Cover: Russian Propaganda Hits Its Mark

Russian Propaganda Hits Its Mark

Experimentally Testing the Impact of Russian Propaganda and Counter-Interventions

Published Oct 15, 2020

by Todd C. Helmus, James V. Marrone, Marek N. Posard, Danielle Schlang


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Research Questions

  1. What factors affect responses to Russian information efforts?
  2. Can revealing the source of information affect how users interact with material?
  3. Can offering brief lessons on media literacy affect how users interact with material?

Given the size and scope of the Russian propaganda campaign that targeted the U.S. electorate in 2016, it is critical to understand both the impact of that campaign and the mechanisms that can reduce the impact of future campaigns. This report, the third in a four-part series, describes a study conducted by RAND researchers to assess how people react to and engage with Russia's online propaganda and to determine whether the negative effects of that engagement can be mitigated by brief media literacy advisories or by labeling the source of the propaganda. Russia targets the extremes on both sides of the political divide, and a short media literacy video and labeling intervention were both shown to reduce willingness among particular categories of participants (defined by news consumption habits) to "like" the propaganda.

This is one of the first studies to show that Russian propaganda content works, at least partially, as it is intended to — that is, it successfully elicits strong partisan responses that may help it exacerbate divisions in American society. For certain audiences, the content is also likeable and sharable. This study is among the first to use actual Russian propaganda in a randomized controlled trial.

Key Findings

Russian content is particularly effective at achieving its goal of generating strong reactions along partisan lines

  • Strongly positive emotional reactions to such social media content increase the chances that participants will self-report "liking" and sharing it.

Revealing the source of the Russian memes reduced the probability of a positive emotional response to content that aligned with a participant's ideology

  • Compared with the emotional effects generated among participants for whom the source was hidden, participant willingness to engage by "liking" or sharing material for which the source was exposed was weaker.
  • In the overall sample, revealing the source reduced the likelihood that participants would "like" pro-U.S. Russian content, but no other effects for "liking" or sharing were statistically significant.

Revealing the source and showing a video about media literacy had a stronger effect on two particular audience profiles

  • Members of a Partisan Left group read the New York Times, lean left politically, and embody several other characteristics.
  • Members of a Partisan Right get their news from Fox News or from politically far-right outlets and lean right politically.
  • Participants in both of these groups exhibit strong responses to Russian memes that align with their political ideologies, and both groups demonstrated a reduced emotional response to that propaganda and were less likely to "like" that propaganda when informed of its Russian source.
  • The video on media literacy also appeared to reduce the number of self-reported "likes" for pro-U.S. and politically right-leaning Russian content in the Partisan Right group.


  • It is difficult to assess the degree to which revealing the source is a feasible intervention. There might be immense value in developing a third-party plug-in that can unmask the source of state-sponsored content.
  • Providing generalized warnings might be an alternative to directly acknowledging sources. Specifically, there might be utility in warning audiences that Russia or other state actors disseminate this type of propaganda and that audiences should be highly suspicious of sources and their intent. It also might be possible to inoculate audiences against Russian propaganda by pairing the warning with a weakened example of a Russian propaganda meme and providing directions on how to refute the meme. Researchers should test inoculation's effectiveness on Russian propaganda, although the variety of topics targeted by the Russians might complicate research design.
  • Social media–based media literacy efforts offer a low-cost and highly scalable way to supplement more educational-based media literacy programming. This study suggests that such efforts might be a useful tool to counter some forms of Russian propaganda.
  • The model that this study used for testing reactions to Russian propaganda and evaluating the impact of interventions can be used more broadly to understand the effects of adversarial propaganda.

This research was sponsored by California Governor's Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES) and conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Center of the RAND National Security Research Division (NSRD).

This report is part of the RAND research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

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