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Tactics and tools How Russian propaganda uses opposite versions to achieve its goals

Russian propaganda uses the tactics of opposite versions - it presents mutually exclusive explanations for a certain event or phenomenon. The use of this tactic causes cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is an internal conflict that arises as a result of a collision in the human mind of incompatible judgments, ideas, beliefs that negate each other. Russian propaganda deliberately spreads versions that deny each other in order to make people feel confused, insecure and impose the impression that “not everything is so simple”, but “we will never know the whole truth”. A person in whose mind a cognitive dissonance has arisen is unlikely to try to find a true version of reality. This is what Russian propaganda is counting on.

After the Russian military blew up the Kakhovka HPP on June 6, 2023, propagandists promoted conflicting messages: that the dam collapsed on its own due to improper maintenance; the dam crumbled as a result of shelling by the Ukrainian military; only the upper part of the Kakhovka hydroelectric power station was destroyed, and the dam was not damaged: the “Kyiv regime” committed “undermining the structures of the Kakhovka hydroelectric power station”.

Messages with mutually exclusive versions appeared about the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine Valerii Zaluzhnyi. In May and June 2023, Russian propaganda wrote that Zaluzhnyi allegedly “died”; he was allegedly removed from the public space because he “did not deserve Zelenskyi's trust”; he was seriously injured and underwent surgery; he actually went abroad.

Russian propaganda spread similar versions about the head of the Main Intelligence Directorate, Kyryl Budanov: he allegedly “died” from a missile strike; is in a Berlin hospital after a Russian missile “hit” the office next to his; after a Russian missile attack, he is in a coma, although this is “hidden”.

Russian propaganda provides information in a way that confuses the person and creates contradictions that will create anxiety, guilt, and pressure that they want to get rid of. Since propagandists spread many versions of the same event, it is difficult for a person to determine which one is true.

When previous representations do not agree with new information, it causes discomfort. There are several ways to overcome discomfort and get rid of cognitive dissonance: change one’s own beliefs and correct behavior; justify one's own beliefs by discounting the phenomenon that causes cognitive dissonance, or by avoiding information that may cause it.

Russians try to get rid of cognitive dissonance through the slightest resistance - not to change their minds, but to justify their beliefs so that they seem logical. To do this, they search the Russian media and social networks among friends with similar views for information, for example, that Nazism reigns in Ukraine. Using cognitive dissonance, propagandists try to arouse doubts and paranoia in people, so that they can later use this state of confusion to their advantage - to encourage them to be inactive or, on the contrary, to take specific actions that are beneficial to Russian propaganda, for example, to mobilize into the Russian army and commit genocide against the Ukrainian people.

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