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Here's how propaganda is clouding Russians' understanding of the war in Ukraine

A resident cleans her balcony in an apartment building damaged by shelling in Kyiv on Tuesday.
Fadel Senna
AFP via Getty Images
A resident cleans her balcony in an apartment building damaged by shelling in Kyiv on Tuesday.

Russia has cracked down on free speech and placed strict propaganda controls on what citizens see and hear about the brutal war in Ukraine.

Earlier this month, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed into law a rule that criminalizes reporting that contradicts the Russian government's version of events. The law has forced many independent media outlets to leave the country, shut down — or face potential lengthy prison terms.

Julia Ioffe, reporter and founding partner of the media company Puck, joined Morning Edition to discuss how Russia is sanitizing the war to cloud its citizens' views. Listen here.

"[Russians] are being told that Russian soldiers are extremely decorous and careful about preserving Ukrainian civilian life, that they're being greeted as liberators, that everybody wants to live under Russian rule, and that there are no civilian casualties on the Ukrainian side," reports Ioffe.

State media doesn't use the words "war" or "invasion" and doesn't mention Russia's bombing of Kyiv.

The Kremlin has weaponized social media as well, hiring trolls to spread disinformation about the war and stir up fights online, says Ioffe.

Some Russians are turning to alternative sources for the truth and to break through propaganda. Some use VPNs — or virtual private networks — to mask their locations to access blocked sites such as Twitter, Facebook, and media organizations that report independently from the Kremlin, says Ioffe. Demand for VPNs shot up by more than 2,000% on Sunday, the day before the Putin regime shut off access to Instagram.

"But you have to understand that to go and do this, you already have to be looking. It's people who already don't believe what the Kremlin information sources are telling them," says Ioffe. "They know that this is a war against Ukrainian civilians."

All of this means the truth about the war is hard to find and mostly is discovered by people who already distrust the Kremlin and its state-sponsored media.

"People who are not looking for this information are generally people who don't care, or people who trust Kremlin sources of information. And if they trust those sources of information, then they believe, for the most part, what the Kremlin is telling them, and for the most part, they support this war," Ioffe says.

"But the war they're supporting is not the war that exists on the ground in Ukraine."

This story originally appeared on the Morning Edition live blog.

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Nell Clark
Nell Clark is an editor at Morning Edition and a writer for NPR's Live Blog. She pitches stories, edits interviews and reports breaking news. She started in radio at campus station WVFS at Florida State University, then covered climate change and the aftermath of Hurricane Michael for WFSU in Tallahassee, Fla. She joined NPR in 2019 as an intern at Weekend All Things Considered. She is proud to be a member of NPR's Peer-to-Peer Trauma Support Team, a network of staff trained to support colleagues dealing with trauma at work. Before NPR, she worked as a counselor at a sailing summer camp and as a researcher in a deep-sea genetics lab.