15.09.22 Review

Faltering propaganda and the theft of the opposition’s language: Russian propaganda highly adaptable, hijacks words used by war dissidents

The Russian regime’s plans to quickly seize Kyiv failed, just as its plans to purge public discourse of "undesirable" words also failed, according to a study by the Russian Election Monitor group. Despite the government’s best efforts to censor social media, Russians continue to call the war a war and not a "special operation". At the same time, Russian propaganda quickly absorbs its audience's reaction and adopts the language of those opposed to the war, deliberately blurring and twisting the meaning of their words: "war" becomes informational and economic aggression against Russia, and "crisis" is something that happens in the West.
Despite the government’s best efforts to censor the word "war", Russian society knows that it is precisely a war that is going on in Ukraine, not a "special military operation". However, in social media, the word "war" is being used not only by the opposition, but by government supporters as well, according to the "Faltering propaganda and the theft of the opposition’s language" report of the Russian Election Monitor (REM) group. Using more than 15,000 media texts and TV transcripts on the military conflict between Russia and Ukraine, as well as more than 400,00 social media posts from Vkontakte, Odnoklassniki, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, TikTok and Twitter published since February 1st, 2022, REM researchers examined the use of words such as "denazification", "demilitarization", "war", "crisis", "NATO", "foreign agent" and "disinformation" in public discourse.

As the REM report shows, Russian propaganda is able to effectively analyse how audiences understand its content and promptly adjust its media strategy in response. The concepts of "denazification" and "demilitarization", which were intended to explain the reasons and goals of Russia's attack on Ukraine, had practically disappeared from TV by the end of the first month of hostilities. "This shows that Russian propaganda is able to analyse its own problems and search for ways to adapt [to a changing reality]," the researchers note.

Frequency of references to the causes and goals of the war in plots and programs of Russian television, February–July 2022, number of references per 100,000 words

A certain level of success was achieved by propaganda programs in promoting the  exposure of "internal enemies". Social media has proven to be sensitive to official rhetoric that uses words such as "foreign agent", "discredit" and "disinformation". Their use has grown in proportion to an increase of these words in the media and on television.

State media has been actively hijacking words used by war dissidents, only to endow them with new meanings and place them in new contexts. For example, instead of talking about the problems of the Russian economy, Russian television programs are packed with stories about the difficulties Western economies are facing. At the same time, the word "crisis" is used in a variety of contexts: "economic", "food", "gas" and, finally, "Ukrainian".

"In this case, the same thing is happening as with the word "war"; Russian TV channels assign new meanings to words they don’t like. There are many words like this circulating in public discourse, and they try to blur their meanings as much as possible. It’s as if the Russian authorities are trying, with the help of such "inverted" words, to take away their opponent’s ability to describe reality. They actively appropriate the vocabulary of the Russian opposition. "War" and "crisis" are allowed to exist in the media, but the former can only be "economic" or "informational" (as opposed to its original meaning — a process conducted with the help of missiles and tanks), and the latter now applies to processes that happen in Western countries. These countries are suffering from their own sanctions, but "crisis" cannot be used to describe anything happening in Russia," the researchers summarise.