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A Failing Cult of Personality

Putin’s Propaganda Is Likely Not Persuading Most Russians, UMD Expert Says

By Sala Levin ’10

Vladimir Putin on TV screens

Russian President Vladimir Putin has long used state-controlled media to spread his messaging and agenda. In the current conflict with Ukraine, he may be losing the information war within his own country, says UMD journalism Professor Sarah Oates.

Photo by Gavriil Grigorov/TASS/Alamy Live News

What’s going on in Ukraine isn’t a war or an invasion. It’s merely an “operation.”

At least that’s the message that Russian media, either owned or heavily influenced by the state, is required to disseminate to the country’s citizens, according to Sarah Oates, a professor in the Philip Merrill College of Journalism who studies media and democracy. Though President Vladimir Putin and his government have long strong-armed journalists—up to and including jailing, beating and allegedly ordering the killing of investigative or dissident reporters—their fight to control the narrative of the conflict in Ukraine is faltering, said Oates, author of the forthcoming book “Nyetwork News.”

Sarah Oates headshot

“The current propaganda line on Ukraine—that it’s repressed, that fascists (and) neo-Nazis have taken over Ukraine and we must liberate—doesn’t make any sense,” said Oates. “I’ve seen a lot of Russian propaganda over the past 30 years, and this is particularly bad. They’re usually better (at propaganda) than this.”

Here’s what Oates advised keeping in mind while watching the information war play out alongside the one on the ground:

Ukraine Is Putin’s Propaganda Nexus
Traditionally, Putin has had four key messages that he has manipulated media to communicate, she said: that the West, and especially the United States and NATO, are out to get Russia; that Putin will protect Russians no matter where they live; that Russia is a resurgent nation; and that democracy is corrupt. In the current messaging onslaught, Oates said, “Ukraine (represents) all of these things together.”

Social Media Finds a Way
A critical weapon in the battle against government-controlled misinformation is social media. Though platforms like Facebook, Twitter and TikTok are being restricted in Russia, the average citizen can find ways to access these means of communication, said Oates. Once a video of children in bomb shelters or of bombs hitting a building goes viral, many Russian citizens will manage to see it.

Disinformation Has Disparate Effects
Oates sees a generational divide in the response to misinformation: Older Russians who remember vividly the chaos that surrounded the collapse of the Soviet Union and Russia’s 1998 financial crisis may be willing to trade a free and unfettered media for relative calm. Gen Z and younger millennials, meanwhile, who have grown up with more access to the rest of the world both online and physically, are more likely to rebel against Putin’s “cult of personality,” she said. Already, more than 6,000 Russian antiwar protesters have been arrested.

Russians Know too Much
The historic closeness of Russia and Ukraine also makes the government message that the current violence is a necessary maneuver unpalatable to many. “There’s this saying in Russia that everyone has a cousin in Ukraine,” said Oates. “There’s no way they’re going to really view (Ukrainians) as the other, as much as Putin wants to say.”

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