‘It's Not that Simple, We Don't Know the Whole Truth’: The Effects of Disinformation Discourse in Wartime Russia

36 Pages Posted: 17 Jan 2024

See all articles by Maxim Alyukov

Maxim Alyukov

Department of Russian and East European Studies, University of Manchester; King’s College London - King's Russia Institute

Margarita Zavadskaya

Finnish Institute of International Affairs (FIIA); University of Helsinki

Date Written: January 2, 2024

Abstract

Following the rise of disinformation spread via social media, references to disinformation have also become a ubiquitous feature of elite discourse. From Donald Trump to Viktor Orbán, populist leaders across the world have been relying on accusations of spreading disinformation to discredit political rivals. Authoritarian leaders worldwide have adopted the same rhetoric. To explore the effect of disinformation discourse on citizens’ perceptions of news in an authoritarian environment, this study focuses on Russia in the context of the invasion of Ukraine, an example of a regime which turned disinformation discourse into a prominent propaganda strategy. We argue that disinformation discourse represents an effective response to the threat posed by contemporary saturated media environments to authoritarian rule. While it is impossible to isolate citizens from alternative information in saturated media environments, disinformation discourse allows the autocrat to respond to this challenge by pre-emptively debunking narratives that challenge the regime. To demonstrate this process, we present the findings of a pre-registered online experiment conducted in Russia (N=2,949). We expose all subjects to war-related or economy-related news stories with pro-regime or anti-regime framing. Subjects in treatment groups are additionally exposed to matching debunking claims with pro-regime or anti-regime framing containing disinformation discourse. In line with our pre-registered expectations, we find that disinformation discourse allows regime propaganda to undermine the credibility of discredited information and confuse citizens, preventing them from attributing responsibility for the regime’s policies. Against our pre-registered expectations, we also discover the backfiring effect of anti-regime messaging which shifts subjects’ attitudes in the opposite direction with regards to its intended effect and in line with pro-regime propaganda. The results contribute to the research on authoritarian propaganda in new saturated media environments, but also the instrumentalisation of disinformation discourse in democracies. In addition, the findings have important policy implications and highlight potential unintended consequences of counter-disinformation campaigns.

Keywords: Disinformation accusations, credibility, blame attribution, authoritarianism, war, Russia, Ukraine

JEL Classification: C99, D72, D74, D83

Suggested Citation

Alyukov, Maxim and Zavadskaya, Margarita, ‘It's Not that Simple, We Don't Know the Whole Truth’: The Effects of Disinformation Discourse in Wartime Russia (January 2, 2024). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=4681826 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.4681826

Maxim Alyukov (Contact Author)

Department of Russian and East European Studies, University of Manchester ( email )

Samuel Alexander Building
Oxford Road
Manchester, M13 9PL
United Kingdom

King’s College London - King's Russia Institute ( email )

Bush House
30 Aldwych
London, WC2B 4BG
United Kingdom

Margarita Zavadskaya

Finnish Institute of International Affairs (FIIA) ( email )

Arkadiankatu 23B
Helsinki, 00100
Finland

University of Helsinki ( email )

University of Helsinki
Helsinki, FIN-00014
Finland

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