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Some examples of claims from Russia which Western politicians recently had to respond to:

  • Ukraine was making nuclear weapons in Chernobyl
  • Ukraine had biolabs working on new biological weapons
  • Ukraine's government is "fascist" and "full of nazis"

But why even bother providing a substantial response to claims like these? Why not simply say "everything Putin says is propaganda, there's no point in taking it seriously" any time someone brings up Russia's official talking points? It seems like completely denouncing Russia's words as illegitimate would be much more powerful than trying to take them seriously.

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  • 19
    Compare how well various strategies worked to denounce Trump's claims. The strategies are eerily similar even though their gravities differ. Mar 13, 2022 at 8:53
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    "had to respond to" Did they really? Maybe citing some of such responses would be good. My impression was that these ideas are mostly just dismissed. If anything conspiracy fans all over the world comment on it, but that's about it. Mar 13, 2022 at 11:26
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    What I would do is keeping it as short as possible. Something like: there is no evidence for the Russian claims, so we will not waste more time on them. If you want to read more about why we are so convinced of that, go to this website where we compiled something. Mar 13, 2022 at 11:38
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    Do they have less reason to react then you have to Ask? Mar 13, 2022 at 21:17

7 Answers 7

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The point of propaganda is to manipulate perception. It's not to communicate alternative interpretations or to arrive at consensus. It is to make people see something very different from what is actually happening.

Putin's particular method of propaganda has been designed specifically for the information age. It's designed to function successfully even when most people have access to better quality information.

Putin's propaganda's main component is making numerous claims in rapid succession. The claims must be generally in different categories so they cannot be analyzed in tandem.

This Rand Corporation Article calls it a "Firehose of Falsehood."

I am going to allow myself a different analogy to explain this propaganda method's effect on perception. It functions like sprinkles on a donut.

sprinkled donutsprinkled donut

Attempting to argue that the color of a sprinkled donut's top is not that of any one particular sprinkle can be "debunked" by pointing to the sprinkles of that color, which are present.

But the sprinkles' main goal is hardly the taste. They add little (but not nothing) to the taste. Their main job is to distract from what the actual glazing of the donut is.

There are various techniques which are being tried out to counter this sprinkles-on-a-donut propaganda.

  • What you propose would be the equivalent of always coming back to pointing out that sprinkles don't add to the taste. But they do a little. Which risks making the "debunking" of your claim just another added sprinkle on the donut.

  • The other technique, which is also unsuccessful, is to pick the sprinkles off one by one. Which means debunking the claims one by one as they arrive. This (as you have observed) is also not very successful. The spreading of the sprinkles is cheap and the claims can be just repeated at a later time or in a different venue. As long as more eyes are exposed to them, they gain traction.

  • A more successful technique for countering this propaganda method appears to be to periodically remind everyone that despite the sprinkles, it's still a "chocolate donut." Acknowledging the sprinkles preempts further arguing about whether they are there. And it short-circuits the argument to being able to say what the overarching reality happens to be.

In the example of this war, the "sprinkle" that Ukraine tried to weaponize Chernobyl can be acknowledged by saying that "Ukraine gets 25% of its electricity from nuclear power and it's always been nuclear-capable." But it has to be followed up with a reminder of the actual "glazing" of this donut "This has nothing to do with Russia's unprovoked war of aggression on Ukraine."

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A denial is more credible if it is based on data. Mind you, while most of the news just report the claims, it seems that the Russians are trying to provide some kind of "evidence" for these claims.

For example, relating to the biological weapons, the Russians provided documents showing that some Ukraininan labs had received orders to destroy potentially dangerous agents. Just saying "Putin is lying" without addressing the claims is not a very credible answer (here there is the question and the answer at skeptics).

Another reason is that a line of just saying "Putin is a liar, and we will not get into details" could be easily undermined if Putin said some verifiable truth (e.g. the failure to follow the Minsk agreements). This would weaken public trust in Western politicians, that they need in order to get a free hand when dealing with Russia.

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  • The Russian evidence is that they might not be able to find any evidence? Mar 13, 2022 at 11:28
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    The last paragraph is an important one. You almost never want to be categorical when debating things like this because it makes it trivial for your opponent to make you look like a fool (they only need to provide a single counterexample to your categorical statement, as opposed to having to individually refute your specific points). Mar 13, 2022 at 15:30
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I've already seen a user argue (in a deleted answer on Skeptics) that the "the Department of Defence [is] mute on the subject" as reason why we should give the Russian claims some credence.

So, basically, (topical) silence is construed as some kind of admission by propagandists. Whether those sorts of extra claims really enhance the credibility of the initial propaganda, I'm not sure (at least not on the level of controlled experiments). But the propagandists clearly think it is.

Also, the Russians convened a UNSC meeting on at least one of these claims. So, it's pretty hard to avoid to answer on that level of seriousness. (I suspect it was just an Arria meeting, but I'm not entirely sure.)

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There's a number of reasons:

  1. control of the narrative - don't let the enemy tell his story unopposed. The public perception must be that the enemy is always wrong. If he's telling the truth, claim that (hard to check) details are wrong. You need your people and your allies on your side, and can't let them think that maybe at least here or there the enemy has a point.
  2. people are stupid - doesn't matter what obvious nonsense someone spouts - that the enemy is eating babies, that the earth is flat, that some magic procedure will heal all diseases - you'll find someone dumb enough to believe it. Can't let that happen in wartime.
  3. propaganda - there are people within the enemy territory who are not fans of their leadership (there always are, the question is how many). Aligning with them, saying what they think or giving them information to use for their purposes undermines the enemy.
  4. diplomatic brownie points - you don't want to let the enemy statements stay unopposed or they'll be using them against you - at the UN, during cease fire negotiations, while talking to other countries. Just "for the record" you always want to be able to say that you already pointed out that this statement is wrong.

note that I write as if the west is involved in the war, because it is. Not in the military campaign, but very much in the economic and propaganda warfare part.

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    This post is needlessly argumentative and aggressive. Even if you are not calling anyone in particular stupid this post can be improved by reducing the shrill tone of the rhetoric.
    – Neil Meyer
    Mar 13, 2022 at 15:12
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    @NeilMeyer if you can offer a better wording that doesn't lose the meaning, I'll be happy to edit the answer.
    – Tom
    Mar 13, 2022 at 17:47
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    To 1. I would add, it is easy to misrepresent the enemy claim (to debunk it) if all their media are censored in your country Mar 13, 2022 at 19:39
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    @O.R.Mapper but that's exactly they point: In war, you can not LET the enemy "have a point". They must be wrong. Absolutely wrong. It's black-or-white, good-vs.-evil, us-vs.-them - that, exactly is the point.
    – Tom
    Mar 14, 2022 at 5:14
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    @O.R.Mapper Goal of leadership is not evaluating its legitimacy but asserting it.
    – tejasvi88
    Mar 14, 2022 at 7:19
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The narratives shown on the Russian state-controlled media are useful because they give indirect or direct info of what is going to actually happen in the future, and how the Russian government will try to spin it. Among the actual events that were predicted with this type of evidence are: Russian invasion of Ukraine, Russian attacks on Kyiv and other major cities, abduction of Ukrainian city mayors, and attacks on the nuclear power plants. Of course, they were spun differently by the Russian media before they occurred, but still it was actionable info for Ukraine and the West.

REFERENCES:

I have been following Russian Federation state-controlled media (Channel One and Channel 24 in particular) for months. I have been following Ukrainian and Western journalists and political leaders as well. I have also followed the current events reported by a variety of non-Russian media (from the US, Europe, Middle East). Based on the months of close observation of the timeline of events, I drew the conclusions above.

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+100

When a two year old claims he's wearing clothes when he's naked, everyone ignores him. When the Emperor claims he's wearing clothes when he's naked, you ignore his statements at your peril.

Russia is a country that is large (in both population and territory), powerful (both in some economic industries and militarily), and in particular, has enough nuclear weapons to end life on Earth as we know it. Under the circumstances, it is perilous for the world community to simply ignore its official pronouncements, no matter how absurd.

Also, the international community is used to responding to statements like these. In the Soviet era (from 1917-1989), the Soviet Union's government routinely made absurd or dubious public and official claims (China and North Korea also frequently do the same thing even now). After Russia emerged as one of the successors to the USSR this tendency subsided for a while until power was re-centralized in Putin's system of authoritarian government, but this kind of conduct by a Moscow based government was familiar enough when this reemerged that it was just a case of old wine in new skins.

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Summary: You believe the Russians are evil and so feel there is no need to refute their propaganda at all. Others with different political beliefs may however choose to believe it unless they are refuted with facts and reassurances from their political leaders.


All the answers here are based on the underlying assumption that "Putin / Russia always lie". Some of the readers may have missed that this kind of framing itself is an obvious form of propaganda. In fact, if you question that basis itself, you get a more nuanced understanding of the politics at work.

An important thing to understand is that political propaganda survives on two important elements - inherent political bias and some underlying basis of truth.

Political bias in a person develops out of their own political experience and / or is created by a trusted political source you look up to. A good and very common example of political bias is nationalism, where in a citizen often believes their own country's political action as unquestionably right. (A famous political saying on this is, "My country, right or wrong!").

A good propaganda is targeted at an audience with a specific goal, based on an underlying truth in it that feeds into the political bias of the audience.

To understand this, let's consider the three propagandas cited in the question, and consider how it helps the Russian, and why western politicians had to refute it publicly and vociferously.

  1. Ukraine was making nuclear weapons in Chernobyl

    (Note that the actual propaganda was that Ukraine is attempting to make a "dirty nuclear bomb" - a dirty bomb is a bomb made with highly radioactive nuclear waste that causes radioactive pollution when detonated - and that they plan to explode this in Ukraine or Europe, and blame Russia.)

    Goal: To create anxiety among western politicians and the citizens, and cast doubt on Ukranians.

    The political bias (that this seeks to reinforce is): (1) "NATO backed Ukranians are evil / untrustworthy". (2) Russians are victims of a western + Ukranian conspiracy.

    The underlying truth (on which this propaganda is based): Ukraine has a lot of nuclear reactors (and thus access to radioactive elements) and Ukranian military has experience in managing Russian nuclear weapons, and thus has the know how to make a "dirty nuclear bomb".

  2. Ukraine had biolabs working on new biological weapons

    (Similar reasons as 1).

  3. Ukraine's government is "fascist" and "full of nazis"

    Goal: Create support for the Russian military and its action. Cast doubt on NATO and Ukraine.

    The political bias: NATO will always support and use anyone who is against Russia.

    The underlying truth: Ukraine as a society is politically divided which is evident in the fight between the supporters of the western-backed right-wing Ukranian politicians and the Russian-backed left-wing Ukranian politicians. The Right-wing elements of the western-backed Ukranian politicians did start targetting Russian cultural identity in Ukraine and attacking the other side in an attempt to create a monoculture in Ukraine.

Now, if you believe that everyone in the west has the political belief that "Russians are evil and their words cannot be trusted", a western politician can confidently dismiss these propaganda as "typical Russian lies". But that isn't the reality - in both the United States and in Europe there are a many who do not accept that Russia is evil or that Ukraine is without blame. Or those who remain sceptical because of the underlying truth based on which the propaganda is based.

(While I have mentioned only US and Europe, note that this is more true among the non-western countries, and that is why Ukraine hasn't received much international support from them).

In such a political scenario, a western politician has no choice but to address and attack these claims publicly, to ensure that the propaganda doesn't find support among its own citizens, and in the international community. Moreover, note that the underlying fact in a propaganda gives some credence to a propaganda and so it needs to be countered with complete / more facts.

(I have chosen to treat all these claims in the question as a propaganda, just as the questioner did, to make it easier to answer the question. But note that another form of propaganda is to often call something politically true as a propaganda too. For example, I personally do not believe that the 3rd political claim is without merits - while the claims of the Russians that the current Ukranian government is full of Nazis is obviously exaggerated, actions of the Ukranian politicians to use identity politics to divide the Ukranians show a strong under-current of right-wing politics with a propensity for violence against the "others".)

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  • 1. The goal, and that is really scary, is likely to preface the usage of Russian nukes, in the sense of blaming high levels of radioactivity either due to military attacks on reactors or use of warheads on Ukraine to avoid that being the cause of WWIII as using radioactivity is yet another escalation and one that is delocalized and if a NATO member is effected by it could escalate things much further. Though Ukraine would have no reason to poison their own soil and being the battle ground of WWIII isn't a tempting provision either.
    – haxor789
    Jun 12, 2023 at 11:37
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    3. Yeah it's an attempt to justify the Russian aggression and the war, similar to faking elections and presenting themselves as protectors of certain regions, rather than fighting an imperialist war of aggression against one's neighbors. The shed of truth is that there were apparently Ukrainian Nazi battalions though they largely formed AFTER the initial Russian aggression (-2014) and they pale in comparison to fascists within the Russian army. Also why would Russia be left wing and the Europe be right wing? Like what about the plutocratic Russia is left wing?
    – haxor789
    Jun 12, 2023 at 11:42
  • @haxor789 why would Russia be left wing and the Europe be right wing? Not Europe, US and UK are the major players in Ukraine's internal politics. But to be clear the right- and left- I was referring to was meant for the Ukranians. (I should have written "western backed right-wing Ukranian politicians" and I will update the post accordingly).
    – sfxedit
    Jun 13, 2023 at 3:18
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    @haxor789 The main problem with Ukraine is that their polity is not united. If you consider today's Ukranian politicians, all of them selfishly sought foreign backing to preserve their own power. One Ukranian President looks to Moscow, another looked to London, and the current ones looks to Washington. And then to consolidate their power, they also attack the other Ukranians. This is what lead to the near civil war like situation in Ukraine which allowed both the west and Russia to exploit the situation to their own advantage.
    – sfxedit
    Jun 13, 2023 at 3:29

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