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"We are responsible for those tamed by propaganda”. Maya Stravinskaya on how the 'Bridge' bot will teach us how to talk to loved ones who believe the TV


Maya Stravinskaya is a journalist and web producer. With the outbreak of war, Maya left for Berlin, where she now develops the XZ foundation, which focuses on cultural and media projects. In mid-September, the foundation team and the team launched a bot called "The Bridge" (MOST) - it helps build dialogue and restore contact with loved ones who believe Russian propaganda.

How did you come up with the idea of creating the bot?

There is an excellent film by Andrei Loshak called Breaking the Line, which describes how propaganda and exposure to this propaganda has divided families, and we know hundreds, maybe even thousands of such cases. There are a lot of them.

I really wanted to find some practical tools to help talk to people, to change their attitude to the issue, and to restore the relationships that were lost.

I don't want to hand over my relatives to Putin and his mates. That is what The Bridge was created for.

"We made Bridge together with the project. This project, of which Ira Lobanovskaya is the leader, brought together a large crowdsourcing network of people who had left Russia, who shared information and helped each other with immigration. And they had a very important internal request - to talk to their inner circle.”

When the war started, I thought - what should or can I do? How is it that so many people in Russia believe that NATO was a danger to us, believe that we should attack the Ukrainians, that they are a brotherly nation and should be part of the USSR, believe that dumplings sold in the shop and called "USSR" are normal and that lemonade "like before" is a real joy. How did this happen?

Do you already have answers to these questions?

Partly from mistrust. Partly from the fact that we lived in a kind of internal exile, oriented towards other values, and never really thought about how the rest of the country or even people not too far away from us lived. Building this connection therefore seemed a very important and practical action.

Everyone in his or her inner circle has people who either doubt, actively support the war or are indifferent. You have to talk to them, you have to answer them.

But it's difficult, it's a very stressful story. Often those who do not support the war do not watch television and are unaware of all the acrimony and fierceness of the propaganda which speaks in aphorisms, concentrated vicious bullets which reach people from television. In this situation a person is simply lost and does not know what to reply to their interlocutor.

This is why we took these propaganda theses and analysed them in order to prepare different answers to them. During the work we understood that we need to rely on science, on researches, on psychologists who would help us to develop the correct approach to how these arguments should be written.

It became clear that you cannot say "you're a fascist, you're a fool, you don't understand anything, this is the truth". It doesn't work that way.

A person infected by propaganda, oddly enough, has set themselves to some values of their own. For example, on sentimentality. Here, the objections arise: what about the children who were killed? What about the brothers? What about us?

Propaganda often appeals to the best qualities of man. But we can also use it ourselves. For example, by answering like this: "You are a very empathetic, sympathetic person. You care. I respect that in you. But tell me, why is this happening? Don't you find this situation strange?". This kind of calm approach to the conversation, with respect for the good that is in the person, can work.

So there is always a chance to have a normal conversation?

There are insurmountable situations. In that case, our job is to support the person and explain that, yes, there are times when you have to step back and just wait. Maybe your relative's opinion will change in a month, maybe it won't, but there will be an opportunity to talk.

We set the person up and support them in their activity, using the same psychological advice and practices that we have developed with the team of psychologists, so that they understand, don't collapse, and don't burn that bridge. You need to think, ok, let’s put it off for six months for now. All right, for now we won't talk about it. But then we can come back to this subject again.

How is the work on the bot structured? Do you have a large team?

We work together with the guys from the guide, all equally involved in working through this issue. Of us (from the XZ foundation - ed.), two of us and the manager are working now. We actively manage the project, fundraise it. We have a team of volunteers who take the theses of propaganda and develop arguments for them.

These arguments then get to the team of psychologists, which consists of 3-4 people scattered around the world. The material then goes to journalists who check the facts.

We don't use violent arguments. Sometimes we would like to answer: what about Bucha? What about torture? But it does not lead to effective results.

Therefore, journalists check our facts to make sure there are no distortions, they watch all the subtleties and nuances, because political questions also arise - and we have to answer them.

It turns out that there are about ten people working on the project now. But most of the work has been shifted to the guide's community, to the volunteers. We have a special chat room in telegram, where people can offer their arguments, tell us about their experiences and how they have talked to their relatives.

Maya Stravinskaya
Photo from personal archive

How many people have you helped so far?

In November, we had almost 95,000 active users - which is a lot. But the most important figures that we are really proud of is that the average time spent in the bot is 15 minutes. That is a very long time.

We've started to get noticed on social media, there are reviews that say, "I managed to talk to my mum. For the first time in a long time" or "I convinced my father that Zelensky is not an American puppet".

Propaganda rhetoric changes all the time, doesn't it?

We have very frequent updates. Precisely on the topical content, which is needed now.

We take those clichés that start getting stuck in people's heads. Not every propaganda thesis settles in people's heads. There are some that are not viable. We only take the ones that people start talking about in social networks.

It makes no sense simply to fight against abstract propaganda, we have to fight against the propaganda that has settled in the heads.

Were there people in your circle who were talking about the bot. Saying things such as “oh, why bother? It does not help, it is impossible.”

No, we were never told: "It's useless to talk to you". Moreover, many people wanted to join the project, because it was an opportunity to do something.

In Ukraine, you can help with money and truth, but you wanted to change the situation with the people who were left behind in some way. Because they were left alone with TV.

I just formulated this thesis for myself: in general, we are responsible for those who have been tamed by propaganda because they are all people, partly abandoned by us. People should never have been left to TV. It should never have been done.

It would seem that it was all nonsense. That all those ridiculous tantrums sitting in the box couldn't appeal to anyone, but it turned out they could. It turned out that it was a misjudgment of the impact they were having. It turned out that Soloviev was not a ridiculous hysteroid dullard, but a man who had gathered a huge army of fans around him.

It was completely impossible to believe this, but it turned out to be true. Moreover, it turned out that in that army of admirers were close relatives of very intelligent, educated people. And they themselves, strangely enough, can be both educated and well-read and quite well-off. Though, of course, the basis of the effectiveness of the propaganda is the appalling poverty and oppression of the entire population of Russia.

I have thought about this before. Muratov articulated this idea very well in a recent interview with Duday.

Russia is a country of abandoned old people. We had such a painful adolescent development, when it turned out that we could go to other countries, watch Hollywood series, learn science, languages - and we were so rushed forward that we completely detached ourselves from home, from our country, from the way things work here.

The normalization of this feeling was built at the expense of consumption. If you can consume, if you can go to the shop - and there will be all these jars, creams, branded clothes, iPhones. We have everything! That's good! A lot of people were left to the TV in this situation.

And yes, there was an independent press that clamped down on all this, gently, step by step, and nobody protested. So that's it, we can do it here, we can do it here, we can compromise here. But there are cans, iPhones, it's all there. It turns out that access to all this stuff is in fact a very facade story of freedom and some kind of democratic values. The deep stuff is inside. But we didn't defend it. We couldn't.

I don't know why that happened.

How long do you think it will take before your project can work nationwide? And is that even realistic?

No, it is unrealistic. Our project will never work nationwide. We have no such illusions.

For decades, Russia has had trauma after trauma, one upon another. This has led to a twenty-year denial of its role, its participation, its involvement in politics and public life.

Moreover, it seems that kindness, compassion and empathy have receded into such a distant plane that they cannot go any further. All of this has been crushed by the abusive relationships that flourish at all levels. From child-parent, male-female to political and social.

This is, of course, a decades-long job that needs to be done. Because "the Russian ship can go to ****" and Russia with its huge population is not going anywhere. As it is in its geographical location, it will stay.

Do you believe that Russia will be free and happy? That Russia will become a country to which you will want to return?

I think there are people in Russia, who will be able to change this situation gradually, when there will be an opportunity, and that situation will definitely change. Russia has to do something with the idea of its imperialism. It is not yet clear how. But it will have to be thought about.

I think Russia has a chance to become a normal country by working through these pains and traumas. But no, I will put it another way. Not that Russia has a chance, but the people have a chance. People are good, kind, interesting, they have a chance to build a country or countries (I don't know how it will turn out further) where they will be happy.

Cover photo: Ramil Sitdikov / RIA Novosti

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