The parallel war of disinformation between Russia and Ukraine could seed more poison
As Russian forces attacked Ukraine on three fronts, a parallel disinformation war was taking place on social media and on Russian news outlets.
Since the early stage of this conflict, President Putin has sought to justify his invasion by depicting Ukraine as a belligerent actor threatening Russian lives. In his speech on Monday night, right before the invasion of Ukraine’s Donbas region, Putin claimed that “the so-called civilised world prefers to ignore it as if there were none of this horror, genocide that almost four million people are being subjected to”.
The claim that the Donbas’ Russian-speaking residents have been massacred by the Ukrainian government is not backed by any kind of evidence. It simply aims to convince Russians that this is a war to defend the mainland. The Russian president repeated this absurd claim in his following televised address before 6am in Moscow on Thursday. Reciting a false assertion over and over, until people start believing it, is one key tactic of disinformation campaigns.
Putin has also said he aims to “de-Nazify” Ukraine, making use of a trope that has been picked up online. Trolls and fake accounts have extensively shared depictions of Ukraine as a country full of neo-Nazis. Again, the aim is to persuade the Russian public that this is a “just war”.
Disinformation doesn’t only come out of Putin’s lips, however. A host of Telegram channels have mushroomed, sharing counterfeit videos of Ukraine’s aggression and backing Putin’s fake claims. One of the most common techniques to mislead on Telegram is to share footage from other conflicts – such as the Syrian war – claiming it is instead material proving how Ukraine is attacking the Russian people. Since Telegram is a highly secure, encrypted app, it is almost impossible to check these trolls.
Often, the purpose of misinformation is not necessarily to convince people of alternative theories, but to sow enough doubt that division grows.
Fact-checkers and military specialists have been busy debunking disinformation. The investigative site Bellingcat has demonstrated that a video allegedly showing Polish and Ukrainian saboteurs attacking Russian tanks was instead a patchwork of footage from a Finnish military exercise in 2010. But for every piece of disinformation that gets refuted, ten more appear online.
A Russian espionage group under the eerily cute name Fancy Bear has been operating for years, by stealing information and disseminating rumours and fake news. The group is believed to be associated with the Russian military surveillance agency GRU. They have targeted a handful of countries, media organisations and democratic institutions in a bid to create confusion. In the face of war with Ukraine, these efforts, whether under Fancy Bear or another name, will likely be renewed.
Disinformation is also rife on the ground. Russia’s defence ministry claimed Ukrainian soldiers had surrendered at the border, Kiev denied this claim; they claimed the attacks were not targeting cities but footage exposed this as another lie.
In the UK, Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries tried to prevent disinformation taking root by telling Ofcom to review the operation of Kremlin-backed news outlet Russia Today (RT). Banning RT is a short-term act that could lead to the BBC being banned in Russia. A counter-move that would make dispelling propaganda even harder.
In this battle of truth, quantity not quality wins. As Nato’s thirty nations meet today for an emergency summit, they will have to keep their eyes very open to navigate the fog of Russian lies.