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

Most Russians still get their news from state propaganda outlets — and that’s not just because of censorship

Journalists at the Echo of Moscow radio offices on March 3. The independent radio station announced its self-dissolution after Russian authorities blocked the station and other independent media outlets that have been reporting on the invasion of Ukraine. (AFP/Getty Images)
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TV Rain, Russia’s most prominent independent television channel, suspended operations Thursday. Over the weekend, Russia’s Roskomnadzor threatened TV Rain and other Russian news outlets over their coverage of the war in Ukraine. The official communications and media regulator then blocked Russians’ access to TV Rain and an independent radio station, Echo of Moscow.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s domestic propaganda machine has been working night and day to convince Russians that Ukraine and NATO provoked Russia’s “special military operation,” calling it a “liberation campaign” to purge Ukraine of Nazis. Most Russians get their news from state media, and observers have expressed alarm that many Russians seem to believe the Kremlin’s hastily cobbled together fabrications.

Russia has a long tradition of journalists willing to tell the truth about their government. Even after multiple media crackdowns over the past year, independent news sources remain. Russians, in other words, have had media choices — yet most Russians have chosen to consume news from state-run outlets.

Why do most Russians still live in the propaganda bubble? And why have independent media failed to become an “antidote” to the Kremlin’s disinformation? Here’s what you need to know.

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Russians like the coverage of state media

Russian propagandists understand how to grasp their audience’s attention, the research shows. They can make propaganda stories dramatic and entertaining. News broadcasts by Russian state media are engaging.

And many Russians find propaganda messages politically appealing. Growing numbers of Russians have embraced anti-Western sentiment and believe that the United States is behind Russia’s troubles, including the Ukrainian crisis. Channeling these grievances has helped Putin forge a pro-regime majority in Russia, and he constantly inflates external threats to hold on to this support.

Nationalism and personal affection for Putin make propaganda an easy sell. In online surveys I conducted with thousands of Russian respondents in recent years, Putin sympathizers were 20 percent more likely to believe anti-Western, anti-Ukrainian and pro-Kremlin messages. Despite blatant disinformation and censorship on state television channels, for instance, about two-thirds of pro-Kremlin respondents said that these channels provide accurate and trustworthy information.

At the same time, many Russians believe they can detect propaganda messages and understand the true agenda behind them. But my data also suggests that Russians often fail to recognize stories that are untrue — especially if these stories come from like-minded sources.

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Many Russians distrust independent media

Research shows that when you see the same message everywhere, it’s easier to believe it. This suggests that government censorship can indeed help autocrats such as Putin survive.

Over the past decade, the Kremlin and its loyal oligarchs successfully took over many independent news outlets. When the war started, the government tightened its censorship, restricting foreign-based outlets such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter and threatening to block stories about the war that contradict official sources.

Yet Russians looking for an alternative to propaganda could still access a dozen independent news organizations. These media outlets publish critical views and important investigations, and they have tirelessly covered the war. But only a small fraction of the Russian public apparently cares to hear what’s really happening.

To many Russians, especially those with pro-Kremlin views, the more balanced and truthful coverage of independent news outlets probably appears as a direct criticism of their country, and they find it hard to believe such stories. Here’s an example — only 14 percent of pro-Putin respondents in my survey believed a report that the Ukrainian economy had been growing faster than the Russian economy.

In my data, only 8 percent of Putin sympathizers said they trust any independent Russian news outlet. Putin supporters apparently find such media “oppositional” or “pro-Western,” and thus hostile and untrustworthy.

Importantly, opposition-minded citizens often fall into the same trap. Many Putin critics consider themselves nationalists or communists; to them, independent media are the promoters of liberal, “anti-Russian” views. In a nationally representative survey I conducted, 93 percent of Putin voters and 82 percent of those who voted for communists and nationalists said they consume state television.

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Many don’t pay attention to politics

Ordinary Russians are often detached from politics and confused by it. The share of Russians who say they are not interested in politics has been growing. They report feeling helpless and unable to make sense of the news, so they turn their TVs on only for sports or soap operas. And even if they come upon reports by independent journalists, many Russians turn away, finding such reports too negative and politicized.

Media habits also matter — it’s difficult to notice the bias if you rely on certain media long enough. This may be why Russians did not abandon formerly independent news organizations such as NTV, Lenta or RBC after the Kremlin took them over and turned them into propaganda outlets in recent decades.

Is there a way out of the propaganda bubble?

Even Russians who insist that they are skeptical often end up repeating and defending propaganda narratives about the West or Ukraine, the research shows. They hear and absorb these lies as they pass by their parents watching TV, or as they discuss politics at the dinner table.

Even though more and more Russians have abandoned state television in favor of online media, they still learn the news mostly from state-controlled outlets or from news aggregators regulated by the Kremlin.

The war against Ukraine, however, may change this. One study found that Russians turn to independent media more often during major crises. This suggests that Russia’s financial crisis in the wake of unprecedented Western sanctions may become such a catalyst.

The weakness of the Kremlin’s propaganda effort is also that it relies on shared anti-Western and anti-Ukrainian sentiment. On its eve, the war against Ukraine was not popular, suggesting that Moscow will rely heavily on propaganda and censorship to sustain popular acquiescence to the conflict. Further hostilities, especially attacks against civilians, could undermine not only support for the war but Putin’s own approval. And if regime support crumbles, so would the power of state media.

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Anton Shirikov is a PhD candidate in political science at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. His research focuses on propaganda, misinformation, political polarization and trust.