Why it matters: Putin needs public support
At the start of the war, some American officials predicted that popular support for Russian President Vladimir Putin would erode as the war dragged on and economic sanctions ran deeper, which could pressure him to end the conflict. But this did not happen. Support for the war remains strong in Russia. It began to ease off a bit in early March, only to bounce back around the country’s May 9 Victory Day celebrations, according to a FilterLabs analysis.
However, US officials say that while Russian public opinion is difficult to accurately track, they also believe that cracks in support have begun to appear in recent months.
Background: How to measure public opinion
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. Respondents often ask questions indirectly to try to get more honest answers, but it remains difficult to measure precisely.
FilterLabs attempts to remedy this shortcoming by continually collecting data from small local internet forums, social media companies, and messaging apps to determine public sentiment. FilterLabs CEO Jonathan Teubner said he’s also looking for platforms where Russians might feel freer to express their honest opinions.
FilterLabs has worked with Ukrainian groups to try to measure their ability to influence Russian public opinion. The company’s work is very helpful in gauging the direction of sentiment, rather than a snapshot. As with any attempt to gauge public opinion, sentiment analysis is imperfect, includes various sources of potential bias and only represents the analysis of a single institution.
FilterLabs uses native Russian speakers to help detect natural features of colloquial speech, improving the algorithm’s ability to detect nuances of language, such as sarcasm and irony. The company also attempts to identify and track known sources of advertising in such forums separately.
What’s next: a Kremlin propaganda campaign
Concern about high casualties earlier in the war eroded support for Putin, prompting the Kremlin to pay with propaganda. But the loss of support was only for a short time, and the public once again rallied behind the government, according to FilterLabs.
The situation looks a little different now.
News outlets aligned with the Kremlin appear to be trying to counter the growing concern, publishing more optimistic articles about the number of Russian casualties, FilterLabs found. But the state-controlled media appears to have had limited influence on opinion so far this year, Mr Teubner said.
And American officials warn that while the Russians appear to be aware of the large number of casualties, so far that knowledge has not led to less support for the war or Mr. Putin. But one official said the latest losses may be different.
As the war dragged on, setbacks on the battlefield became less of a shock to the Russians. Mr. Teubner said one event had trouble changing public support for the war.
But over time, if concern about casualties persists, support for the war is likely to wane. “Despite efforts to reverse Russian positions by Kremlin-aligned information sources, the reality of casualties remains one of the Kremlin’s greatest weaknesses,” Mr. Teubner said.