Anthropologist Aleksandra Arkhipova studies contemporary Russian folklore, such as the fears and rumors associated with the war in Ukraine, as well as the media language used by the state propaganda in Russia to manipulate citizens. With the permission of Teplitsa, an independent media outlet about activism, we publish a shortened transcript of her presentation at the “Internet without Borders” conference.
We very often talk about the fact that terrible propaganda is working in Russia now, and this propaganda affects people through language. I look into how this language of propaganda works.
Is it generally true that you can change the perception of what is happening with the help of words?
Starting in 2017–2018, instead of the word “explosion” in the Russian [state] media, the word “clap” began to be used. Many people ask me: “So what if they use a certain word, does it really affect anything?” The answer to this question has long been given by cognitive linguists and cognitive psychologists.
For example, in 2005, a group of researchers studied how doctors tell patients about an unpleasant diagnosis, which we call “heart failure” in English. This is obviously a word with a bad connotation: some kind of breakdown. Therefore, doctors usually try to replace an unpleasant word with euphemisms.
When the patients received a diagnosis with the words “heart failure,” they said that they would take themselves much more seriously: follow a diet, drink medicines, agree to a surgery. However, when they instead received a more pleasant euphemism, such as “There's fluid in your lungs because your heart isn't pumping well,” they cared much less seriously about their health.
It was once again proven that it is really possible to manipulate the perception of the human world through language.
About euphemisms in Russian propaganda language
What does Russian propaganda do? It changes the words in a special way. It replaces not meanings, but connotations. That is, it replaces the associations of words so that we perceive the world as better and safer — as a world in which there is no war!
Let's go back to how the Russian state media began to use the expression “clap” instead of “explosion.” Why did they do it? Because the word “explosion” has a very dangerous connotation: terrorism, death, catastrophe, war. And the word “clap?” Well, some kind of sound, maybe even a holiday, but not an event associated with death. Therefore, the word “clap” gradually began to replace “explosion.”
It is a strategy for state-affiliated media to underestimate reports about any kind of damage so as not to “scare” the audience.
After the invasion of Ukraine started, already from March 4, 2022, in Russia it was forbidden to mention the word “war.” Instead, the term “special military operation” was imposed. Military censorship was introduced. There are at the moment 400 court decisions in cases of “discrediting the Russian army.” People allegedly discredited the Russian army by calling the war a war.
Instructions are being sent from the presidential administration to the media, in which they explain to journalists in detail how to manipulate connotations — “special operations” and other words.
About presidential administration instructions
I have a wonderful informant; in the first months of the war, he worked for a major Russian federal publication. And this person leaked to me the instructions that came from the presidential administration.
On February 28, four days after the start of the war, his media outlet received a written instruction:
Don’t use the word “war,” you can use instead the words “liberation,” “liberation mission,” “special operation.” You don’t sow panic. Let me remind you once again that in your articles it is impossible to write the word “war,” “military operation,” “capture by the Russian military;” now it's just “special operation.”
This happened four days before the introduction of military censorship, but the media had already been under pressure.
The reframing of the language began. Reframing is about working with associations.
You have to take information about those who died during the special operation only from official data. When covering the special operation, please do not write “taken under control” in relation to settlements; replace it with the word “liberated.”
That is, first “captured,” then “taken under control,” and then “liberated.” Because the words “captured” and “liberated” have different connotations. The word “liberated” has clearly positive associations.
Or, for example, “retreat” is a “gesture of goodwill;” “counteroffensive of the Armed Forces of Ukraine” [becomes] “desperate attacks.”
Thus, three strategies emerge: avoid dangerous topics altogether; as a replacement, choose words that are not related to the death of people and war; demonize the enemy.
The importance of reframing also applies to how the war is presented. What are we fighting for? From the point of view of Russian propaganda, for the sake of denazification, the search for nationalists, the liberation of the Russian-speaking population, and so on.
Another example: “line of contact.” This is, of course, a replacement for the word “front.” It has been used since February 2022, quite actively. It's like we don't have a war front, we have a “line of contact.” In September, the military draft took place. When citizens were drafted, they were told that they would “help defend the line of contact.” They were not told, “You will be sent to the front,” no. “You will go to defend the line of contact.”
About resistance and creating the counter-message
How do people resist this new language? One way is to hack the system itself. When the war started, censorship was introduced and the word “war” was banned, a wonderful theme “Say war out loud” appeared in graffiti. This is a very important thing because now there are many people inside Russia who resist the language of propaganda in every possible way.
Many people outside of Russia write to me that this is garbage, resistance like this doesn't help. I don't agree with them. The punishment for this language resistance ranges from a fine to seven years in prison. These are serious actions aimed at breaking the comfort zone, for a person to leave the house for bread and, having walked 300 meters, read about the war and understand that he lives in a situation of war, and not try to avoid this topic.
The main task that people who are called semiotic partisans [partisans who operate with signs] set themselves is to break through the informational propaganda blockade. The best way is to create what I call a “counter-message.”
Here is a simple example: the sign “Danger zone, move away from the building when icicles fall.” Someone added the word “Russia,” and it turned out as “Dangerous zone, Russia.” This is a simple counter-message.
But the counter-message is more complicated: first, the well-known symbol of support for the war, the letter Z, was written on the fence, and at night the semiotic partisan added two letters P and C and thus created a counter-message, a very obscene rude word: “pizdets,” or “fuck.”
Semiotic guerrillas infiltrate already existing acts of propaganda and destroy them from within. Journalist Maria Antyusheva, who came to the briefing of the Ministry of Internal Affairs in Krasnoyarsk, took off her coat and revealed yellow and blue clothes, the colors of the Ukrainian flag. She was detained, but nevertheless, she created a visual, bright counter-message.
At least so far, the main effort of propaganda language is to give the impression that there is still no war. There are some local events, but there is no war, there is no front, and the draft is partial. Before the military draft, most of the people I interviewed believed that nothing terrible was happening and everything would end very soon.
And the number of those people who believe that nothing was happening and, most importantly, that this is some kind of fleeting trouble that will end, correlates with those people who follow the Russian state-affiliated media news.
Apparently, the situation will soon change.