Propaganda in the Network Environment: How propaganda has changed in the era of social media and during times of war

Grigory Asmolov
King's College London
Grigory Asmolov

The traditional notion of propaganda has changed rapidly over the past decade, in line with the changing information landscape, with social networks and platforms now playing a key role. Faced with threats from networked society, Russian authoritarianism began to intensively search for answers. The specific nature of network propaganda involves, first of all, the involvement of the consumer in the process of dissemination, a kind of co-authorship. The primary objectives of digital (network) propaganda are the penetration of verticality into the systems of horizontal interactions of networked society and simulating channels of feedback between government and society (service propaganda). 

Unlike traditional propaganda, network propaganda is aimed not so much at promoting some ideological doctrine as at moderating public discussion. Therefore, it is adaptive: it can address different messages to different target audiences and set simultaneous tasks of mobilising some audiences while demobilising others. As such, online propaganda has demonstrated high effectiveness during the two years of the war. 

At the same time, the effectiveness of its manipulations is ensured by the use of two pillars of traditional propaganda: efforts to isolate the information space (censorship) and to intimidate part of the audience (repression). Despite its overall effectiveness, including in overcoming information crises, in several instances, wartime network propaganda has demonstrated its vulnerability in situations where unexpected developments undermine its narratives.

The transformation of propaganda in the online environment and the propaganda triad

In the early stages of web communication and social media development, cyber-optimists believed that new information technologies would contribute to the development of critical thinking and increase immunity to propaganda, the effectiveness of which is associated with mechanisms of controlling information flows and the hierarchical structure of the 20th-century media environment. For example, the author of the concept of network society, Manuel Castells, believed that networks weaken the sovereignty of traditional state institutions. However, as we can see in the example of the Russia-Ukraine war, Russian information policy and propaganda are relatively successful in fulfilling their tasks, including in social networks. The 'end of propaganda', like the 'end of history', has not taken place. Instead, we see traditional propaganda adapting to remain effective and achieve its political goals in a changing information environment. 

The ability of the Russian authorities to maintain the legitimacy of the war and the associated political decisions is a testament to the success of propaganda. Despite the critical view of opinion polls in authoritarian settings, it is impossible to ignore the fact that, in one way or another, the majority of individuals surveyed actively or passively support Russian aggression in Ukraine, and mass protests against the war have fizzled out. Thus, the polling data and the collective behaviour of the Russian population are indicators of the effectiveness of propaganda as a form of strategic communication, the task of which is to achieve exactly these political goals through information manipulation of the public consciousness.

In addition to internal propaganda, attention should also be paid to external propaganda aimed at international audiences. On the one hand, Russian propaganda has failed to significantly influence the political and business elites in Europe and the United States and to stop numerous international sanctions packages. On the other hand, recent reports by the European Commission point to alarming data on the spread of propaganda and its potential impact on electoral processes and public security: at least 165 million people in EU countries have seen messages related to Russian propaganda sources, while the total number of views of this content has reached 16 billion. Analysts at the European Commission also point to the failure of attempts to isolate European audiences from the information influence of Russian authorities in the media. Evidence of the penetration of Russian and pro-Russian narratives into public opinion not only inside but also outside Russia is abundant. These successes are particularly noticeable outside the EU, in regions of the Global South, particularly in a number of countries in Africa and South America, where Russian information influence resonates with anti-American public sentiment and the popularity of anti-colonial narratives.

Researchers interpret the development of Russian propaganda in the new information environment differently. American researcher Sarah Oates puts forward the concept of 'rewired propaganda', according to which 'a commitment to disinformation and manipulation, combined with the possibilities of the new digital age, gives special advantages to a repressive regime that can actively shape new media narratives' (→ Sarah Oates: Russian Media in the Digital Age). Researchers from Harvard propose the concept of 'networked propaganda' to show how social networks create a favourable environment for propagandists (→ Yochai Benkler et al.: Network Propaganda Manipulation). The concept of 'computational propaganda' proposed by Philip Howard and his Oxford colleagues (→ Samuel C. Wooley, Philip N. Howard: Political Communication; Sergey Sanovich: Computational Propaganda in Russia) looks at the role of new technologies, including bots and big data, in increasing the effectiveness of achieving propaganda goals. In my research I propose the concept of 'participatory propaganda', according to which the effectiveness of network propaganda is related to the fact that new technologies allow people to be involved in its dissemination, turning them not only into consumers but also into active participants in the process of creating and promoting content (→ Gregory Asmolov: The Effects of Participatory Propaganda). This approach focuses on the relationship between the socialisation of propaganda as a form of collective action and its internalisation, i.e. the extent to which it penetrates the worldview of an individual. 

However, none of these concepts seem to sufficiently address the question of the effectiveness and specific mechanisms of Russian propaganda after the full-scale invasion in February 2022, nor does it explain why a significant part of the Russian population continues to believe state propaganda and why it resonates outside Russia. 

To understand the peculiarities of authoritarian and, in particular, Russian propaganda models, it is necessary to focus primarily on the triangle of interconnected elements: disinformation, isolation, and intimidation. The first element of the triad — disinformation — reminds us that propaganda is a form of information manipulation aimed at achieving a political effect. Various forms of manipulation are used for political purposes, including in democratic countries — although here they are limited by mechanisms of control by independent media and the networked civil society, described by William Dutton as the 'fifth estate' (→ William H. Dutton: The Fifth Estate).

The fundamental differences are associated with the other two elements of the triad. The second element is the degree of isolation of the information space where the manipulation occurs. In other words, in an authoritarian environment, propaganda operates under conditions of restricted information competition through censorship, which ensures the dominance of pro-government sources of information. In Russia, starting from February 2022, we have seen a wide range of measures to isolate the media and the online sphere. However, it should be noted that certain forms of isolation, such as the blockade of certain Russian state channels, can also be observed in European countries and Ukraine. Therefore, the role of the second element of the triad cannot be analysed outside the context of the third element — the degree of intimidation of those who try to deviate from the dominant version of reality promoted by propaganda.

Effective isolation of the information environment is based on a combination of technical measures to block information flows and legal measures to ban certain sources and opinions. No state is capable today of fully isolating the information environment by technical means alone, without applying harsh sanctions and violence against violators of the information regime. In authoritarian regimes, the degree of these sanctions and the level of violence are fundamentally higher. Moreover, the failure of isolation policies is often compensated for by the radicalism of violent measures aimed at intimidating potential violators. 

The key element ensuring the effectiveness of Russian propaganda is not the quality of disinformation or the success of isolation mechanisms, but primarily intimidation measures. This became particularly evident after a series of show trials of those who spoke out against the invasion of Ukraine. The law on 'fakes' about the Russian army (Article 207.3 of the Criminal Code) has allowed for the imprisonment of many who expressed opinions that undermined the official world to long sentences. In addition to the growing number of criminal cases for statements on social networks, the Russian authorities are using additional means of pressure on 'violators': they are constantly expanding the lists of 'foreign agents' and 'undesirable organisations', which serve both as mechanisms for increasing isolation and instruments of intimidation.

Thus, although both sides of the conflict are engaged in propaganda, the difference between them lies in the level of competitiveness of the information environment. In an open information environment, the level of competitiveness is quite high, while the levels of isolation and intimidation are relatively low, making propaganda more difficult. Authoritarian regimes seek to enhance its effectiveness by reducing the level of competitiveness of the environment and transforming it into a more closed one. At the same time, isolation mechanisms are reinforced by constantly developing intimidation mechanisms, which increase the price for those who oppose the rules of the closed information environment and try to compete with propaganda. 

The conditions of the war have created opportunities in Russia for a qualitative leap in the level of both isolation and intimidation — and ultimately for the final transformation of a still relatively open information ecosystem into an isolated and closed one. The forces preparing for this transformation have long awaited their moment, but a qualitative leap could only occur in conditions of deep crisis. Such a crisis, according to Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, forms the conditions of a 'state of emergency' and gives the sovereign the opportunity to fundamentally change the rules of the game.

Propaganda between vertical and horizontal mobilisation 

Propaganda is not only a tool for shaping public opinion, but also a mechanism for constructing the desired behaviour of target audiences in the context of certain political crises. This understanding of propaganda has become particularly important in today's information environment, where online platforms provide not only the opportunity to receive information, but also tools for responding to and co-operating with it. Upon receiving information, a person can decide not only to react to it (like, comment) and share it, thus increasing its visibility, but can also use digital tools to participate in certain actions (crowdfunding, crowdsourcing, etc.). The spectrum of reactions to war-related information can range from engagement (mobilisation) or symbolic support to neutral disregard or various forms of disengagement and protest. 

In other words, any propaganda message is either a proposal of different participation formats or, conversely, an attempt to shape a passive position regarding the content of the message. Therefore, I propose considering the function of propaganda in the online environment based on the following definition: propaganda is a purposeful effort to shape relations between an individual recipient of information (subject) and his/her environment by disseminating symbolic meanings with the aim of supporting a specific course of action by the subject in relation to the objects of activity (→ Gregory Asmolov: The Effects of Participatory Propaganda).

In this perspective, analysing Russian propaganda requires first of all an answer to the question of what expected patterns of behaviour of the target audience are desirable for the propagandist in the context of Russian aggression against Ukraine: whether they want to support extensive societal mobilisation in its favour and/or neutralise any forms of protest against the war. Depending on how information about the conflict is presented, people can either decide to mobilise via the vertical structures of the state, or to ignore the conflict and go on with their normal lives, avoiding imposed forms of vertical mobilisation, or they can mobilise through grassroots horizontal structures (both in support of and against the war). 

Russian wartime propaganda appears internally contradictory in this respect. On the one hand, it tries to frighten the consumer with the danger of aggression from the West and, thus, to form mobilisation attitudes. On the other hand, for example, it prohibits calling the war a war, thus lowering the level of threat. In other words, it tries to intimidate and thus mobilise the target audiences and, at the same time, to convince them that there is no 'war' and that the 'special military operation' is proceeding according to plan, thereby limiting mobilisation. However, in essence, this contradiction is an element of strategic communication, allowing for the simultaneous achievement of opposing goals: on one hand, maintaining audience passivity to neutralise protest sentiments, and on the other hand, preserving latent resources for vertical mobilisation.

The difference in target attitudes in response to the conflict and its threats is especially noticeable when compared with the Ukrainian experience. Since 2014, narratives emphasising the existential threat from Russia and Ukraine's limited defence capabilities against this threat have been closely associated with various forms of horizontal mobilisation within Ukrainian society — such as the formation of volunteer battalions and the encouragement of various forms of volunteering (→ Gregory Asmolov: The transformation of participatory warfare). While in the years following the onset of open confrontation, Ukrainian authorities gradually attempted to transition some forms of mobilisation from horizontal to vertical, Russian authorities initially viewed any forms of grassroots mobilisation as a risk. Thus, the functions of Russian propaganda should be considered in the context of friction between horizontal and vertical forms of mobilisation.

Analysing the history of network mobilisation in Russia over the past fifteen years, it can be noted that, at the beginning of this period, horizontal and grassroots forms of mobilisation predominated in crisis situations. For example, during the 2010 wildfires, social networks and crowdsourcing platforms shaped a scenario where the crisis was perceived to be beyond the authorities' control, and the only form of resistance to the disaster appeared to be civilian mobilisation. Thus, network technologies both created a demand for horizontal mobilisation and provided tools to organise grassroots structures to address crisis-related tasks. However, the loss of control over civilian mobilisation was seen by Russian authorities as a high political risk. It was from this moment that the history of building a networked horizontal mobilisation vertical began through the development of vertical crowdsourcing technologies (→ Gregory Asmolov: Vertical Crowdsourcing in Russia).

These efforts reached their peak during the coronavirus epidemic when state initiatives for network mobilisation such as the platform DOBRO.RF and the project #WEARETOGETHER almost entirely displaced attempts at horizontal mobilisation at the hyperlocal level (such as in the case of the independent network project 'Covid Solidarity'). However, technologies for vertical crisis mobilisation cannot operate without state information support, which guides civilian mobilisation in the desired direction, emphasising the effectiveness of state work in crisis situations and controlling the spectrum of mobilisation. Since February 2022, the Kremlin's main task has been to support the most traditional forms of mobilisation through military conscription while retaining control over grassroots volunteer initiatives.

As a result, we have seen, on the one hand, experiments using network platforms for military mobilisation, including through the development of the 'Gosuslugi' system (although these attempts have been relatively unsuccessful due to the inability to effectively integrate various databases), and on the other hand, attempts by independent civil initiatives to switch to creating tools to evade vertical mobilisation. While in 2010 the crowdsourcing platform 'Aid Map' mobilised Russians to fight wildfires in forests, twelve years later, in 2022, the network initiative 'Go to the Woods' sent Russians into the forests to avoid participation in the war (mobilisation). Depending on which 'worldview' regarding war predominates in the target audiences, they may either accept the necessity of vertical mobilisation or try to avoid it. In other words, there has been a fundamental shift in the horizontal from mobilisation (2009) to evasion of mobilisation in the context of the current war.

Institutional trajectory: from crowdsourcing and outsourcing to propaganda insourcing ('Dialogue' versus 'troll factories')

The development trajectory of Russian network propaganda is closely linked to changes in the organisational model of its structure. Initially, the Russian authorities had limited resources and skills to operate in a networked environment. Therefore, the first model involved the engagement of external structures for information gathering and dissemination, as well as attempts to control information flows. This crowdsourcing model of propaganda, associated with the concept of participatory propaganda, emerged during Dmitry Medvedev's presidency.

One element of this was service propaganda. According to this approach, the positive image of the state could be formed by simulating effective feedback channels: the prompt response by authorities to complaints from the population, whether it be potholes on roads, problems with housing and utilities, leaking roofs, or abuse by officials. In service propaganda, the imitation of the feedback mechanism, creating the symbolic construct of an efficient state for target audiences, replaces traditional ideological propaganda seeking to convey certain meanings to target audiences. For such propaganda, network monitoring is a key element aimed at identifying hotspots of social tension and discontent, which are then used to demonstrate the effectiveness of the state.

For example, the 'Russia without Fools' project, created by the Medvedev administration, encouraged reporting on corruption and violations of rights by local authorities and promised to punish those responsible. Some service propaganda projects copied civil initiatives, such as the crowdsourcing project by Alexei Navalny's team 'RosYama'. The flagship project of network propaganda became the Moscow government's platform 'Active Citizen' (→ Yana Gorokhovskaia: From Local Activism to Local Politics). Simultaneously, projects to involve Internet users in detecting 'illegal content' began to emerge. The formation of cyber militias essentially became the first attempt at crowdsourcing Internet censorship.

However, the effectiveness of crowdsourcing initiatives remained relatively limited. While the state did not yet possess sufficient internal resources to operate in the networked environment, a need arose for counterparts which could effectively perform the tasks assigned. Thus, outsourcing came to the forefront as a replacement for propaganda crowdsourcing. The "Our" movement became one of the noticeable agents of state propaganda outsourcing. Their 'network cloud' presence on LiveJournal was noticed by researchers from Harvard University as part of creating a map of the Russian blogosphere as early as 2010 (→ Bruce Etling et al.: Public Discourse in the Russian Blogosphere). However, one of the most effective outsourcing agents became the so-called troll factory of Yevgeny Prigozhin. Its employees mastered the technologies described by Oxford researchers as 'computer propaganda', including content promotion by bots and controlling the course of public discussions using trolls. Meanwhile, some tasks related to controlling the information space were carried out by hacker groups.

While the attention of researchers was focused on Prigozhin's 'troll factory', another structure, which became the main mechanism for controlling public opinion from February 2022, was developing in Russia. This is the Autonomous Non-Profit Organisation (ANO) 'Dialogue'. The name explains its task — to build mechanisms of communication between the authorities and target audiences on the Internet, which were tested within the framework of the service propaganda model in major urban centres. Initially, these mechanisms assumed the co-optation of civil crowdsourcing projects and the creation of separate pro-government Internet platforms. However, later, the authorities came to the conclusion that the effective integration of the vertical into the horizontal for managing public opinion requires a more systematic approach both in terms of controlling the main social networks and their algorithms, and in terms of the organisational structure of network interaction with users. The latter became the task of 'Dialogue'.

The work of 'Dialogue' began in Moscow and the Moscow region with the platform 'Dobrodel', created for collecting complaints about the work of state and municipal authorities. However, since 2020, at the request of the Kremlin administration, its priority has shifted to the regions. As a consequence, in each subject of the Russian Federation, a Regional Management Centre (RMC) was established. The RMCs were coordinated from Moscow and did not report to local governors, thus becoming a new element of the centre's control system over the regions (→ Nikolai Petrov: The King's Ear). The RMCs monitored people's dissatisfaction at the local level, primarily related to everyday problems (housing and utilities, healthcare, transportation, etc.), and proposed solutions aimed at extinguishing hotbeds of socio-political tension. For this purpose, popular regional public pages were created on social networks, allowing effective influence on the opinions of local target audiences, and support for the online presence of regional officials was also provided. The rapid symbolic response to social requests created the illusion of direct and prompt communication with the authorities.

Thanks to 'Dialogue', the vertical was able to penetrate deep into the networked horizontal and create effective mechanisms for controlling public opinion. The work was conducted on social media platforms (primarily on VKontakte) and in an algorithmically favourable environment for propagandists, where the mechanisms for determining the visibility of content were controlled by the state. It was precisely this outsourcing activity of 'Dialogue' and the systematic work with the regional audience on social networks, including through RMCs, that laid the foundation for relatively effective network propaganda after February 2022.

However, even before Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, it became evident that 'Dialogue's' work extended beyond the regional agenda and fulfilled federal-level state information tasks. One such case was providing information support for the voting on constitutional amendments in the summer of 2020. Additionally, in 2020, 'Dialogue' became one of the main executors of tasks related to informing the population and monitoring the information situation on social networks during the coronavirus pandemic (the Information Monitoring Centre was established, and the website 'Stopcoronavirus.rf' was launched). One of the main focuses here was combating so-called 'fakes', that is, any information deviating from the official narrative of the pandemic's development in terms of the number of victims and the government's effectiveness in combating it (more on this can be found in the BBC investigation).

The same practices and tools of 'fighting fakes' have been used since the start of the full-scale war with Ukraine (the website and popular Telegram channel 'War against Fakes' was launched). As a result, the concept of 'fake' became a central element of Russian propaganda, serving several functions: 1) recording deviations from the official information trajectory, 2) involving the target audience in the search for such deviations within the framework of participatory propaganda, and 3) legitimising the ban on certain content and the persecution of those who create or distribute it. The concept of 'fake' became the connecting point for each of the corners of the propaganda triangle: manipulation, isolation, and intimidation.

According to an investigation by Meduza, 'Dialogue's' work during the war has included, among other things, developing recommendations for responding to criticism on social networks about the evolving situation on the front lines, particularly regarding resonant news about the lack of ammunition and provisions for Russian military personnel. Essentially, 'Dialogue' began to perform outsourcing functions to ensure the interests of the Russian Ministry of Defence on social networks. This inevitably led to a clash with another structure working in this area and also often carrying out information orders from the Kremlin — Yevgeny Prigozhin's 'troll factory', which primarily represented the interests of the Wagner PMC.

The conflict between Prigozhin and the Ministry of Defence thus manifested itself as an information conflict between two key structures outsourcing network propaganda — 'Dialogue' and the 'troll factory'. However, while the latter always remained an external contractor, 'Dialogue' became deeply integrated into the Russian government's systems. Thus, a trend towards a gradual transition from the outsourcing model of propaganda on social networks to an insourcing one became apparent. One of the main characteristics of this transformation is the mechanism of recruiting human resources. As shown by a recent investigation by Novaya Gazeta Europe, the place of Prigozhin's 'digital mercenaries' was usurped by civil servants working for 'Dialogue’.

The approaches to content creation of 'Dialogue' and the 'troll factory' also fundamentally differed. While Prigozhin's structure was more concerned with creating and promoting a certain type of ideological content and influencing online discourse through mechanisms of computational propaganda, 'Dialogue's' structures were more oriented towards practices related to Internet marketing, monitoring, and working with target audiences in the regions. The direct conflict between the Ministry of Defence and the Wagner PMC led to 'Dialogue' structures being tasked with mitigating the risks posed by criticism from Prigozhin's structures.

The conflict between 'Dialogue' and the 'troll factory' essentially became a clash of network elites, who had been competing for a decade for the provision of services to the Russian authorities in the field of information influence. As a result of the struggle, which took place both in the information and physical space, the 'troll factory' ceased to exist in the summer of 2023, after Prigozhin's rebellion. Network mercenaries, whose loyalty had always been in question (just like the loyalty of the Wagner mercenaries), were displaced by a structure under Kremlin control.

The victory of 'Dialogue' over the 'troll factory' illustrates a shift in the propaganda strategy from ideology to service propaganda based on marketing mechanisms. It also signifies a transition from outsourcing, where reliance is placed on agents of network influence whose loyalty cannot be guaranteed, to insourcing, i.e., using a structure created by the government for effective operation in the information space within the state system.

However, various forms of 'loyal outsourcing' remain an important element of Russian propaganda. An international group of journalists published an investigation into 15 Russian non-profit organisations receiving money for various information projects from the Russian authorities. The journalists note that ANOs are convenient for carrying out propaganda tasks as they are not required to comply with the rules associated with the law on public procurement.

Some ANOs work with specific target audiences, such as youth, focusing on monitoring the content of young users on social networks. Several production centres, such as 'Integration', work with influencers loyal to the authorities as a new type of tool for managing public opinion. Some similar organisations, such as the Agency for Social Engineering, work with target audiences outside of Russia (for example, in Latin America) and fulfil orders to discredit the Ukrainian leadership, aiming to promote division within the political elites of foreign countries. Thus, external structures remain contractors for propaganda tasks, but they are often created by the Kremlin specifically or are fully controlled by the Russian authorities. Unlike the 'troll factory', this system is not inherently outsourcing, but instead resembles a hidden form of insourcing, implying the construction of formally external, but fully loyal and deeply integrated, structures within the system.

Adaptive and crisis network propaganda

The transition from propaganda based on relatively stable ideological constructs and the promotion of specific ideas to propaganda that operates on marketing methods, monitoring, and feedback mechanisms warrants separate discussion. Such propaganda can be described as adaptive. The concept of service propaganda points to the historical roots of this phenomenon; however, in the context of the Russia-Ukraine war, it is important to note its role as a communication strategy aimed at ensuring the internal legitimacy and 'resilience' of the authoritarian regime in the online environment.

As noted by researcher Anna Litvinenko, Russian propaganda often communicates conflicting messages — its content depends on the target audience it is addressing. This indicates the lack of a stable ideological foundation around which narratives are constructed and a willingness to adapt to different consumer groups. The 'end of ideology' in this type of propaganda is linked to the fact that the content of a specific propaganda message is essentially secondary. The primary concern is maintaining the balance of the system by neutralising potential information challenges, reducing political risks, and ensuring a favourable environment for implementing the government's plans. The effectiveness of adaptive propaganda is ensured by deep penetration into horizontal networks while simultaneously controlling the algorithms that determine the degree of visibility or invisibility of content.

Thus, thanks to its adaptive nature, Russian propaganda manages to effectively manoeuvre between denying the state of 'war' on one hand, and the need for large-scale mobilisation on the other (as already mentioned). In the event of mobilisation, the Russian authorities successfully identify regional hotspots of tension and mitigate corresponding risks not only by creating messages capable of alleviating dissatisfaction but also through a deep presence in Russian social networks at both the federal and regional levels. The variability in describing the goals of aggression against Ukraine is also a vivid example of the constant adaptation of the message depending on the successes of the Russian 'military operation' and the international political context. In this case, we have seen a transformation of messages implying a quick victory and 'denazification' of Ukraine into narratives explaining the protracted nature of the war as a confrontation with the 'collective West', which does not imply a quick victory but is necessary for the 'survival' of Russia as a sovereign state.

However, situations have arisen during the war in which adaptive propaganda has been insufficient to maintain the informational conditions of political stability. This occurred when the dissonance between the messages promoted by propaganda and reality became too noticeable. Moreover, the mechanisms of censorship were also inadequate to conceal the essence of what was happening through isolation or intimidation. Such a situation could be observed during the retreat of the Russian army in the Kharkiv and Kherson regions in the autumn of 2022, as well as during the Prigozhin rebellion in June 2023. The emerging dissonance threatened to undermine trust in the government and shift responsibility for events that did not fit into the propaganda-created 'reality' onto the regime and its leader.

In episodes where adaptive propaganda failed to meet its objectives, a new genre emerged — crisis propaganda — arising at the intersection of two forms: propaganda and crisis communication (→ Gregory Asmolov: Crisis Propaganda). Propaganda is informational manipulation of public opinion aimed at achieving the desired behaviour from the target audience. Meanwhile, crisis communication is a response to an unexpected negative event that could lead to reputational damage for the authorities if they were to be held responsible. The primary mission of this emerging genre is not only to protect the country's leaders from being held accountable, but also to seek new legitimacy for the continuation of the war.

In the aftermath of the retreat from Kherson, a spectrum of those responsible swiftly emerged, serving as convenient scapegoats for the situation; this included local officials, who inaccurately reported on the frontline situation and misled the central authorities, those who undermined the combat readiness of the Russian army in the 1990s ('liberals'), and those who spread panic (such as opposition media). Meanwhile, explaining the failure required an urgent reassessment of the 'enemy portrait', shifting the focus of the confrontation from the Ukrainian authorities to NATO forces. Thus, crisis propaganda achieved its primary objective: extricating the authorities and their leader from the zone of responsibility and, conversely, positioning them as the primary resource for crisis resolution.

Similarly, during the Prigozhin revolt, which became a continuation of his conflict with political elites and the leadership of the Ministry of Defence, all media resources were mobilised to cast Prigozhin as the chief culprit undermining unity and political stability, while positioning Putin as an effective crisis manager capable of resolving conflicts and restoring unity. The Kremlin's informational response to the uprising showcased its ability to transform a crisis into a demonstration of the resilience of the Russian president's positions. Within less than a day, a 'loyalty parade' commenced on all television channels: governors pledged allegiance to the president one after another, reiterating the messages of crisis propaganda, portraying him not as the cause of the revolt but as the sole individual capable of addressing the threats posed by the uprising. Essentially, the task of crisis propaganda is to transform a crisis from a threat to stability into yet another affirmation of its guarantees associated with the leader.

However, social media did not serve as a space for the formation of alternative narratives capable of effectively countering official propaganda and mobilising audience sympathies toward Prigozhin and his private military company. This was largely due to the penetration of the vertical into the horizontal level of network communications, including the control of regional networked information platforms. While Prigozhin's mercenaries from the Wagner PMC may have successfully advanced toward Moscow for a time, troll factory employees were unable to sustain this success in the digital realm, largely due to effective resistance from 'Dialogue' and other pro-Kremlin network influence structures.

However, in the initial stages of the crisis, there was a delay in the information reaction, when the information space was almost entirely occupied by Prigozhin's narratives. The task of adaptive and crisis propaganda is precisely to minimise this 'window of inactivity' caused by the shock of the crisis and prevent it from spiralling out of control. The size of this 'window' and the factors determining the scale of the delay are key issues for studying the effectiveness of propaganda in the networked environment.

One of the tasks of 'Dialogue' was to adapt foreign experience. As a result, another mechanism of adaptation for Russian propaganda became innovative symmetry. An example of such 'mirror' innovation is the website and Telegram channel of the 'Tribunal' project — a kind of Russian counterpart to the Ukrainian 'Peacemaker' project, where dossiers are collected on those who in any way support aggression against Ukraine. 'Tribunal', in turn, collects information about Ukrainian 'war criminals' and 'Nazis'. The same principle of innovative symmetry can be observed in the case of platforms combating fakes. Since March 2014, the website 'StopFake' has been operating in Ukraine, aimed at identifying and debunking pro-Russian disinformation, including through crowdsourcing mechanisms. On the Russian side, one of the popular network initiatives has become, accordingly, the 'War on Fakes' platform and Telegram channel.

This kind of innovative symmetry creates a symbolic sense of equal legitimacy of arguments from both sides of the conflict. That is, it is aimed at not only effectively communicating with their audiences but also at reducing the credibility of narratives that are critical of Russia by reflecting them back like a mirror.

The Telegram effect: the crisis of traditional propaganda and emergence of new influencers

Due to their nature (content publishing formats, algorithms determining the degree of its visibility, moderation modes), network platforms can either complicate control over the information environment or, conversely, help propagandists to influence their target audiences. A particularly interesting example in this regard is the Telegram platform, which has become both a primary tool for circumventing Russian censorship and a key instrument of Russian propaganda.

The history of Telegram begins where the story of the social network 'VKontakte' ends as a space where informational resistance to the Russian authorities was possible. As is well known, both events are linked to the fact that the creator of these platforms, Pavel Durov, was forced to leave Russia after an open conflict with the authorities. Both platforms attempted, to some extent, to combine mainstream networking with elements of the anarchic spirit of the darknet. The rapid rise in Telegram's popularity was associated with the ability to create anonymous public channels. This feature allowed the platform to be used by creators of numerous popular pro-Kremlin channels, as well as by opposition activists and independent media. Attempts by Roskomnadzor to block Telegram in April 2018 failed at the technical level and led to one of the largest scale protests by Internet users, dubbed the 'Battle for Telegram'. As a result, in the summer of 2020, Roskomnadzor officially announced the lifting of restrictions.

As a result, Telegram remains one of the largest platforms available in Russia after February 2022 and is not under Kremlin control. However, Telegram also refuses to comply with the regulatory requirements from the European Union aimed at limiting Russian propaganda and did not respond to demands to restrict access to content during the escalation of the Arab-Israeli conflict in the autumn of 2023. Moreover, there are not any strong mechanisms of algorithmic content control related to violence and pornography (→ Aliaksandr Herasimenka et al.: Misinformation and professional news on largely unmoderated platforms). This does not mean that such control does not exist at all, but Telegram allows the publication of violent and murder-related content within the framework of military conflicts.

Thus, in the context of the Russia-Ukraine war, Telegram as a platform has turned into a unique information niche. On the one hand, it is actively used by the Ukrainian side to highlight the successful actions of the Ukrainian army. For example, the channel 'All-Seeing Eye' has over one and a half million subscribers. The channel 'Look for Your Own' addresses the Russian audience by publishing information about Russian prisoners of war. On the other hand, the platform is actively used by Russian 'nomenklatura' politicians and propagandists. For example, the channels of former President Dmitry Medvedev and the Speaker of the State Duma Vyacheslav Volodin each have over a million subscribers, while Ramzan Kadyrov's channel has over two million. These figures are likely artificial but they demonstrate the significance that Russian authorities attribute to Telegram. The platform is also used by Russian media personalities who are considered Russian propaganda mouthpieces (Margaret Simonyan has 460,000 subscribers, Maria Zakharova — 475,000, Vladimir Solovyov — over 1.2 million).

Finally, Telegram has become the main platform of so-called war correspondents — pro-Russian military bloggers and journalists. For example, the channel 'Operation Z: War Correspondents of the Russian Spring' has over 1.3 million subscribers, blogger Semen Pegov's channel 'WarGonzo' has over a million, and the channel of Komsomolskaya Pravda's war correspondent Alexander Kots 'Kotsnews' has around 600,000. Among the popular pro-Russian military channels are also 'Rybar' (specialising in OSINT) and 'War on Fakes'. It is worth noting separately that, in terms of popularity, war correspondent channels have significantly outstripped pro-Kremlin anonymous public pages, which discuss news from behind the political scenes, including 'Nezygar' and 'Karaulny'.

This ambivalent status of Telegram as, on the one hand, a space free from censorship, not only political but also algorithmic, and on the other hand, a space actively utilised by all sides of the conflict, has led to a significant transformation of the media environment. First and foremost, Telegram has become a space for 'new transparency' in the conflict. No war has ever been accompanied by such a volume of dramatic content, showcasing combat actions almost in real-time. Cameras such as GoPros on soldiers' helmets and drones attacking targets and capturing the moment of attack are used to cover the war. As the war is taking place within an environment where there is a high concentration of various video sensors, both on the battlefield and in cities, new footage often becomes available almost instantaneously. The publication of this content by both sides of the conflict has been made possible precisely as a result of the absence of strict algorithmic control over violent and death-related footage. As a result, Telegram creates the impression that the Russia-Ukraine war is the most transparent conflict in history.

At the same time, this 'new transparency' is deceptive. It leads to a reverse effect of information overload, which researchers describe as 'episodic coverage' of the conflict (→ Shanto Iyengar: Is Anyone Responsible?), which, in reality, does not enhance but diminishes the ability to understand the situation. The more drama there is in the footage from both sides, the more emotions and less room for analysis and understanding of the context. Moreover, the information overload and similar imagery from both sides create a favourable environment for information manipulation and the spread of deep fakes, as they limit the audience's ability to distinguish real footage from footage created using generative AI. As a result, the increase in transparency leads to a decrease in trust in any kind of information and transforms the information space into a resource of dramatic visual content, the function of which becomes not information but infotainment.

Against the backdrop of a crisis of trust, there is a growing demand for voices that can be 'trusted' to deal with the information overload. However, such requests can also be used to form a new type of influencer perceived by the target audience as authentic voices. It is against the backdrop of the legitimacy crisis of both traditional media and social networks that war correspondents have emerged, informing about events from the field and accompanying soldiers.

The phenomenon of embedded journalists, i.e. journalists assigned to military units, has long existed. However, in the case of Russian war correspondents, traditional war journalism has been reinforced by methods of influencer branding and digital marketing. War correspondents have actively utilised the opportunities offered by Telegram, which lacks content regulation. Moreover, to enhance credibility, war correspondents have often distanced themselves from the state, criticising certain decisions on behalf of the soldiers on the ground, without crossing any 'red lines' by criticising the higher echelons of power. In response, the authorities have recognised war correspondents as a new institution of media influence, confirmed by their meetings with Putin and their inclusion in state and quasi-governmental structures, including the Human Rights Council. The relatively controlled independence of war correspondents has also turned them into a kind of feedback mechanism for the authorities, allowing them to understand what is happening on the ground, bypassing fully censored traditional media outlets.

However, in a number of crisis situations related to the Russian retreat in the autumn of 2022, the Kremlin had to threaten sanctions against war correspondents who began to cross the 'red lines' in criticising the authorities, primarily the leadership of the Ministry of Defence. The issue of the dual loyalty of war correspondents intensified in the context of the conflict between the ministry and the Wagner PMC. Structures affiliated with Prigozhin had always accommodated war correspondents in terms of access to information, which created particularly close relations between them and the PMC. However, Prigozhin's rebellion put an end to this conflict, and war correspondents were presented with unequivocal demands for loyalty to the Kremlin and distancing themselves from the actions of the Wagner group.

Nevertheless, war correspondents partially address propaganda issues associated with the overall decline in trust in media and social networks. The history of their emergence demonstrates the emergence of a new phenomenon of authenticity and post-sincerity, made possible largely due to the unique characteristics of Telegram. The history of war correspondents can also be seen as another example of building a vertical within the horizontal. Unlike the construction of regional verticals in 'VKontakte' and other Kremlin-controlled social networks, Telegram is a less friendly environment due to its high level of competitiveness. However, the lack of control is compensated for by various affordances (the platform's technical capabilities), including a liberal algorithmic regime for controlling disinformation and violent footage, as well as opportunities for anonymous publication. Further, by offering new feedback mechanisms and channels to reach target audiences, war correspondents enhance the propaganda's ability to adapt to constantly changing situations and respond to crises.

Ontological security, disconnected society, and the Achilles' heel of propaganda

Adaptive propaganda can only work effectively where there is corresponding demand from the audience. What is the nature of this demand? British sociologist Anthony Giddens introduced the concept of 'ontological security', highlighting the importance of predictability and linearity in an individual's daily life. In a VUCA world (Volatility — Uncertainty — Complexity — Ambiguity), where volatility and complexity prevail, ontological security becomes one of the main vulnerabilities. The rupture of causality between today and tomorrow, when going to bed at night, you do not know what world you will wake up to in the morning, is not only a source of anxiety for the individual but also a factor that negatively affects the level of social stability. This is particularly noticeable in authoritarian states, where, on the one hand, citizens lack real levers of influence on the decisions of the authorities, and on the other hand, the sense of stability is the main commodity that the authorities offer citizens in exchange for restricting their rights and freedoms.

Russians who went to bed on the evening of 23 February, 2022, woke up the next morning in a world where their country had begun a full-scale war with its closest neighbour. In this situation, they faced a choice: either accept that their country had become the aggressor, or find some sort of explanation for what had happened and soften the blow to their ontological security. Propaganda is necessary when ontological security, described by Giddens as the need for a sense of integrity, is disrupted. As a result, propaganda becomes necessary for survival in times of crisis in an authoritarian state, where the institutional environment makes citizens accustomed to the lack of control over what is happening.

Propaganda serves as a tool to simplify complexity by offering simple models (heuristics) for understanding what is happening, thus reducing the level of anxiety associated with constant changes (→ Maxim Alyukov: Propaganda, authoritarianism and Russia’s invasion of  Ukraine). The task of propaganda is to maintain the causal relationship between today and tomorrow in a situation of loss of control. Thus, adaptive propaganda is effective not only because it can adapt to the demands of the audience, but also because the audience is interested in it as a mechanism for maintaining a stable worldview.

In this context, propaganda acts not only as a tool of state 'violence', but also as a means of maintaining the psychological comfort of the population, creating the illusion of predictability and control in the absence of these conditions. Essentially, the goal of propaganda is to protect the audience from reality by creating a false construct of order, stability, and efforts to ensure security.

One might recall the famous description of such influence in the book by the Strugatsky brothers, 'The Inhabited Island'. As a metaphor for propaganda, they describe the radiation from towers used to maintain a high level of patriotism. However, if this radiation is turned off, people experience breakdowns, which can lead to mental collapse. Similarly, the more time people spend in an information environment filled with propagandistic content, the higher their dependence on propaganda to maintain the stability of their worldview and the integrity of their 'self' in the context of this worldview. Thus, the demand for propaganda from the population is an additional resource for its elasticity. It gives it significant room for manoeuvre and a wide range of opportunities for adaptation to the situation as it relies on the readiness of the population to accept even unconvincing explanations rather than reject them and thus leave the comfort zone, finding themselves in a situation of ontological crisis.

The complexity of modern authoritarian propaganda in the networked environment requires paying attention to a wide range of factors, the study of which can help understand the reasons for its effectiveness. Concepts such as service, network, and crisis propaganda, as well as the analysis of the transformation of propaganda institutions and the role of target audiences in shaping demand for it, indicate a spectrum of issues requiring further research. The full-scale war against Ukraine has created strong incentives for the transformation of Russian propaganda, mobilising latent resources for controlling the information environment on one hand, and compelling propagandists to seek new ways to effectively achieve their political objectives on the other. This transformation entails not only technological innovations but also new practices, discourses, and genres of authoritarian communication. Such active transformations during times of crises are associated with the fact that crises force authoritarian leaders to fight for survival while simultaneously loosening the constraints on their actions. In this sense, the transformation of propaganda is part of the transformation of the social-political system, now oriented toward isolation and maximum closure not only of the information sphere but of all areas of life. Thus, propaganda contributes to isolation while simultaneously being its product.

However, it is important not to succumb to excessive technological determinism, assuming that we are dealing with fundamentally new types of propaganda in the new information environment. Propaganda remains a key mechanism for maintaining political stability, controlling civil mobilisation, and ensuring the legitimacy of decisions made by leaders. Moreover, in times of war, it is a method of informational influence aimed at diminishing the value of human life, both of the enemy and of 'our own' (advocating for the necessity of sacrificing citizens' lives to continue the war).

In conclusion, attention should be drawn to the three 'dragon’s heads' of Russian propaganda. The first two are its adaptability and its ability to use crises as a resource for entering new fields of meaning and messages. However, there is also a third — strategies of disconnection. Polarisation and the breakdown of horizontal structures are necessary conditions for maintaining authoritarian stability. Propaganda remains particularly successful when, using mechanisms of the networked environment, it simultaneously disrupts horizontal networks and ensures the monopoly of the authoritarian vertical. Essentially, such disconnective propaganda is a mechanism of countering the networked society, which, extending beyond physical space, challenges traditional centres of sovereignty.

For the survival of authoritarian regimes, it is not enough to rely solely on effective models of censorship and information control. Global disintegration is also necessary to weaken ubiquitous network structures, which remain a key risk factor for authoritarian regimes. In place of the logic of connective actions (→ W. Lance Bennett, Alexandra Segerberg: The logic of  connective action) as a mechanism of network mobilisation that does not require organisational structures, comes the logic of disconnective actions, which uses the same information technologies to demarcate and weaken horizontal connections outside the control of political institutions. Thus, propaganda becomes a defence mechanism for sovereignties, a method of promoting a disconnected society as a new social-political model in opposition to the networked society.

Russian propaganda effectively constructs a disconnective society (→ Gregory Asmolov: Emergence of «disconnective society») within Russia and promotes the logic of socio-political disintegration in the global space. Analysis of the divisive power of disinformation shows how propaganda successfully constructs a binary division between the internal and external environments. Essentially, the construction of a disconnective society is a strategy for the survival of a political regime that cannot sustain itself in the competition of the global networked society. The policy of disintegration aims to turn a relatively open society into a closed one. The main characteristic of a disconnective society is the severance of any ties with what lies beyond the boundaries of the sociopolitical system as defined by the authorities. Political leaders in a disconnective society play the role of a black hole, increasingly drawing society into itself. The forces of political gravity close the system off from external information, political, cultural, social, and financial flows.

Such disintegration creates a false sense of stability by isolating the country from the diversity and unpredictability of the global networked world. Thus, a disconnective society also responds to the demand for stability and predictability in conditions of uncertainty and lack of control. The deeper the degree of isolation, the less chance there is for anyone to challenge this system from the outside.

However, as we have seen, the adaptability of propaganda is not limitless. Hypothetically, one could envisage the emergence of a crisis, the scale of which would prevent adaptive mechanisms from taking control of the situation. Due to the disconnective effect of propaganda, such a crisis is more likely to arise not from external sources, but from within the closed system, creating a narrative rift among the political elites (the potential for this effect could be observed during the situation of Prigozhin's rebellion). The emergence of two conflicting versions of events leads to the collapse of adaptability: the 'towers' cease to satisfy the demand for maintaining the zone of informational comfort for target audiences, and as people unexpectedly find themselves in the 'desert of reality' they are forced to seek new ways to ensure ontological security — although this will not be through propagandistic self-deception, but through political change.