This event was co-sponsored and hosted by the Kennan Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
Public opinion survey data from countries under authoritarian regimes are often treated as reliable, but how do they compare to survey data from democracies? How can social scientists detect the effects of propaganda and other forces on respondents in authoritarian countries?
On April 20, Kirill Rogov discussed the challenges of working with poll data in Russia. Some of his key points are summarized below:
- The average voter in Russia is not deeply informed on individual issues and his/her views are highly flexible. For that reason, elite discourse has a major effect on public opinion in Russia — public opinion on a specific topic will quickly shift depending on the tone adopted by the country’s leadership.
- The conflict in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea in 2014 had a strong impact on the opinion climate in Russia. First, the post-annexation euphoria in the country led Russians to evaluate all other issues, such as the economy, in a more positive light (a phenomenon Rogov called the “Crimea syndrome”). Second, fear of being persecuted or harassed for expressing a negative opinion of the government increased among Russian voters. As a result, Russians who disapprove of President Vladimir Putin are now less likely to take part in opinion polls, while those who support Putin are more likely to respond, leading to an over-representation of the positive opinion in the data. Finally, Russians became significantly more interested in the news following the annexation of Crimea, with overall news engagement jumping by 30%. This, according to Rogov, led to Russian viewers become increasingly indoctrinated by the official state line across all issues discussed in the news.
- News of corruption, economic decline, and other negative developments has not lead to a decrease of support for Vladimir Putin. Even most Russian respondents who are “not satisfied” with the situation in the country tend to express support for the president, because they don’t see him as being at fault (another consequence of propaganda). The only way the cycle would break, Rogov said, would be if Russians discovered that their media was lying about a particular subject. As a result, they would start to suspect that the media is lying about other subjects as well, and the propaganda machine would collapse.
Rogov noted that falsification of public opinion data is not the problem — the main challenge is to understand the context in which the polling is taking place. In today’s Russia, where Putin holds a supermajority of public support, dissenting Russians feel hesitant to express their disapproval because they don’t want to stray from the majority view. In this way, Putin’s high approval rating is self-perpetuating — but also fragile if his public image suddenly loses credibility.
About the Speaker:
Kirill Rogov is a senior research fellow at the Gaidar Institute for Economic Policy, a member of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, and a member of the supervisory board of the Liberal Mission Foundation (Moscow). He was previously a columnist for the leading business daily Vedomosti, and later deputy editor-in-chief at Kommersant daily.