“A lie told often enough becomes the truth.” This quote by Lenin describes the ongoing Russian information war against Ukraine and Russian propaganda in general. Lies about events in Ukraine have surged during the Ukrainian revolution of 2014, which has been labeled and portrayed as a neo-Nazi coup, and have been ubiquitous across all Russian media since. This quote has been often misattributed to Goebbels, but the referenced “proof by assertion” technique was nonetheless one of the two key building blocks of Nazi Germany’s propaganda, along with the second and equally important postulation voiced by Goebbels and his appointer Hitler that “the bigger the lie, the more it will be believed.” It seemed at first that what we had was a historic irony that was difficult to underappreciate: Kremlin-owned media disseminated misinformation about events in Ukraine via a propaganda model that was developed by Hitler and Goebbels. The hidden-in-plain-sight outcome of this model usually goes unmentioned: the creator of lies is likely to become a believer in the very mirage it has created.

To justify the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula, Russian propagandists put forward two propositions: first, the new Ukrainian government was brought to power by western-trained neo-Nazi extremists—and is thus illegitimate—and second, the Russian-speaking population in Ukraine is threatened and needs protection. Neither was true, as various social, cultural, and ethnic groups supported the Ukrainian revolution, including the Jewish community and speakers of the Russian language, a native language for the majority of Kiev residents. The annexation was followed by a cynical spectacle of referendum, which somehow resulted in a 97% vote for joining the Russian Federation, although the independent polls showed that the percentage of the Crimean population expressing desire to join Russia never exceeded 40% and that the referendum voter turnout was estimated at 35-40%.

Pro-Ukrainian protests against the annexation erupted in southeast regions of the country, and were typically accompanied by pro-Russian protests, which were in turn staged and initiated by Russian citizens transported across the border. Naturally, protesters on opposing sides clashed.

At the time, Ukraine’s intellectuals and journalists brushed off the staged pro-Russian protests as something bizarre and even comical, and used the term “traveling circus” to describe the phenomena. Meanwhile, Russian media covered the clashes as the veridical expression of socio-cultural tensions within Ukraine, and the world media seemingly leaned toward the Russian interpretation.

Such blatantly deceiving propaganda damaged Ukrainian identity. The Kremlin rhetoric had no meaningful connection to reality, but that is precisely the point. What matters to the Kremlin is the creation of an alternate reality in which pro-Russian sentiments are confidently expressed and where the public opinion climate is, therefore, misleadingly split. People tend to assume that the most memorable and salient attitudes and behaviors are characteristic of the majority. This leads to a spiral of silence—a readjustment of one’s own attitudes and behaviors to match that of the majority. The immediate result is that the evaluation of one’s social environment becomes skewed and fallacious. This is what happened in Ukraine. The eventual result is a state of pluralistic ignorance, where an opinion becomes dominant by the virtue of a bold, often extreme expression; a big and repeated lie becomes a new reality. This is what happened in Russia.

As Putin kept publicly expressing his “concerns and fears” about the safety of the Russian speakers in Ukraine, the threat of heightened discord and magnified differences among diverse groups of Ukrainians loomed large on the horizon. At that point, Kremlin propaganda turned to pseudospeciation, which is meant to dehumanize the enemy and is achieved through stories that highlight the out-group’s inferiority and subhumanity. Therefore, the reports of tortured prisoners, raped women, and murdered children in Ukraine have all had a fair share of airtime in the Russian media.

As a result of the Donets Basin military crisis that resonated internationally with the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 by the Kremlin-backed separatists, the world got exposed to the remorseless propaganda that Ukraine had been dealing with for months. With the world paying close attention to the tragedy, the differences between Russian and international media coverage became clear.

Faced with new challenges, the Russian propaganda machine adjusted accordingly and turned to the technique of manufacturing conspiracy theories that were released to accompany certain news-making events. In the case of Flight MH17, theories ranged from the miscalculation by the Ukrainian military to the NATO-engineered plot to drag Russia into a full-blown war. The underlying and universally present storyline was that it all is the fault of Ukraine’s illegitimate government.

The overabundant supply of lies and conspiracies resulted in a sleeper effect—a tendency to remember the information but not the source. The sleeper effect explains why negative political ads are so popular in American politics. Potential voters are exposed to a negative message by a low credibility source, such as a candidate who paid for the ad; they dismiss and forget the source, but in the long run remember the information from the negative ad. In the situation of MH 17, we witnessed the sleeper effect on steroids (e.g., “Yes, the situation in Ukraine is tragic, but didn’t it all start with the coup in Kiev?”).

The fabrication of lies and conspiracies by state-owned media to accomplish ideological goals is not uniquely a Russian phenomenon, of course. While nobody would report the news from North Korean state-owned agencies as credible, somehow the sanity checks do not apply to the Russian news, though the actual content and disregard for truth do not substantially differ between the countries. Russia purposefully blocks the circulation of the world news, and the Russian media, due to its size and centralized management, enjoys a rare economy of scale and fully dominates the large national market while simultaneously exporting the news to the world. For example, the RT channel is distributed to 100 countries and reaches 85 million households in the US market.

Russian state-owned media does not play by the rules, yet fully takes advantage of their existence. Russia gave the maxim “media is the message” a new meaning: if it looks like the news and sounds like the news, then it must be the news.

These methods of mass deception, in combination with pay-per-click, headlines-over-content journalism, have delivered a substantial blow to the world community.The obvious target audiences for the Kremlin are Russians at home and abroad, Ukrainians, and the European ultra-right movement, which endorsed Putin at the dawn of the ongoing conflict.

Russian propaganda has worryingly impacted the European public. Now, German public opinion polls echo the Kremlin interpretation of events in Ukraine. Namely, that all the trouble in Ukraine started with the February Revolution that was in turn orchestrated by the United States.

Last but not least, Russian propagandists’ most important audience is Vladimir Putin himself, who eagerly inhabits a through-the-looking-glass reality he created. Putin needs mythology to experience an ever-increasing high of self-confirmation. As a KGB officer with a deep portfolio of covert operations, Putin has long suffered from assumed similarity bias in his evaluation of the CIA’s role and involvement in the former Soviet Union countries. With the help of propaganda, Putin’s wishful thinking metamorphosed into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Admittedly, as far as his western paranoia is concerned, he achieved some internal consistency by being ostracized and sanctioned by the west.

Putin is “old school”; that is not a compliment. In a new, confused, and uncontrollable world of information heterogeneity and media fragmentation, old propaganda methods will not continue to work on many people for a long time just because they are known and controllable.

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