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February 24th, 2016

Russia's Social Media vs. the Kremlin's Domestic Information War

The West has only recently started to understand how deeply public opinion in the Russian Federation has become infected with rabidly anti-Western conspiratorial and Manichean worldviews. During the last fifteen years, Russia’s citizens have been exposed to relentless demonization of the Western world, purposeful instigation of hatred towards the United States, and heavily manipulated foreign affairs reporting in Kremlin-controlled mass media. Thousands of cynical politicians, corrupt journalists, irresponsible showmen, and bizarre pseudo-experts are telling the Russian people, day after day, how immoral, degraded and dangerous Western civilization and, above all, the United States are.

As a result, the majority of Russians now believe that the West is after them. Russia’s territory, natural resources, civilization and very existence are, according to a widespread belief, under deadly threat from Washington as well as its underlings in Europe and elsewhere. Given Russia’s large (and modernizing) nuclear arsenal, this phenomenon is perhaps the most dangerous development in world affairs in the post-Soviet era.

In the spring of 2014, one hundred countries condemned Russia’s de jureannexation of Crimea at the UN, with only 11 states—various small allies of the Kremlin—voting against the resolution. Yet, as a result of the daily brainwashing by Kremlin TV, the overwhelming majority of Russians believe that the annexation was historically, legally, and morally justified. A largely similar story goes for Russia’s de facto annexation of Moldova’s Transnistria, of Georgia’s Akhazia and South Ossetia, as well as its occupation of the eastern part of Ukraine’s Donbas. Equally, Moscow’s increasingly heavy military involvement in Syria and tense political confrontation with Turkey are, in most Russians’ view, mere reactions to ever more aggressive Western policies towards Russia and her few remaining allies.

No surprise then that the West’s responses to Russia’s foreign adventures, i.e. political and economic sanctions, have only further heightened the sense of encirclement and paranoia among Russians. Public opinion formation in Russia has entered a vicious circle within which foreign victories and international defeats of Moscow can both, when well spun, work to strengthen an already established fortress mentality. Indeed, Russia's spin-doctors have manipulated Russia's worsening economic situation to foster an image of the Kremlin as a chivalrous fighter against an imperial and russophobic Washington. As long as Russia’s citizens remain within this alien parallel world, the Kremlin will remain a deadly danger to world peace and humanity’s future—with or without Vladimir Putin.

How to deal with such an intractable situation? After years of neglect, denial, and dithering, Western countries and organizations have begun to study and discuss this complex challenge. The EU has established a so-called Taskforce Stratcom East and started to publish a weekly Disinformation Review, which lists most of the Russian mass media lies, mystifications and half-truths about Western policies, Ukrainian affairs, the civil war in Syria etc. To counter Kremlin propaganda, a number of new East European web projects, such as the Russian sections of StopFake in Kyiv, Intersection in Warsaw, andMeduza in Riga, are targeting Russian speakers around the globe. A number of major international media companies, like the BBC in London, Radio Liberty in Prague, or Germany’s DW in Bonn produce Russian-language content aimed to balance the information war that the Kremlin is conducting on a world-wide scale. In fact, there are still some Russian independent media left that provide independent coverage, including the newspaper Novaia gazeta (New Newspaper), website Grani (Limits) and TV channel Dozhd (Rain).

Yet, all of these outlets have limited reach, and are so far, unfortunately, followed by relatively few Russians. They therefore cannot be counted as high-impact outlets. At the moment, all Russian-language electronic and print media with a wide audience inside Russia are controlled by Kremlin-friendly editors. As long as it stays this way, there is little chance to change the Russians’ increasingly foul mood and distorted worldview.

There is, however, a readily available channel through which accurate information, balanced journalistic reporting, alternative view points, and revealing artistic interpretation can be and, to some degree, already is being communicated throughout Russia—social media. Every day, more and more ordinary citizens are joining Russian social networks that are now playing almost as large a role in urban Russian life as they do in Western daily affairs. Thus millions of Russians have become members of major Western networks like Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn.

But, most Russian speakers are registered with Russia-based and predominantly Russian-language social networks. The three largest are VKontakte (In Contact) with over 50 million users, Odnoklassniki(Class Mates) with over 40 million users, and Moi mir (My World) with over 30 million users. To be sure, most of the communication on these networks concerns private life, shopping, entertainment, business and other non-political themes. Yet, these networks—especially VKontakte, as Europe’s largest social network—also share political content, and thus represent an opportunity to engage the Russian people that has, until now, been used to only limited extent, by the West.

Those groups and individuals who wish to reach Russian citizens—pro-democratic Russian and Western groups, social and cultural organizations, international mass media and ordinary citizens alike—can easily do so throughsocial networks like VKontakte, Odnoklassniki, Moi mir and others. Like in Western social networks, registration is not complicated, neither is the posting and sharing of texts, videos, graphs, and podcasts. These could include independent analyses of the post-Soviet political system, documentaries on current European affairs, investigations into corruption cases in former Soviet republics, reports on Moscow’s foreign adventures, interviews with prominent critics of the Kremlin, discussion shows on today’s world affairs, and so on. Ideally, this material should already be in Russian language. In addition, such posts could include entertainment shows, movies or programs that have some political dimension and may use satire, irony and other forms of humor.

The Kremlin is waging nothing less than an information war internationally and domestically. Its well-funded, highly professional and multidimensional propaganda campaign is, above all, designed to keep a kleptocratic regime in power, to diminish Western values as threats to its existence, as well as to expand its influence and reach. The current Russian ruling elite’s enormous prosperity is dependent on blind support of a brainwashed citizenry afraid of a Western invasion of Russia. It is time for the West to reach more actively out to ordinary Russians.

Andreas Umland is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation in Kyiv, and General Editor of the book series “Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society” published byibidem Press in Stuttgart, and distributed outside Europe by Columbia University Press.

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