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Megan Hyska is an assistant professor of philosophy at Northwestern University who researches propaganda and other political language. This column first appeared in the Los Angeles Times.
When Russian President Vladimir Putin says he’s denazifying Ukraine, he no doubt expects some people, in Russia and abroad, to believe him. Many in the West and on the international stage have expressed bewilderment at these claims. But this does not mean his propaganda strategy is failing. He is engaging in “hard propaganda,” which is meant to convey the speaker’s power — not persuade.
In contrast, propaganda scholars call efforts to genuinely persuade “soft propaganda.” Yet propaganda strategies can be crafted to function on both levels at once — to persuade those who are persuadable while simultaneously intimidating those who aren’t.
Here then is one way to understand the Kremlin’s present propaganda goals: a subset of the Russian public will be susceptible to persuasion that uses the denazification rationale, while an international audience, and probably many others in Russia, can be influenced only by a raw display of strength.
Popular discussions of propaganda often emphasize propagandists’ deceptions and incitements to irrationality. It’s true that propaganda sometimes works this way. But hard propaganda doesn’t function by exploiting an audience’s irrationality. It offers its audience direct evidence of the speaker’s power, in the anticipation that they will update their beliefs accordingly. And this in fact relies on the audience being rational.
Hard propaganda can provide direct evidence of the speaker’s power in various ways. One way is by making it very hard for the audience to avoid hearing the speaker’s message, for instance, by making sure state programming plays on every television channel at a certain hour of the day. Outside of overtly authoritarian states, electoral campaigns do something like this when they ostentatiously spend money on low-information advertising to signal that they have the financial support to do so. U.S. companies also routinely engage in this sort of power signaling when they subject workers to captive-audience meetings in an attempt to bust union efforts.
Through such approaches, the audience learns from the sheer inescapability of the message that the signaler has power — first, the power to get their message across, but who knows what else?
Another way that speaking can demonstrate power is when something ridiculous or unbelievable is said, but it still appears to receive widespread acceptance. The message to would-be dissidents is that any criticism of the regime, even if it is seemingly reasonable, will isolate or endanger them.
It also sends a message to those outside the regime: We govern a population that will docilely accept and indeed, act on, even pretexts as absurd as those we have put out there. Propaganda of this kind recruits citizens who do believe what is being said, or who keep their heads down and act as though they do, providing evidence of a regime’s formidable power.
In cases of hard propaganda, the spectacle of alignment between state rhetoric and popular conduct is the propaganda tool. And it is a tool that can be wielded against both an internal and an international audience.
The use of this kind of hard propaganda is a clear signal that a country is going to impose its will by force, domestically and internationally.
Russia is also giving us a case study in how hard propaganda can be undermined. Ukraine has resisted Russia’s invasion far more forcefully than had been anticipated. Of equal importance, more than 13,000 Russians have now been arrested for protesting the invasion of Ukraine. This sort of internal resistance is the single greatest threat to a hard propaganda strategy.
While propaganda that functions via deception can be countered by uncovering the truth, hard propaganda can be neutralized only by those with the power to make the regime’s claims to power untrue.