When Russian propaganda was about people’s private lives and things individuals themselves can understand, it failed miserably.
Researchers Natalia Moen-Larsen and Ilya Yablokov have examined the conversations between 130,000 members of the ‘Covid-19 resistance group’ on the social media platform Telegram. This is one of several similar popular discussion groups in Russia about the coronavirus and about war.
Most of the conversations concern conspiracy theories.
The two researchers talked about their study during a recent seminar at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI).
Conspiracy theories in the West and East
Ilya Yablokov is a specialist in digital journalism and disinformation at the University of Sheffield. He began by turning the spotlight on the West and Western society, with its free media and full freedom of expression.
“Here in the West, right-wing and left-wing conspiracy theorists were united in many ways during the pandemic,” he said. “For the right-wing, it was about elites who wanted to control them. For the left, it was about how the pandemic was managed and how corrupt elites used it to crush ordinary people and their world.”
“Two conspiracy cultures that are politically apparently far apart, were brought together when they could single out the same enemy, namely the elite,” he said.
This reflects an important aspect of Western society today, which is that many people have very little trust in democracy and in democratic institutions.
What about Russia and China?
So what about authoritarian states like Russia and China?
For heads of state such as Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, the pandemic provided an excellent opportunity to tighten their grip on their people and secure the power they hold.
“Vladimir Putin used the pandemic to change the country’s constitution. He had a rigged referendum arranged. It now gives him control of his country indefinitely,” Yablokov said.
But what the Putin regime had hardly anticipated was the Russian people’s reactions to the coronavirus pandemic.
When the pandemic was at its worst, a majority of Russians refused to take part in the government vaccination programme with the Russian Sputnik vaccine.
And when the authorities in Russia eventually tried to act in line with global practices to prevent the spread of the virus in the population, people’s trust in the authorities was so low that they failed miserably.
We now see the contours of the results.
Russia is full of conspiracy theories
Yablokov and Moen-Larsen have tried to form a picture of how the grassroots in Russia reacted to the authorities’ coronavirus measures. This enabled them to discover how Russia is also full of conspiracy theories that are against the ruling class.
The social media platform Telegram, which the two researchers studied, is apparently not subject to the control of the Russian authorities. This is unlike much else that is found online in Russia.
Nothing that was posted in this group on Telegram was deleted by the authorities, according to Yablokov and Moen-Larsen.
This gave the researchers a unique opportunity.
To make the material from the 130,000-member group manageable to read through, the two researchers decided to concentrate on everything that was posted during a single month in each of the years 2020, 2021 and 2022.
Fascism, Bill Gates and 5G
“We found no support for anything the authorities in Russia did during the pandemic,” they said.
The core story the two researchers found in the many members of the “Covid-19 resistance group” can instead be briefly summarized as follows:
- Global elites have joined forces to build a new fascist world order.
- People are injected with vaccines containing modern nano-sized technology, which in turn is connected to the new 5G network.
- Bill Gates may be the main character behind it all. Western pharmaceutical companies are important participants.
“Several of the members were also concerned that the elites may aim to reduce the Earth’s population by 50 per cent,” said Natalia Moen-Larsen. Moen-Larsen is a senior research fellow at NUPI with a focus on Russia.
What about the Sputnik vaccine?
So what did the Russians in this large online community think about Russia’s own Sputnik vaccine?
Here, people had doubts.
“One question people asked was why this vaccine was sold to countries that are friendly towards Russia, if the vaccine is also dangerous. Why wasn’t the Sputnik vaccine sold to the US and the Americans instead?” the researchers said.
Others believed that since the West didn’t want the Sputnik vaccine, it was proof that the Russian-made vaccine was safe to use.
A story that was particularly popular and that the researchers found in roughly 40 per cent of all posts they read concerned the WHO (World Health Organization) and Bill Gates. The secretary-General of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg, and Donald Trump were also included in this story, which alleged that the virus and the vaccine were being used by the elites in the West to take over the world and gain control over Russian territory.
Trying to create confusion
Ilya Yablokov believes that these posts provide a good picture of what a not-insignificant part of all Russians thought during the pandemic.
“The interesting thing is that here we can see Russians speaking out about and discussing a number of things, without the approval of the authorities,” he said.
We know little about what those in power in the Kremlin think about this.
Yablokov nevertheless speculates that the Kremlin might think that conspiracy theories like this contribute to general confusion in society.
The troll factories in Russia have given up on influencing the citizens of Western countries to become Putin-supporters. Now their goal is rather to create as much confusion and division as possible among people in the West.
Perhaps the thought of some Kremlin leaders is that general confusion, also among Russia’s own citizens, is the most expedient situation for the regime?
Conspiracy theories spread quickly
One thing the researchers noticed when they read the Telegram social media posts is how quickly new global conspiracy theories were picked up by people in Russia.
If a new theory was launched somewhere abroad, whether it was in Spanish, English or Chinese, it appeared shortly afterwards among the members of the “Covid-19 resistance group” in Russia. Volunteers who worked for the network saw it as their task to “enlighten” other members as quickly as possible about the latest international conspiracy theories.
“We were also struck by the fact that Vladimir Putin almost never appears in these conspiracy theories,” Yablokov said.
“Otherwise, Putin is found everywhere in Russian society. He is in all channels,” he said.
The researchers speculate that perhaps Putin is simply not interesting to these people. Or is it because people are afraid of him?
Yablokov recalls that during the pandemic Putin himself never announced any news that could be interpreted as negative. He was always exclusively associated with positive news. Negative issues were always left to others.
Could people have been fooled by this?
The Jews are behind the war in Ukraine
After the pandemic was over in Russia, the online community the researchers investigated has not been shut down.
Instead, it has been transformed into an anti-Jewish website.
“Now it is mostly about criticizing the war in Ukraine and conveying the message that this is a war started by the Jews,” the researchers said.
The researchers once again saw how conspiracy theories are given free rein, without those in power in Russia having control over the stories that are shared.
Poisoned birds released from Ukraine
A very special conspiracy theory that the researchers looked into more closely, and which probably originates from one of the troll factories in Russia, is about how the USA has built biological laboratories in Ukraine to mass-produce coronavirus and use this virus to kill Russians.
According to the theory, the killing has to be carried out in a very special way, by sending birds infected with coronavirus into Russia.
“The theory may sound bizarre. Nevertheless, it spread to Putin-controlled media in Russia as well as to international conspiracy websites,” the researchers said.
The Kremlin leadership itself has invested a lot in this biolab story, Yablokov said. Documentary programmes were produced on Russian TV based on the story about the laboratories and coronavirus birds that are supposedly flying into Russia with their lethal baggage.
Trotting out the biolab theory again
Surprisingly, during the pandemic, few in Russia were interested in this “public” conspiracy theory.
Yablokov believes that the Kremlin will nevertheless try to promote this exact same story again. They have little else to turn to when they are looking for arguments for the war against Ukraine.
“We have seen the Kremlin has worked very hard to explain to the Russian people why they attacked Ukraine,” he said.
“I myself believe that it is Foreign Minister Lavrov who has promoted this theory again, in order to try to get Russian vaccine opponents to join him in support for the Ukraine war,” he said.
“But we see quite clearly that this is not something that works. People care little about it,” he said.
The Ukraine war a shock
Yablokov points out that the Ukraine war came completely out of the blue for many Russians.
“It came as a shock to many people. The authorities had done nothing to prepare the Russians for the war,” he said.
What the Putin regime has nevertheless been able to build on is its long-standing monopolization of the memory of World War II — a narrative that is also about how today’s Russians must be prepared to defend themselves against the fascism and Nazism that threaten them from the West.
Lacks control over the narratives
At the same time, Moen-Larsen and Yablokov’s study shows us how little control the authorities in authoritarian Russia have over the stories people tell each other.
It is not just Western countries where many people cultivate conspiracy theories.
“We see how opposition to elites drives many people. Here it turns out that even public propaganda in Russia has its limitations,” they said.
The researchers said we shouldn’t overlook the fact that the Russian authorities’ highly questionable use of words such as ‘Nazism’ and ‘fascism’ can be turned against them. Perhaps representatives of Russia’s own authorities may soon experience being called Nazis and fascists.
Translated by Nancy Bazilchuk