Impaired vision: How social media consumption correlates with views on Ukraine, human rights and democracy in Germany

5 February 2024

By: Jakob Guhl


This Digital Dispatch summarises the findings of a nationally representative survey [1] ISD conducted among Germans about their views toward the war in Ukraine. The survey explored a range of attitudes and opinions about the Russian war against Ukraine, including attitudes toward the response of the German government, expectations about the future of the war and susceptibility towards disinformation narratives.

Our findings show that the type of social and traditional media respondents consume, and trust strongly correlates with their attitudes towards the conflict. There are notable differences between Germans that align more with information on social media compared to those that rely on information gathered from traditional media outlets. The former are much less likely to hold pro-Ukrainian views and more likely to believe disinformation narratives about the war, while those who trust established media outlets are more supportive of Ukraine and concerned about Russian war crimes and its influence on German democracy.

It should be noted that the causal direction in the relationship between media consumption and views towards the war is not obvious. It is plausible that, instead of media consumption causing respondents’ views, there is a pre-existing distrust of the political establishment and reputable media sources that results in a preference for information on social media.

Findings

The survey results show that media consumption and media trust strongly correlate with Germans views on the war in Ukraine. This includes whether:

  • they are more sympathetic to Russia or to Ukraine
  • support German government policies vis-à-vis Ukraine
  • support sending weapons to Ukraine
  • are aware of and concerned about war crimes
  • want Russian war criminals to be prosecuted
  • are likely to believe a German political party’s closeness (German: Nähe) with Russia is a problem.
  • they believe common mis- and disinformation narratives related to the war, for example that Volodymyr Zelensky is a drug addict, that Western and Ukrainians officials are involved in illegal trafficking of Ukrainian children or that the Wagner insurrection was supported by the West

There are also major differences between users of major social media platforms. Users of TikTok and X (formerly Twitter) are less likely to hold pro-Ukrainian views or be critical of Russia.

Measuring Media Trust

To assess whether people trust traditional or established media, the survey asked respondents to place themselves on a spectrum from 1 (“Traditional media outlets are mostly reliable compared to information I find on social media and messaging channels”) to 5 (“Information I find myself on social media and l messaging channels is more reliable compared to reporting coming from traditional media outlets”).

Figure 1: Respondents were asked to place themselves on a spectrum, depending on whether they trust traditional or social media more.

Views towards Ukraine and Russia

People who are sceptical of traditional media coverage are not just more favourable toward Russia and Putin and more unfavourable toward Ukraine and Zelensky (see below), but also hold different views on what would be a desirable outcome of the war.

For example, 10% of those who most trust traditional media say they had “very unfavourable” views of Ukraine. This rises to 48% of those who most trust social over traditional media. Similarly, only 4% of those who most trust traditional media hold very or somewhat favourable views of Russia, compared to 45% of those who most trust information they find on social media.

Figure 2: Table showing the percentage of respondents who view very or somewhat favourably, very or somewhat unfavourably or responded “don’t know”, split according to whether they trust information on social media compared to those that rely on traditional media.

Figure 3: Table showing the percentages of respondents who view Russia very or somewhat favourably, very or somewhat unfavourably or responded “don’t know”, split according to whether they trust information on social media compared to those that rely on traditional media.

Those who trust social media sources over traditional media are much less likely to think that all Ukrainian territory, including Crimea, should be returned to Ukraine (58% of those who responded “1” to our media trust question believe this, compared to 20% of those who answered “5”). Likewise, only 2% of those who most trust traditional media say that Ukraine surrendering entirely was acceptable. This rises to 22% of those who most trust social over traditional media.

Figure 4: Table showing the percentages of respondents who believe different outcomes of the Ukraine war are acceptable, split according to whether they trust information on social media compared to those that rely on traditional media.

Respondents who trust public broadcasters are especially likely to be supportive of Ukraine, while those who trust social media sources are more likely to be skeptical about Ukraine, and less critical of Russia. For example, 56% of ZDF viewers strongly support sanctions against Russia, while only 24% of TikTok users do.

Russian Influence on German Political Parties

Concern about Russia’s influence on German democracy likewise seems to be strongly correlated to the type of media people consume and trust. Germans who trust social media over traditional media are much less likely to be concerned about Russian influence over German political parties (see below). For example, 40% of those who most trust traditional media say they are concerned about Russia’s influence on German political parties, while only 8% of those who most trust social over traditional media concur.

Figure 5: Respondents were asked to place themselves on a spectrum between 1 (“I am concerned about a German political party’s closeness to Russia”) and 5 (“I am not concerned about a German political party’s closeness to Russia”). This table shows the percentages of how respondents placed themselves on this spectrum, split according to whether they trust information on social media compared to those that rely on traditional media.

Awareness of and Concerns about War Crimes

People who trust information they find on social media over traditional media are much less likely to have heard of the Bucha massacre [2] or express concern about the lives of Ukrainian civilians (see below). For example, 59% of those who most trust traditional media say they have heard a great deal or a fair amount about Bucha, while only 44% of those who most trust social over traditional media say the same.

Figure 6: Table showing the percentages of those who have heard a great deal, a fair amount, not very much or nothing at all about the Bucha massacre or responded “don’t know”, split according to whether they trust information on social media compared to those that rely on traditional media.

Figure 7: Table showing the percentages of those who say they are concerned about the suffering of Ukrainian civilians, split according to whether they trust information on social media compared to those that rely on traditional media.

On the contrary, respondents who said they are very likely to share content by Russian state media or alternative right-wing and pro-Kremlin influencers [3] are more likely to have heard of the Bucha massacre than respondents who share content by public broadcasters but are less likely to be concerned about it (see below). For example, 25% of those who were very likely to share Tagesschau content had heard a great deal about Bucha, compared to 41% of those likely to share content by the pro-Kremlin influencer Alina Lipp. However, only 36% of those who were very likely to share Lipp content said they were very concerned about the Bucha reports, compared to 51% of those very likely to share Tagesschau content.

Figure 8: Tables showing whether respondents have heard of the Bucha massacre, split according to whether would be likely to share an article or post by German public broadcaster Tagesschau, Russian state outlet RT DE, right-wing influencer Julian Reichelt or pro-Kremlin influencer Alina Lipp with their friends and family.

Figure 9: Tables showing whether respondents find the Bucha massacre very, fairly, not very or not at all concerning or responded “don’t know”, split according to whether would be likely to share an article or post by German public broadcaster Tagesschau, Russian state outlet RT DE, right-wing influencer Julian Reichelt or pro-Kremlin influencer Alina Lipp with their friends and family.

Overall, respondents who have heard of the Bucha massacre are more likely to support military aid to Ukraine. It may therefore be unsurprising that people who trust information they find on social media over traditional media are overwhelmingly unlikely to support sending weapons to Ukraine or believe that the prosecution of Russian war criminals is required for a meaningful peace (see below).

Figure 10: Respondents were asked to place themselves on a spectrum between 1 (“Germany should continue sending military and weapons support to Ukraine”) and 5 (“Germany should not be supplying military and weapons support to Ukraine”). This table shows the percentages of how respondents placed themselves on this spectrum, split according to whether how much they have heard of the Bucha massacre.

Figure 11: This table shows the percentages of how respondents placed themselves on the spectrum of believing Germany should provide military support to Ukraine or not, split according to whether trust information on traditional media or social media.

Figure 12: This table shows the percentages of those who believe that the prosecution of Russian war criminals is required for a meaningful peace, split according to whether trust information on traditional media or social media.

Mis- and Disinformation Related to the Invasion of Ukraine

People who trust information they find on social media over traditional media are much more likely to believe mis- and disinformation related to the war. For example, they are more likely to believe Volodymyr Zelensky is a drug addict, that Western and Ukrainian officials are involved in illegal trafficking of Ukrainian children in the West or that the Wagner insurrection was a Western-supported plan to oust Putin (see below). For example, 47% of those who responded “5” to our media trust question believe Zelensky is addicted to drugs, compared to 4% of those who answered “1”.

Figure 13: This table shows the percentages of respondents who believe the statement “Western countries and Ukrainians officials are involved in illegal trafficking of Ukrainian children in the West” is definitely true, probably true, probably false, definitely false or responded “don’t know”, split according to whether trust information on traditional media or social media.

Figure 14: This table shows the percentages of respondents who believe the statement “The Wagner insurrection was a Western-supported plan to oust Putin” is definitely true, probably true, probably false, definitely false or responded “don’t know”, split according to whether trust information on traditional media or social media.

There are additional differences between users of major social media platforms, with users of TikTok and X (formerly Twitter) less likely to hold pro-Ukrainian views or be critical of Russia. For example, users of TikTok (50%) and Twitter (51%) are more likely to believe that German media is biased against Russia. Overall, 38% of Germans believe media coverage is biased against Russia while 40% do not believe this. However, there are regional variations in these responses among East Germans, this number rises to 49% compared to 26% who do not believe media coverage is biased. Users of TikTok and Twitter are more likely to believe US-related conspiracy theories, e.g. that the war against Ukraine was part of an alleged US-strategy to drive a wedge between Germany in Russia and to sabotage Nord Stream (see below).[4]

Figure 15: This table shows the percentages of respondents who believe the statement “The main reason behind the war in Ukraine was the wish of the United States to drive a wedge between Germany and Russia and to sabotage the Nord Stream pipeline” is definitely true, probably true, probably false, definitely false or responded “don’t know”, split according to which social media platform they have used over the past 30 days.

Anti-Establishment Views and Trust in Social Media – Where is the Causality?

The survey findings demonstrate a clear correlation between Germans’ (social) media consumption and trust in established news sources, and their attitudes towards the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Those who trust the information they find on social media over established media are more likely to believe disinformation narratives, much less likely to be aware of and concerned about war crimes and civilian suffering, and less likely to be worried about Russian influence on German democracy. Consequently, they are also less likely to support sending weapons to Ukraine, favour German government efforts to support Ukraine, or to believe that prosecuting Russian war criminals is necessary for peace.

While there is clearly a relationship between media consumption and views towards the war, the causal connection is most certainly not monocausal. It is likewise plausible that there is a pre-existing distrust of the political establishment and reputable media sources that influences people’s preference for information they identify themselves on social media, without being reliant on traditional media gatekeepers, and judge to be credible.

In either case, these findings suggest that there is significant fertile ground for pro-Kremlin social media activity to further sway German public opinion in its favour. As the Russian state becomes increasingly assertive in using influence operations and propaganda in pursuit of its strategic objectives, most notably to justify its invasion of Ukraine, Germany will likely remain a key target for Russian disinformation and influence campaigns to undermine international support for Ukraine.[5]

Endnotes

[1] All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc.  Total sample size was 1501 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between 17th and 22nd August 2023.  The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all adults in Germany (aged 18+).

[2] Following the Russian withdrawal from the Kyiv area, reports quickly emerged that in the small city Bucha, civilians have been killed under Russian occupation. The incidents are widely considered as war crimes. https://www.ohchr.org/en/press-releases/2022/12/un-report-details-summary-executions-civilians-russian-troops-northern

[3] The survey asked respondents how likely it is that they would share a news article or post from the public broadcaster Tagesschau, a news article or post from RT, a post from the right-wing online influencer Julian Reichelt or a from the pro-Kremlin online influencer Alina Lipp on their social media channel or via email with their friends or family.

[4] The North Stream pipelines allowed the direct transport of Russian natural gas directly to Germany via the Baltic Sea, bypassing transit routes through Eastern European countries. The two pipelines, North Stream 1 and North Stream 2 caused major controversies (including opposition from the US) due to their potential implications for geopolitics, energy security and Germany’s dependency on Russia gas. Respondents of the survey were asked if they believed the following statement was likely to be true: “The main reason behind the war in Ukraine was the wish of the United States to drive a wedge between Germany and Russia and to sabotage the Nord Stream pipeline.” They were not asked whom they believed was behind September 2022 sabotage of the North Stream pipelines.

[5] https://time.com/6257372/russia-ukraine-war-disinformation/

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