Putin, Propaganda, and the Politics of Censorship
Putin just fell into a censorship trap.
On Friday, the Levada Center—one of the only independent polling firms in Russia—released the results of its two most recent surveys: one on domestic support for President Vladimir Putin and the other on Russians’ opinions of the ongoing war in Ukraine. For those who have been following the brave anti-war demonstrations in places like St. Petersburg and Moscow, the poll results are, unfortunately, a disheartening reality check.
As of last month, 71 percent of Russian respondents approve of Putin’s job performance, compared with only 27 percent who disapprove. This represents a slight uptick in support from last month, and it marks the third consecutive poll in which Putin’s domestic support has increased. At the same time, Russians’ attitudes toward Ukraine have worsened. Only 35 percent of Russians responded that they generally feel good about Ukraine, as opposed to 52 percent who had a negative perception of the country. Most tellingly, 60 percent of respondents blame the U.S. and NATO for the recent escalation in eastern Ukraine, while only 4 percent believe Russia is at fault.
These poll results are a stark reminder that Russians live in a very different media ecosystem than other Europeans or Americans. While Western media outlets have portrayed Ukrainian resistance to Russian invaders as both justified and heroic, Kremlin news sources have been issuing very different messages. Some stories simply echo Putin’s rhetoric, claiming Russian actions aim is to “save people, demilitarize, and denazify this state” [Ukraine]. Others draw from internal divisions within America itself, such as this RT piece amplifying a recent Tucker Carlson segment that argued that the U.S. is not protecting Ukraine but “getting revenge” on Russia. Others bluntly insist that Russia’s actions in Ukraine are vindicated by previous U.S. foreign policy blunders.
It’s worth noting that Russian propagandists aren’t necessarily fair—or even consistent—in their arguments. In a February 16 RT column headlined “Guilty Without War” (a Russian-language wordplay on an old Soviet drama called “Guilty Without Guilt”), journalist Sergei Strokan mocked the U.S. for its hysteria about an upcoming Russian invasion.
“The ‘Russian invasion’ of Ukraine scheduled by Washington for February 16 was canceled by Washington itself,” Strokan wrote. “The fact that Kyiv does not see the prerequisites for a ‘Russian invasion’ was announced on Monday by the head of the Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council, Alexei Danilov. But no one listens to him or President Zelensky in the West: there was no place for the Ukrainian bandura with its hysterically weeping strings in Biden’s orchestra.”
Unsurprisingly, RT failed to issue an apology (or even retract the story) when Russia sent tanks across the Ukrainian border a week later.
The obvious absurdity of Russian propaganda—mixed with its blatant refusal to accept Ukrainian sovereignty—has left Western governments and tech companies grappling with an important question: How should we respond?
If the West were to follow Vladimir Putin’s example, the solution would be to simply ban all dissenting viewpoints. In what seemed like a panic censorship surge this week, the Russian government blocked both Facebook and Twitter nationwide, as well as the websites of many Western media outlets, such as Radio Free Europe, Deutsche Welle, and the BBC. This came on the heels of a new law signed by Vladimir Putin denoting the dissemination of all “false information” about the activities of Russian armed forces as a criminal offense—for example, referring to the Ukrainian military offensive as an “invasion” or “attack” as opposed to a “special military operation.” And only days earlier, Russian authorities blocked access to Dozhd TV and Ekho Moskvy, two of the few remaining domestic news outlets that challenged the official narrative from the Russian government about the Ukraine invasion.
Yet it is impossible to see Putin’s decision to create a Russian “splinternet”—one which effectively cuts Russian citizens off from the rest of the online world—as anything but a sign of weakness and desperation. In its statement announcing its ban on Facebook, Roskomnadzor, the communications “watchdog” operated by the Russian government, said that the social network’s decisions to restrict access to many Kremlin news outlets—including Sputnik, RT, and Gazeta.ru—represented violations of federal law. As NPR columnist Shannon Bond wrote on Wednesday, tech companies were always walking a “geopolitical high-wire” as they navigated the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and even before Putin decided to block social media access in Russia, these tech companies were effectively crafting a splinternet of their own—using selective deplatforming in an attempt to placate both Russia and the West simultaneously.
Over the last week, TikTok, YouTube, and Facebook removed RT and Sputnik from their platforms in Europe, while allowing both outlets to stay live in Russia. Google and Apple pulled RT’s and Sputnik’s news apps from their app stores—again, with an exception made for Russia. For its part, Google did ban several state-owned Russian outlets from monetizing their content on any of its advertising platforms last week, but this only affected their ability to earn ad money—a small percentage of their overall budget, which is subsidized by Russian taxpayers. When Roskomnadzor complained that large “advertising campaigns to misinform the Russian audience” were running on YouTube, Google simply suspended all advertising in Russia, thereby punishing even anti-war Russian content creators.
Before Russia announced its broad crackdown on social media access, many of these Big Tech actions seemed to miss an obvious point: the place where people were in most need of an alternative perspective to Russian propaganda was in Russia itself. According to a Yahoo News/YouGov poll earlier this week, only 6 percent of Americans believe Putin was justified in invading Ukraine, while 74 percent say he was not justified. But as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky noted earlier this week, it is only the Russian people who can bring an end to the war. “Do Russians want the war? I would like to know the answer,” he said. “But the answer depends only on you, citizens of the Russian Federation.”
By banning Western audiences from being able to access state-backed Russian news, Big Tech companies were almost playing into Putin’s hand—intimating that Russian propaganda was too persuasive and alluring to be available in America and Europe. Many journalists had the exact opposite perspective. As Ricardo Gutiérrez, the general secretary of the European Federation of Journalists, explained on Tuesday, “It is always better to counteract the disinformation of propagandist or allegedly propagandist media by exposing their factual errors or bad journalism, by demonstrating their lack of financial or operational independence, by highlighting their loyalty to government interests and their disregard for the public interest.”
Politico’s senior media writer Jack Shafer put it similarly: “Knowing what Putin is thinking — or at least what he’s telling his people or the outside world — is essential to countering him, if need be.”
Social media companies may have handled the Russian news situation imperfectly, but by completely blocking these companies nationwide, Putin has reasserted himself as the primary villain in the story—albeit, a very thin-skinned one. The fact that Putin has now banned almost all independent journalism in Russia proves he does not have the confidence to defend his illegal invasion in the public square.
The fact that VPN installations—which allows users to keep accessing blocked internet sites—have risen by 1,906 percent in Russia in the last few days is evidence that this cowardly censorship may backfire spectacularly.
Jonathan Chew is a former Dispatch intern.