Putin’s burger and razor-sharp grass: the power of propaganda

Karolina Jayasinghe examines the ‘precepts of propaganda’ and discovers some of the frightening effects of deliberate misinformation.

After the launch of the Russian-Ukrainian war on 24 February 2022 many independent Russian media channels and journalists started to ask one question: “Might bloodshed have been spared in Ukraine had there not been propaganda?” To this day many struggle to answer this question.

In a recent video, one of the most popular youtubers in Russia, the journalist Yury Dud, interviewed some other independent Russian journalists and a sociologist in a bid to understand what propaganda is and why we believe it.

The term ‘propaganda’ refers to inaccurate information which a political organisation publishes or broadcasts in order to influence people. But  inaccurate doesn’t mean entirely and completely false. In order to be effective and serve its purpose, propaganda must have some truth or accuracy, otherwise it can be difficult to ‘sell’.

To someone living in Russia, who doesn’t trust the state media or the government, anything that supports Russia’s political agenda is propaganda. At times the ‘information’ published may seem funny and not make any sense. For example, as Dud explains, in 2017 a story hit Russian media channels. 

The news was about Lucy’s Cantina Royale in New York which had allegedly created a special burger in honour of Putin’s 65th birthday that same year.

The burger was unique because of its weight, which was exactly 1952 grams (the year Putin was born). 

Unfortunately, only the very shrewd were able to notice that it was fake news. Russian journalist Alexey Kovalev spotted some inconsistencies in the story. It seems that only one table in the restaurant had a flyer about Putin’s birthday burger. Alexey even decided to call the restaurant and ask about the burger deal. Unsurprisingly the restaurant staff confirmed they had never made any Putin burgers, and that the news was a hoax. 

Someone might ask why Russian propaganda sources bothered to employ a waitress at Lucy’s Cantina Royale and ask her to film a short video clip advertising a deal about a burger which had never existed. The reason is simple, while this piece of information may have no effect in the Western world, in Russia people would see it as proof that Americans like and honour Putin by commemorating his birthday with special promotions. 

Yet continuing to spread such narratives for long enough may attract some followers. Also for the bad, unfortunately, perseverance pays off. Since its 2014 annexation of Crimea, Russia has enjoined all state media channels to deliver only one narrative: “look at what’s happening in Ukraine”. There were many stories showing the ill-treatment of Russians in the region and depicting the Russian people as their saviour. Some were clearly made-up and comical, others bizarre.

How and why are we susceptible to propaganda?

Dud spoke to an independent Russian journalist, Ilya Shepelin, who explained that one of the aims of propaganda is to shift the spotlight of the narrative. He told a story about how he once attended a seminar led by a Russian propagandist, Dmitryi Kiselev, who was teaching how propaganda works. 

“Can you name any qualities for the grass that grows outside your house?” Kiselev asked. “You might say it’s green. And you’d be right to say that”, he explained. But then Kiselev pointed out that ‘grass can also be characterised as flat and sharp’. 

Shepelin commented: “If we are working for propaganda, we must spotlight the features we would like to highlight according to our narrative, while overlooking the primary features. Therefore, if we say that the grass is sharp, we can also say that it’s dangerous and it can hurt you.” 

The highlighted features are indeed true, but anyone who has at least once in their life walked barefoot on green grass will know the claim is ridiculous. But what if you imply this strategy to a subject which isn’t so obvious, such as the claim that Ukraine is filled with nationalists? 

You would probably think twice, because you may never have been in Ukraine, or you’ve never met any Ukrainians and maybe you just don’t follow the news about Eastern Europe. And whatever the word ‘nationalists’ might actually mean, it sounds highly threatening and immediately creates a negative narrative.

In 2014 when the Russian-Ukrainian relationship saw its first crack after the annexation of Crimea, Russian state media started to talk more about Ukrainian nationalists and how they hate Russians. The more this message was aired on television, the more the people believed it. After some time Ukrainians noticed that Russia started to become unfriendly. In this way xenophobic propaganda made both nations hate each other.

Based on this story, Shepelin then identified what he described as the main ‘precepts of propaganda’:

  • Repetition
  • Focus on ‘their’ rather than ‘our’ issues
  • Us vs Them   
  • Cult of power of the state (the interests of the state are more important than everyday joys)

Essentially what propaganda does is to make the choice for you.

Instead of presenting arguments for both sides, it tells you which side you should support. No wonder that propaganda is flourishing in Russia. Looking at the history of a country which has suffered so much control and oppression, kholopstvo and then serfdom until 1861 shows how for so long the people didn’t have a choice or it was made for them. They simply aren’t used to making their own decisions.

Allowing someone to make a decision for you can sound appealing. The burden of responsibility which could fall on you, in case of a failure, is taken away. Now you can complain and moan about someone else’s bad decision-making. “It wasn’t my fault, I was just following orders!” 

If in Russia propaganda can work because people lack experience in choice making, in countries where there is a greater tradition of democracy, and therefore – one hopes – free decision-making, people can still fall into propaganda’s trap simply because they don’t have the time – or the inclination – to read both sides of the argument. As Adamah Media writer Monica Sharp wrote in her article about curiosity there’s a tendency to remain in your information bubble and only seek affirmation in your own beliefs.

We think we’re free, and even could be free, to make our own informed decisions but we lazily allow ourselves to be manipulated in what we think, often willingly succumbing to the deceiver whom we have chosen to feed us a diet of deceit.

In his video, Dud decided to interview a sociologist, Dr Alexandra Arkhipova, in the hope she could explain the science behind propaganda and the human desire to believe it. Dr Arkhipova is a senior research fellow currently engaged in a year-long study of ‘infodemia’, a term coined by the World Health Organisation to describe the spate of false and potentially dangerous misinformation which flows through and infects public discourse. 

She argues that we can’t necessarily say that Russians are more prone to believe propaganda narratives than other nations. World history is filled with stories about the spread of propaganda and its effects. One of the most recent and bloodiest instances occurred in Rwanda.

Between 7 April and 15 July in 1994 a dreadful genocide took place, perpetrated by the Hutu ethnic group in their civil war against the rival Tutsi group. It is estimated that at least 500,000 Tutsis were killed in the space of a hundred days during the conflict.

After the conflict ended, researcher Scott Strauss decided to conduct research to try to answer the question “Can propaganda kill?” His study looked at the impact of Rwandan radio station RTLM and its aired programmes on listeners and their attitudes. 

According to the findings of another researcher, Mary Kimani, only 1.52% of RTLM’s programmes were dedicated to news and 66.29% were Western-style radio talk shows on which journalists discussed their thoughts. Many told rude jokes and used foul language, which made these programmes stand out more compared to formal news ones. At some point RTLM programmes made anti-Tutsi propaganda their spotlight. Tutsis were described to be a dangerous enemy seeking to take over the control of the country.

In his study Strauss noted FM radio coverage around all the villages of Rwanda and analysed the quality of radio wave coverage in the villages. Then he compared the map with another map where he marked the violent assaults among the inhabitants. He noticed that villages with a better FM coverage were much more violent than those where the radio wave coverage was poor. But if a village with no radio coverage was located next to a village with good FM coverage, then the inhabitants of the village were also extremely violent. 

In an unprecedented act, the The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) charged and convicted Ferdinand Nahimana, co-founder and later director of the RTLM station, for omission. He was convicted for not having stopped discriminatory content on the station. Hassan Ngeze and Jean-Bosco Barayagwiza, who also worked at RTLM, were also convicted of having conspired to cause genocide.

But the danger is even greater. Propaganda can not only make a choice for you, it can create new memories too. How is this possible? Dr Arkhipova refers to a study entitled “False memories for Fake news during Ireland’s abortion referendum”, which was conducted in 2018. 

A group of scientists conducted a study on supporters from both the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ camps. The participants were shown six news stories about the events of the campaign of which two were false and four true. The results of the experiment demonstrated that almost half (48%) of the participants reported a memory of at least one false event, while one third (37%) of the participants reported a specific memory of the false event. 

Not surprisingly perhaps, participants of both camps were more likely to remember and recount the details about the opposing side’s scandals. The experiment also showed that participants from both camps with lower cognitive ability were much more convinced about the credibility of false stories.

The study concluded that people are most susceptible to forming false memories for fake news which support their beliefs, especially if they have low cognitive ability. 

So why do people believe in propaganda? Is it because it supports our pre-existing views (or, in other words, it confirms our prejudices) or is it because people are naïve by nature?

Dr Arkhipova says, “the answer is neither. The human brain has a choice in how much time it wants to take to make a decision. Obviously, the more time we take, the more energy we use. This is where propaganda fits in well because it paints a simple picture. Our brain likes to consume simple information without any contradictions, as the brain craves a simple decision-making process. This is one of the reasons why some conspiracies seem to have stuck with us forever. In general people want to be left alone and simply enjoy their lives: go to work, spend time with their families and not worry about geopolitics.”

Thinking is hard and tiresome. But thinking against the mainstream is even harder. 

It is therefore  easier to accept a simple narrative and, after making a simple choice, enjoy the attained free time.

So how can we save ourselves from falling victim to propaganda? . No one can read all the news in the world or spend hours making a decision. But we can remember the precepts offered by Ilya Shepelin and be attentive when reading or listening to the news. And if we find any of the precepts outlined by him in a narrative, perhaps it’s time to put on a ‘critical thinking’ hat and try not to be fooled.

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Karolina Jayasinghe is a writer for Adamah Media. She has a BA in European Languages (French/ Italian/ English) from University of Salford and a MA in Conference interpreting from University of Manchester. Born and raised in Lithuania she's now based in rainy Manchester. She shares the passion of Adamah in bringing the truth and constructive dialogue through journalism. Her favourite hobbies are cooking, playing violin, singing and learning languages (currently working on the 7th!)

One Comment

  • Adam

    Excellent article. Another glimpse into the surreal world of Putin, and an especially interesting reflection on how propoganda works on a people without a culture of democracy.

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