Imagine this. You’re Russian. You’re living in a dictatorship. You get a phone call. An anonymous voice on the other end tells you it’s a poll. The question – Do you approve of Putin’s activities as President of Russia.
You think to yourself. This guy holds all the power. He is ex-KGB. And he doesn’t take criticism well. Look what happened to poor Boris Nemtsov. Who knows where my information will go. I better watch what I say.
And when the average Russian watches what he or she says, the results are quite predictable.
In its April 2015 poll, the oft-quoted Russian polling firm Levada Center reported President Putin’s approval rating was 86%. Over most of the past year this figure has ranged between 88% and 84%. To give these numbers some context, President Obama’s job approval index over the past year ranged around 40%. What a difference leading a democracy makes.
The obvious question is why does a polling company many in the West regard as reputable persist in asking the question in such a biased environment? More puzzling, why do Western news media continue to cite these polls as clear demonstration of how supportive the Russian public is of Putin’s warmongering?
The answer to the first question is easy. If Levada were to use questions that in any way detracted from Russian propaganda about the Ukraine/Russia war, it, like other Russian news outlets before, would be either taken over by government propagandists or simply not allowed to publish. It is allowed to survive and publish because its polls are useful to the overall propaganda effort.
The more serious problem related to this is that even if Levada employed questions that provided meaningful options e.g., the Maidan revolution was a populist uprising, versus it was a putsch manipulated by fascists and Americans, the sheer volume of propaganda in Russian media and the fact that 90% of all Russians get their news from television, would ensure the selection of the propaganda option.
This outcome demonstrates the two-fold power of propaganda. Propaganda not only makes people ignorant of the truth, it makes them afraid of it.
The German social scientist Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann observed the tendency of individuals to censor themselves when responding to contentious social issues in public opinion polls. The description of this social process is summarized in her book “The Spiral of Silence: Public Opinion Our Social Skin“.
Trained in polling methodology in America, Noelle-Neumann initially plied her trade in Nazi Germany. In the early years of World War II, she worked for master propagandist Joseph Goebbels, until he fired her. Although working with Nazis tainted her personal reputation, the scientific insights she gleaned were profound.
The experience crystallized her central ideas of how strongly mass political propaganda can influence public opinion. She hypothesized that individuals within a society had a strong sense of what was acceptable public opinion and what was not. In order not to be socially ostracized by taking an opposing stand, they would publicly support this acceptable opinion even if it did not coincide with their true feelings. In a society, propaganda, whether inspired by state or private interests, is a key factor in determining what opinion is “acceptable”.
In effect, Noelle-Neumann understood very well the context that would make polls completely unreliable as accurate barometers of public opinion — when instead their primary function would be to measure the effectiveness of propaganda.
While the “Spiral of Silence” phenomenon can be problematic in any society, it is particularly so in a totalitarian regime like Russia today where, not unlike Germany in the 30’s and 40’s, the propaganda is laced with fear. And not just fear of disapproval but fear for one’s physical safety.
Which brings us to the second question: Why do Western media publish these polls if they are bogus? Perhaps it is the belief that a poll is a quasi-scientific instrument that reveals social truths even if conducted in a totalitarian state. Or perhaps it’s because they publish so many questionable polls that emanate in the West, they’ve given up on trying to tell the difference. While the reason may be a mystery, the damage it causes is not.
These bogus polls have caused great harm to the debate in the West about what should be the appropriate response of Western democracies to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In essence, they had been used to support the argument of appeasement.
The argument goes like this. A militarily weak Ukraine cannot win a war with superpower Russia. Furthermore, aiding Ukraine by providing them with modern, defensive weapons (Senator John McCain, Adrian Karatnycky) would only anger not only Putin but the whole Russian nation that the polls show clearly support him. At best it would lead to a larger and deadlier regional conflict, and at worst a global nuclear war. In spite of the fact that Ukrainians are willing to die in pursuit of democracy, it is simply not worth the risk for Western democracies to support Ukraine with weapons. Instead, the best strategy is to rely on economic sanctions that at some point make the war too expensive for Putin to continue.
That’s been the approach of Chancellor Merkel and President Obama. It’s been over a year; the death toll is over 6000. All the while Russia keeps sending more troops and military hardware into Eastern Ukraine. Appeasement is not working.
Some take the appeasement argument even further, suggesting that Russia was somehow justified in attacking Ukraine because all those countries on its borders that were once Soviet colonial states, quickly joined NATO on achieving independence with the fall of the Soviet Union. If Ukraine were to do so, the argument goes, can you imagine how upsetting that would be to the new czar of Russia? How threatened Putin would feel? He had no other choice but to invade.
Oddly enough, these apologists never asked the obvious question: Why did these countries choose to join NATO at the earliest possible opportunity? Perhaps it’s because they know the answer. Decades of enslaved and terrorized existence as colonies of the Soviet Union had taught these nations to be wary of the empire-seeking appetite of the Russian bear. No trust then. No trust now.
But these bogus polls lead to potentially far more dangerous consequences. They initiate a cycle of vilification of all Russians, not simply Putin. If, as many in the West believe, Putin is the villain in fomenting the Ukraine war and 86% of Russian support his actions, are they not the villains too? And if Russians are villains do they not occupy a diminished form of humanity? Polls show that in the past two years there was a large increase in the number of Americans who regarded Russia as America’s greatest enemy — from 2% to 18%. But a few years ago a majority of Americans had a favorable impression of Russia. Today, 70% say their view of the country is unfavorable.
Of course it’s not just Russians being dehumanized. In Russia a similar process dehumanizes the West and especially America. While Russian polls need to be treated with some skepticism for the reasons noted, it is nevertheless stunning to see how much opinion in Russia has turned against America. Levada polls shows that presently, over 80% of Russians hold negative views of America. This figure has more than doubled in just the past year and is at its highest point since tracking began in 1988.
This dehumanization is a precondition for war. During the Cold War, both sides portrayed each other as somewhat less than human. Luckily, the only thing that stopped them from going to war was the mutual assured destruction of a nuclear war.
The absurdity here is that regardless whether people are Americans, Russians, Ukrainians or Europeans, they are much more alike in life aspirations than they are different. They all want things like good jobs, reasonable wages, and a safe society in which to raise their families. Polls confirm that despite the angry rhetoric from their governments, neither the American or Russian public ( “68 percent said they would try to stop their own son from going to war in Ukraine”) is in favour of engaging in a war in Ukraine. It is primarily state propaganda that tries to divide people into warring camps.
Given the history of Russia, it would be doubly naïve to take Russian polling results on face value. For decades Russians have learned how to survive totalitarian governments – knowing what is permissible to reveal and what gets one in trouble, along the lines postulated by Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann.
That said, there are no doubt many Russians who believe that Putin’s actions in Ukraine are justified. Much of this thinking, as noted, is strongly influenced by the extraordinary degree of state propaganda that, relying on nationalistic fervor, gives credence to what are outright fabrications.
And these fabrications are whoppers. For example:
- Putin denies the Russian military takeover of Crimea.
- He denies the presence of Russian military units and equipment in Eastern Ukraine.
- He denies Maidan was a populist revolution, claiming it was organized by fascists, neo-Nazis, and Americans.
- He denies Russian forces in Ukraine shot down the Malaysian airliner with 298 on board.
- He denies any responsibility in assassinating arch enemy Boris Nemtsov.
Note that in the Nemtsov situation, while Putin may not have put out the contract, he helped foment a climate of hatred in Russian society that sealed Nemtsov’s fate. Interestingly, Nemtsov was killed a few days before the planned release of his report showing direct Russian military involvement in Eastern Ukraine. (The report, now released, reveals that at least 220 Russian soldiers were killed in battles on Ukrainian soil.) With a motive and a means, Putin cannot absolve himself of all responsibility for the killing.
In all these fabrications many independent journalists have provided well-documented, compelling evidence to the contrary. Putin’s repeated denial of the facts seems to echo Goebbels mantra that if you repeat falsehoods often enough people will end up believing them.
As Jill Dougherty notes in her story about Putin’s propaganda machine, an extraordinary amount of money and effort is spent to control the propaganda narrative both domestically and internationally e.g., RT. On this score, the West has been asleep at the switch. It is very much in the interest of world peace that the West significantly increases its communication efforts with the Russian public.
The important pitfall for the West to avoid here is to not fight their propaganda with our propaganda. The Russian people are very good at smelling a propaganda con. The goal should be to disseminate the truth as best a diverse and independent news media can determine it.
Whether this happens or not, it is but a matter of time before the porous censorship that controls the Russian Internet begins to disseminate a flood of messages that are difficult to deny and yet do not conform to the propaganda. Also, there are more traditional, informal information channels such as word-of-mouth that will challenge state propaganda.
Once the facts of the Ukraine/Russia war begin to gain traction among the Russian public, Putin’s days as President are numbered. The 86% approval rating will drop like a stone.
While democracy has not taken root in Russia, consumerism, its materialistic sibling, has. Although some have described Russian society as being politically passive, their reaction to being lied to and being made to suffer economically as a consequence, will provoke intense public anger for this betrayal. Like Yanukovych who betrayed Ukraine, Putin would be wise to keep his escape helicopters at ready.
Oleh Iwanyshyn has been involved in public opinion polling since the mid-70s, first with the Institute for Behavioral Research at York University, then the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and more recently with ViewStats Research, a company he cofounded in 1997. He writes on the role of public opinion polls in matters of politics and public policy. His articles have appeared in iPolitics, The Hill Times, and National NewsWatch. For more see his blog poll stuff.