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Report: Western media underestimate Russian propaganda’s effectiveness

Limited resources, lack of contacts with Ukrainian experts, media controlled by Russia – the Ukrainian think tank of Lviv Media Forum found out why European media still pander to Russian propaganda
Odesa after Russian attack. 20 July, 2023. Photo: Konstiantyn Liberov \ Ukrainian Photographer
Report: Western media underestimate Russian propaganda’s effectiveness

Russia’s system of disinformation and manipulation has penetrated the information space of different continents and has been operating for many years. The full-scale war against Ukraine has only demonstrated the rootedness of propaganda messages in the media of various European countries, research by the Center for Communication Research and Analysis of Lviv Media Forum has found.

Russian disinformation campaign aims to undermine the legitimacy of Ukrainian statehood and trust in Ukrainian political institutions, devalue Ukrainian resistance and Euro-Atlantic aspirations, and foster confidence in Russian versions of events.

Russian disinformation skillfully resonates with the local context of a particular region and helps shape its pro-Russian geopolitical orientation, which, in turn, postpones the victory of Ukrainians over Russian terror, which it carries out in Ukraine. Thus the study, conducted by the Center for Communication Research and Analysis of Lviv Media Forum, is crucial as it shows common Russian propaganda narratives on Ukraine in the European media and the common reasons why European media still pander to Russian propaganda.

The researchers of the Lviv Media Forum talked to their foreign colleagues and identified four main propaganda narratives that are spread in the media of Germany, Italy, Hungary, Latvia, and France:

  • Ukraine and Russia need peace talks;
  • sanctions against Russia harm the European Union;
  • Russia can use nuclear weapons in case of “conflict escalation”;
  • the United States and NATO provoked the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Supplementary Russian-friendly narratives included:

  • the food crisis ensuing from Russia’s blocking of Ukrainian Black Sea ports is Ukraine’s fault because it has not yielded to Russia;
  • the Ukrainian military endangers civilians;
  • about “nazism” in Ukraine, in particular about the “neo-nazi” Azov regiment;
  • Ukraine is a corrupt, failed state;
  • Ukraine is a “bargaining chip” and a “puppet” of the West;
  • supporting Ukraine with weapons would only prolong the war, etc.

For example, Hungary often promotes the Russian thesis that Ukraine and NATO provoked the war (Nógrádi: The war was started by Russia, but provoked by the Ukrainians; What does the US want in Ukraine?). The German media Tagesspiegel published a call for the US ambassador to withdraw “NATO troops and equipment” from Ukraine without any context – part of the Russian narrative about the “war with NATO.”

Also: the French Le Monde interprets the positive attitude toward the figure of Stepan Bandera in Ukraine as a manifestation of right-wing radicalism. However, the research author found out that the selection of Ukrainian historians’ quotes in the material is biased.

Why Western media pander to Russian propaganda

Conducting the research, the Center for Communication Research and Analysis of Lviv Media Forum found out that some Western media representatives recognize Russian propaganda narratives but may underestimate their effectiveness.

Russian propaganda is promoted mainly by media founded or controlled by Russia. The study’s results show that in some countries, the spread of Russian narratives is nurtured by pro-Russian politicians cited by the media and businesses interested in restoring or maintaining ties with Russia.

For example, in Italy, those appealing for “peace at any cost” are the representatives of businesses that have lost their sources of income due to sanctions against Russia.

Quality Western media also spread Russian narratives. However, as per the study, many newsrooms may do it unconsciously and unintentionally, as they lack safeguards to prevent this from happening.

Western media also lack first-hand information, context, and contacts with information sources and experts to comprehensively and impartially cover events in Ukraine. The Ukrainian viewpoint is often not fully represented because the media does not know where to obtain it.

For instance, Italian ANSA reported an unbalanced news item from the Russian news agency TASS, accusing Ukraine of injuring an Italian journalist. Latvian Delfi reported on the situation in Bakhmut based on estimates of the leader of the Wagner Group, ignoring Ukrainian sources.

Meanwhile, some Western media respondents to the Lviv Media Forum study believe that official statements of the Ukrainian military command and officials are also “propaganda” and should not be presented as facts. Independent experts who understand the Ukraine situation could help address this but face a language barrier. Also, according to the research, some Western newsrooms lack the resources to send reporters to Ukraine, which would raise awareness of the topic.

However, researchers said that German media interviewed representatives had confirmed the influence of Russian propaganda. Specifically, they quote as an example the appeals by pro-Russian intellectuals to force Ukraine to peace. The study says, “German reporters often visit Ukraine, particularly in the war zone, and are in contact with Ukrainian experts, speakers, and journalists.” However, the state media often present Ukraine as corrupt, ignoring the progress in this realm in recent years, and most Germans believe in the idea of the “great Russian culture” not associated with the Putin regime.

The researchers also concluded that even when Western media receive and use truthful information about Ukraine, the Ukrainian position is “balanced” with the Russian position, which is often manipulative.

Russian spending on propaganda skyrockets with war

After launching the full-scale war against Ukraine, Russia boosted funding to its state media. Government spending on “mass media” for the first quarter of 2022 was 322% higher than for the same period in 2021, reaching 17.4 billion roubles (roughly $134 mn).

Russian federal budget for mass media (January to March 2021-22). Photo: The Moscow Times, 2022.

Almost 70% of Russia’s spending on mass media in the first months of 2022 was spent in March, immediately after the invasion. The outlets that receive these funds include RT and Rossiya Segodnya, which owns and operates Sputnik and RIA Novosti. According to the US State Department, these are state-owned outlets that “serve primarily as conduits for the Kremlin’s talking points,” which also affects the increase of spreading propaganda outside the country.

How the research was conducted

The Center for Communication Research and Analysis of Lviv Media Forum conducted research from December 2022 to March 2023. This study aimed to discover the most common Russian propaganda narratives on Ukraine in the European media. The research authors listed five European countries – Germany, Italy, Hungary, Latvia, and France – and established a list of the most widely spread Russian narratives in the media of these countries. The authors of the research have focused on the media that reported on Ukraine the most and those that used Russia-imposed language on Ukraine, such as calling the war a “Ukraine crisis” or using Russian names for Ukrainian cities.

Conducting the research, the Center for Communication Research and Analysis of the Lviv Media Forum analyzed the Media discourse monitoring Ukraine around the world reports and Media discourse on Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine covering many countries. They listed five European countries – Germany, Italy, Hungary, Latvia, and France – and established a list of the most widely spread Russian narratives in the media of these countries because:

  • Germany, Italy, and France are the major powers in the EU, and a partnership with them is important for Ukraine. At the same time, they’ve had strong ties to Russia, which are now gradually being eroded. Many residents of these countries still revere the “great Russian culture,” allegedly not connected with Putin’s Russia.
  • Latvia resists the Russian influence in the media landscape and, at the same time, supports Ukraine a lot and accepts many refugees. Russian media in exile, which can be a conscious or involuntary source of propaganda, are provided a base in Latvia.
  • Hungary is a neighboring country to Ukraine. After 24 February 2022, its government did not cease cooperation with Russia. Moreover, Budapest blocks sanctions against Russia and refuses to send any military assistance to Ukraine.

The authors of the research have engaged media experts from each of the above countries to find out what features their media landscape has; what specific media, according to their observations, spread Russian propaganda narratives; and what narratives they encounter most frequently.

The next stage was in-depth interviews with media representatives. In each of the countries, employees of three influential media were interviewed for the research to find out what journalists and editorial staff lack for their reporting on events in Ukraine to be comprehensive and correct.

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