Today
Mon 25 October 2021

From digital attacks to physical assaults on journalists, Iain Overton’s investigation into the Russian disinformation playbook of chaos in Ukraine is a chilling portent of future wars

The way to war is a slow one. First the flight, then the ride to the station, then the rickety overnight train in the carriage with a reedy mattress and the offering of bread and vodka. Then a drive in a Lada over pock-holed streets under a thin dawn, past fields of black earth, through checkpoints and over broken bridges. Until a place so nondescript is reached you wouldn’t realise the line of trees in the distance cover trenches that separate Ukraine from the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic. So, you reach for your phone, raise your arm and take a picture of this – the frontline of war.

The social media response to war is a fast one. The picture uploads, the tweet lands. It is retweeted with first a ‘like’, then another, then a comment, then another. Then one that stands out: “NATO are neo-Nazis.” “This is a war fought by fascists sections of the Ukrainian forces”. “The Azov Special Operations Detachment are murderers”. More tweets accuse the West of stoking this war. One person who replies follows just two people. All the accounts who reply are anonymous.  

The screen fills with comments. The silence of the day, apart from a pheasant battering up from the scrublands into the skies, is broken by a flurry of alerts. War might come at you slowly, like a great vulture that turns from a dot to a shadow with carrion in its talons, but social media is there in a nanosecond, red in claw. 

Such a media assault leads to a contemplation of the nature of modern war. 

Winning the hearts and minds through news and images – these are not new.  Propaganda was truly born in the trenches of another, greater war, over a century ago.  But the conflict that has divided Ukraine’s east since 2014 – where the separatist forces of the self-declared Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics (DPR and LPR) and the Ukrainian Government clashed and fought and died – has produced lessons of modern warfare that should not just concern generals. It unleashed a certain type of assault on the media that, perhaps, gives birth to a dark premonition for all future war.

The conflict in Ukraine has revealed, not only how social media has evolved in recent years to become integral to the waging of conflict, it has also showed how the Kremlin had created a very particular ‘playbook’ when it comes to ‘winning the narrative’, sacrificing truth and impartiality in the name of victory. It wages a hybrid war that is 10% physical and 90% digital. 

It is a playbook that has a shadowy list of chapters. Physical assaults on journalists, then assaults on them digitally. The spreading of disinformation and pro-Russians controlling the media. Then repeat. And it was a playbook that was very visibly implemented seven years ago, over there, beyond the dark trees, beyond the trenches, in Donetsk.


Physical Assaults on Journalists

It was in 2014 when Ukraine’s eastern war, starting small, began to mutate and grow until ordinary people living in Donetsk were caught in its widening gyre. And the first people to feel the shift were journalists.

On 6 April, Oleksiy Movsesyan, a 44-year-old cameraman for a local television station, was filming a pro-Russian demonstration outside the Security Service of Ukraine’s (SBU) headquarters in Luhansk. The crowd were restless.  

“What channel are you with?” came the cry. The mob pulsated with drunks and the destitute. Some sought violence. “Show us your press card,” their voices grew louder.  

He pulled out his credentials, but someone from the pack peeled off, strode over and punched him in the face. For a full minute, Movsesyan was concussed; reeling. The police stood by and watched. Their inaction was a harbinger of something terrible.

Later, as the war grew and the bodies piled, militants with heavy Russian accents threatened to shoot Movsesyan in the legs when he tried to film the site of their mortar launch from inside a school. He had seen these separatists firing first at the school, then from it. Perhaps, he thought, they were trying to claim that the Ukrainian military had bombed the school. Either way, his camera’s presence exposed their plan. He was left shaking after their threats. A few weeks later, he left Donbas.  

He was not alone in being attacked. Vladimir Simperovych was not a journalist, but someone who had taken to Twitter during the Russian-supported uprising and, via his account @voiceofdonetsk, had decried the violence. He was soon arrested. 

In the depths of the SBU building, outside which Movsesyan had been punched, rough Russians had broken Vladimir’s nose and beaten his feet.  They had taken a device designed to generate electricity for High School experiments, and connected it to five wires. Three wires on his hand and two on his head. They cranked up the voltage, keeping the amps low. Then they pressed a button.

“It felt like my nerves were on fire,” he says. “Everything went white.”

Sometimes, he would pass out, not knowing how long he was gone. Burn tracks spread across his body. But what troubled him most is that they didn’t ask him a thing: this was torture without interrogation. It was just to show him that they could.  

Such assaults on those who spoke out – journalists and social media activists – were commonplace. The list of journalists attacked, one way or another, by pro-Russian separatists is long: Stanislav Aseyev, Pavel Kanygin, Oleksandr Bolotin, Sergey Erzhenkov, Gennadiy Bogutskiy…

Many have stories like Maria Varfolomeieva’s. She was arrested for taking a photograph of a building that housed a separatist military unit – something that she denies knowing – and spent months being shuttled from prison to basement to holding cell, her humour and dignity stripped steadily away with each hurried transition.

Or that of Dr Yuri Shapovalov, a neuropathologist seized in January 2018 and sentenced to 13 years just for taking photographs of Russian military vehicles in Donetsk

Maria Varfolomeieva. Photo: Iain Overton

Such accounts, too, are not just found in Donetsk. There were torture cells operating under Moscow’s orders in the separatist conflict in Chechnya from 1999 to 2009; in the South-Ossetian war in 2008; in the Transnistria War between 1990 and 1992; and in the separatist war in Ingushetia from 2007 to 2015. And such Russian assaults on democracy are getting worse.

According to Justice For Journalists – which funded my trip to Ukraine – there were 4,611 attacks on media workers in the post-Soviet region in 2020. This was two-and-a-half times higher than that in 2019. Not to mention the case of Roman Protasevich, the Belarusian dissident who was taken off a Ryanair jet forced to land in Minsk on 23 May, on suspicion of inciting unrest. 

The reason for this rise is that, as Russia’s standing in the world is threatened, its agents of chaos fight back – attacking those who threaten their power wherever they can. But it was not just the physical assaults that the Russian playbook designed to crush critical reporting. The digital onslaught was unrelenting, too.


Digital Assaults on Journalists

Denys Kazansky, a 37-year-old YouTuber and television host, has a powerful base in Ukraine. Adding up his Twitter, Facebook and YouTube followers, he reaches 420,000 people with his commentaries about the war. Originally from Donetsk, he – like so many others – was forced to leave after threat to life and liberty grew too great. He sought a safer life in Kyiv. But the digital war followed him. 

He finds himself, today, attacked in two distinct ways. The first is by people who he knows – Russian sponsored experts and commentators. The second is by those who are disconcertingly anonymous. And it was these anonymous tribes that really piled on the abuse and insult in the days and months following the annexation of Donetsk.

He was called a liar, a mouthpiece of the Russians, a creator of fake news. He was accused of claiming that there was violence when there was none; that he was a fascist; an agent of the United States; a liar in the pocket of George Soros. And not just once or twice – thousands of times, tens of thousands of times. It was a repetition of insults that spoke to something orchestrated and dark.

“Anyone who criticises Russia is immediately attacked as being a Nazi,” he says, describing a tactic to hammer home accusations using the weight of repetition: the reiteration of simple slurs and attacks, designed to divide, designed to create ‘the other’.

He once uploaded a YouTube video where he spoke about DPR militants. Within minutes, it had 30,000 ‘dislikes’. The structure of social media gives mass to this strategy. A ‘like’ on Twitter has less impact than a barbed insult below. The effect is clear: truth is assaulted in ways, both explicit and implicit. Facts, however accurate, are weakened merely through the presence of manufactured criticism. 

“Physical war cannot exist without propaganda,” he says, and you feel even that truism would be ripped apart by anonymous accounts.

The attacks flowed the fastest when he challenged the pro-Russian narrative, saying that not everyone in Donetsk wanted to leave Ukraine, that many did not favour independence. Sometimes there are so many comments posted that he doesn’t have the energy to read beyond the first 200 replies. ‘Lower value’ accounts – those with fewer followers – are designed specifically to attack journalists and commentators; replying to them simply legitimises their invective. 

But physical and digital attacks are not the only weapon deployed in the ‘hybrid warfare’ playbook. Truth was undermined in very different ways in that eastern war. And it took a form of assault far greater than has ever been seen before.


Disinformation

“Informational war used to support real war, but now physical war supports informational war,” says Dr Olexsandr Korban, associate professor at the University of Kyiv.

He has the air of a modern evangelist; high on the belief that the digital threat to democracy in Ukraine – and beyond – is as concerning, if not more so, than the physical threat that pro-Russian forces pose.  

“Information warfare is the true weapon of mass destruction,” he insists. 

His own research has identified at least 5,000 professional trolls and bloggers in Russia, each controlling a number of accounts. Cumulatively, they account for some 300,000 fake accounts that are able, he says, to reach up to 100 million accounts. 

This, he claims, is more than two-and-a-half times the size of Ukraine and an influence that punches far above its weight. He says Russian President Vladimir Putin’s disinformation budget is between $3 billion and $5 billion – a mere 10% of the total Russian defence budget. But what that budget has helped foment – from Ukraine to the election of Donald Trump to Brexit – far surpasses the initial investment.

Dr Olexsandr Korban. Photo: Iain Overton

The engine of this dissent are the Russian troll farms which, he says, are divided into sections – each with a different focus, each a different angle. One is tasked with attacking or promoting defence issues; one is obsessed with police violence or the Black Lives Matter debate; one is fixated on ‘culture war’ issues such as trans rights and the politics of ‘woke’. All are intent on stoking hate and discord driven by the truism that ‘a house divided against itself cannot stand’.

The approach is far more complex than simple bots pushing out disinformation. A Russian creates an account that looks like it might be pro-Ukrainian and then, after a while, begins to disseminate information that is decidedly not. A pro-Russian oligarch in Ukraine buys up a media channel and begins, slowly, to shift the editorial agenda and framing. The palms of ‘experts’ are greased to push out pro-Russian perspectives and invective.

Other tricks are used. The manipulation of popular archetypes is common: emotive images, historical nostalgia, veterans, ancient photos, Soviet kitsch. All are deployed, seeking to pull at sentimental heartstrings or awaken long-buried rifts. The accusation of being a Nazi serves a powerful purpose. And, once the idea is sown, celebrities are co-opted to amplify these simple messages. Some accounts just lie without reserve.  

“In the end,’ the professor says, ‘60% is true. 40% is fake.”  

He lists the deceits. The claim of Ukrainian forces executing a small boy in Slovyansk, crucifying the child upon a wooden board, and then dragging his mother, tied to a tank, around the city square. The five-year old killed by a Ukrainian military drone in April 2021. The 10-year-old girl killed in shelling in Donetsk in 2015. He tells how the hashtag #SaveDonbassPeople showed graphic images of harmed children, without stating that the children themselves were often not from Ukraine – one was a photo taken after a bombing in Syria. None of these were true, but all were reported far and wide.

Social media is filled with tropes. Photo: Iain Overton

“The main goal,” he says, “is to spike your emotions. Once you are emotional, the Russians can influence you. In that space, where you are experiencing cognitive dissonance, you are pliable and prone to subconscious and emotive manipulation.”

The list of triggers used by the trolls is long: the Ukrainian army killing Jews; committing human rights abuses (despite some cars in the videos clearly having Russian number plates); Ukrainian nationalists showing Nazi flags; female snipers killing innocent men; civilian targets shelled. All of these are traps, he claims, are designed to divide. And such attempts at division are not confined to Ukraine’s eastern front. 

“40% of Brexit outrage and tweets about Scottish Independence,” he says, “was manufactured by Russian security trolls.” 

This might be an exaggeration but in that claim can be seen how national sovereignty might come under attack without a single bullet being fired.


Russian Control of Ukrainian Media

The issue of who controls the media also dominates the Kremlin hybrid warfare playbook.

According to the National Security and Defence Council in Ukraine, there are 13 oligarchs currently in Ukraine. The English-language Kyiv Post claims that, combined, they “own at least 65% of Ukraine’s TV market”. Today Putin’s Ukrainian ally, oligarch Viktor Medvedchuk, stands accused of using Channel 112, NewsOne and ZIK for explicitly pro-Russian propaganda purposes.

Russian Radio in Ukraine. Photo: Iain Overton

The cameraman Oleksiy Movsesyan describes the subtle way in which news is manipulated by these channels, such as the time when his Russian producer told him not to take shots that included posters of the then Ukrainian nationalist President Viktor Yanukovych. Such deference to the Kremlin has, Movsesyan says, “been baked into the system”. 

“It’s been there since Soviet times. The ideological phase of pro-Russian narratives was laid down long ago. It was only ‘activated’ in 2014.”

The ideology of pro-Russian narratives has a history. Photo: Iain Overton

But it is not just Russians within the Ukrainian news systems that worries. Olena Mokrenchuk, a senior lieutenant in the Ukrainian Army press office has deeper concerns. Militarily, she says, the Ukrainian Army is under-equipped to deal with the troll farm onslaught.  

“To fight against bot farms,” she says, “I can count the people capable to do that on the fingers of one hand.”

Her bigger concern is that Ukraine does not even dominate its own media space. Large swathes of the country do not get Ukrainian media. In the Sumskaya and Chernihiv Oblasts, she says, just two hours drive from Kyiv, the locals prefer to watch Russian television than pay for Ukrainian satellite feeds. She estimates that about 14% of the population do not access their own country’s television news.

It is not just broadcasters. She recently reviewed 27 Ukrainian publications and 14 pro-Russian newspapers and found, in more than 500 reports, only two covered the Ukrainian military’s operations in the east. Unlike the British press that regularly reports on British forces, she struggles to name a newspaper that offers up a counter-narrative to Russian propaganda. Again, such claims have to be taken on trust, but what must be done to address the rise of fake news is an incontrovertible truth that cannot be brushed away. 

Ukraine has its fair share of propaganda too. Photo: Iain Overton

Countering Fakes

Dmytro Potekhin, CEO of a Kyiv-based enterprise called Factology, believes that only sanctions and cutting-edge technology can counter this threat. He should care more than most about the corrosive impact that fake news has had on human rights in Ukraine: he was arrested on 7 August 2014 and held for 48 days. Today, his focus is expressly on countering the funding and distribution of disinformation, for which he offers up two fundamental solutions.

“First, stop buying from Putin,” he argues. Ukraine and the West should refuse to purchase Russian energy and gas. “Putin’s disinformation needs to be treated with the same concern as terrorism, and the same mechanisms for preventing such funding need to be applied here.” 

He claims that only 4% of Ukraine’s budget is obtained from transporting Russian gas to the West and says that Ukraine’s dependency on Russia’s energy could be shaken off. If it could do that, the impact on the Kremlin would be devastating. After all, more than one-third of Russia’s economy is based on energy exports.  

“Every time we fill our cars with Russian petrol,” he says, “we are financing a troll farm.  It’s so pervasive, even I’m doing it. But it’s become increasingly clear that it’s not Europe’s dependence on Russia that is the cause. But rather Russia’s deep dependence on Europe.”

Second, he wants to combat disinformation. He has tried to map Russian information attacks and track counter-disinformation efforts and experimented with plug-ins that detect fakes on Facebook. But what he really wants to do is to monetise a ‘verification’ process. As content creators on Twitter and Facebook are, in the end, not really making money for themselves but for those who own these platforms, the reality – for many – is that the spreading of disinformation and hate pays better than the articulation of truth.

Potekhin has invented a system called ‘Factcoin’. An NFT – a non-fungible token or unit of data stored on a digital ledger that says a certain digital creation is unique and therefore not interchangeable – which he claims enables people to, technically, create unique value around their reporting. It is not an entirely clear business proposal, but it does begin to address the challenges of disinformation pragmatically. Creating value – on a digital level – not only for creating truth, but for sharing it too.

“The idea is that people must be able to make money on the delivery of, and not just the production of, quality, cross-checked facts. But the bottleneck”, he admits, “is finding trustable independent content providers.”

His is very much a capitalistic and pragmatic approach to countering falsehood; one driven by the aspiration that the dissemination of truth can be, in itself, profitable. Whatever the solution, what cannot be contested is the urgency of the need. 

“The war on disinformation,” he claims “is as pressing as the war on terrorism. It can be won by efficient journalism and market tools. The moral outrage of disinformation should be as loud and as concentrated as, say, environmental degradation.”


The Wider Impact

Potekhin’s conviction is not unique in Ukraine. The country is well aware of the impact of fake news and there have been attempts to address orchestrated attacks. Three television channels have been shut down in recent months. The number of trolls seems to have ebbed off. People are more alert to disinformation. 

But the violence against journalists that was seen so starkly in Donetsk has not abated. If anything, it has seeped across the country. 

According to the Ukrainian Institute of Mass Information (IMI), between January 2021 and April 2021, there were 142 cases of people being beaten up and two murders in direct attempts to supress their freedom of speech in Ukraine. In 2019, IMI also reported that 87% of journalists surveyed had faced cyber-bullying, with half citing attacks by trolls or bots.

What is harder to gauge is the impact that the undermining of truth has had in Ukraine. The line between fiction and fact has become so hard to discern, such a contamination serves as a warning to others.

“Russia practised its tactical media operations on us,” says the IMI’s Kateryna Diachuk.  “And Britain has to study this field of disinformation in order to understand what Russia is capable of.” In general, it seems that the Russian-backed separatists first had to ‘win the narrative’ in the digital world in order to conquer in the physical world.

Dr Yin Yin Lu, who researched persuasion in the context of new media at Oxford University, says that “the mental and emotional battlefield precedes and undergirds the physical one” and that “a battle of perception must occur before a battle of bombs and guns.”

But Lu also stresses that one of the biggest challenges in terms of digital influence is proving cause and effect. Her doctoral thesis focused specifically on the rhetoric of Brexit tweets. People often ask if she showed how digital campaigning, including Russian troll farms, influenced the result of the 2016 EU Referendum. But her response frustrates those who seek the neatness of cause and effect. 

People are more alert to disinformation. Photo: Iain Overton

“This is not possible to prove in the vast majority of cases,” she says. “it’s far, far more nuanced than that.”

This is, perhaps, the greatest challenge regarding addressing the influence of disinformation both in modern warfare and modern political life. Whereas bombs, guns and torture provide hard evidence – coffins, lists of the dead, scars on bodies – digital warfare is far more nebulous. The burden of proof in exposing a troll as a troll often lies upon the recipient of that hate, not on the state or the lobby group that sponsored it. 

The Kremlin knows that stoking hatred of ‘the other’ works: it feeds off the flag-worshippers, nationalists, and Poundland fascists. But categorically showing how such digital manipulation – ordered from afar but felt acutely in our homes – impacts our behaviours is almost impossible. All too often, this leads to an under-appreciation of where the real harm lies. 

UK papers were recently filled with breathless reporting on Russia’s hostile response to the British Navy off the coast of Crimea. But, the day before that incident happened, a British High Court judge rejected an attempt by a group of MPs and peers to force the Prime Minister to investigate Russian interference in UK elections. Judge Justice Swift said that he saw “no distinction” between a controversial radio host and career spies in Moscow seeking to disrupt British democracy. He said that concerns about Russian interference in Britain were a “matter for politics rather than the law”. 

The fact that a troll might do far more damage to British society here in our homes than a disputed ‘shot across the bows’ against a British Navy vessel some 2,000 miles away held no legal concern for the judge. 

But, if one thing is clear from the Russian-sponsored assaults on the media in eastern Ukraine, is that it should concern us all. Because the battle for truth in the digital age is part of a wider assault on all of our values and democratic beliefs – sentiments that often become the first casualties in this new, 21st Century form of hybrid warfare both in Ukraine and much closer to home.

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