A Harvard behavioral scientist has joined hands with a Norwegian computer expert in what has become a global campaign to try to reach millions of Russians, one by one, with persuasive facts about their country’s invasion of Ukraine—and to invite those Russians to write back.
Fabian (he uses just his first name for security reasons) launched the crowd-sourced email writing campaign from Norway soon after the invasion to get through Russia’s information blockade; already, Fabian says, some 550,000 volunteers have sent more than 60 million emails providing details about the invasion and links to credible news sources. Julia Minson, associate professor of public policy at Harvard Kennedy School, has been rewriting the messages for Fabian’s team, applying her expertise on how people can communicate effectively during conflicts.
Minson feels a personal stake in this project. She grew up in Russia and emigrated to the United States in 1990, when she was 12, with her Russian mother and American stepfather. Like both of them, she became a psychologist.
With her mixed Russian and Ukrainian roots, Minson retains her childhood impressions of Russia as a dominant military power shaped by memories of World War II, and a place where the KGB once frightened people into silence and suspicion until the Soviet Union collapsed. She spent childhood summers with her mother’s family in the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, now under bombardment by invading Russian forces. She wasn’t surprised that President Vladimir Putin’s government quickly shut off all but official news channels, leaving Russians without access to basic facts.
As the fighting raged in Ukraine, she spoke with her students in the Minson Conflict and Collaboration Lab at the Kennedy School about how their research might be applied in the current crisis, given that the Russians were blocking outside websites and social media. Minson studies ways to communicate across divides so people who disagree can engage with each other’s ideas and not reject them out of hand. She calls this “conversational receptiveness.”
“I was talking to my students about this idea of how we can insert ourselves into this process of training people to have these conversations in a more effective way,” Minson recalled, “because that's exactly the research that we do in my lab. We try to understand how you can talk to people who dramatically disagree with your view of the world in a way that doesn't blow up into a screaming match—and actually leads to persuasion and ongoing dialogue.”
That’s when a post-doc sent her an article about how Fabian, who runs a computer networking firm, had built an ingenious project with a few colleagues to get emails into Russians’ inboxes with messages that decried the invasion and offered links to information sources about the death and destruction in Ukraine.
Minson found Fabian’s website, mail2ru.org, and loved the concept but worried that the messages could be much more effective if they reflected the lessons of her research on receptiveness to opposing views. She contacted him via Twitter, proposing alternative language, and he jumped at her offer to help. She and her student team began recasting the messages contained in the Russia-bound emails to make them read as suggestions rather than strident accusations. Fabian’s team quickly accepted her approach—and pasted her new language into the outgoing emails.
“We are tech nerds,” Fabian said by telephone from Norway, “and our first messages, you can see, were based on less skillful writing, but from the heart. It’s very easy to get into shame-blame. … When Julia got on board, it was amazing. She is a goddess with words. The message is so much shorter and crisper.”
“It’s like the focus on a camera. You can take a picture, but if it’s out of focus it’s unusable. It’s been amazing to have that sharpness, that touch. It’s been a revelation for us.”
Fabian’s site does not track responses so as not to leave people who do respond vulnerable to Russian monitors. He said volunteers have joined in to send emails each day from nearly every time zone around the world. This isn’t spamming: the senders must use their own accounts and can send to no more than 150 Russian addresses so these remain relatively personal appeals, not bulk mail.
He noted that the revised messages avoid judging anyone: “We’re just trying to get people to be engaged in what’s going on and build their own view about it. That’s all we want. We just want people to think clearly and be able to access information to make up their mind.”
The revised messages shaped by Minson’s team are half the length of the original. They are more direct and focus on just a couple of points—the humanitarian and economic costs of the war—and they don’t assign blame. They explain briefly how to get around the censors and get reliable information.
The messages also are now more varied. Fabian said he needed a much greater variety of messages so it is harder for spam filters and software to block them. The website now invites volunteers to help come up with additional versions and send them to Minson.
She said her team also proposed another substantial change. She wanted to get beyond just delivering emails, which in some ways resembled the World War II leafleting of German cities where “some of them land on a barn roof and some land in a field and some actually get to a person, but that is predicated on the idea that the person who gets the leaflet can’t respond.”
“A person who gets an email can respond,” she said. “So, I think the correct mental model for this intervention to which we’re moving, is that instead of sort of spamming people, what we want to do is start conversations.”
“So, the message shouldn’t be, ‘here are the facts, believe them,’ but rather, ‘I’ve heard this, and I’d like to hear back from you, what do you think?’”
To that end, she and Fabian are looking at how to engage volunteers to start dialogues with Russians. This needs a new database of “conversation-starting messages” with a team doing translation. “The hope is really to change this from like yelling across the globe to actually having a conversation,” Minson said.
The website now offers volunteers this advice: “Keep your message short and clear. Our goal is to start a dialogue, not an argument.”
Students in Minson’s lab who work on computational linguistics are looking into ways to use artificial intelligence to rewrite messages to make them more receptive without having to manually edit each one. And she is considering how the work with Fabian could be studied more formally through a research project. But that is down the road, Minson said. “Right now, I’m buried in these emails.”
Banner image by Dmitry Dukhanin/Kommersant/Sipa USA via AP Images; Portrait of Fabian courtesy of Fabian