Analysis | Is Russia’s wartime propaganda more powerful than family bonds?

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In Russia, an estimated 11 million people have relatives in Ukraine. With so many family ties connecting the two countries, why haven’t more Russians risen up against Russia’s brutal war on Ukraine?

According to recent news storiesthe answer partly is that many Russians believe President Vladimir Putin’s propaganda narratives over their own kin’s firsthand accounts.

Are these headline-grabbing accounts isolated incidents, or do they represent broader trends? Are Russian and Ukrainian relatives still communicating? If so, have some Ukrainians pierced the veil of Russian propagandaat least with their family members?

In addressing these questions, our recent survey offers clues about the durability of Russians’ support for the war. Our findings also provide broader insights into the effectiveness of dictators’ strategies for maintaining power by monopolizing information and deceiving citizens.

Putin’s iron grip on Russia is a legacy of empire

From April 15 to 17, we fielded an online survey of Ukrainians, using a panel of smartphone users established by Stepsa Ukrainian research firm.

Before Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion, the panel was representative of the Ukrainian urban adult population under age 60, excluding Crimea and the eastern zones where there has been conflict since 2014. The panel subsequently lost 7 percent of its respondents, primarily in war-torn regions and among fighting-age males. Accordingly, caution is warranted in drawing conclusions from the poll on the views of male combatants, people in Ukraine’s most conflict-affected regions, older Ukrainians and rural inhabitants.

Our survey had a sample size of 1,880 respondents, a 43 percent response rate, and a 2.1 percentage point margin of error.

Are Ukrainians talking about the war with Russian relatives?

Forty-eight percent of respondents reported having at least one relative in Russia, a legacy of Soviet and post-Soviet migration trends. Of these 908 respondents with relatives, a majority — 59 percent — discussed the war with their kin, mainly via WhatsApp, Telegram and video and voice calls.

During the war’s first two weeks, however, many of these conversations stopped, according to our survey. By the time of the survey, about seven weeks after Russia’s invasion, fewer than half (46 percent) of these communications about the war were ongoing.

While news stories frequently focus on clashes between parents, children or siblings, these interactions are in fact relatively uncommon. We found that 72 percent of respondents who discussed the war with relatives talked exclusively with extended family members, such as aunts, uncles and cousins. Far fewer report discussions with siblings (19 percent) and parents (6 percent).

Russian journalists report the facts about Ukraine. Why do Russians ignore them?

We asked respondents with multiple relatives to focus on their closest family member. Below we refer to these conversations.

What do Ukrainians and Russian relatives talk about?

Few topics appear off limits. Approximately 74 percent of the 534 respondents who discussed the war with their closest relatives had talked about Russia’s intentional bombing and shelling of Ukrainian cities, and 67 percent had discussed Russia’s killing of civilians. Topics such as Russian looting (41 percent), torture and rape (38 percent), and use of weapons that violate international lawsuch as cluster bombs, arose less frequently (27 percent).

Many of these conversations also broached Russia’s false claims justifying the invasion. We found that 52 percent of respondents had discussed the claim that Ukraine’s leaders are “Nazis.” And 36 percent had conversed about Russia’s claim to be liberating the breakaway areas in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, while 30 percent discussed the claim that Ukraine is committing genocide against ethnic Russians. The claim that Ukraine was developing nuclear weapons received less attention (20 percent).

How influential is Russia’s war propaganda?

We asked respondents to rate the extent to which their Russian relatives believed Russian war propaganda at the outset of their discussions, on a scale of 1 to 10, where higher values represent stronger beliefs. The median rating was 8. Of course, these ratings are based on respondents’ recollections from the war’s early days. Nevertheless, they clearly show that many Ukrainians perceive that Russian propaganda holds sway over their relatives.

Ukraine has been winning the messaging wars. It’s been preparing for years.

As expected, respondents perceived older relatives and relatives who receive news from Russian state television, as opposed to the internet or other sources, to be more influenced by propaganda. Surprisingly, respondents perceived relatives from Moscow and St. Petersburg as no less indoctrinated than relatives from smaller Russian cities and rural areas.

Can Ukrainians puncture the Russian information bubble?

The evidence is mixed on whether Ukrainians’ communications encourage their Russian relatives to rethink the veracity of pro-Kremlin information. On the one hand, 54 percent of respondents report that their conversations have had no effect on relatives’ beliefs in Russian propaganda. In fact, 8 percent of respondents report that their Russian relatives have come to believe propaganda more strongly because of these discussions. On the other hand, 22 percent report that conversations have induced relatives to believe Russian propaganda a little less, and 16 percent report that relatives have come to believe a lot less.

Respondents who at the time of the survey were still communicating with Russian relatives, however, are more optimistic. Just 37 percent of these 228 respondents report that their conversations have had no effect, and only 4 percent report that conversations have strengthened their relatives’ beliefs. For this group, 59 percent report that their Russian relatives had come to believe state propaganda a little or a lot less.

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Most respondents reported relying more on facts (59 percent) than on logic (48 percent) or emotion (26 percent) to influence their relatives’ beliefs about the war. Yet as many Ukrainians, Russians, Americans and others have experienced in our current “post-truth” eraevidence and logic frequently prove ineffective against “alternative” facts espoused by someone ensconced in a distinct information bubble.

Consequently, Ukrainian citizens’ family ties may be an underutilized instrument in Ukraine’s information war tool kit. Social science research suggests that perspective-taking and similar persuasion techniques make people receptive to new viewpoints precisely because they rely less on facts and logic and more on emotional connections and subtle cues related to gestures, tone and facial expressions. Such techniques might help Ukrainians counter Russian propaganda’s influence, one conversation at a time, as they continue conveying the truth about the war to their Russian relatives.

Professors: Check out TMC’s ever-expanding list of classroom topic guides.

Tymofii Brik (@brik_t) is rector and head of sociological research at the Kyiv School of Economics.

Aaron Erlich (@aserlich) is an assistant professor of political science and a member of the Center for the Study of Democratic Citizenship at McGill University in Canada. He has been conducting public opinion research in Ukraine since 2015.

Jordan Gans-Morse (@J_GansMorse) is an associate professor of political science and faculty director of the Russian, Eurasian and East European studies program at Northwestern University. In 2016-2017, he was a Fulbright scholar in Ukraine.

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