Public opinion, disinformation and moral disengagement: social media and the Russian invasion of Ukraine

Many thousands of Russians have protested against the war in Ukraine, and have been imprisoned for doing so. However, the available public opinion data suggest that we should not expect hundreds of thousands of people to take to the streets anytime soon. This is not only because of the obvious dangers of social protest in an increasingly authoritarian state, but because a large proportion of the broad mass of the Russian population either supports the war or, at least, does not object to or condemn it.

The first reasonably reliable information we have on the attitudes of Russians towards the war came from representative surveys conducted by polling agencies VTSIOM and FOM (the former state-owned, the latter having the presidential administration as its key client) during the first 3 days after the war started. The headline results were that around 65% of Russians were in favour of the war, and analysis by Alexey Bessudnov breaks this down as follows: younger people are much less in favour of the war than older people; women support the war slightly less than men; people who watch television every day are much more likely to support the war; and anti-war feelings are much more pronounced in big cities such as Moscow and St. Petersburg, much less in small towns and the countryside. As Bessudnov argues, there are a number of reasons to be wary of these data, most notably that the ‘war’ is framed in the polls as a ‘military operation’ as per state propaganda. Nevertheless, given that Russian media has acted as a propaganda tool for Putin’s regime for more than twenty years now, and that there is very little independent media, we should not be surprised that many will be following the disinformation directed from the Kremlin, especially those who watch television, which Russians have long referred to as the ‘zombie box’. It is for this reason that we have to caveat the results of a more recent, internet-based poll, conducted by Alexey Navalny’s team, which suggests that there is growing opposition to the war. The fact that the poll was conducted online means that the views of the main bulk of those who do not object to the war would not have been captured.

A campaign to break through the wall of disinformation that surrounds many ordinary Russians, the CallRussia initiative, was recently launched in the UK, and involves Russian speakers randomly telephoning Russian citizens, working on the assumption that many are simply starved of alternative viewpoints to those pushed by the Kremlin. However, a similar approach was attempted on March 3 by journalists from independent news group Current Time TV, who conducted a vox pops in which they showed images of the war in Ukraine to Russians in the street. Even before the spreading of ‘fake news’ became illegal in Russia, many people approached by the journalists refused even to look at the images and simply stated that they were ‘for Putin’.

If we look at Russian social media such as – one of the safer (although not entirely safe) places for people to share their opinions –  it becomes even clearer that providing alternative forms of information about the war is unlikely to break down the wall of disinformation, not least because ordinary Russians themselves (sometimes bots and trolls, but often real) are busily engaged in reinforcing it. News feeds such as ‘Now you know!’ mix celebrity gossip stories with news about the ‘military operation’, and during the first days of the war, perhaps one in fifty of the comments from readers was a ‘truth bomb’ attempting to wake up other commenters to the humanitarian catastrophe taking place in their name. Replies ranged in degrees of hostility but were unequivocally resistant. As the war has progressed, the number of readers advocating for the truth has grown considerably, but many are Ukrainians, and their comments are even more likely to be fiercely resisted.

‘Now you know!’ news feed on Russian social media site, mixes celebrity gossip with current affairs

These responses on social media, like those of the Russians confronted with images of the war in the street, replicate what social psychologists refer to as mechanisms of moral disengagement. Writing about the responses of Americans to the use of military force in the ‘War on Terror’ after the September 11 terrorist attacks, McAlister et al. (2006) write about the way in which these mechanisms operate in the context of war. They argue that, in order for a country to go to war, it must create conditions that enable both soldiers and publics to suspend the moral evaluations and self-sanctions they would ordinarily undergo in the face of inhumane conduct. The psychosocial manoeuvres that enable moral disengagement take a number of different forms, all of which are amply demonstrated in responses to the present conflict amongst Russian social media users. First, ‘at the behavior locus, people transform lethal means into benevolent and moral ones through moral justification, advantageous comparison, and sanitizing language’. This is best reflected in the narrative that the war was a ‘military operation’ to ‘liberate’ Ukrainians from a fascist junta, and to ‘save’ the peoples of the so-called Lugansk and Donetsk People’s Republics (LNR and DNR), which is drawn on heavily by social media commenters. Second, ‘at the agency locus, they are relieved of a sense of personal accountability by displacement and diffusion of responsibility.’ This is evidenced in the common belief that whatever is happening in Ukraine right now is terrible, but that ultimately it was brought on by Ukraine’s choice to seek alliances with Western powers, and their reciprocation. Third, ‘at the outcome locus, the injurious effects of lethal means are disregarded, minimized, or disputed.’  In this respect, the ‘war against fakes’ announced by the Kremlin a few days into the war was already being waged by social media commenters, who countered ‘truth bombs’ and revelations of Russian fake news with the argument that any image of inhumane conduct was a Ukrainian concoction intended to draw international ire. Fourth, ‘at the recipient locus, foes are dehumanized and blamed for bringing the suffering on themselves.’ When commenters on social media concede that atrocities have taken place, responsibility is reversed and placed on the shoulders of the inhumane enemy who uses innocent people as a ‘human shield’.

In this way, the moral logic of the conflict and the ability to overcome cognitive dissonance and remain in a state of denial and moral disengagement comes from a combination of sources that Russian mainstream and social media are able to mobilise with ease in relation to the daily events in the war. These include the long-fought disinformation campaign against Ukraine in relation to the LNR and DNR, prejudicial readings of Ukrainian history (its statehood, its role in the Second Great Patriotic War) and ideas about Ukraine’s relationship with the West, as well as the pernicious activities of Western powers themselves (which also have a long history). Indeed, it is not surprising that Western sanctions have bolstered support for Putin in the short term, although this may eventually move in the opposite direction.

Disinformation and moral disengagement on Russian social media

So the question, then, is why are those millions who oppose the war able to see beyond the wall of disinformation, and others either unable or, in these cases, unwilling to do so? And the answer to this lies first of all in the exclusion felt by many ordinary Russians both within their own country and internationally, and secondly, in the populist politics that Vladimir Putin has used to exploit this exclusion for more than two decades.

If we look at the way that public discussion surrounding right-wing populist movements has played out in British and American politics in recent years we can see something very similar to what is happening in Russia. Liberally-minded people and politicians – the winners in liberal democracies and free-market economies – railed against events such as Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, but no amount of expert opinion or logical argument could sway the minds of those who were marginalised by the political and economic status quo in these countries, especially after the advent of ‘fake news’.

Ordinary Russians have been on the margins of the new capitalist Russia since the early 1990s, living lives far removed from the new world of consumption, leisure and international travel that gradually opened up for those who were closer to a ‘middle-class’ standard of living, and even further from the exotic lives of Western Europeans. Dealing with crisis after crisis in Russia’s low-wage economy, the majority of ordinary Russians in rural and small-town Russia, as well as in provincial industrial towns, have been living in an almost perpetual state of precariousness, and, importantly, they have been marginalised not only materially, but also symbolically, much like the ‘chavs’ of the UK and ‘trailer trash’ of the USA. What Putin has been able to do for years is to present himself as an ally to ordinary working-class Russians in a way that politicians like Alexey Navalny are unlikely ever to achieve. He has done this through his neo-conservatism and traditionalism, through his use of gender politics and displays of masculinity, even through his style of speech, which draws heavily on slang terms that the more refined and educated classes would never use. He has also shored up parts of the economy in which ordinary people work – prison officers, policemen, factory workers – such that, even in a context of immiseration and massive inequality, they have been able to feel that there is at least more stability than there was in the 1990s. He has appealed to the working-class young mothers who have provided the soldiers for the war through paternalistic pro-natalist policies such as ‘maternity capital’, and as reports emerge of the use of mobile incinerators to dispose of their bodies on the battlefields of Ukraine, he has just announced a new state benefit to be awarded to the children of low-income families. This is not to say that there are not critical thinkers amongst ordinary workers. Indeed, social critique targeted at the wealthy and corrupt is a salient feature of working-class culture in Russia as elsewhere, and clearly there are many protesters outside of the youthful city-dwelling population. Nevertheless, when faced with a choice of whom to believe, it is easy to see how many ordinary Russians will give Putin the benefit of the doubt before they give it to Ukrainians, or Americans, or anyone else.

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