Why it matters: Putin needs public support
Early in the war, some US officials predicted that public support for Russian President Vladimir V. Putin would erode as the war continued and economic sanctions escalated, potentially pushing him to end the conflict. But it didn’t happen. Support for the war remains strong in Russia. According to FilterLabs analysis, it started to decline slightly in early March, only to rebound during the country’s May 9 Victory Day celebrations.
Still, US officials say that while it’s hard to accurately track Russian public opinion, they also believe cracks in support have started to show in recent months.
Context: how to measure public opinion
Polls in Russia, or any other authoritarian country, are an imprecise measure of opinion, as respondents will often tell pollsters what they think the government wants to hear. Pollsters often ask questions indirectly to try to get more honest answers, but they are still difficult to gauge accurately.
FilterLabs tries to fill this gap by constantly gathering data from small local internet forums, social media companies and messaging apps to determine public sentiment. It’s also looking for platforms where Russians can feel more free to express honest opinions, said Jonathan Teubner, chief executive of FilterLabs.
FilterLabs worked with Ukrainian groups to try to measure their ability to influence Russian opinion. The company’s work is more useful for measuring the direction of sentiment, rather than a snapshot. As with any attempt to measure public opinion, sentiment analysis is flawed, includes various sources of potential bias, and represents the analysis of a single organization.
FilterLabs uses native Russian speakers to help detect normal features of colloquial speech, improving the algorithm’s ability to spot nuances in language, such as sarcasm and irony. The company also tries to identify known sources of propaganda on these forums and track them separately.
And then: a propaganda push from the Kremlin
Concern over high casualties early in the war eroded support for Mr Putin, prompting propaganda outbursts from the Kremlin. But that loss of support lasted only a short time, and the public once again rallied behind the government, according to FilterLabs.
The situation looks a little different now.
Kremlin-aligned media appear to be trying to counter growing concern, publishing more upbeat stories about Russian casualty numbers, FilterLabs found. But state-controlled news media appear to be having a limited effect on opinion so far this year, Teubner said.
US officials warn that while Russians appear to be aware of the high casualty toll, so far that knowledge has not led to less support for the war or for Mr Putin. But, an official said, recent victims could be different.
As the war progressed, setbacks on the battlefield became less shocking to Russians. So a single event is hard pressed to change overall support for the war, Teubner said.
But over time, if worries about casualties persist, support for the war is likely to plummet. “Despite efforts to reverse Russian attitudes by Kremlin-aligned sources of information,” Teubner said, “the reality of casualties is still one of the Kremlin’s greatest vulnerabilities.”