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Woman holds a smartphone and walks in front of a wall decorated with a celebratory image of St. Basil's Cathedral of Moscow. Photo courtesy of Oleg Elkov.

Study Uncovers Effectiveness of Russian Propaganda

What is the impact of Russian disinformation campaigns on residents of Ukraine, Belarus, and Georgia?

“If I’m going to propagandize an event, the best way to do it is to connect that propaganda to the cultural memories of different generational groups — that will help sway the opinion of recent events in order to win favor,” said Ben Horne, an assistant professor of information sciences at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

Horne led an interdisciplinary team that surveyed more than 4,000 Russian-speaking residents of the three former Soviet republics to assess the relationship between media consumption and views of the Russian government and its competence. Data was gathered through a combination of phone surveys and focus groups that took place both before and during the invasion of Ukraine by Russia.

The study is one of the first to examine the effects of media and social media consumption across the three former Soviet republics, all of which have been subjected to Russian propaganda over time.

The survey asked respondents about whether Russian policies benefit their country, their feelings of support for or opposition to the European Union and their feelings about the riot in the United States Capitol on January 6, 2021.

The team’s findings, published in the journal Humanities and Social Sciences Communications, reveal a complex relationship between country of residence, age, and media consumption habits.

“As you might expect, the younger generation in these countries is more likely to embrace new digital media and adopt Western cultural values, while the older generation tends to be more traditional and resistant to change,” Horne said.

Media consumption and technology choices, however, revealed trust in Russian media only for those whose cultural values and ideologies already aligned with Russia. The finding was especially true of deeply held cultural beliefs such as topics of national identity.

“If you already trust or read Russian media, you’re likely to be more trusting of Russia than of the EU and skeptical of events in Western countries,” Horne said. “We couldn’t tell if that was causal or not, but then layering in data from age groups revealed that the generation you’re born in also has an effect on your opinions of your country and of Russia.”

Of the three groups, Belarusians are strongly pro-Russia, Georgians are pro-EU and Ukrainians are somewhere in the middle, Horne explained.

“Given the interplay of these factors, it stands to reason that Russia’s hold on these countries will gradually weaken as older, more pro-Russian citizens pass away,” Horne said.

“While people’s opinions of being pro-EU or pro-Russian may change because of the invasion, we didn’t factor that into this study, and it was not easy to control for,” Horne said. “We are already conducting other studies where we’re trying to analyze the effects of the war.”

The study, which also involved researchers from UT’s anthropology and political science departments, Vanderbilt University, and the University of Technology Sydney, Australia, was supported by an interdisciplinary collaboration under a US Department of Defense MINERVA grant led by Catherine Luther, professor and director of the Information Integrity Institute in UT’s College of Communication and Information.