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Putin Is All Over the News: the Dictator’s Election Campaign Narratives. Russian Media Monitoring Report, 11-17 December 2023

Putin's “Direct Line” forum played a key role in the dictator’s election campaign. Last week, Russian media produced a flurry of news reports on its results. The propagandists once again reminded their readers who is to blame for the war against Ukraine, predicted the egg prices to go down and addressed the timeless question “which is the ultimate New Year’s dish: Olivier salad or dressed herring?”.

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Follow the trending topics of Russian disinformation on our interactive dashboard “Disinformation about the War in Ukraine”

Russia also launched an informational anti-migrant campaign to help Putin get re-elected for a new term.

This monitoring report covers these and other topics of the disinformation spread by Russian state media and online parajournalists to manipulate public opinion.

Attention! The Tsar Speaks!

On December 14, Vladimir Putin held a press conference and the “Direct Line” forum where he answered the questions supposedly sent in by ordinary Russians. The Russian media space exploded with new reports on that grand theatrical act: The live broadcast “Summing up the year with Vladimir Putin” lasted more than four hours. The head of state was asked questions regarding the support for those who had been taking part in the SMO, the economy, healthcare, and many others.”

Putin's responses were widely quoted. This year’s address was even more important than ever since it is considered to be an important element of his election campaign. The presidential elections in Russia are scheduled for March 2024. The official propaganda uses the “Direct Line” as an opportunity to further convince the ordinary Russians that Putin is their obvious choice.

Putin began by saying that Russia cannot exist without sovereignty— at least in the form in which it had existed for a thousand years.

Here are just a few topics that later receive massive media attention: at one point, Putin mentioned the need to discontinue bank commissions for pensioners paying for housing and communal services and index pensions. Later on, he remarked that there were no private military companies in Russia, but obtaining the status of a veteran was indeed a problem caused by “inadequate performance of the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation”. After that, he opined about the festive dishes served on New Year’s eve: “Putin was asked to choose between two popular New Year's salads: Olivier salad and dressed herring. However, the president responded that it all depends on what you drink with it”.

The dictator then once again stressed that “Russia had no other choice but to invade Ukraine because of the threat from the United States and Europe”. He then spoke about Western aid to Kyiv: “Ukraine’s economy has stopped producing: Ukrainians are getting everything for free, but this free ride is not going to last forever”. He even managed to blame Ukrainians for the high level of measles incidence among Russians: “Ukraine is notorious for poor immunization. Now that millions of people have moved to our country from Ukraine, it has turned into a problem”.

However, it was not Putin alone who spread fakes.

Once Putin's “Direct Line” had finished, a number of Russian media reported that “the vast majority of Ukrainian Internet users watched the live broadcast with Putin”. In particular, the disinformers referred to a survey conducted by the Gallup Institute: “The Gallup Research Institute published a viewership report for 14 December. It turned out that about 75% of Ukrainians who have Internet access had watched the “Direct Line” with Putin using various VPN services. The viewing reach was 50% — an all-time high for Ukraine”.

This information turned out to be completely fake. The fact-checking investigation revealed no study on watching Putin's press conference in Ukraine had ever been published either on the Gallup Research Institute website on the organization's pages on social media. The last mention of the President of the Russian Federation on the organization's website was dated late November 2023.

Chicken Eggs and Political Ratings

Russian propagandists often talk about Russia’s economic achievements: “Russia’s economy is expected to have grown 3.5% by the year end: we have recovered after a dip and taken a major step forward. According to the president, real wages in the Russian Federation will have increased by about 8% while real incomes of the population — by about 5% by the end of the year”.

However, they are unable to completely ignore the elephant in the room.

Hence the reports on chicken egg prices growing 40% and their stocks running low.

The competition was so tense that some shoppers had to fight over the precious dozen. It was reported that “Belgorod authorities limited the sale of chicken eggs to one person at fairs due to shopping frenzy, queues and fights. Therefore, each customer was allowed to buy not more than two dozen”.

The events called for Putin's response at the summary press conference. He made accusations and promised an investigation: “The situation will improve. I apologize for the inconvenience caused by this mismanagement”. The response from Russia’s top officials was just as quick: “Patrushev responded by admitting that he “didn’t fully cope with the task,” but he was hopeful that “the president will give us one more chance to correct the prices”.

Putin tried to justify the situation with the prices by making claims about the increase in the Russians’ well-being: “Do you realize that actually happened? The demand grew. I am a big fan of fried eggs myself. The people want to buy more, but the production has stayed the same. Too bad this growth in demand was noticed too late to balance it with imports”.

The propagandists find it difficult to explain the causes of the problem since Russia is known to have a strong agriculture industry. Moreover, there have been many reports on successful import substitution since 2014.

Now they have to soothe their readers by promising that eggs from the friendly Turkey and Azerbaijan will compensate for the deficiency: “Eggs from Azerbaijan are due to arrive this week. I think it will take no more than two or three weeks for the eggs from Turkey to arrive, and zero import duties will allow us to adjust the prices”.

Russian media also reported on chocolate prices going up: “Chocolate manufacturers have warned about the plans to increase the prices of their products 15-20% next year”.

Certain media reported on the problem of rising prices of utility services.

However, the news which described the problems and frightening scenarios in vivid detail were mostly limited to regional websites. Until the 2024 elections, the propaganda is likely to avoid negativity shifting the readers’ attention onto the success in countering the sanctions, Russia’s economic growth and social benefits: “The real wages in Russia are expected to increase by 8% after inflation”, “Unemployment is currently at only 2.9%. Such a low has never been recorded in the entire history of Russia” stressed Putin”.

Illegal Immigrants Are No Longer Welcome

Russia has launched an information campaign against illegal migrants. On 20 December, the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church Kirill, who is one of its main promoters, said: “The actions of migrants in Russia are increasingly threatening interreligious and interethnic peace in the country. At the current rate of the inflow of foreigners who do not want to integrate into Russian society and respect its traditions, Russia may cease to exist as a multinational state as we know it”

However, we have been observing attacks against migrants in the media for several weeks: “A whole family of migrants who had lived in Novosibirsk was also deported from Russia in November this year. The reason was the extremely aggressive behavior of the children who had been raised in a different culture”, “On 3 December, a criminal case into desecration of the bodies of the dead and their burial places was opened after the photos of teenagers smothering the Eternal Flame with snow had emerged... The mother of the young hooligans has been fined for two violations of the immigration laws and will leave Russia along with her ill-mannered offspring”.

The anti-immigration campaign could be an element of Putin's election campaign which relies on slogans about the need to protect the traditional Russian family with the mythical Russian values from the deleterious influence of the outside world. Migrants who do not want to be part of the “Russian world” are being turned into scapegoats. For that matter, anti-migrant slogans are known to rally the electorate of candidates who promise to restrict external migration.

Also in the News

The propagandists also spread news about plans to mobilize women into the Armed Forces of Ukraine. “Ukrainian MPs are working on a bill to provide the legal framework for equal possibilities of drafting women and men. As a result, everyone should expect a summons — even women. This news is a symbol of Russia's victory over the Armed Forces of Ukraine which are said to be unable to continue offering at least a semblance of resistance without drafting women and minors.

Many Russian media also published Putin's threats to Finland: “The Russian Federation believes that the country’s entry into NATO is not based on objective reasons and will undermine the dialog. Therefore, Russia will be forced to bolster the defenses on the Russian-Finnish border to ensure its own security”.

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The Methodology

To monitor the information published on disinformation websites, we analyzed approximately 410,000 news reports collected from ~ 1000 Russian and occupation websites. The data for the analysis was provided by SemanticForce.

Each paragraph was processed using an algorithm which defines its topic automatically. The resulting topics (i.e. groups with similar content) were short-listed by the topics relating to the war or its consequences for Russia. The number of mentions of a certain topic was then counted for each publication. Our conclusions are based on the respective findings and the quotes from paragraphs referring to each topic.

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