbanization and the development of the mass media, the delusional idea emerged that the consent of the masses is an indispensable condition for the success of any activity and, in particular, when it comes to matters of state. By this principle, the manipulation of mass consciousness has become the dominant technology, the most important tool of influence and control of thoughts.
Unfortunately, political influence on the minds of the masses is not only still a part of our lives but has also become a central and integral tool of our daily lives. Especially in recent times, Russia actively pursued dirty politics concerning Ukraine. There is nothing fundamentally new in the current situation; people at all times willingly believed the lies they liked and made important decisions based on unrealistic ideas. Moscow did not invent or start this process; it only plays in this field actively and with pleasure.
In the Bull’s Eye
Before discussing today’s propaganda, we should zoom in on why people are susceptible to influence. We must admit that despite the massive amount of money spent on manipulating people, this business is not worth much effort since this propaganda, as the English say, “preaches to the converted.” Most propaganda messages target the people who are ready to believe in them. And Russian propaganda has always worked and continues to work in a targeted manner. Each target audience gets a tailored message promoted to them in a very specific way.
The most intense influence, of course, comes from television. Ukraine began disconnecting local households from Russian TV channels and radio relatively late. But those who fell for Moscow’s propaganda, to begin with, sought these channels out by installing satellite dishes. It is mostly Russian-speaking older people who have no idea about current events, who still remember the times of the Soviet Union. Many Russophones perceived the introduction of Ukrainian as the state language, however gradual, as bullying. They gulped in the thesis of the Russian media about the “noble goal of restoration of the Soviet Union in one form or another.” Professionally created programs, films, and TV series skillfully used their target audience’s great longing for the USSR for Russian propaganda’s benefit.
The human psyche works in such a way that people choose to believe the facts that correspond to their existing worldview out of the multitude of information they encounter. As a result, people get caught up in their information bubbles. It is not uncommon to witness conversations that pensioners repeat as a mantra: “In Russia, elderly people live better. Pensions are higher there; gas is cheaper; medical services are free of charge.”
As for young people, many hostile narratives have also been developed for them. Thus, people with a low level of education easily believe, for example, various conspiracy theories. Here, such an analogy comes to mind: just as you can get out of a pot only what you have previously put into it, you should not expect critical thinking from someone under an informational siege.
Countless information channels emerged with the appearance of the Internet and the numerous “variations of the truth.” Lies multiplied by the imperial ambitions of Russia lead to the blurring of the boundaries of objective truth in the minds of the audience; the information presented by trustworthy media and responsible politicians is put on the same scales as the delusions of conspiracy theorists.
With the beginning of full-scale Russian aggression, the situation has begun to change. But unfortunately, this change is slow.
A “Blurred” Tragedy
It is difficult to overestimate the importance of the process of forming public opinion. And in the era of easily accessible and numerous sources of information, its veracity is the number one problem.
The purpose of propaganda is to show that there is no such thing as truth at all. And the main problem of society is that propaganda works! It may be hard to convince people that black is white, but if the right target audience is repeatedly exposed to the right messages, they may begin to doubt what they see. Propaganda technologists create an ugly picture of the world, where “everything is not so clear-cut.”
A bitter example was the tragic event at the railway station in Kramatorsk in the Donetsk region. On April 8, 59 people were killed, and more than 100 were seriously injured due to shelling by Russian troops. At that time, thousands of residents of the Donetsk region were at the station because adults and children were being evacuated to safer areas of Ukraine.
The SBU investigation showed that the Russian army launched the rocket attack on the railway station in Kramatorsk from the occupied part of the Donetsk region. But immediately after the shelling, Russian propagandists reporting on this tragedy began offering Russians and Ukrainians various delusional theories about the events, all for the sake of “diluting” it.
There were many versions. One of the most popular is as follows: “the Russian army does not have Point-U missile systems in service. The second one is that “Ukraine killed its citizens to blame it on Russia and increase pressure on Moscow from the West.”
And there are others, too: “the residents of Donbas are Russian-speaking, Ukrainians do not feel sorry for them,” and “these were substandard rockets aimed at the object of the Russian troops, but they went off course.”
Russian propagandists understand very well that if you repeat this constantly and loudly, then soon a viewer of TV channels banned in Ukraine or a user of social networks will say: “With the death of people in Kramatorsk on April 8, everything is not so clear…”.
Moreover, other “facts” are drawn into the vortex of lies.
“The incident in the Kramatorsk station is the same story as with events in Bucha. From a military point of view, an attack on a civilian train station has no tactical benefit. Instead, it benefits only Kyiv since a missile strike disrupts the evacuation of people, leaving them in Kramatorsk as a human shield. Statements akin to this one flooded Russian mass media.
To enhance the effect, “official news” appeared on the Internet that the Basmany district court in Moscow had arrested the commander of the 19th Missile Brigade of the Armed Forces of Ukraine in absentia as guilty of the rocket attack on the railway station in Kramatorsk.
Of course, people in Kramatorsk know who is guilty of this mass murder of civilians, but Russian lies are designed to impress people who weren’t there when the tragedy happened. And this distortion of facts works to consolidate the image of the enemy and dehumanize Ukrainians.
This is how Russian propaganda works. A set of versions is published, and as a result, what matters – the tragic death of people, old and young – is devalued.
Do Not Give in!
Directly fighting disinformation by exposing and refuting it is a futile effort because, first, you would reproduce the false data. Moreover, you will constantly lag and, unlike the source of disinformation, you are limited to the framework of truth and morality. You put yourself in a deadlock before the game is even on.
A relatively simple test allows you to determine how susceptible a person is to the influence of propaganda, the so-called contradiction test. It would seem that we are all intelligent people, we never contradict ourselves, and we usually notice when our interlocutor does it.
But Russian propaganda has no problem contradicting itself. For example, Russian media states that the Ukrainian state does not exist, and a little later, it claims that the Ukrainian state kills its citizens. They proclaim that the Ukrainian army drives people from their homes and disrupts evacuation. They have no problem saying there is no Ukrainian language, yet they insist that Russian speakers in Donbas are forced to speak Ukrainian.
So, we must recognize that propaganda technologists work tirelessly, raising the bar of their lies. Therefore, we should be alert to these fundamental characteristics of propaganda:
– purposeful reduction of color to black and white, multidimensional issues to two-dimensional. This way, the field of personal moral choice and responsibility narrows. Simply put, propaganda disregards a diverse range of opinions;
– there is a systematic appeal to mental images that form rejection and hatred of other people’s values and decisions;
– use of “the guise of journalism,” the desire to play or perform the role of a primary source of news – for example, when the author’s opinion is presented as generally accepted and evident to everyone;
– selective presentation of facts or their manipulation, appeals that misinterpret statistical data, experts’ stances, and opinions;
– the omission of facts or shifting accents where direct disinformation is impossible;
– the presence of an “enemy image.”
– forming a belief in the moral justification of any act concerning the “enemy,” including internal enemies;
– playing on emotions, fears, and prejudices, most often associated with a potential military threat;
– active use of stories about crimes and atrocities, cruelty and violence.
The material was prepared with the support of the Foundation for Independent Journalists of Eastern Europe.