Op-Ed: How Putin Uses Propaganda to Show Power


When Russian President Vladimir Putin says he is Denazification of Ukraine, he no doubt expects some people in Russia and abroad to believe him. Many in the West and on the international stage have expressed confusion at these claims. But that doesn’t mean his propaganda strategy is failing. He is committed “hard propaganda” this is to convey the power of the speaker – not to convince.

In contrast, propaganda scholars refer to efforts to truly persuade as “soft propaganda.” However, propaganda strategies can be designed to work on both levels simultaneously—to persuade those who can be persuaded while simultaneously intimidating those who cannot.

So here’s one way to understand the Kremlin’s current propaganda goals: a subset of the Russian public will be receptive to persuasion using the denazification rationale, while an international audience, and likely many others in Russia, can only be swayed by a crude display the strength.

Popular discussions of propaganda often emphasize the propagandists’ deceptions and incitements to irrationality. It’s true that propaganda works like that sometimes. But hard propaganda not work by exploiting the irrationality of the audience. It offers its audience direct evidence of the speaker’s power, with the expectation that they will update their beliefs accordingly. And that actually assumes that the audience is rational.

Hard propaganda can provide direct evidence of the speaker’s power in a number of ways. One way is to make it very difficult for the audience not to hear the speaker’s message, for example by making sure State Programming airs on every TV channel at a certain time of day. Outside of overtly authoritarian states, election campaigns do this when they demonstratively spend money on uninformative advertising signal that they have the financial support to do so. US corporations also routinely use these types of power signals when subjugating workers Meetings with captive audiences in an attempt to crush union efforts.

Through such approaches, the audience learns from the sheer inevitability of the message that the signaller has power – first, the power to get their message across, but who knows what else?

Another way that speaking can demonstrate power is when something ridiculous or unbelievable is said, but it still seems to have widespread acceptance. The message to potential dissidents is that any criticism of the regime, even if it seems reasonable, will isolate or endanger them.

It also sends a message to those outside the regime: we rule a population that will docilely accept and actually act, even on preposters as absurd as the ones we put forward there. Propaganda of this kind recruits citizens who do believe what is said, or who keep their heads down and pretend to do so, providing evidence of a regime’s immense power.

In cases of harsh propaganda, the spectacle of correspondence between state rhetoric and popular behavior is the propaganda tool. And it’s a tool that can be used against both internal and international audiences.

The use of this type of harsh propaganda is a clear signal that a country will use force to impose its will, nationally and internationally.

Russia also gives us a case study of how hard propaganda can be subverted. Ukraine has resisted the Russian invasion much more than expected. Of equal importance, more than 13,000 Russians have now been arrested for protesting against the invasion of Ukraine. This type of internal resistance is the greatest threat to a hard-line propaganda strategy.

While propaganda that works through deception can be countered by exposing the truth, hard propaganda can only be neutralized by those with the power to negate the regime’s claims to power.

Megan Hyska is an assistant professor of philosophy at Northwestern University that studies propaganda and other political language. Op-Ed: How Putin Uses Propaganda to Show Power

Caroline Bleakley

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