Are Russians Lying About Their Support for War in Ukraine?

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Recently I read that a survey of Russians found that 58% of them supported the country’s invasion of Ukraine. The figure came from a phone survey conducted by Russian researchers (who wish to remain anonymous) in which they polled 1,640 adults from around the country. According to the Washington Post, “About 46 percent of respondents said they firmly supported the action, and about 13 percent said they somewhat supported it. Roughly 23 percent opposed the operation, and 13 percent had no opinion or declined to answer. About 6 percent said they were on the fence.

Among young people, support for the war is significantly lower, according to the study. In the 18-to-24 age group, 29 percent indicated they back the war, while 39 percent were opposed. Peak support for the war, at 75 percent, was among respondents age 66 and older.

Fewer than half of respondents who live in cities of more than 1 million people — 48 percent — supported the invasion. A higher proportion of Russians who reported that their personal finances had improved or remained steady in the past year backed the war, compared with respondents who said their financial situation had worsened.”

I found all this really interesting considering that just after the survey was conducted, Russia passed three laws threatening jail time of up to 15 years for spreading “false information” about the invasion of Ukraine, which includes criticizing the war. Hell, it includes even calling it a war, since Russia insists it is merely a “special invasion.” Surely even before those laws were passed, people living in such an anti-free speech autocracy wouldn’t necessarily respond truthfully to a stranger calling them up and asking their opinions, right?

This is actually a common problem in research that requires people to self-report their opinions or behaviors: if the topic is anything “sensitive,” from asking how often a person masturbates to whether or not they’ve ever stolen office supplies to whether or not they think there is currently a war between Russia and Ukraine, people tend to lie, and so researchers need to come up with ways to either get them to tell the truth or detect the lies.

A lot of that just boils down to how you ask your questions. There are reams of data showing how seemingly small decisions can impact responses. As an example, Pew Research points out that “after the 2008 presidential election, people responded very differently to two versions of the question: “What one issue mattered most to you in deciding how you voted for president?” One was closed-ended and the other open-ended. In the closed-ended version, respondents were provided five options and could volunteer an option not on the list.

When explicitly offered the economy as a response, more than half of respondents (58%) chose this answer; only 35% of those who responded to the open-ended version volunteered the economy. Moreover, among those asked the closed-ended version, fewer than one-in-ten (8%) provided a response other than the five they were read. By contrast, fully 43% of those asked the open-ended version provided a response not listed in the closed-ended version of the question. All of the other issues were chosen at least slightly more often when explicitly offered in the closed-ended version than in the open-ended version.”

Similarly, they found in 2003 that “people were more likely to favor allowing gays and lesbians to enter into legal agreements that give them the same rights as married couples when this question was asked after one about whether they favored or opposed allowing gays and lesbians to marry.”

And those surveys were conducted here in the US, where we’re only a little bit autocratic and overwhelmed with biased propaganda! In the case of Russians answering questions about their autocratic leader’s actions, there’s a chance that no matter how well you design your questions and surveys, many people are still going to lie, right?

So I was a bit skeptical of whether or not, as that Russian survey found, 58% of Russians agreed with the war in Ukraine. That’s why I was delighted to stumble upon this project from Russian political activist ??????? ??????? (Aleksei Miniailo). He and his team of researchers conducted two phone surveys of about 1,800 subjects each, and analyzed nearly 3 million Russian social media posts to compare what Russians were saying online versus what they were saying to surveyors.

They reached several very interesting conclusions, including that yes, Russians are lying to surveyors about their support for the war because they’re scared to voice the “wrong” opinion and risk prison. But how did they figure that out?

I had previously heard of psychologists utilizing “randomized response techniques” to detect and account for lies. In fact, I first heard of this technique in Predictably Irrational, the book by Dan Ariely – in order to counteract dishonesty, he had subjects flip a coin before answering a question with two responses, let’s say “yes” and “no.” If it landed on “heads” they were to answer honestly, and if on “tails” they should choose the “yes” option whether it was true or not. Knowing that the rate of heads versus tails would always be about 50-50, he could then remove the “noise” of the tails answers to get a more honest tally of responses than if he had just directly asked the subjects to answer honestly. At the time I found this technique absolutely fascinating, but upon remembering it this week I had to pause a moment and reconsider. After all, Dan Ariely is the psychologist who last year had a paper about honesty retracted over accusations of fraud.

So, I did a little research on the use of randomized response techniques, and I found a very persuasive report published back in 2018 that found across nine experiments that “the noise introduced by RRTs can make respondents concerned that innocuous responses will be interpreted as admissions, and as a result, yield prevalence estimates that are lower than direct questioning, less accurate than direct questioning, and even nonsensical.

Ah. Well.

I suppose it’s a good thing, then, that Miniailo and his team did NOT detect deceptive answers using RRTs. 

Some of the subjects they interviewed basically admitted they were lying, like a gentleman who said, “Well, you understand, if I say “no” it will be provocative. So, of course I will tell you it’s a special military operation. Because any other opinion can result in a criminal prosecution. And I don’t want that.” I mean, he didn’t say that, but he said it in Russian. 

Others weren’t so upfront, but the researchers could still figure out they were lying. How? Back to question design! That’s right, I was WRONG: it turns out, simple survey and question design can detect falsehoods. In one experiment, the researchers gave half the respondents “yes” or “no” options when answering whether they supported the war. The other half could respond “yes,” “no,” or “I don’t want to answer.” They found that 70% of the “yes-no” group said they supported the war, but only 63% of the “yes-no-don’t want to answer” group. 7% were lying, likely because they were afraid.

They also found that survey design also showed evidence of lying: when respondents were asked if they support the war at the beginning of the poll, 62% said “yes.” When others were asked 4 minutes later, at the end of the survey, the figure jumped to 72%. The researchers think this can be explained by the fact that people got more nervous the longer the survey went on, encouraging them to give the “acceptable” answer.

The researchers also found that about 63% of respondents said they think the invasion is a “special military operation” and not a war, and they also suspect many of THEM are lying. They came to that conclusion by comparing the answers to queries at the time on Russia’s biggest search engine: “War in Ukraine” had more than 47 million queries (99.83%) while “Military operation in Ukraine” had about 83 thousand queries (0.17%). 

Even with trying to ferret out the dishonesty, the team still found a slight majority of Russians are in favor of the war. The difference is that they provided a lot of extra context: more than 30% of respondents had positive, sympathetic views of Ukrainians, and only 2.4% voiced any criticism or hostility towards them. Like the survey reported in the Washington Post, they found that 40% of Russians aged 18-29 are openly against the war, in part probably because young people are more likely to seek out alternative news sources besides the state-run media. Many of the older adults who were in favor of the war completely bought into the narrative that it was a special operation designed to remove Nazis from the Ukrainian government. They quote a 70-year old woman from a rural village who said:

“I am of the generation who worked with the Ukrainians, I respect them very much. We danced to Ukrainian dances, [sang] Ukrainian songs, I think highly of Ukraine. Very highly. Believe it or not, nobody in Ukraine did me anything wrong. I pity our kids who are fighting now, the kids from both sides. My grandson is 20, my son is 43, I am so very much afraid that they might get drafted if a war starts.

“And the Ukrainian nation has done nothing wrong. So I like them very much. [The interviewer inquires if she supports the ongoing military action or not] Of course I do. Let them kick the Maidaners out! Let the real Ukrainians live! The Ukrainian nation that we love, love, love. We do indeed. There is no such thing as a bad nation, only bad people. Let the government decide whether or not to support… It’s not for me to answer. I say, I am against wars. Against. From any side.”

So: does a majority of the Russian citizenry support what Russia is doing in Ukraine? Probably not, if only for the major reason that they don’t KNOW what Russia is doing in Ukraine. And does a majority support any action in Ukraine, whether war or the “special military action” they’re told it is? That’s tougher to say. Maybe! As long as Putin threatens to imprison people for voicing their dissent, we’ll never fully know how people feel. In the meanwhile, I love that Russian researchers are working so hard to separate fact from fiction, add important context to otherwise depressing data, and figure out ways to best get through the veil of censorship to reach their fellow country people.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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