Using Psychology to Tell Russians the Truth About Ukraine

MAny of us has struggled to find a solution to the problem in Ukraine. Fabian Falch (a Norwegian technology entrepreneur) found his solution. With a small group of volunteers, Fabian built a system to elude spam filters and dispatch millions of emails to Russia— urging the Russian people to disregard the government propaganda and providing links to accurate information about the war in Ukraine. Fabian was able to figure out how to help; I have also worked with him.

As an immigrant with Russian and Ukrainian roots, I liken Russia’s argument that it can invade Ukraine because the two countries used to be one to an abusive husband violating a restraining order because “we are a family.” But as a behavioral scientist studying conflict communication, I worried that reaching Russian inboxes was not enough. It was also important to me that I knew the Russians would open those emails and respond to my message, not just dismiss it. Fabian reached out to me in order for him to explain his operations and address my concerns. Together, we began to work together in order to change the message so that they could persuade skeptical Russians.

Fabian’s email scheme is both clever and simple: a volunteer clicks on a link and an outgoing email from their own account gets populated with 100 Russian email addresses and a message in Russian and English. Because they are real emails, the messages get through spam filters and come in small quantities. These messages include instructions to download software which bypasses government blocking on social media sites and news websites. Fabian believes that about 50 million messages were sent by his army, which consists of 500,000 volunteers.

Russians are aware of decades of West-centric brainwashing and have been subject to the suffering of Russians in Eastern Ukraine for many years. Like many Americans, many Russians don’t care about politics or international relations, and they don’t question the news they watch. Their country is important to them and they won’t be offended if their troops are charged with killing innocents because of an innocuous email that was sent uninvited.

This is where behavioral scientist can come in. Psychologists, marketers, negotiation, and communications experts study the ways in which they can influence people who have strong motivations to hold on to their beliefs. Our messages can be clearer and more convincing, while remaining less intimidating. People who are trying to break through the wall of Russian propaganda—from concerned activists to the U.S. government—would be wise to tap into this wealth of research-driven expertise.

In my lab at Harvard Kennedy School, we study “conversational receptiveness”—the use of specific words and phrases to convey one’s engagement with opposing perspectives. Conversational receptiveness is based on specific language cues that are identified using algorithms to analyze human natural language. This ensures that the other person feels valued and understood. For example, receptive language features acknowledgement phrases such as “I understand that…” and “You are saying that…” to show that you really paid attention to your counterpart’s perspective. It also uses “hedges” (sometimes, possibly, often) to make the message come across as less dogmatic.

In related research, we find that simply and directly stating that you are interested in your counterpart’s point of view improves how that person sees you and your argument. This technique worked even in a study where Israelis read messages from Palestinian counterparts—messages they received during the Gaza war in the spring of 2021.

Our instinct is to use the strongest and most eye-grabbing argument we can when faced with dangerous, false beliefs. “The Russians are bombing maternity hospitals!” “Putin must be stopped!” “Save the people of Mariupol!” are flooding the internet. These arguments will more likely inflame opposition than encourage dialogue. What can I do to stop Putin? Concrete actions, like accessing independent information, are key for motivating people to take action.

Fabian expressed an openness to the idea of using research-based insight to modify the messages within the emails. We are working with students and scholars to rewrite the messages and create new batches. Our focus is on clarity and brevity. We also emphasize signaling receptiveness and finding common ground. Recast emails take half the time as original batches. These subject lines are intended to spark a conversation. Emails only make a few clear points. They focus on the human and economic cost of war. The email does not blame the Russian people. These messages also explain in a few words how to access websites and browsers that evade government censorship and internet blocks and provide reliable information on what’s really happening in the war.

This allowed us to combine our diverse skills and reach Russians using messages that will hopefully open up their minds to learning the truth about the conflict in Syria. This is a path to peace that we hope other people will follow.

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