Between 'Spiral of Silence' and 'Jumping on the Bandwagon': The influence of others on Russians' opinion of the Russia-Ukraine war

Vladimir Zvonovsky
Alexander Khodykin

In today’s Russia, is there a 'spiral of silence' - a social effect when supporters of a certain opinion, who believe that it is unpopular, do not dare to express it and thus only reinforce its underrepresentation in public discourse? The 'railway test' used by sociologists to detect the 'spiral' shows that Russians of all views are not inclined to talk about the 'special military operation' with people they do not know well, but those who oppose it are one and a half times less inclined to express their opinion than those who support the war.

However, surveys reveal another phenomenon. In 2023, the proportion of those who support the 'military operation' has decreased slightly, but the number of those who say that most people in their environment support it has decreased much more significantly. The study finds that some of those who join the normative majority support for military action without having their own real motivation to do so (the 'bandwagon effect') are not inclined to express their position publicly in a mixed environment where both supporters and opponents of the 'military operation' are present. As a result, the result of pro-war views in society decreases and does not correspond to the level one might express based on the share of those who express declarative support for the 'military operation' in their responses to sociologists.

The 'spiral of silence' hypothesis

How can we determine what Russians think about the military action in Ukraine, when expressing anti-war views can get you fined or put behind bars, and when conflicts between supporters and opponents of the 'military operation' have become commonplace since its beginning? The difficulties in studying public opinion in the face of repression and social pressure led to criticism of the results of mass surveys of Russians even before the war, but especially after the onset of hostilities. Some Russian sociologists have even opposed conducting any mass political surveys due to doubts about the reliability of their results. The most popular argument is that the stigmatisation of anti-war views means that many Russians who hold these refuse to take part in polls, as they do not want to discuss a potentially negative topic with strangers and express a socially disapproved opinion, which leads to a shift in poll results in favour of the pro-war position.

Another hypothesis explaining the dominance of pro-war views in the results of mass surveys is the 'spiral of silence' theory proposed by Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann in the 1970s. The 'spiral of silence' effect explains how the fear of facing pressure from the surrounding environment can lead people to refrain from expressing their viewpoint on a potentially conflict-ridden issue if convinced of the unpopularity of their position. Thus, analysing the events of the French Revolution, Alexis de Tocqueville drew attention to the fact that the picture of opinions expressed at that time was biassed and misleading: 'Those who clung to the old faith feared finding themselves in the minority loyal to their religion. And since isolation frightened them more than error, they joined the majority without changing their thoughts. The views of one part of the nation seemed to be the opinion of all, and it was precisely for this reason that they misled those who were guilty of this deception' (Old Order and Revolution, 1856).

Noelle-Neumann hypothesised that people with a limited interest in politics, before expressing their opinion on a politically significant issue, assess the risk of facing social disapproval. If this risk seems high, they refrain from articulating this opinion. She emphasised the dynamics of this process: people who fear isolation refrain from voicing their opinion if it seems unpopular; consequently, this opinion is voiced less frequently, which reinforces the impression that it is indeed unpopular. As a result, people become even more reluctant to express their opinion.This is how the 'spiral of silence' unfolds, making a viewpoint seem less and less popular. State pressure in the form of political repression amplifies this effect, adding the threat of punishment to the risk of social ostracism. Thus, in the initial days following the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the ratio of those who supported and did not support the invasion was 58% versus 23%, with 19% undecided (ExtremeScan survey). However, within a couple of weeks, this ratio shifted to 79% against 14% (Foundation for Social Research survey).

Here it is necessary to clarify who the ‘others’ are. Noelle-Neumann does not explicitly focus on this, but based on her experiments and questionnaires, it can be argued that ‘others’ are people who interact with the respondent or potentially may do so. This does not necessarily include only the social circle of friends, relatives, and colleagues but also the broader society as a whole: a compatriot living in another city, unfamiliar to the respondent who has no possibility of coming into contact with him/her, is not one of these ‘others’, whereas a fellow traveller on public transport is, even if the respondent has no communication with him/her, as there is potential for it to occur.

It appears that Russian public opinion regarding the 'military operation' has all the preconditions for a 'spiral of silence' effect: the existence of two sharply conflicting views on military operations, the support of the authorities for the pro-war point of view, and the efforts of state propaganda to discredit the opposite opinion and convince those who hold it of its unpopularity and marginality. Finally, the criminalisation of the anti-war position serves as a powerful catalyst for the ‘spiral of silence’.

A 'railway test' for the whole of Russia

To detect the spiral of silence effect, Elisabeth Noel-Neumann used the 'railway test', measuring the willingness of those who hold a particular position on a socially significant issue to openly express it — in particular, to discuss it with a randomly encountered fellow traveller on a train who holds opposing views. We attempted to adapt the ‘railway test’ to the conditions of a telephone survey (CATI) that we conducted from June 27 to July 9, 2023, representing the adult population of Russia by gender, age, and federal district (N = 1977).

Initially, respondents were asked a direct question about their stance on military actions (‘Can you please tell me, do you personally support or not support the 'military operation' of Russia in Ukraine?’). Subsequently, a question about the readiness to discuss these views with strangers holding opposing perspectives was posed. Those who support military actions were asked: ‘Suppose you have to travel for several hours on a train, and someone in your compartment begins to criticise the “special operation”. Would you engage in a conversation with this person about the situation in Ukraine, or would you ignore it?’ For opponents of the military operation, the question was mirrored: ‘Suppose you have to travel for several hours on a train, and someone in your compartment begins to express support for the “special operation”. Would you engage in a conversation with this person about the situation in Ukraine, or would you ignore it?’ In our survey, the 'railway test' was also supplemented with a question about the distribution of positions of supporters and opponents of the war among those around the respondent ('Do you think that the majority of your close acquaintances, relatives, and colleagues support or do not support Russia's “military operation” in Ukraine?'). 

According to the results of the survey, the ratio of those who supported and did not support the intervention was 71% to 20%, another 7% found it difficult to answer and 2% refused to answer. Those who found it difficult to answer and those who refused were not asked the ‘railway test’ questions, so we excluded them from further analysis. As a result (after exclusion) the ratio of supporters and opponents of the conflict was 78% to 22%. Women (76%), those under 30 years old (62%), residents of Moscow (69%) and St Petersburg (63%), people with higher education (75%) and people with relatively low incomes (69%) were comparatively less likely to support military action.

In general, the results of the 'railway test' confirm the conclusions of qualitative research conducted by the Public Sociology Laboratory on the reluctance of Russians to discuss military action: both among supporters and among opponents of the war, the majority do not want to discuss a sensitive military-political topic with strangers. Moreover, those who oppose the military operation more frequently prefer to remain silent about it: 77% compared to 55% of those who support the military operation. However, supporters of the military operation are 14 percentage points more likely to be willing to talk about it (35% compared to 21%). This can be seen as a manifestation of the 'spiral of silence'. The gap between the readiness of supporters and opponents of the war to express their opinion cannot be deemed insurmountable, but it is significant enough to hinder the dissemination of anti-war views.

Results of the 'railway test': willingness to converse with those who hold opposing views, % of those surveyed

Willingness to discuss military issues varies across different social groups. Regardless of their stance on military actions, men and individuals of pre-retirement age are more willing to express themselves than women and young people. Apparently, men are more politicised and more willing to engage in arguments because of differences in opinion. This is partly confirmed by our research indicating that men consistently participate in political surveys more often than women. Among both supporters and opponents of the 'military operation', the willingness to speak out increases with age, reaching its peak in the 50–59 age group, before falling to the sample average in the retirement age group. The level of education does not affect the willingness to express an opinion. 

Results of the 'railway test' by socio-demographic groups, % of those surveyed

Supporters of the 'military operation' from different regions and various types of settlements are roughly equally willing to discuss it with strangers who hold opposing opinions. At the same time, for opponents, the place of residence becomes a significant factor: in border regions, where support for military operations is the highest, they are willing to discuss this less often, apparently experiencing greater social pressure. At the same time, opponents of the military action from rural areas are more willing to discuss the situation with those they do not know, despite the fact that the level of support for the ‘special operation’ is generally higher in such localities. Income level does not affect the willingness to speak out among supporters of military action, while among their opponents, the readiness to talk to political opponents increases linearly with income growth. Businessmen dissatisfied with the current conflict are also more willing to discuss it with those who hold opposite political views.

The strongest influence on a person's willingness to speak about a 'military operation' is the distribution of opinions about it in his or her immediate environment. Those whose environment is dominated by supporters of views opposite to those of the respondent are less likely to be willing to discuss the military operation with strangers who hold opposite views. According to a nationwide telephone survey we conducted in December 2023, 43% of Russians (42% of supporters and 48% of opponents of the 'special operation') have experienced conflict due to differences of opinions concerning current events. Those who are predominantly surrounded by those with opposing views, and are therefore highly likely to have had conflicts with them on this basis, feel isolated and under social pressure, and therefore seek to avoid having to explain themselves. Among these respondents, only 9% of supporters and 10% of opponents of the war would be willing to discuss the topic with a random travelling companion on a train who holds opposing views, compared to 35% and 21% in the sample as a whole. The last two groups, who express their willingness to talk about sensitive issues no matter what, are the so-called 'hard core' in Noelle-Neumann's terminology, ready to defend their position, no matter how unpopular it may seem. The 'spiral of silence' has no effect on them.

While supporters of the 'military operation' lose their willingness to argue with those who oppose it as they gain experience in communicating with them (readiness drops from 35% to 9%), this trend is not as pronounced among opponents: a decrease from 21% among those usually surrounded by like-minded individuals to 10% among those usually in an environment of opponents. At the same time, if the environment of those who oppose military action is roughly evenly divided in terms of views on the ‘operation’, the likelihood of them discussing the topic does not decrease. Opponents of intervention have better adapted to the unpopularity of their position: their willingness to talk to their opponents decreases only when those opponents dominate their social environment. In contrast, supporters of the militaristic position, even when facing parity of opinions in their environment, significantly lose readiness to discuss the issue with unfamiliar opponents. Many of them may have joined the majority in their support for intervention as a result of the 'bandwagon' effect — the tendency to join the winners — as described in the classic work of sociologists George Gallup and Saul Forbes Ray, ‘The Pulse of Democracy’. However, when faced with the absence of such a majority in their own environment, many of them lose their willingness to debate and defend their point of view.

The opinion of the surrounding community as an indirect indicator of the level of support for intervention

The dynamics of support for the 'military operation' by the respondents' social environment, which was measured by the third question of our test, is important for several reasons. First, the position of the environment always significantly influences the respondent's position, and the level of support for military action in the environment indicates the level of social pressure that the respondent feels. Second, the distribution of assessments of military actions in the respondent's environment shows how effectively supporters and opponents of the intervention convey their opinion to those around them. Thus, the difference between the prevalence of a particular position among respondents and their perception of the prevalence of this position in their own environment can also be a consequence of the ‘spiral of silence’. Respondents' answers to the question about the predominant attitude to the ‘special operation' in their environment show how 'audible' a particular viewpoint is in their social circle.

With a significant predominance of supporters of the 'military operation' over those who oppose it (71% versus 20%), we can assume that the share of respondents whose environment is dominated by supporters of military action will prevail just as strongly. However, according to our data, while 71% of respondents support intervention, this opinion dominates the environment of slightly more than half of Russians (56%). Meanwhile, 40% have an environment where either there is a parity of opinions (27%) or opponents of military actions dominate (13%). There are four possible explanations for this situation: 1) supporters of the intervention prefer to remain silent much more often than their opponents; 2) 20% of those who oppose the ‘special operation’ were able to convince twice as many Russians that they are much more numerous; 3) opponents of the intervention are more often unwilling to participate in sociological surveys and the samples are skewed in favour of those who hold militaristic views; 4) or, when asked about their personal support, respondents join the normative, 'correct' position learned from mass media, but in assessing the position of their immediate environment, they are not subject to such normativity and respond more freely.

The first assumption is refuted by the data from the 'railway test': supporters of the military intervention are ready to discuss them more often than those who oppose it. The second position is less likely to be held as the Russian information field is dominated by a militaristic position. At the same time, as our research shows, there is a certain ambivalence in the attitude of Russians to state propaganda: propaganda is recognised as necessary and useful for demonstrating the firmness of Russia’s intentions, but even supporters of military action do not consider information from official media to be reliable and adjust it so that it seems justified to them.

Unfortunately, we do not have satisfactory tools to test the third (sampling bias) and fourth (bias of own preferences towards normative) hypotheses,which, in our view, are the most probable. But the weakness of the first two hypotheses is in their favour. If the social base of those who oppose intervention is just 20% of the population, how can they dominate the environment of 13% of Russians, and make up half the votes in the environment of another 27%? Regression to the mean is also possible, in that people are not inclined to give extreme assessments. However, when the share of supporters of one position is 3.5 times greater than the number of those who hold the opposing opinion exceeds the share of their opponents by 3.5 times, it is unclear why such a significant predominance is noticed by only slightly more than half of Russians (56%), especially when state propaganda strongly promotes the idea that anti-war views are unpopular in Russia.

According to the data from nine nationwide surveys conducted in 2022-2023, the gap between the share of those who support the 'military operation' and the share of those whose social milieu is dominated by its supporters has been observed throughout the entire period of the war. It became especially noticeable immediately after the start of mobilisation. After that it smoothed out a bit, but still remained at a higher level compared to the period prior to mobilisation. As we can see, after the beginning of mobilisation, the share of those who support the 'military operation' averages 73% (according to four measurements), while at the beginning of the 'military operation' it was 79% (according to three measurements), i.e. the number of people with pro-war views decreased by 6 percentage points. At the same time the number of those surveyed whose environment is mostly composed of those who support the 'operation' has decreased from 68% to 57%, i.e. here the decrease was almost twice as noticeable. This gives grounds to suppose that an increasing group of individuals dissatisfied with the war have begun to fall out of the sight of pollsters.

Dynamics of respondents' support for the 'special military operation', % those surveyed

Dynamics of support for the ‘special military operation' by environment, % of those surveyed 

In some of the most anti-war groups (young people, residents of St Petersburg, people with low incomes, those employed in the private sector), people are more often surrounded by those who oppose the 'military operation'. However, in other socio-demographic groups where such views are also more popular, this effect is not observed. These include residents of Moscow, residents of regional centres, entrepreneurs and those who get their news about the war from the Internet. The predominance of those who support the ‘special operation’ is clearly expressed (over 60%) in the environment of only the most militaristically inclined groups: TV viewers (66%), residents of border regions (65%), high income earners (64%) and older Russians (61%). Thus, the differentiation of respondents based on the positions of their immediate environment is not as significant as based on their own declared views on the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

Level of support for the 'special military operation' by social environment, % of those surveyed

Therefore, the data obtained during the adapted 'railway test' confirms the assumption made based on the results of last year's focus groups about the low readiness of Russians to discuss the Russia-Ukraine conflict. This indirectly suggests the acclamatory and apolitical nature of the support for the ‘military operation’ among many residents of Russia, as described by Vladimir Ishchenko and Oleg Zhuravlev based on materials from a series of in-depth interviews with Russians who are not opponents of the ‘military operation’. According to the 'railway test,' only 35% of its supporters and 21% of its opponents are ready to discuss military action. The difference between these percentages indicates that opponents of the ‘military operation’ are significantly more likely to fall under the influence of the "spiral of silence" described Elizabeth Noelle-Neumann and its supporters are more willing to discuss their position with strangers who hold opposite opinions, which is not surprising given the greater popularity of their viewpoint. 

However, this willingness decreases sharply if their immediate environment is not dominated by like-minded people. Apparently, although the mechanism of the 'spiral of silence' more often affects the willingness to speak out among opponents of the 'special operation', at the same time, they are better adapted to a mixed environment where both opinions are represented. In both this survey and previous measurements, the proportion of respondents who say they support the 'military operation' is significantly higher than the proportion who say that its supporters are predominant in his/her environment. The gap between these figures widened markedly after 'partial mobilisation', although the level of respondents' support for the intervention changed little. It is the distribution of opinions in the respondents' environment that most strongly influences their willingness to discuss the Russia-Ukraine war with those who hold the opposite point of view. Russians who have encountered the predominance of opponents in their immediate environment are much less willing to talk about this topic. This data aligns with the results of qualitative research showing that maintaining social ties is more important to Russians than the need to defend and disseminate their own political views.

This is an abridged version of the article 'Russians' Perception of the Russia-Ukraine Conflict: Testing the “Spiral of Silence” Hypothesis' published in the journal 'Sociological Research' (2023. No. 11).