Is Russia outgunning Ukraine in the ‘information war’?

For both Moscow and Kyiv, TV is the key to winning the hearts and minds of Ukrainians. But who is winning the ‘information war’?

Joanna Szostek
11 March 2014

In recent days Russia has been accused of ‘information genocide’ over the torrent of disinformation that is currently pouring from its main federal TV channels. State broadcasters Channel 1, Rossiya 1 and Rossiya 24 are transmitting diatribe after diatribe against the ‘bandits’, ‘fascists’ and ‘neo-Nazis’ who have ‘illegally seized power’ in Kiev. Each (specially lengthened) news bulletin highlights the ‘chaos’ and ‘lawlessness’ that now reigns in Ukraine, and the ‘suffering’ of Russian-speakers who are crying out for protection from Moscow, not to mention reunification with their ‘historic motherland.’ A full-scale propaganda assault is under way. In Kyiv and Western capitals, there are fears that Russia is seizing control of public opinion as easily as it seized control of key facilities in Crimea.

Ukraine, however, is not Russia. Russian broadcasters in Ukraine have to compete against numerous Ukrainian rivals.

But how justified are such concerns, and how powerful is Russian television as a tool for influencing public opinion? Winning hearts and minds is a tricky business; credulity is not the only possible response to a strong propaganda message. Within Russia itself, management of public opinion via the media is effective because much of the population never hears anything other than the state’s interpretation of events. Ukraine, however, is not Russia. Russian broadcasters in Ukraine have to compete against numerous Ukrainian rivals, and viewing figures suggest that they are not particularly successful in doing so. Access to Russian news is widespread in Ukraine, but this does not automatically make it widely popular or persuasive. Far from being taken in, it seems that many Ukrainians are responding to the Russian information campaign with anger and indignation. Only a minority are receptive to the distorted reality shown on Russian TV, but therein lies the real threat: a minority believe, the rest are antagonised, and the result is deep polarisation in Ukrainian society.

The news on Channel 1, Rossiya 1 and Rossiya 24 is aimed, first and foremost, at viewers in Russia, where the power of these channels is indeed considerable. Television continues to be the primary news source for almost 90 per cent of the Russian population. Around 65% of Russians believe the main federal channels to be ‘completely’ or ‘for the most part’ objective. Their news programmes have enjoyed soaring viewing figures during the crisis in Ukraine – some 13 million Russian viewers tuned in for one 'Vesti' bulletin on 21 February. It is therefore unsurprising to see that Russian public opinion on the Ukrainian revolution is broadly in line with official rhetoric. Certain Russian internet publications and press outlets diverge from the official narrative, but their reach is far more limited than that of television, so the Kremlin’s drive to legitimise its actions in the eyes of Russian citizens has been largely successful.

In Ukraine, the picture is quite different. For many years, Russian TV channels have only been available to Ukrainian viewers via cable or satellite. Roughly half of all Ukrainian households (particularly those in rural areas) are still reliant on a terrestrial signal, so roughly half of all Ukrainians cannot watch Russian TV at all. Households that do have satellite or cable, of course have access to a wide choice of channels. Ratings indicate that Ukrainians prefer their own national broadcasters to Russian ones. In February, Russia’s Channel 1 was only the 18th most popular channel in Ukraine; Rossiya 1 (in its international form, RTR-Planeta) was even further back in twentieth place.

Only 12% of Ukrainians named Channel 1 one of their three most important news sources (no other Russian channel scored higher).

Russian news bulletins have a minority following in Ukraine. A 2011 survey conducted by the Broadcasting Board of Governors found that only 12% of Ukrainians named Channel 1 one of their three most important news sources  (and no other Russian channel scored higher). This relatively low figure should not surprise anyone. Before the current crisis, Russian TV news bulletins devoted very little attention to events in Ukraine, rendering them of limited interest and relevance to Ukrainian viewers. Moreover, Channel 1's flagship evening bulletin, 'Vremya' goes out at 8:00pm in Ukraine, so it clashes with the 'Podrobnosti' news bulletin on Inter. Inter is Ukraine’s most popular and well-resourced channel. Its 8:00pm 'Podrobnosti' bulletin has always been in the Russian language, and also mindful of viewer preferences in Ukraine’s East and South; as such, it is more than capable of competing with 'Vremya' for the ‘pro-Russian’ section of the audience.

Judging from viewing figures, Ukraine’s domestic TV channels thus have a far greater capacity to sway Ukrainian public opinion than any propaganda from Russia. Moreover, Ukraine’s biggest broadcasters have all been fighting back against Moscow’s onslaught of disinformation. 'Sobytiya' on TRK Ukraina exposed a false 'Vremya' report about refugees allegedly fleeing to Russia (it explained how the video used to illustrate that story had actually come from the Polish border). 'TSN' on the channel '1+1' did the same. All the national Ukrainian channels have taken a patriotic, critical line towards Russia’s actions in Crimea; they have placed a small Ukrainian flag in the corner of their screens together with the words ‘single country,’ in Ukrainian and Russian. The availability of what is generally perceived to be more ‘honest’ news on popular domestic channels undermines the power of Russian television in Ukraine. Kremlin propaganda is far less convincing in Ukraine’s pluralistic media environment than in Russia’s monopolistic one. Moscow’s current information policy, then, is without doubt alienating large numbers of Ukrainian citizens.

On TV screens in Crimea, it looks like the peninsula already belongs to Russia.

The persuasive power of Russian television in Ukraine is therefore limited – it has too few viewers and its messages are too often contradicted by other, more popular sources. What Russian TV does have, however, is a dangerous power to provoke and polarise; to widen the gulf between the minority receptive to Kremlin propaganda, and the majority who reject it. The number of Ukrainians who watch Russian news may be relatively small, but many of them live in Crimea, where Russian scare-stories about ‘fascists’ in Kyiv and their ‘persecution’ of Russian-speakers exacerbate tensions between the peninsular and the rest of the country. This problem is even greater now that the Crimean authorities have cut terrestrial transmission of Inter and 1+1, handing their former frequencies over to Russia’s NTV and Channel 1. The commercial Crimean channel Black Sea TV has also gone off air. In Crimea, Ukrainian pluralism has been abandoned in favour of Russian-style monopoly control – ideal conditions for the upcoming Russian-backed referendum. On TV screens in Crimea, it looks like the peninsula already belongs to Russia. 

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