Russian propaganda has fooled the Kremlin more than Ukraine and the rest of Europe.
Dr. Jon Roozenbeek is the British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at the Cambridge Social Decision-Making Lab. His research focuses on misinformation, vaccine hesitancy, online extremism, and inoculation theory. As part of his research, he co-developed the award-winning fake news games Bad News, Harmony Square, and Go Viral. Jon is also interested in social media research, agent-based modeling, and natural language processing. His doctoral dissertation (University of Cambridge, 2020) examined media discourse and identity during the Donbas War in eastern Ukraine. He is currently writing two books with Cambridge University Press, one about the psychology of misinformation and another about information warfare in Ukraine.
Could you please touch upon your upcoming book project, Information, Influence, and War in Ukraine–including analyses related to media and identity in Wartime Donbas? What are the critical messages for Ukraine?
The book's starting point is the media landscape in the so-called "People's Republics" of Donetsk and Luhansk after 2014. I trace how the "authorities" in these areas took control of local media production, passed legislation to impose censorship, and set up a huge information campaign to influence audiences both in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts and abroad. Of course, this programme was supported in large part by Russia, but it had some local elements too. My argument is that this propaganda campaign has failed in many respects: the narratives that were put forward by these LNR/DNR media outlets were, intentionally or not, empty and excessively outgroup-focused rather than presenting any kind of alternative to Ukrainian nationhood. This failure has had several consequences. Most importantly, although very few Ukrainians were convinced by stories about Nazis in Kyiv and "Novorossiia", key figures in the Kremlin and in the DNR and LNR administrations seem to have been, which contributed to Russia's lack of military success and almost absent popular support in the current theatre of war.
What is your view on the latest developments in Ukraine?
I should note that I'm not a military specialist, and I am not highly confident in my assessment. Ukraine's successful counter-offensive appears to have forced Russia's hand, in that it is now taking risks that have a high chance of backfiring. Appointing general Surovikin as theatre commander is a sign that Russia has abandoned any remaining hope that Russian-speaking Ukrainians will eventually come around to Russia's side. The current tactic of the indiscriminate and large-scale shelling of residential areas is an escalation reminiscent of Russia's excesses in Syria, but it's also bound to a time limit: the situation on the Kharkiv, Luhansk, and Kherson fronts remains in Ukraine's favour, and the explosion on the Kerch strait bridge is likely to slow down military supplies to the front, at least for a while. On top of that, Russia is low on artillery and other ammunition, and Ukraine (with help from Western powers) will soon gain access to better weaponry and, importantly, better air defence systems. So I don't think Russia's new tactic of indiscriminately bombing Ukrainian cities is likely to last too long, or at least will become markedly less effective in the days and weeks to come.
Putin claims that there's no Ukrainian history separate from Russian. How would you respond to such a statement?
This is of course, an absurdity, akin to saying there is no New Zealand history separate from Britain. Before February 24th, I would have called this narrative a useful propaganda tactic, including for Western audiences who aren't too familiar with the history of Ukraine. But now we're forced to recognise that Putin appears actually to believe it. The full-scale invasion was so terribly planned and executed that the Kremlin must have not only counted on the ineptitude of the Ukrainian military but also on support or at least indifference from Russian-speaking Ukrainians (and most Ukrainians in general, save for a few staunch nationalists). Any look at opinion polls conducted after 2014 (for example, this poll by Gwendolyn Sasse from 2019) would have told them that Ukrainians, regardless of language, have almost no appetite for joining the Russian Federation in any capacity (even if they weren't fans of the government in Kyiv). This was before the full-scale invasion, which likely killed any remaining pro-Russian sentiments in Ukraine. Any English speaker is keenly aware that language does not equal identity, but somehow this conflation seems to have, in part, informed Putin's decision to launch this disastrous war.
What steps should Ukrainian leadership take to dispel Russia's attempts to revise history and question Ukraine's existence?
The obvious answer is to win the war, which Ukraine appears to be capable of doing. At least in Europe, Russia's propaganda doesn't seem to be very successful, and aside from that, its actions continue to alienate even potentially sympathetic European audiences. Funding, promoting, and conducting the highest scientific standard historiography is also essential as an antidote to propaganda. More broadly, should Ukraine manage to win the war, there will hopefully be a window of opportunity for Ukraine to undergo a similar rapid transition to EU democratic and economic standards as the Baltic countries and the former Warsaw Pact went through after 1991. Divisive propaganda is less effective in times of economic and societal boom.