Informational policy
Politics

Tailored Propaganda

Alesya Sokolova shows how Russian propaganda spins different narratives for different demographics of social media users

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Photo: Scanpix

VKontakte is still the most popular social network in Russia, with about 71 per cent of Russians using it every month. It is also one of the main platforms used by state propaganda. In a recent study published by Cedar, an independent think-tank aimed at providing data about Russia to the academic and expert community, we found that propaganda is not limited to state-controlled media, but also uses less obvious distribution channels, such as entertainment groups with memes and fun facts. These public groups are organized into networks into which propaganda content is then posted on centralized basis. In doing so, propaganda adapts the style and narrative of different posts to different categories of users, catering to their demographics: gender, age and location. We have called this strategy «tailored» propaganda.

What their subscriptions can tell you about VK users

We based our conclusions about tailored propaganda on the analysis of various subscriptions of 30,000 VK users from a sample reflecting the distribution of Russians (based on Rosstat data) by gender, age and location. We automatically grouped the users into twelve clusters according to their type of subscription. It turned out that these clusters perfectly reflected socio-demographic groups: older women, young men, teenagers, urban youth, etc. We then analyzed the content of the twenty most popular public groups for each cluster — almost all of them offered entertainment-related content, — and there was no more than one news-related public group per cluster.

For many people, media consumption is largely determined by demographics. It would not have been difficult to determine the gender and age of many users based on their subscriptions (i.e. what public pages or groups they follow or participate in). Seven of the twelve clusters had a concentration of more than 85% of users of a particular gender. The age distribution in all clusters was unimodal: the majority of users in each cluster were close to some average age for the cluster.

The correlation between subscriptions and demographics is quite obvious: women-retirees follow public groups dedicated to dacha living and handicrafts, younger women subscribe to groups about cooking and family life, adult men read about cars and fishing, and teenagers — about computer games. Funny memes groups also differ in terms of subscriber demographics: older audiences appreciate the kind of humor that is often reminiscent of Soviet-era jokes (the so-called «anekdoty») and their posts are designed to resemble WhatsApp postcards, while teenagers are keen of memes about school, and men like sexist jokes.

This correlation of subscription types with gender and age may seem stereotypical. However, we should be careful not to extrapolate stereotypes to the entire population: even «male» and «female» clusters contain between 1 and 15% of users of the other gender. The same goes for age. There are also clusters where gender has little to do with media consumption, for example, groups of users with clearly defined interests. Our model has identified two such clusters: «Z-patriots» and «film fans.»

However, if the public group has no clear gender orientation, another demographic parameter comes into play: the size of the settlement or city. Clusters with a similar ratio of men to women have more users from large cities. They read blogs with memes, fun facts about other countries, science, technology and business. At the same time, such public groups still focus on and cater to a particular age group: it would be difficult to find a public site that would be equally interesting for pensioners and teenagers.

How propaganda works with different audiences

It is hardly surprising that users from different cities, genders and ages have dissimilar preferences when it comes to content. What is interesting, however, is that propaganda consciously adapts its strategies to these preferences. We were surprised to find a high proportion of propagandistic content in non-political VK groups that share memes and fun facts. Almost every cluster of users subscribed to a handful of entertainment groups, where between 1% and 36% of posts contained pro-government narratives justifying the actions of Putin and Russian troops in Ukraine.

How exactly does propaganda tailor its narratives according to the gender and age of VK users? Propaganda aimed at women over 40 and pensioners stands out the most here. While propaganda content aimed at all other demographic groups prioritizes political news related to the war in Ukraine and Putin’s actions, propaganda aimed at older women focuses on obituaries and personal stories of the military. Such content often comes in colorful fonts or background pictures and designed to reseble WhatsApp postcards. It is not uncommon to see religious themes in posts targeting women over 40. The posts offer no arguments or reasons that would have helped justify Russia’s agression against Ukraine.

At the same time, there is virtually no propaganda content in the public groups popular with younger women (20−40 years old), which is surprising in the context of other user groups. Perhaps these younger users make a conscious effort to avoid propaganda content altogether. This is further supported by the fact that they subscribe to non-political VK groups, which are popular with the anti-war public. The low level of support for the war in this demographic group is confirmed by the results of social surveys.

Propagandistic content, which is meant for men, is radically different from the propaganda targeting women. It is difficult to find expressions of sympathy for the fallen soldiers, but one can regularly find articles about politics (often international politics), arguing the need for war in Ukraine as a threat from the West and highlighting Russia’s few diplomatic successes in its relations with other countries. This content cannot be described as completely unemotional, but the emotions conveyed by propaganda for men are different from those conveyed by propaganda targeting women: pride in Russia’s military power (there are very few posts about military operations themselves) and hatred towards migrants and LGBTQ+ people.

Xenophobic content is characteristic not only of groups targeting adult males, but also of those targeting teenagers. Otherwise, teenage content is very different from the other clusters, both in terms of design (it is more complex, with contrasting colors) and narratives. They focus on authoritative and often masculine images (e.g. popular Russian bloggers and Elon Musk). This is the kind of image propaganda is actively constructing for Putin. Youth propaganda also differs in that it often appeals to young people (for example, by criticizing young political prisoners) and almost never uses anti-Western narratives, but rather emphasizes the support of well-known Western figures for Russia.

Another young category of users are residents of large cities, both women and men. Big cities are traditionally more likely to protest against the government, which is confirmed by our analysis: the level of support for the war among these users is much lower. Propaganda adapts to this characteristic: posts meant for this audience rarely contain xenophobic, homophobic or radical anti-Western statements that might alienate this more liberal-minded users. However, the main narratives about the war in Ukraine remain standard for Russian propaganda. They are complemented by a high proportion of posts that draw attention to Russia’s alleged technological sophistication, including achievements in military technology.

On a different note, it is worth exploring the social issues raised in propagandistic posts meant for different demographic groups. As we have said earlier, men and teenagers are offered anti-migrant and homophobic content. The young audience in general receives posts about the importance of boosting the nation’s birth rate and various initiatives to ban abortion. Retirees are given posts and materials about different pension schemes and one-off payments.

Tailored propaganda as a strategy

Despite censorship and blocking, the state no longer has a monopoly on content production. Content, including oppositional content, is no longer produced solely by newspapers and TV channels, but by social media users themselves. Under such conditions, propaganda has to compete for the attention of users.

One of the ways to adapt to the new conditions is to smuggle tailored propaganda into VK public groups. This is a coordinated and centralized strategy, rather than a personal initiative of public groups’ administrators. We know this because of the repeated cross-referencing of posts shared in one public group to other groups aimed at different audiences. The text in such posts is often repeated word for word, but with different fonts, colors and accompanying photos, while maintaining the overall composition and design. The exception is posts for teenagers, which look unique in both design and content — perhaps, produced by a separate propagandistic agency.

This is just one of the strategies used by the Russian state to control public opinion. It is unlikely that a complete list of these strategies could ever be compiled, but some others include carefully curated maintenance of the social media accounts that belong to publicly funded institutions and even the personal accounts of public employees themselves (where they publish posts justifying the war and urging people to vote for Putin), the promotion of the channels of pro-war bloggers in Telegram, and the active use of bots and trolls in VK.

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