Russian propaganda isn’t as effective as you may think


Hannah S. Chapman and Theodore P. Gerber, September 5th 2019, Washington Post

Considering the Russian government’s disinformation efforts to polarize American voters during the 2016 presidential election, the United States and major corporations have been working to prevent the Kremlin from influencing the 2020 election via social media. But powerful governments use mass media to try to sway opinions not just through social media, but also in many different ways around the globe.

Countries including the United States, Russia and China dedicate extensive resources to persuade international audiences to think favorably about their countries, governments and policies. But how effective are these efforts at influencing public opinion? That’s the question our research tried to answer.

[Russians tried to hack our elections. Voters think we should do something about it.]

Here’s how we did our research

Our study is based on original data from a 2015 nationally representative survey in Kyrgyzstan commissioned by Theodore P. Gerber, the study’s co-author, and sociologist Jane Zavisca.

The survey gauged respondents’ views of Russia, the United States and the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. It also measured how often respondents turn to Kyrgyzstani, Russian or other media sources — both online and offline — for information about politics. A nationally representative sample of 2,200 Kyrgyzstanis answered the survey, which also collected demographic and socioeconomic data.

As a small, developing country in Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan has a limited domestic media. Local news media don’t have the resources to cover a wide range of topics. As a result, foreign media are pervasive in the country.

Russian media is chief among these. According to our research, approximately 60 percent of the population tunes in to Russian television for information about politics every day. Channel One, Russia’s leading state-sponsored television channel in the region, is among the country’s most popular channels.

[Russia has been meddling in foreign elections for decades. Has it made a difference?]

About 60 percent of the Kyrgyzstani population speaks Russian as one of their primary languages. To find out how much Russian media affected public opinion, we compared the attitudes of those who did — and did not — speak Russian and watch Russian news.

Russian media’s influence on public opinion varied by topic

It’s no surprise that the Russian news media was particularly good at informing Kyrgyzstanis about the Russian government’s policies and political institutions — topics Kyrgyzstanis would know little about otherwise.

Kyrgyzstanis who watch Russian television every day are roughly twice as likely to express any opinion of Russian political institutions than those who watched once or twice a year. Without Russian news broadcasts, in other words, Kyrgyzstanis would not think enough about Russian topics to form an opinion.

What about efforts to get Kyrgyzstanis to think highly of Russia and its policies? We found Russian media was more effective in influencing their perceptions about topics they knew little about personally than topics they knew well from personal experience. For instance, respondents who often watched Russian television were less likely to have a positive view of the United States and more likely to blame the West for the conflict in Ukraine — two narratives frequently promoted by the Russian media. But Russian TV had no effect on Kyrgyzstanis’ opinions about Russia’s social protections for its residents. That’s because many Kyrgyz citizens have either traveled to Russia to work, or know a family member or neighbor who has.

In short, the more remote the topic, the more influential the foreign propaganda.

What about the Internet?

Our research primarily focused on television’s influence. Television is the main source of news in Kyrgyzstan. According to our data, over 75 percent of individuals watch television for news every day, while only 13 percent turned to the Internet for that reason. Of course, our study was in 2015, and Internet use is up since then. Recent estimates suggest roughly 60 percent of Kyrgyzstanis use the Internet generally. So do Russian news websites influence their opinions? Our study suggests the answer is no. After accounting for TV viewership, we found the Internet’s influence on public opinion is inconsistent at best. That may change as the Internet gains popularity.

All this suggests Russian broadcasts influence Kyrgyzstanis’ opinions only on a limited set of topics: those about which Kyrgyzstanis lack other avenues of information. While many countries may try to use their news media to persuade other nations’ citizens to support their views, values and narratives, their efforts are likely to have a limited effect.

Note: The study was funded by grant number W911NF1310303 from the Minerva Research Initiative; none of the views reported in the study are those of the donor organization.

Hannah S. Chapman (@Chapman_HannahS) is an assistant professor of political science and faculty associate in the Havighurst Center for Russian and Post-Soviet Studies at Miami University. Her research focuses on information manipulation, media, and public opinion in the former Soviet Union. 

Theodore P. Gerber is Conway-Bascom Professor of sociology, and the director of both the Center for Russia, East Europe, and Central Asia, and the Wisconsin Russia Project at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.