Game of words


I am Russian. I know a lot about Russian propaganda machine. I witnessed it from within for many years, and I continue to observe it now from the outside. Many Russian citizens take Russian media as the only source of truth. It is the only picture they see. The war in Ukraine was no exception.

In this visual essay, I want to look at how Russian media has been covering events during the war in Ukraine. What topics are raised most often? What are the highlights? How biased is the narrative?

To answer these questions, I have analysed the language used in the headlines of the biggest state media channel in Russia “1st channel”. The dataset contains all the headlines from the beginning of the war with Ukraine, 24 Feb, until 24 Apr 2022.

The most frequent words used in these headlines are presented on the right. The number in square brackets is a number of mentions. It is clear that most news are related to military actions of Russia on the territory of Ukraine, so-called special military operation. You can imagine the scale of propaganda knowing that in Russia it is illegal to call those actions a war.

Keywords offer only limited view of the Russian narrative. To gather more insight, let's look at the contextual phrases around those words.

For example, the mentioned above word special operation [419] is used in a very limited context of “protection” and “peace in Donbass” (region of Eastern Ukraine).

Phrases are not ordered by the number of mentions. Duplicate words have been removed from the list. The length of the phrase was chosen by the author to preserve the meaning of the title as best as possible and may vary depending on the content of the title.


Unsurprisingly, the word war [32] was used quite rarely. These mentions refer to the diplomatic, hybrid, or other kinds of wars waged by the “collective West” against Russia.

The substitution of the word warwith the phrase special operation can be called Euphemism. This information manipulation selects words to pacify the audience by making an unpleasant reality more tolerable.

Rhetorical Techniques mentioned in this essay are classified by the Institute for Propaganda Analysis (IPA) which was a U.S.-based organization operating from 1937 to 1942.

Among the most frequent words are Russia [1206] and Ukraine [816]. There are many contextual phrases, so here are only first 20 phrases for each keyword. Ukraine is associated with negative notions of destruction and hostility — “refuse”, “disrupt”, “planned an attack”, whereas most phrases related to Russia are neutral or positive – “ready to declare”, “is a land of opportunity” etc. The contrast between those phrases can be an example of another rhetorical device called Transfer. It is when the speaker deliberately associates the opponent with something very negative, and themselves with universally good things.

The adjectives Ukrainian [533] and Russian [922] can reveal which entities correspond to Russia or Ukraine. Among nouns related to the word “Ukrainian”, there are many loaded words such as “radicals”, “nazis”, and “fakes”. There are no such words related to the word “Russian”.

This is an example of the Name-calling technique which implies the use of offensive names to induce rejection or condemnation without objective consideration of the facts.

Here we have Russian military [308] and Ukrainian military [79]. The Transfer technique, as well as Name-calling, are presented here as in the previous examples.

In addition, there is one more device that can be noticed here. It is called Appeal to Emotion. Such phrases as “save the life of wounded officer” or “demined the territory of the kindergarten” can be very appealing to the audience even though they do not represent the whole picture.

Speaking of refugees [101], there is not a single mention of the presence of Ukrainian refugees in Europe. All the refugees mentioned in the headlines come and settle in Russia. But according to the UN, on 5 May 2022, there were 5.7 million Ukrainian refugees in total, 0.7 million of which are in Russia.

When the media use only those facts and details that support their argument, such device is called Card Stacking or Cherry-Picking.

The last example is COURAGE [67]. This word is often used in conjunction with such words as heroism, professionalism, fortitude. Another observation about this word is that it is always used in the context of the Russian military.

This pattern can refer to the Glittering generality. It is a vague word or phrase that evokes positive feelings rather than conveys information.

The dataset of headlines was created by scraping data from the biggest Russian state media “1st channel” from 24 Feb 2022 until 24 Apr 2022. As a result, the dataset encompasses 5,468 headlines. For the unique word extraction, I used the Voyant tool. For the contextual analysis, I queried the dataset containing unique words using Python.
I acknowledge that being Russian and living most of my life in Russia can both help to work with headlines from Russian media, but also can set biases in terms of my own opinion on this topic. In addition, there may be some inaccuracies due to the automatic translation of the headlines.
Further work might be done in different directions. Firstly, a number of media can be expanded. It would be interesting to compare other media from Russia as well as media from other countries. Secondly, it is important to see how the wording has changed (or not) over a long period. More structured contextual analysis of headlines or texts can reveal more manipulative patterns used.
· Cole, Robert, ed. (1998). Encyclopedia of Propaganda. Armonk, NY: Sharpe Reference. ISBN 9780765680099. OCLC 37238860
· Ecker, U. K. H., Lewandowsky, S., Chang, E. P., & Pillai, R. (2014). The effects of subtle misinformation in news headlines. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 20(4), 323–335