May 8, 2019  |  Updated June 21, 2019

The Kremlin’s Image Through Online Conversations

By Péter Krekó and Lóránt Győri
The Czech Republic saw the fewest pro-Russian online conversations, while Hungary and Slovakia saw higher numbers. Photo: Prague castle from Vltava side. Source: Freepik

In 2019, three years after the Kremlin carried out its infamous disinformation campaign in the 2016 US presidential election, the study of Moscow’s influence operations has expanded to include Central and Eastern Europe. It is now widely acknowledged that whether in the United States or Europe’s east, these disinformation campaigns have an impact on how individuals and groups think about the Kremlin.

What is less studied, however, are the conversations about the Kremlin between ordinary people in Central and Eastern Europe. These casual interactions form the basis of public opinion, often expressed in polls. Analysts often rely on traditional public opinion polls to ascertain prevailing attitudes, but these have their limitations: responses are often reactive, and respondents have a tendency to express opinions on issues about which they lack interest or knowledge. Furthermore, the general public’s awareness, especially that of young people, of issues related to Russia (including disinformation, the war in eastern Ukraine, etc.) is very low.

As such, studying the everyday, casual conversations between citizens can add a new dimension to understandings of how perceptions of Russia have changed in light of the Kremlin’s embrace of disinformation as a geopolitical tool. Because much of human communication, especially about political issues, has moved online, internet platforms and fora have become frequent sites of unfiltered discourse. For those curious about dominant attitudes about Russia in Central and Eastern Europe, spontaneous online exchanges offer a potentially more candid perspective. In a sense, these conversations, and how individuals and groups speak of the Kremlin in them, may function as a proxy for the efficacy of Moscow’s campaign to discredit the West and improve Russia’s image both in the region and around the world.

Political Capital, a political research and consulting firm in Budapest, studied social media conversations about Russia in Central and Eastern Europe to investigate how organic exchanges between citizens may reflect public opinion about Moscow. The firm’s research found that while vulnerabilities exist, Central and Eastern Europeans exhibit a strong resilience toward Russian influence in the region. Analyses of online conversations about Russia in Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and Hungary revealed that 46 percent of those conversations expressed a negative opinion about Russia. The researchers deemed 33 percent of the conversations neutral and 21 percent positive about Russia or the Kremlin.

In line with previous public opinion polls, Slovak conversations contained the most pro-Russian sentiments of the three countries studied, while the Czech Republic saw the fewest and Hungary landed between the two. The results demonstrate that the Kremlin and its disinformation strategy in the region still face difficulties in changing the hearts and minds of local populations.

The online discussions studied frequently portrayed Russia as an aggressor, influencer, or manipulator. Notable political events, such as visits from prominent Russian politicians, particularly Vladimir Putin, stimulated negative conversations about Russia. The conversation also flared around other events, about which discussions were almost exclusively negative: anniversaries of Soviet crimes in the region; violent incidents such as Russian military campaigns in Syria and Ukraine or the poisoning of Sergei Skripal; and interference in elections or democratic processes in the region and world. The war in eastern Ukraine, disinformation and hybrid warfare attacks against the West, and the Soviet suppression of revolutions in Hungary in 1956 and in Czechoslovakia in 1968 also frequently appeared in discussions about the three countries’ relations with Russia.

Despite the dominantly negative associations with Russia, many of the online conversations contained pro-Kremlin sentiment. Large and active groups of pro-Kremlin users are present in the online environment in Central and Eastern Europe. These groups express affinity toward the Russian military and masculinity; admiration for Russian culture and the Soviet era; and a respect for the Kremlin’s self-projected image as the bastion of Christianity and traditional social values against a weak, liberal West overtaken by illegal immigration. Regional media aid these groups and their aims, primarily because arguments in favor of the Kremlin’s influence are still highly salient in public discussions.

A small group of vocal individuals in the online communication networks plays an outsized role in driving the discussions. Thus, a relatively small minority of active users in the three countries examined shape Russia’s image. Given that social media increasingly molds political opinions in Central and Eastern Europe, the interactions of a few thousand individual accounts have the power to fundamentally change perceptions of Russia in the region.

Political Capital’s research revealed the pro-Russian discussions at the grassroots and horizontal levels of communication among citizens that circumvent official communication channels and function as a form of Russian influence in the region. The fact that Kremlin tries to penetrate into these discussions via trolls and bots reveals their ability to shape public discourse. These efforts also extend to email chains in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, where older generations frequently receive news and interpersonal communications through these chains.

Two primary factors drive the pro-Kremlin sentiment that Moscow seeks to exploit in its information warfare. Many in Central and Eastern Europe feel a sense of insecurity as a result of their physical and political placement between the East and the West. The region’s frequent label as dependent on more powerful states and as a battleground between great powers produces a feeling of inferiority among the public. Kremlin disinformation takes advantage of these feelings by promoting anti-Western views and by prodding Central and Eastern Europeans to question the advantages of membership in the EU, NATO, or the transatlantic community.

Central and Eastern Europeans also find relating to Russia easier than relating to the more abstract West. Recent opinion polls demonstrate that many in the region perceive the Kremlin as geopolitically formidable and wielding significant influence over European politics. Even in discussions critical of Russia, individuals perceive Putin and his country as much stronger than geopolitical realities suggest. This mystification of Russia in the Western world might be the greatest success of the Kremlin’s disinformation campaigns. A stronger and more prosperous Russia is, after all, more attractive to those caught between the East and the West.

In the twenty-first century, much of political discourse between citizens takes place online. The same is true in Central and Eastern Europe, where political identity is fraught and Moscow is a perpetual focus of the political conversation. As such, the digital channels where such discussions unfold offer rich insights into prevailing attitudes surrounding the Kremlin, attitudes that help researchers understand how Kremlin disinformation shapes ordinary citizens’ perceptions of Russia. Studies of these interactions suggest that while many in Central and Eastern Europe express hesitation and distrust of Moscow and its intentions, factions of vocal, committed activists amplify pro-Kremlin messaging that reaches wide online audiences and as a result influences public opinion concerning Russia. The Kremlin’s efforts to infiltrate these channels with trolls and bots speak to how consequential they are for Moscow’s regional interests.

The importance of these networks to governments is thus clear. Regional states need to identify the critical communication infrastructure that encompasses both elite and everyday communication channels. Mainstream media need to reconfigure their approaches and work to uncover hybrid warfare efforts. Social media platforms should cooperate with NGOs and European authorities to thwart manipulation campaigns targeting local populations. Finally, Western institutions and politicians should acknowledge and address the feelings of insecurity and inferiority in Central and Eastern Europe that fuel pro-Kremlin sentiment in the region.

Political Capital’s full report can be found here.

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