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Tactics and tools How Russian propaganda uses “expanding the range of acceptable” tactics

The tactic of “expanding the range of acceptable” is used in cases where the propaganda message is unacceptable to the target audience. It is used when most persuasion techniques can backfire: the audience will perceive the message even worse.

There are two ways to expand the boundaries of perception. First, it is possible to take a more extreme position, which will force the audience to accept, without resistance, more moderate positions, which they would not approve of if the propagandists “upped the stakes”. Second, put forward more modest demands, and then gradually bring the audience to the acceptance of the desired position.

This tactic is based on the sociological concept of the Overton Window. According to Overton's model, at each moment in time, certain ideas constitute the current norm in society, forming a reference point. The rest of the ideas may or may not be within the acceptable range. The boundaries of the window of neutral political discourse are ideas that fall into the category of acceptable. Acceptable statements can be considered politically safe to be voiced in public or by politicians who care about their image and continue their political career. Supporting ideas outside the window, Overton himself considered it risky and potentially harmful to a political career.

The tactic of expanding the range of acceptable was used by propaganda in Nazi Germany. After Hitler came to power in a relatively democratic way, they, along with Goebbels, increased hatred and xenophobia in the politically divided German society of the Weimar Republic. The Nazis did this to maintain their power and consolidate supporters against the “common enemy”. And the enemy changed at different stages of the consolidation of power by the Nazis. At first, their own National Socialists fell under repression. The destruction of the leadership of the SA assault squads became known as the “Night of the Long Knives”. Then the political opponents of the Nazis became victims of repression: communists, socialists and social democrats. Then the turn came to various social and national groups in Germany: representatives of the LGBT community, freemasons, Jews, Roma, Aphronim, people with disabilities and mental disorders, Jehovah's Witnesses, etc. As a result, German society accepted the beginning of the Second World War, the “death factories” and the extermination of millions of people without significant resistance. It took several decades to prepare to take the brutality for granted.

The Russians also use the tactics of “expanding the range of acceptable” and approving military aggression against other states. Various odious statements that Putin cannot broadcast directly in order to maintain respectability as head of state are broadcast by other Russian politicians, such as the late Volodymyr Zhyrynovskyi, as well as former head of Roscosmos Dmytro Rohozin and Deputy Chairman of the Russian Security Council Dmytro  Medvediev. Not far behind them are the so-called ideologists such as Oleksandr Duhin and Timofii Serheitsev, who have repeatedly called for the destruction and partition of Ukraine and the murder of Ukrainians. Thus, all of them are gradually morally preparing Russian society and the international community for the worst scenarios.

Ukraine also uses the tactics of “expanding the range of acceptable” when lobbying for an increase in military assistance from allies. Our diplomats gradually got the allies to agree to supply Ukraine with modern artillery and air defense systems, tanks and cluster munitions while in the first months after Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Western societies and politicians were not ready to provide Ukraine with any of this.

In Ukraine, this tactic is also used on controversial internal political issues. Through constant communication, medical and electoral reforms, the opening of the land market, the legalization of medical cannabis and the legalization of civil partnerships for LGBT couples became possible in Ukraine. Advocacy and further implementation of these reforms was carried out gradually due to significant resistance within Ukraine, but changes were no longer perceived as impossible.

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