William H. Dutton
The Russo-Ukrainian War has reinvented trench warfare, but also many aspects of war propaganda.[i] Fear over the power of propaganda in the world wars heightened work on media and communication research. In several respects, war propaganda from the Russo-Ukraine War might again revise and revive old research agendas – a case of old wine in new bottles?
Continuities: Old Wine
The aims of war propaganda have been to boost the morale of the propagandist’s nation, demoralize the enemy, preserve the friendship of allies, and preserve the friendship and possibly gain the support of neutrals (Bernays 1942: 236; Lasswell 1927: 195). This has not changed although there might well have been a shift from a focus on changing opinion or sentiment to shifting beliefs, what I would call cognitive politics[ii], or sowing doubt of any truth (Pomerantsev 2019), but with similar aims.
Harold Laswell’s (1927) classic work on the propaganda of first world war captured strategic messages of propaganda that reflect themes apparent in current propaganda around the Russo-Ukrainian War, such as blaming the enemy for provoking the war (Table 1). There may be exceptions. For example, there might be more focus on being the victim or underdog, beginning with an early bottom-up press narrative of the President of Ukraine being a modern David, facing Putin’s Russia, as a contemporary Goliath. In response, Putin increasingly seeks to portray his own nation as the victim of the US, UK, NATO western alliance.
|Lasswell’s Factors:||Examples from Russo-Ukrainian War|
|Fasten war guilt on the enemy||Russia blames NATO for provoking war; Russia blamed for launching an unprovoked war|
|Claim unity and victory, in the names of history and diety||Zelensky pictured in a David and Goliath battle; North Korean leader calls war a ‘sacred fight’[iii]|
|Communicate war aims||Ukraine seeks to preserve its sovereignty; Russia seeks to de-Nazify and de-militarize Ukraine and prevent NATO engulfing its borders|
|Strengthen belief that the enemy is responsible for the war||Putin arguing he had tried negotiation over NATO until he had no choice; Ukraine citing Russia’s unprovoked, full-scale invasion of the country|
|Convince public that bad news is based on enemy lies||Kremlin denies orchestrating the plane crash that killed Yevgeny Prigozhin and other Wagner mercenaries[iv]|
|Convey horror stories that sound authoritative||Russian false claims of genocide of the Russian-speaking population of Ukraine|
|Kennon’s Factor for Russia|
|Positioned as the victim: protecting Russians from “menacing iniquity of outside world” [v]||Russian narrative of US and NATO threats, based West as its historic enemy; response to David versus Goliath narrative emerging from Western press|
While there may be some exceptions, new narratives, the dominant propaganda of the Russo-Ukrainian War is arguably from an old, established set. Can we document these narratives, and is there a greater focus on creating doubt over any truth? Is this a new aspect of modern cognitive warfare (Pomerantsev 2019).
Poor and Demonstrably False Propaganda
Another commonality of content is the prevalence of often ‘poor’ propaganda, as Bernays (1942: 237) put it in the case of Hitler’s foreign propaganda often being “too tactless, too open, too obvious …” in ways that ‘antagonized more than it persuaded’. You can see these and other weaknesses in Russian propaganda, such as Russia needing to ‘deNazify’, and ‘de-militarize’ Ukraine, as they were demonstrably false, such as with Ukraine having a Jewish president, which Putin tries to refute. Many other false claims, such as Russian claims that Ukrainians shot down Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 over Russia-controlled eastern Ukraine, were exposed. Opensource information demonstrated this flight was brought down by pro-Russian separatists supplied by Russian special forces.[vi] Silly and false propaganda – outlandish’ lies – persist (Howard 2020). As Lasswell (1027: 201) argued: “Propaganda material must reach the meanest as well as the keenest intelligence”.
The Organization of Propaganda
There are also similarities in concerns raised over the organization of propaganda. Hitler’s regime – with ‘totalitarian brutality’ – centralized “all the machinery of idea formation into a Ministry for National Enlightenment and Propaganda” (Bernays 1942: 242). Likewise, the Kremlin has been able to centralize virtually all aspects of idea formation in Russia, including not only the press and state broadcasters, but also censorship of independent broadcasters, the Internet and social media (with minor exceptions, such as Telegram), as well as paroting by the church, celebrations, and even childhood education, directed to follow the Russian narrative of its ‘Special Military Operation’ (SMO).
In contrast, the more pluralist and democratic nations of the UK, US, and their allies during the second world war were unable to centralize the manufacturing and dissemination of a common narrative. In the Ukraine case, President Zelensky comes very close to being a dominant voice of Ukraine – ‘Churchill with an iPhone’. Nevertheless, there is a more decentralized plurality of voices in Ukraine, US, UK, and NATO that is far from manufacturing consent with a single, centralized narrative.
This openness might support the credibility of western voices since they are more difficult if not impossible to orchestrate. Nevertheless, in some western nations, such as the US, there are divisions among opinion leaders, pundits, and retired generals interviewed about Ukraine, creating multiple and conflicting narratives of the war. The voices and interventions of private entrepreneurs and business leaders, like Elon Musk, add to the cacophony of ‘geopolitical actors.’
Change: New Bottles?
Of course, the new media since the first and second world wars are a significant change. Examples include, most notably with the Internet, social media, but the ability of mini-cams, mobile phones, and broadcast media to capture and share live video in the field and on the streets, such as in documenting wartime atrocities. The new media have enabled more new actors to create, share, search, and leak content as well as collaborate and aggregate content on a global scale (Dutton 2023).
It is not clear that the new media revolution has made war propaganda more effective but has been associated with new forms of information war, or cyberwar, such as state-sponsored, or inspired, trolling and disinformation campaigns, such as studies on ‘computational propaganda’[vii], which can be more personalized and automated (Howard 2020; Arquilla 2021; Seib 2021). Also, overtime, the war is becoming a more divisive domestic issue, as it is exploited by candidates in US campaigns and elections, and some NATO countries, such as Hungary, presenting opportunities for Russian disinformation to be magnified by domestic actors.
However, claims are increasingly more open to public scrutiny and accountability. For example, the challenging of Russian disclaimers about Malaysia’s Flight MH17 were effective in undermining the credibility of Russia’s claims. Vivid photos and documentation on social media of atrocities in the Ukrainian town of Bucha were also difficult to counter, where Russian soldiers were ordered to “shoot everyone”.[viii]
There have been excellent studies of the rise of ‘networked authoritarianism’ in Russia and other authoritarian states (Maréchal 2017), but their control diminishes beyond the borders of a country. International media, Internet, social media, and networked individuals can hold government-supported troll farms and other malicious sources, more accountable for their words and narratives as they are more open to critical scrutiny from a global community. This does not mean that individuals or countries will move out of their self-imposed echo chambers to question war propaganda, but it can provide some accountability outside authoritarian geopolitical techno-spheres, which are of value to those who have open versus closed minds about the facts and motivations of antagonists today and in the future. In this way, the power shift I call the Fifth Estate, can provide some potential to mitigate false information and claims of war propaganda (Dutton 2023).
That said, we are only beginning to raise key questions about information, communication and geopolitical truths and propaganda in the Russo-Ukrainian War that merit far more systematic empirical research.
Arquilla, J. (2021), Bitskrieg: The New Challenge of Cyberwarfare. Cambridge: Polity.
Bernays, E. L. (1942), The Marketing of National Policies: A Study of War Propaganda, Journal of Marketing, 6 (3), January: 236-244.
Dutton, W. H. (2023), The Fifth Estate: The Power Shift of the Digital Age. New York: Oxford University Press.
Howard, P. N. (2020), Lie Machines. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Lasswell, H. D. (1927, reprinted 1938), Propaganda Technique in the World War. New York: Peter Smith.
Maréchal, N. (2017), ‘Networked Authoritarianism and the Geopolitics of Information: Understanding Russian Internet Policy’, Media and Communication, 5(1): 29-41.
Pomerantsev, P. (2019), This is Not Propaganda: Adventures of the War Against Reality. London: Bloomsbury.
Seib, P. (2021), Information at War: Journalism, Disinformation, and Modern Warfare. Cambridge: Polity.
[i] Paper for the Oxford Roundtable on Oxford Roundtable on ‘How the conflict in Ukraine could reshape global information, communication, and security’, Saïd Business School, University of Oxford, September 26, 2023.
[iii] Jung-A, S., and Stognei, A. (2023), ‘North Korean leader Kim backs Putin’s ‘sacred fight’ against Kyiv’, Financial Times, 14 September, p. 5.
[v] Andrei Kolesnikov (2023), ‘Did Kennan Foresee Putin?’, Foreign Affairs, September 20: https://www.foreignaffairs.com/russian-federation/did-kennan-foresee-putin