Dear West, you’re getting it wrong

Its not that russians don’t know about the war. They do, they just have (been fed) a different perspective.

“The West” as we call it in Russia is embarking on a massive information campaign to inform Russians about what their country is doing. From tinder messages to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s heartbreaking address everyone is repeating the same thing “Dear Russians, you may not know, because your government is hiding this from you, but Russia is at war”. The truth is: we know.

As someone who is involved in misinformation research and fact-checking (although my area of focus is not politics) I always said its important to see, what’s Russian State media feeds into the heads of my fellow citizens. The usual 2-hour evening news broadcast is, as my friend put it, coherent and well-crafted. And here is what the Russian audience knows from that:

  • Russian army is moving steadily, the operation is all according to The Plan
  • Ukraine is suffering under the burden of neo-nazis, who are terrorizing people, and the Russian army will liberate good Ukrainian people from their oppressors.
  • Those neo-nazis (or “ukrofascists”) are heartless cruel people. They will drop a bomb on a refugee column, or a kindergarten, or a hospital just to frame our Army. Or just to hurt civilians. Or to inflict more harm. That’s why we need to fight for the people of Ukraine. They are begging us to protect them from this neo-nazi plague.
  • In places already liberated by the Russian Army, locals are happy and cheering the Russian army. The victory is inevitable. We will liberate Ukrainians and bring them back into union with us.
  • Have you seen what these neo-Ukrainian-nazis did to Mariupol? That’s unbelievable! We will make them pay for the atrocities they made.
  • The West is clearly suffering from the effect of the sanctions they try to inflict on us. They lost customers, they lost suppliers, the prices are rising, shelves are empty and citizens are not happy with the ruthless actions of the politicians who in their hatred try to isolate Russia. Our economy is strong as never. We will prevail and Europe will soon face the grim economic consequences of the sanctions they’ve imposed.

I tried to give you a digest of a regular news broadcast, the thing is this is what a regular Russian sees and hears every evening while having dinner at home. Russia didn’t have an independent TV station since early 2004 and since that time Russian TV has become the well-oiled propaganda machine that broadcasted a distorted image of world events for years. And BTW we didn’t have a fair democratic elections since then either (Putin isn’t an elected president, he is an authoritarian leader who is legitimising his position through mock elections.)

This did not start with the Russian “special operation” this even did not start in 2014. You are facing decades of pushing one narrative of Russia having a special place in the World and other rotten countries trying to steal from Russia, oppress it, or destroy it.

For my American audience: imagine, that for the last 20 years you have had only one TV news station available — Fox News. Looks grim, isn’t it?

The messages you’re sending on Tinder are useless. A message from an “enemy” depicting the atrocities of the Russian military in Ukraine just strengthens the narrative: this message is coming from our enemies who are trying to smear our army and to cause confusion and betrayal. We will not buy into that.

No, it’s not that the Internet is blocked in Russia. Russians learned how to use VPN in 2018 after Roscomnadzor tried to block the Telegram messenger and those who don’t are learning it now (after Twitter, Instagram and Facebook were made inaccessible without VPN). But if one adopted this distorted view of reality, they will look at everything, at every grain of truth on social media, foreign news resources through the same distorted lens of propaganda. That’s how cognitive dissonance works: every piece of evidence that counters your core beliefs only makes you cling to those beliefs even stronger.

The poverty of Russian citizens adds to this. The Russian median per-capita income is $5,504, only 1/3 of Russians have passport that is valid for international travel, and the share of people who had a chance to see the world abroad is less than that because most of us can’t afford that. About 12% (18 million) are living in poverty even by Russian official standards (pre-pandemic figures). Only 5% of Russians speak English. Most Russians are confined to the borders of their motherland and they never had any significant exposure both to democratic values and independent media. But they are exposed to propaganda.

It’s hard to make polls in the authoritarian country because people have all the reasons — from fear to self-interest to give an irrelevant answer. According to most recent independent polls (all caveats included), 59% of Russians support the war now, and 74% of those supporting the war trust the state media.

It’s not that Russians are evil. I want to believe — but maybe I’m biased here- that my fellow citizens only support what’s happening because they either genuinely believe that our army is fighting evil nazists, or are in denial succumbing to the cognitive dissonance. They are not fascists. They believe that some “banderonazis” are responsible for that genocide and it’s our duty, as a sister country, to stop that.

Maybe someday they will wake up. But that will require accurate enlighting work from the inside of the country. I don’t know, I never succeed in this field of enlightenment but I knew people who claim they did. I hope so. Because I want to believe in my people too.

PS: I’m in the process of updating this post (and fixing typos) if I make any major changes I will indicate it specifically.

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