The “dirty bomb” and a typology of lies in Russian propaganda

Russia has invested huge money in mass media like Russia Today and Sputnik, “troll factories” and useful friends in the West. Despite all this, it has only been moderately successful in the information war. One reason could be that many of the lies are quite primitive. For example, before the invasion we heard that Russia was not going to invade Ukraine. We also heard that NATO was threatening Russia and that Ukraine was swarming with Nazis.

Since these and other statements have been clearly false, people have learnt to automatically conclude that the opposite is true. We could represent this cognitive strategy formally like this:

(1) SAY(Z,  X) → ¬X (which means “not X”)

where SAY is a predicate with two arguments. The first argument stands for who does the saying. In our case, that’s Russian official propaganda. I’ll use the infamous letter Z to represent it. The second argument, X, stands for what is said, that is, some claim made by the propagandists. The arrow sign → shows that the next statement follows from the first one (a so-called implication).

This type of lies is primitive, but common in human history. Think of the famour sentence Niemand hat die Absicht, eine Mauer zu errichten “Nobody is planning to build a wall”, which was said by the DDR leader Walter Ulbrich in 1961. Two months later after he said that, the DDR began to build the Berlin wall, which divided the city for almost 30 years.

Let us look at another very common type. Very frequently, Russia accuses Ukraine of some bad actions, at the same time performing them itself. For example, Russia has been claiming that Ukraine’s actions in the Donbass region were a genocide. At the same time, Russian’s “special military operation” has killed many more Russian-speaking civilians. Russia accuses Ukrainians of being brutal Nazis, while Russian propagandists call for burning and drowning of Ukrainian children and glorify Russians as the last “white race”.

This is how this type of lies could look formally:

(2) SAY(Z, DO(Ukraine, something bad)) → DO(Z, something bad)

If you are into Freud, you probably know that this is a classical projection, when a person attributes their own bad behaviour to someone else. Psychological research has shown that projection correlates with repressive thinking. It means that a person does not accept their own mistakes and flaws. This behaviour is often caused by traumas, abuse and violence.

Millions of Russians seem to be engaging in the same kind of projection, something to be studied by psychologists in the future. But they are not alone. As I read in this excellent post by The Rational Optimist, while I was writing up this text, Donald Trump has done this kind of “mirroring”, too. He was trying to steal the 2020 election while screaming that Democrats were stealing it. I’m wondering, who is learning from whom, Putin or Trump? Or is this a kind of thing you end up doing if you are a fascist and a populist, and want to make your country “great” again?

Very recently, Russia’s defense minister Shoigu and others have been telling the world that Ukraine is going to explode a “dirty bomb”. So-called dirty bombs contain radioactive material, such as uranium, and a conventional explosive. When the explosive detonates, the radioactive material gets scattered through the air and can contaminate a huge territory for many years.

Fortunately, we have equation (2), from which we can infer the following:

(3) SAY(Z, DO(Ukraine, use a dirty bomb)) → DO(Z, use a dirty bomb)

But even if you don’t have the magic equation, you can make the right conclusion. This is exactly what Ukraine’s President Zelenskyy did. He said during his address on Monday: “If Russia calls and says that Ukraine is allegedly preparing something, it means one thing: Russia has already prepared all this”. Apparently, Putin is afraid to take the responsibility for an open nuclear attack (see my previous post), so he could try to retaliate for his military losses in the most cowardly and sneaky way possible.

Russian propagandists probably know that they won’t be trusted by the West. But they may sow confusion and give an excuse to the big players like China and India not to intervene. All this is extremely worrying.

But there is another peculiar fact about this message, which I appreciate as a linguist. Shoigu & Co also claim that Ukraine’s purpose is to accuse Russia of nuclear terrorism. Their statement could look formally like this:

(4) SAY(Z, SAY(Ukraine, DO(Z, use a dirty bomb)))

This structure is pretty complex because it is recursive. Recursion means repeating an object within a similar object, like matryoshka dolls. We often do recursion when we gossip, “She said that he said that they said…”, or when we think about what the other person thinks about what we think, and so on. Some researchers claim that we can understand up to seven levels of such recursive thinking (see more details about recursion in my post for the MPI blog TalkLing). Here, Russia is saying what Ukraine will say about what Russia will do. I’m genuinely curious if there is a negative correlation between the complexity of lies and Russia’s military successes. Will Rascists compensate their future losses with more sophisticated lies? In that case, more recursion would be a good sign.

One thought on “The “dirty bomb” and a typology of lies in Russian propaganda

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s