Propaganda is back – Trend hastened by the war in Ukraine

The war in Ukraine has brought propaganda back to centre stage after a lull of several years. But does the propaganda of today have any similarities with that used during the Second World War? And how effective is it?

Photos of bloodied soldiers, tractors towing Russian tanks, bridges and cities ravaged by explosions – an enormous quantity of photos and videos have been published since the war in Ukraine began in February 2022. Telling fact from fiction requires media literacy.

“As a result of the war, the word ‘propaganda’ has had a resurgence and the topic is now discussed almost daily in the media,” says Mats Bergman, Associate Professor of Media and Communication Studies at the Swedish School of Social Science.

When planning a new course in 2019, Bergman had no idea that propaganda would take on such relevance.

At the time, he asked himself what would interest both him and his students and eventually chose propaganda.

Numerous definitions

Bergman says that both Russia and Ukraine are currently using propaganda, but that it differs from the kind used during the Second World War, for instance.

Previously, Bergman’s research has focused on the philosophy and ethics of communication. But the course in propaganda awakened his interest in the topic, and he now investigates both the concept and uses of propaganda.

So how should propaganda be defined? Bergman says that there are hundreds of definitions and that it is possible to draw different conclusions depending on how the topic is framed.

In simple terms, propaganda can be defined as information operations that in some way support or serve the interests of a specific party, usually the propagandist. In addition, propaganda often involves misleading the audience.

“But this is not always the case. Propaganda can also be factual – it doesn’t have to be inaccurate. It can be based on half-truths.”

Bergman sees the efforts of Ukraine as a campaign to influence public opinion rather than as pure propaganda. He says the Ukrainians have put on a successful charm offensive to win over the West and its sympathies.

“Ukraine has been better than Russia at shaping its message, thus reaching both its own citizens and the global audience more effectively.” 

But Ukraine too has made mistakes. This happened with the Ghost of Kiev, a fighter pilot who was claimed to have downed six Russian combat planes.

“The authorities were keen to create a heroic myth for both external and internal purposes, but they shot themselves in the foot as the story turned out to be fictitious,” notes Bergman.

It all began with the invasion of the Crimean Peninsula

The re-emergence of propaganda did not actually begin with the war in Ukraine in February 2022.

Bergman dates it back to the Russian invasion of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014 when the West became aware of the Russian campaign of disinformation.  

Propaganda has traditionally required careful planning, and it is a well-known view that propagandists should try to tell the truth for as long as possible to avoid getting caught telling incongruent stories.

“This is what, for example, Joseph Goebbels would have recommended.

“But with the invasion, Russia adopted instead a model known as the ‘firehose of falsehood’. It means they no longer had any regard for truth and began broadcasting as much material as possible to create confusion. The message coming out of the propaganda machine was contradictory.”

In connection with the war in Ukraine, however, the Russian campaign of disinformation has been less extensive than expected. Rather than targeting the West, Russia has primarily geared its propaganda to African countries and the Muslim world.

Bergman is surprised too by the amount of traditional propaganda Russia is producing, including outdoor adverts, television propaganda programmes, marches and parades.

“I haven’t witnessed this amount of classical propaganda in a long time.”

The precise reason why Russia has chosen this strategy is difficult to determine. Bergman says that we know the Russian public is suspicious of those in power. It has therefore been speculated that Russian propaganda does not really aim to convince the public, but to ensure that those in power are seen.

“This is typical for authoritarian states.”

Propaganda at the grassroots level

The nature of propaganda has also changed with the use of social media. The production and dissemination of propaganda is both resource intensive and expensive, but has become easier and faster through social media.

“Today, people often talk about the concept of participatory propaganda, where you strive under a false identity to infiltrate groups on social media to spread information,” Bergman says.  

He explains that this allows the propaganda of today to be spread, strengthened and even generated through the active participation of the audience. Sometimes the propagandists even hope that digital propaganda will spread organically and out of control.

“This is in stark contrast to when the idea was to control the message. Now the situation is more unpredictable, and the propagandist has much to play for because it’s easier to reach a big audience.”

Another feature attributed to social media is that much of today’s propaganda is developed at the grassroots level by ordinary citizens who disseminate the message. When it reaches the authorities, it may be spread more officially.

“One example are memes [humorous images shared on social media]. Ordinary Ukrainians have created many memes that have then been spread by the Ukrainian authorities to make fun of the Russians.”

Unclear impact

No one knows how long the war in Ukraine will last and how it will end. The role of propaganda too is unclear.

According to Bergman, the effectiveness of propaganda is debatable because it is very difficult to demonstrate its results in circumstances as chaotic and complex as those of a war.

“But regardless of its effectiveness, the authorities in both Ukraine and Russia appear to believe in it. Why would they engage in it otherwise?”

Bergman believes that Russia has taken steps to become a veritable propaganda state, with propaganda integrated into its power structures similarly to North Korea.

“We’re not there yet, but Russia is using similar means. It’s an interesting but frightening development we’re witnessing.”