According to Gradus Research, about 11 million people in Russia have relatives in Ukraine. According to the study, a lot of Russians believe the propaganda narratives of President Vladimir Putin over their relatives’ firsthand accounts.
Are Ukrainians talking about war with Russian relatives?
48% of respondents reported that they have at least one relative in Russia, which is a legacy of Soviet and post-Soviet migration processes. Of these 908 respondents, a majority — 59% — discussed the war with their relatives, mainly via WhatsApp, Telegram, and video and voice calls.
However, according to the survey, in the first two weeks of the war, communication mostly stopped. And by the time of the survey, about seven weeks after the Russian invasion, fewer than half (46%) of these communications about the war were ongoing.
While the news stories often focus on disputes between parents, children, or siblings, these interactions are actually relatively uncommon. The researchers found that 72% of respondents who discussed the war with relatives talked with aunts, uncles and cousins. Discussions with siblings (19%) and parents (6%) were far fewer reported.
Respondents with multiple relatives were asked to focus on the closest family member.
What do Ukrainians talk about with their relatives from Russia?
Approximately 74% of the 534 respondents who discussed the war with their closest relatives had talked about Russia’s deliberate bombing and shelling of Ukrainian cities, and 67% had discussed Russia’s killing of civilians. Topics such as Russian looting (41%), torture and rape (38%), and the use of weapons that violate international law such as cluster bombs were less discussed (27%).
Many of these conversations also brought up the topic of Russian false claims that justify the invasion. 52% of respondents had discussed the claim that Ukraine's leaders are "Nazis". And 36% had conversed that Russia was liberating separatist areas in Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts, while 30% discussed the allegation that Ukraine is commiting genocide against ethnic Russians. Claims that Ukraine is allegedly developing nuclear weapons received less attention (20%).
How influential is Russian war propaganda?
Respondents were asked to rate the extent to which their Russian relatives believed Russian war propaganda at the beginning of their discussions, on a scale of 1 to 10, with higher values representing stronger beliefs. The median rating was 8. Of course, these ratings are based on the respondents' recollections from the first days of the war. However, they clearly show that many Ukrainians are aware that their relatives are influenced by Russian propaganda.
As expected, respondents noted a greater influence of propaganda on older relatives and those who receive news from Russian state television, in contrast to the Internet or other sources. Respondents noted that relatives from Moscow and St. Petersburg were no less likely to trust propaganda than relatives from smaller Russian cities and rural areas.
Are Ukrainians capable of puncturing the Russian information bubble?
The evidence that Ukrainians’ communications encourage their Russian relatives to rethink the veracity of pro-Kremlin information is mixed. On the one hand, 54% of respondents claim that their conversations have had no effect on their relatives' beliefs in Russian propaganda. In fact, 8% of respondents claim that their Russian relatives have come to believe propaganda more strongly because of these discussions. On the other hand, 22% report that the conversations have made relatives less likely to believe Russian propaganda, while 16% said that relatives have become much less likely to believe it.
However, respondents who at the time of the survey were still in contact with Russian relatives are more optimistic. Only 37% of these 228 respondents report that their conversations had no effect, and only 4% claim that the conversations have strengthened the beliefs of their relatives. In this group, 59% report that their Russian relatives have come to believe less state propaganda.
Most respondents say they relied more on facts (59%) than logic (48%) or emotion (26%) to influence their relatives' beliefs about the war. However, evidence and logic are often ineffective against "alternative" facts espoused by someone placed in a distinct information bubble.
Consequently, the family ties of Ukrainian citizens may be an underestimated instrument in Ukraine’s information war. Research shows that these persuasion techniques make people receptive to new points of viewpoints precisely because they rely less on facts and logic and more on emotional connections and are related to gestures, tone, and facial expressions.