31.07.23 Propaganda Review

Intensive Normalisation: Russian propaganda is aimed not at mobilising citizens, but at forcing ritual loyalty

Research indicates that the primary strategy of Russian propaganda is to normalise the war, embedding it into everyday life. Rather than presenting the war as an extraordinary event, it is woven into the narratives presented by state-sponsored media, catering to different audiences. Despite a steady decline in the amount of airtime dedicated to war on Russian television since the start of the full-scale invasion, military-themed stories persistently infiltrate unrelated news streams. As a result, individuals who may not actively seek information about the war are exposed to these narratives. The modern authoritarian regime does not seek to achieve the traditional mobilisation effect; instead, it tailors multiple narratives to suit various segments of the population, forming a 'spectrum of allies.' The most desirable category for such a regime are the 'ritual supporters,' while individuals who excessively and fervently support the war may be seen as dangerous and may even be labelled as 'enemies' of the regime, as demonstrated by the recent arrest of Girkin-Strelkov.

According to Professor Paul Goode in an article for Riddle, based on data from the RuMOR project (The Russian Media Observation and Reporting), Russian television has gradually reduced its coverage of topics related to the war. Goode concludes that the main strategy of Russian propaganda is to normalise the war, integrating it into daily life and convincing the audience that nothing extraordinary is happening. While one might expect the government to mobilise public support during a war, the Putin regime prefers to keep the population in a state of demobilisation and apolitical loyalty.

Russian propaganda employs a strategy of ‘segmentation’ regarding the war, whereby it divides the conflict into a series of narratives. These are, in turn, integrated into the traditional themes and storylines of state media. For example, when discussing sanctions, Russian television emphasises that they were imposed as far back as 2014, thus reducing the perceived novelty of the situation and thus 'normalising' it. To achieve this normalisation, Ukraine is depicted as an incompetent state, while also emphasising the aggressive intentions of NATO and the US, and highlighting Ukrainian nationalism/nazism. These 'explanations' for the war are extensions of deeply-rooted storylines. To assess the impact and relevance of a particular narrative, RuMOR employs the 'weather normalisation' methodology. This involves comparing the frequency of a narrative’s mentions on Russian television with references to the weather. If a certain trope is mentioned more frequently than the weather, it is more likely to capture the viewers' attention.

The 'weather normalisation' method also reveals the significant emphasis Russian television places on discussing Russia's enemies: Ukrainian nationalists, the US, NATO, 'Nazis and fascists,' 'mercenaries and terrorists.' Despite the initially declared goal of 'denazifying' Ukraine, references to Nazis as enemies occurred less frequently than mentions of the US and Ukrainian nationalists. Generally speaking, propaganda showcases a remarkable flexibility in legitimising the war; the emphasis on 'denazification' as its primary goal almost disappeared from television just two weeks after the full-scale invasion began. Similarly, mentions of 'liberating Ukrainian territory' significantly diminished after the first seven months of the war.

Moreover, the analysis using the 'weather normalisation' approach allowed researchers to conclude that the amount of airtime dedicated to the war in Ukraine has steadily decreased since the invasion began. On regional television channels, the coverage of the war has dwindled to the point where it is almost treated as background noise. However, there was a notable surge in mentions of 'special military operations' (SMО) during the period of 'partial' mobilisation, which was particularly pronounced in the Southern and Far Eastern Federal Districts. According to Goode, this surge indicates the need to increase the war's legitimacy in regions that likely experienced a higher number of casualties. Nevertheless, Goode notes that the decreasing need to legitimise 'special military operations' on national television reflects the normalisation of the war in Russia, where it has become a matter of routine and an anticipated backdrop to everyday life. By 'normalising' the war and blending it into the general news context, propaganda manages to achieve broad background coverage, even reaching those who do not actively seek out news about the war.

Against this backdrop, several events, such as the retreat from Kherson or the war spilling onto Russian territory, have compelled television to respond, primarily to the intensity of information circulating on social media and online news outlets. However, even in such cases, the boundaries of events remain unclear, and key contextual markers are conspicuously absent. For instance, reports about the retreat avoided using the term itself and instead referred to it as a mere 'relocation.' Similarly, when discussing events in the Belgorod region, there was scant acknowledgment that they were actually unfolding on Russian soil. Nevertheless, analysis of these situations sheds light on the unexpected challenges faced by the Russian authorities. The more diverse narratives and interpretations that emerge around a single event in a short period, the more likely it is to cause panic, and the authorities may not immediately decide on a strategy for its public interpretation. This situation was evident, for instance, during the Prigozhin rebellion.

Analysts are increasingly recognising the complexity of modern propaganda strategies, which deviate from the classic 'mobilisation' approach. Jade McGlynn from the Department of War Studies at King's College London arrives at similar conclusions in her research, observing that instead of attempting to transform the audience into 'true believers,' state propaganda aims to push them towards a spectrum of responses that align with the authoritarian regime's interests. Rather than addressing a homogenous audience, propaganda targets an array of segments, tailoring specific arguments and methods of information 'packaging' for each segment. This approach allows the regime to create what can be described as a 'spectrum of allies.' Alongside the background propaganda discussed by Paul Goode, the regime may also employ 'coarse propaganda' methods. Research has shown that the 'coarse propaganda' effect lies not only in its ability to convince some part of the audience but also in its capacity to undermine trust in information among another group, thereby reducing their inclination to protest and convincing those who are distrustful of the regime's power. The blatant dissemination of falsehoods becomes a marker of 'strength' for them. In general, propaganda's role is not so much to persuade as it is to shape behavioural models. McGlynn concludes that ‘for a 21st century authoritarian government, ritual supporters are the ideal category, insofar as such regimes distrust political agency even if in support of the regime.’ This is precisely why overly zealous supporters of the war can be perceived as 'enemies' of the regime, as illustrated, for instance, by the recent arrest of Girkin-Strelkov.