19.01.23 Polls Review

Foreign Agents and Wartime Anomalies: polling shows increasing distortions in public opinion in 2022

In 2021, up to 45% of people polled viewed the law on foreign agents as a tool for applying pressure on dissenters. According to figures produced by the Levada Center in December, this number had fallen to 30% by the end of 2022, while the number of those who view this law as an instrument against the West had risen to 45%. Sociologists have attributed this shift to a ‘consolidation around the government and the intensifying conflict with the West’. It is more likely, however, that we are dealing with a more complex wartime anomaly in the polling. For example, it is difficult to explain why, at the end of 2022, the proportion of those fearing world war did not increase, but rather decreased in comparison with 2021, and why there was a parallel decline in the level of fear of anguish, illness of loved ones, natural disasters, and AIDS.

The foreign agents law was widely applied as a repressive measure against dissenters and independent journalism in 2022, the second year of its implementation. The Ministry of Justice has made it a practice to add new people to the list of foreign agents on Fridays, resulting in 186 new entries this year. The widespread application of the law began in 2021, with the addition of 112 people and organisations to the list. Thus, 298 new entries have been added to the list in two years, whereas only 223 people and organisations were added in the eight years prior.

According to Levada Center data, between 2014 and 2016, 36-41% of respondents thought the purpose of the law was to protect Russia from Western interference, while 25-27% believed it was a tool to limit criticism of the authorities; 34-38% were unable to answer. The law was uninteresting to the general public. 

In December 2020, half of those polled had never heard of the law. At the same time, 48% of respondents supported the use of the law to limit Western influence, while only 30% agreed that it was intended to restrict criticism of the authorities (Levada Center weighted data). When the law was widely applied to independent media and bloggers for the first time in 2021, a relatively protest-filled year, attitudes surrounding the war shifted dramatically. After the largest independent media outlets, TV channel Dozhd and online-media platform Meduza, were declared foreign agents, the share of those who considered the law to be a tool for repression rose to 40% in July, and 45% in October. At the same time, 58% of respondents said they would not change their opinion of a media outlet if it was designated a foreign agent, 4% said it would improve, and only 26% said it would deteriorate. 

The latest Levada Center data, recorded in December, shows, first and foremost, an increase in the awareness of the foreign agents law among respondents — the figure rose from 42% to 53%. The distribution of responses in Moscow and small towns is strikingly different: in the capital, only 29% of those polled had not heard of the law, whereas in cities with fewer than 100,000 people and villages, approximately half of respondents had  heard of it. The percentage of ‘loyalists’ who believe that the law protects Russian society from harmful Western influence has risen to 45%, while the proportion of those who see the law as a tool of repression has fallen to 30%. Among those who receive their information from Telegram channels, in the respondents to this question the share of ‘loyalists’ and ’oppositionists’ stood at 49% vs. 42% respectively in 2017, but stood at 25% versus 60% in 2021 (confirming the earlier hypothesis that oppositional attitudes are being eroded among Telegram's audience). 

‘In your opinion, is the purpose of the law on “foreign agents” to limit the negative influence of the West on our country, or is it primarily a way for the authorities to apply pressure on independent public organisations?’ % of respondents who have heard of the law or media organisations being designated as foreign agents (2014-2020, 2022; 2021).

As a result, when answering this question, there was a general shift towards loyalty by approximately 10-15 percentage points, a figure which is reflected in many other wartime public opinion measures. The Levada Center's experts have explained this phenomenon as follows: ‘the consolidation of public opinion around the government and the deepening conflict against the West’. And this explanation is consistent with the concept of ‘rallying around the flag,’ or the phenomenon of the mobilisation of public opinion in favour of the government in times of external conflict. However, as previously stated, on closer inspection, this shift does not quite fit within the conception of ‘rallying’ and rather appears to be some unexplained anomaly, as it covers a much broader range of issues. 

For example, the Levada Center's traditional New Year's Eve poll on the 'fears,’ of Russian citizens, conducted in December, revealed that Russians' fear of a world war not only did not increase in 2022, but actually decreased in comparison with 2021. Furthermore, compared to the standard level of around 50% recorded between 2017 and 2021, the proportion of those who fear arbitrary prosecution by the authorities has dropped to 37%. The percentage of people who are afraid of falling into poverty has dropped to 32%, from 45% in past polls. The proportion of people who are afraid of losing their job has dropped to 22%, from a multi-year stable level of around 30% (recorded 2014-2021). In two surveys conducted in 2021, approximately 50% of respondents expressed concern that there would bet new mass repression in Russia, but by the end of 2022, only 30% held this fear. All of these changes still seem to fit the ‘rally’ hypothesis. However, we find that the proportion of those who have a persistent fear of illness and suffering has dropped to 40% from the standard long-term level of 50%, while the proportion of those who fear illness among their relatives has dropped to 64% from the stable level of 80%. The well-established level of fear surrounding AIDS, natural disasters, and death fell by 7-15 percentage points in 2022. 

Thus, the shift in Russian attitudes recorded by wartime polls reflects a broader anomaly associated with a change in behavioural patterns during the polling process, rather than a consolidation of power in the face of external danger (in which case one would expect a simultaneous increase in loyalty and anxiety).