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Russia's propaganda machine is so powerful that many Russians don't even realize they're in a disinformation bubble

Business Insider logo Business Insider 4/19/2022 (Erin Snodgrass,Sarah Al-Arshani)
Russia's President Vladimir Putin appears on a television screen at the stock market in Frankfurt, Germany, Feb. 25, 2022. AP Photo/Michael Probst, File © AP Photo/Michael Probst, File Russia's President Vladimir Putin appears on a television screen at the stock market in Frankfurt, Germany, Feb. 25, 2022. AP Photo/Michael Probst, File
  • The West is urging Russians to find ways to access independent news about the war in Ukraine.
  • But while some have found success using VPNs, experts say it's not enough to sway public opinion.
  • "You need to understand that before people search...they need to doubt," said a Russian vlogger.

Western leaders are urging Russian citizens to access independent and verified news about the ongoing war in Ukraine as Russia ramps up its invasion and corresponding disinformation campaign. 

On April 6, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson called on Russians to obtain VPNs in order to access international media outlets. But experts and Russians alike say Johnson's appeal — and his proposed solution — may not make much of a dent in the course of the war.

Russia shuttered independent news outlets at the start of the war and imposed new, stricter censorship laws that have restricted the Russian public's already-limited access to verified outside information.

Zachary Steinert-Threlkeld, assistant professor of public policy at the Luskin School of Public Affairs at UCLA, in an interview with Insider, estimated that only about 10% of Russia's population currently has access to VPNs, or virtual private networks that encrypt information you send over the internet. Steinert-Threlkeld, who studies subnational conflicts and Ukraine, posited that those who do are mainly young, educated people living in major cities. 

That means a large portion of Russia's population is getting their news and information exclusively from state-run media, Steinert-Threlkeld said.

"Since the start of the war, the media landscape, you should think of something like Chinese media or North Korea. Not as extreme as North Korea, but completely state-controlled and state dictated," he explained. "It was already state-dominated before, but at this point, there's nothing that's not state-approved or follows the state line because of self-censorship."

Natalia Konstantinova, a popular Russian vlogger who lives in Saint Petersburg, told Insider that this is especially true for older Russian citizens who primarily get their news from Russian television channels, which exclusively spew state-sponsored propaganda about Russia's "special operation" in Ukraine.

Younger Russians, however, spend more time reading the internet, which offers more opportunities for them to encounter opposing views, Konstantinova said. They also tend to be more technologically adept, using VPNs to avoid Russian state internet blocks and ostensibly accessing independent information and news. 

But VPNs are 'definitely not going to solve the information warfare in Russia,' according to one expert

Marc Faddoul, an AI researcher, who runs the TikTok Observatory, told Insider that VPNs, while undeniably beneficial, also have some major limitations. 

"The benefit is that once you have a VPN, obviously you can access most of the internet as you would from outside of Russia," Faddoul told Insider.

"The limitation is that it's kind of something for advanced users," he continued, adding that "when you're already getting to this length to go downloading a VPN, it's because you're aware that there is a kind of censored information ecosystem around you."

Konstantinova, who uses her VPN to access international news, echoed Faddoul's comments, acknowledging that most Russians are not incentivized to use the technological loophole as a gateway to getting non-Russian information. She said most people she knows utilize VPNs to access Instagram and other blocked social media apps — not to find verified news about Ukraine. 

"You need to understand that before people search, they need to have a question. They need to doubt," said Konstantinova, who cited her English-language skills, international friends, and innately skeptical demeanor as reasons for her active pursuit of independent information. 

But even for those who do regularly access outside news outlets, there's not much they can do with the information they're digesting. Steinert-Threlkeld said the atmosphere in Russia is "much more similar to Soviet times," when people could not speak openly and could only trust a few people. 

Video: Meta bans Russian state media advertisements on its social media platforms (FOX News)

"So even if you do read about Boris Johnson on BBC maybe you only tell the two or three people you trust as opposed to talking about it openly in a cafe or talking to some stranger on the subway," he said. "Because of the atmosphere of fear and oppression, it constricts with the willingness of people to take a risk and speak openly. So it constricts the movement of information."

Konstantinova said she plays such a role within her own social circle. Her vlogging content provides insight into average Russian life geared toward foreigners. But her Russian friends — most of whom have their own VPN access — rely on her to keep them updated about the conflict in Ukraine, she said. 

An iPhone screen shows a Telegram account. AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko © AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko An iPhone screen shows a Telegram account. AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko

Some Russians have access to other loopholes

Steinert-Threlkeld warned that while VPNs work well on browsers and laptops, they don't block someone's location on apps or a smartphone. Apps on a phone transmit someone's location based on GPS in the phone's operating system. So people accessing apps even while using a VPN aren't protected from having their location revealed. 

Russia could block a popular VPN in an effort to crack down on censorship, Faddoul said, but anecdotal evidence in other heavily-monitored countries suggests more VPNs quickly pop up in response — a reality that Konstantinova said occurred in Russia earlier this month when citizens discovered that one of the most popular VPNs had been blocked.

But some Russian citizens are lucky enough to avoid the headache and hassle of VPNs altogether, thanks to a different access loophole. 

Konstantinova said many internet providers are defying Russian censorship laws, by ignoring internet blocks and allowing users to access what should be censored content. Each residential building has its own internet provider — some large and Russian-owned; others smaller and more independent. A lax internet provider is how Konstantinova said she and several of her friends in Moscow regularly access blocked content online in their own homes. 

Despite the clampdown on independent media and Western apps Konstantinova said most Russians aren't afraid to use VPNs or access rogue internet providers amid the Ukrainian conflict because they are used to having to deal with extreme measures.

"People don't understand, this was our life before. They scare us more now with the [threat of] 15 years in prison," she said. "But if you talk against the state, there was always this fear."

Russia's disinformation tactics are eerily effective

Multiplying VPNs and disobedient internet providers are no match for Russia's propaganda machine. 

The country's disinformation campaign works by pushing out a large amount of misinformation, some of which contains small amounts of truth, Steinert-Threlkeld said.  

Konstantinova said that Russians are being inundated with real photos and videos from the war in Ukraine. She said she's seen footage out of the embattled cities of Bucha and Mariupol, where reports suggest thousands of Ukrainians have been killed. But the false Russian state narrative surrounding the conflict is so potent, that many Russians are inclined to believe it.

"They show this and call it provocation," she said. "They say Ukrainians created all of this to get weapons from the West."

As such, Konstantinova said she thinks most Russians are likely aware of the violence happening in Ukraine but don't know that the story they're being sold is not one based in reality.

"People are incentivized to believe their people are good, that their country isn't doing something evil," she said. 

Steinert-Threlkeld added that controlling the narrative in the media is like controlling "reality." At this early stage of the war, when there's little available evidence to refute Putin's narrative, outside media still has limited influence on Russians' views of the war. 

"When you control the information that people see, you control their willingness to act in certain political directions," he said. "So if people learned that a train station was bombed by Ukraine by neo-Nazis as opposed to Russian military forces then the soldier deaths that Russians will eventually learn about is justified, right? Because you're not the aggressor, you're the defender."

There are some Russians so swayed by their government's propaganda that they don't even believe the stories of war coming from their own Ukrainian friends or family members on the ground. 

"Even if they have access, they don't believe," she said. "They are in denial because they are afraid. It is impossible to accept that yes, our soldiers are…killing innocent people"

Steinert-Threlkeld said it's possible that people may start questioning Putin's narrative but it's likely a long ways away. 

"That's a very long process and so many things can happen in the meantime that lets Putin say, 'yes, things will last longer. Yes, there are more casualties, but it's not my fault it's because the sanctions have gotten worse or the Ukrainians are getting more weapons from the West, which hates us'…. The media control can go on longer than most people think," he said. 

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