Why it matters: Putin needs public support
At the start of the war, some US officials predicted that public support for President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia would wane as the war continued and economic sanctions deepened, potentially putting pressure on him to end the conflict to end. But that didn’t happen. Support for the war remains strong in Russia. It started to fall slightly in early March, according to FilterLabs’ analysis, but recovered around the country’s May 9 Victory Day celebrations.
Yet US officials say that while Russian public opinion is difficult to track accurately, they too believe cracks in support have appeared in recent months.
Background: How to measure public opinion
Polls in Russia, or any other authoritarian country, are an inaccurate measure of opinion because respondents often tell pollsters what they think the government wants to hear. Pollsters often ask questions indirectly to get more honest answers, but they remain difficult to measure accurately.
FilterLabs tries to address this shortcoming by continuously collecting data from small local internet forums, social media companies and messaging apps to determine public sentiment. It is also looking for platforms where Russians can feel more free to express honest opinions, said Jonathan Teubner, the CEO of FilterLabs.
FilterLabs has worked with Ukrainian groups to measure their ability to influence Russian opinion. The company’s work is most useful for gauging the direction of sentiment, rather than a snapshot. As with any attempt to measure public opinion, sentiment analysis is imperfect, involves several sources of potential bias, and represents only one organization’s analysis.
FilterLabs uses native Russian speakers to help detect normal features of spoken language, improving the algorithm’s ability to pick out language nuances such as sarcasm and irony. The company also tries to identify known sources of propaganda on such forums and track them separately.
What’s Next: A Kremlin Propaganda Campaign
Concern over the high casualty rate earlier in the war eroded support for Putin, leading to propaganda campaigns by the Kremlin. But that loss of support was short-lived and the public once again rallied behind the government, according to FilterLabs.
The situation now looks a bit different.
Kremlin-aligned news outlets seem to be trying to counter the growing concern by publishing articles more optimistic about the number of Russian casualties, FilterLabs found. But the state-controlled news media appears to have limited effect on opinion so far this year, Teubner said.
US officials warn that while Russians appear to be aware of the high casualty rate, that knowledge has so far not reduced support for the war or Mr Putin. But, an official said, the recent casualties may be different.
As the war progresses, the battlefield setbacks have become less shocking to the Russians. So a single event has a hard time changing general support for the war, Mr Teubner said.
But if concern about the casualties persists over time, support for the war is likely to wane. “Despite efforts to reverse Russian attitudes through Kremlin-aligned information sources,” said Mr. Teubner, “victim reality is still one of the Kremlin’s greatest vulnerabilities.”