Unfortunately, far too many outside Russia keep falling for the lies. This is from a piece by Jakub Kalenský published yesterday in The Kyiv Independent:

As security expert Keir Giles highlighted in his most recent book, Russia is constantly playing the “fear of escalation” card, and the West keeps falling for it. According to a recent report by the Estonian Foreign Intelligence Service, the Kremlin is playing for time, believing that Ukraine and the West will wear out before Russia. Polls conducted in the U.S. and statements by influential politicians show that this may be a reasonable bet.

If we see that Western support for Ukraine remains inadequate, that it is constantly downscaled and constrained amid fears of the Kremlin, and that even this insufficient support might be weakening, can we really say that Russia has comprehensively lost in the information domain?

There are still other indicators that the Kremlin’s disinformation efforts are far from unsuccessful.

The Pope, a moral authority for over a billion people on this planet, regularly repeats elements of the Kremlin’s propaganda. For example, in June 2022, he suggested that Russia’s full-scale war was “perhaps somehow either provoked or not prevented.”

Elon Musk, while he could probably not be further from the Pope, has also regularly echoed Russian disinformation to his audience of millions. Multiple influential politicians do the same, be they in North America or Europe.

Lies that NATO is to blame for Russia’s war crimes against Ukraine are repeated by academics, while other disinformation about Russia’s war successfully penetrates Western media outlets and thus receives newfound credibility. Pro-Russian lies about the atrocities committed in Bucha outperformed facts on the same topic on Facebook.

While the Kremlin’s disinformation narratives are being spread in the West, does this mean that people actually believe the Russian lies?

Yes, many of them do – opinion polls taken over the past 13 months prove this....

Taking all of this together – that the West is repeatedly paralyzed into not sufficiently helping Ukraine; that many Western opinion-makers continue to repeat and amplify the Kremlin’s disinformation narratives; that we see one-fifth to one-third of the population of Euro-Atlantic countries believing in various Kremlin lies and that the situation in the Global South is even worse – can we really be so optimistic that Russia is losing the information war?

So far, it seems that the whole “we are winning” the information war resembles the German Zeitenwende: it sounds very attractive to say it, we would love to believe in it, and we are desperately looking for any trace of evidence that it’s finally there, but, in reality, it’s just not happening yet.


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Mar 29, 2023·edited Mar 29, 2023Author

The Kyiv Independent spoke to Dr. Ian Garner, Canada-based historian and specialist of Russian and Soviet wartime culture, on the trajectory of attitudes to the war of the Russian population. Garner is the author of “Stalingrad Lives: Stories of Combat and Survival” (released last December) and the upcoming book “Z Generation: Into the Heart of Russia's Fascist Youth.” The following is an abridged version of what Garner said.

There is every sign that Russia is becoming a more and more totalitarian, more closed off country, and that the government is willing to do everything, including totally reforming its culture, totally reforming the economy in order to support not just this war, because the concept is now that Russia is a country continually at war and the threat isn't restricted to Ukraine....

We've seen some groups of soldiers’ mothers, soldiers’ widows coming out of the woodwork in support of the war. Lately, we've seen Putin supposedly meeting soldiers’ mothers, some of whom turned out, of course, not to be mothers at all. The state is trying to say that, as regrettable as the fighting is, as regrettable as the sacrifice is, the state cares. The state is doing the best it possibly can for those who are dying and their families. It seems ludicrous from our perspective, but when you're on the inside of this propaganda world and you do have some sort of—if not complete trust in—respect for the Russian state more than the Western media, it's effective....

We know that there are still opposition elements within Russia. I know that social media would have you think that nobody in Russia cares, and everybody is completely indifferent to the suffering of Ukrainians, but that's not true. The problem that the opposition has, if we are saying that probably 15 to 20% of the population are deeply uncomfortable in some way with what's happening, is that who are they following? Nobody. There is no opposition leader because the state has jailed, slandered, libeled them so effectively over the last few years....

On the other hand, there is a radical demographic that's probably the same size as the opposition, but on the other end, maybe a little bit bigger. This group seems full of life, full of ideas and impetus right now, because many people on this side, including amongst the youth, really feel like they are entering a kind of apocalyptic conflict where Russia has to fight the war against the West, against liberals, against homosexuals, against Ukrainians, against all of these things that are somehow diseasing Russia. And in between we have something of a murky middle made up of around 50% of the population. Time after time in opinion polls, in focus groups anyway, these people show they are willing to follow the state, to do what they think or what the state thinks is best....

Change is going to come from the top rather than the bottom. And there is no promise that change is going to be moving Russia in a more liberal or a more pacifist direction. Even change from the bottom may actually coalesce around the nationalist extremists, those who want to use even more firepower against Ukraine. And we're seeing some of that emerge on some of the more extreme right-wing telegram groups. Those people have a far greater reach than the opposition in Russia today, and the state tacitly permits them to criticize the state in certain ways. And they're playing a more dangerous game there than they are with the opposition. And so, in a sense, you have to be careful what you wish for, because we may see more widespread protests that are actually revanchist in nature, especially when we're thinking five, 10 years in the future rather than five or 10 weeks in the future.

We're at a really, really dangerous point. Over 2023 and 2024, the war will most certainly still be fought very fiercely with high casualties on both sides. On one hand, the Kremlin is trying to foster this dominant kind of bottom-up agitation. On the other, the moment could come where suddenly the Kremlin's interests and the interests of those groups stop aligning. There are so many different factions wandering around in Russian society. There is Dugin and his crowd, then there is Prigozhin who seems to be completely, almost brilliantly amoral. But the issue for the state begins when these factional disagreements, both with the regime and with each other, start to threaten the ability of the state to make and execute decisions....

So much of this thought exists in social media bubbles, where there is always this pressure to one up each other. Every time bad news hits, the pro-war crowd aren't rationally reassessing the way that the war is being conducted, they're simply fishing for clicks and rage baiting each other to say that we need to go one step further. We need to go one step more, it doesn't matter that people are dying, they say.... They are fighting a war in Russia to save Russia and Russians. They are genuinely convinced of this, it’s a sort of quasi-religious fact of life. It's a cult-like mentality, and cults don't respond to facts in the way you expect them to. When you challenge them with reality, they are more likely to actually double down deeper into cult-like thinking.... The longer it goes on for, the harder it's going to be as you have new generations, new young Russians entering the public who know only how to speak this language of war and sacrifice and death, to see the West as something irrevocably tainted with vindictive Russophobia....

I don't think the answer is in promising people new Western lifestyles because the West is just so associated with this, this Russophobia, even into the murky middle. People are distrustful of the West, so it can't be a repeat of the ways that things were handled in the early 1990s.... The raison d'etre is not destroying Ukraine, it is saving Russia.... It goes back to this understanding that there is no difference conceptually between Russia and Ukraine, which is completely distorted. But when you understand that Russia's under attack, it means we need to save ourselves. We need to save our people. Well, it is worth going and fighting, we don’t have a choice but to keep pushing. Russia is fighting this isolated, lonely battle against a world that is against it and that has a real appeal to people....

Everybody gets sick of the war, sick of the state. The elites grow frustrated because they can't enjoy the European vacations anymore. The middle classes are annoyed because those holidays in Dubai and Egypt and Cyprus become inaccessible to them. Consumer goods start drying up. Russia falls behind in a technological arms race, and eventually the periphery starts to break. We see protests around the edges of Russia, discontent amongst the more poverty-stricken regions of the country. Maybe we see protests in Moscow as well. Things could change really quickly, and then we could reach a tipping point. But it's not coming tomorrow. We're talking five years, 10 years, or 15.


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Another “footnote”:

Dave Troy, an investigative journalist addressing threats to democracy, has been conducting a large-scale study of links between public websites. Its purpose: to observe clustering and identify connections between communities of interest. (For more on the subject of “homophily” see https://arxiv.org/pdf/2008.10383.pdf.)

Asked about Russian-state adjacent sites, he ran a query. The results are listed in this spreadsheet:


It includes this visualization:


The methodology is described in the spreadsheet. Folks interested in Russia-linked propaganda should take a look at the top 250 or so sites. The top 35 sites can be seen in this image:


Troy states that search engines have this kind of data at scale, and could easily provide periodic reports detailing site clustering. They have an ethical responsibility to do such reporting, and should possibly be compelled to provide such information to researchers and governments.

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