From Russia With Lies
Russia is waging a war of disinformation, propaganda and conspiracy – with willing messengers in the Russian public and on the British far-right, Sian Norris reports
Russia is waging a war of disinformation alongside its kinetic war in Ukraine, with conspiracist claims shared on social media and in far-right channels repeated by the Russian leadership, and vice versa.
The fake news distributed by the Russian Foreign Ministry’s and the Russian Embassy’s Twitter accounts is picked up by far-right activists and followers, who then repeat the lies verbatim – all while mocking mainstream media reporting.
Further, some conspiracist claims seem to be recycled from previous conflicts, shared on WhatsApp, and repeated days later by Russian Government mouthpieces.
And in an exclusive interview with a Russian woman living in the UK, Byline Times has learnt how WhatsApp and mainstream Russian media channels are spreading state propaganda, including through glossy documentaries and ill-informed social media takes.
Last week, the Russian Foreign Ministry repeated unverified claims that Ukraine was developing biological weapons – a claim that had been shared days before in WhatsApp messages circulating around Walthamstow, in London.
The WhatsApp messages were first highlighted by Labour MP Stella Creasy, who in a statement posted on her social media profiles called it “antisemitic, Putin backing disinformation”. The messages slander Ukraine’s President Zelensky, and claim that Snake Island – a small island in the Black Sea – was a site for the production of biological weapons.
There is no verifiable evidence for these claims which are pure disinformation. The messages also indulge in antisemitic accusations and traditional conspiracy theory around “chem trails” – the erroneous belief that long-lasting condensation trails consist of chemical or biological agents left in the sky by high-flying aircraft, sprayed for nefarious purposes undisclosed to the general public.
Creasy wrote how numerous constituents had sent it to her, asking “if it is true”. She writes that “very clearly it’s not” and advises people to delete any messages making these false claims.
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In previous conflicts, the Russian Government has used similar disinformation about chemical weapons, including in Georgia.
The Russian Embassy in the UK has also been tweeting conspiracist disinformation, this time relating to the bombing of Mariupol maternity hospital. Its content has been picked up by far-right channels on Telegram and repeated as pro-Putin, anti-Ukraine propaganda.
The proliferation of a conspiracy from shadowy messages to official Government channels tells us something concerning about how disinformation is spreading in this war.
Propaganda Within Russia
“It was a shocking discovery to me that people in Russia were completely brainwashed,” Galina told Byline Times. She lives in the UK with her family, having grown up in the former USSR. “I have been speaking to intelligent people, educated people, and they all believe Putin”.
Galina did not think Putin would invade Ukraine. She had grown up with the legacy of World War Two, where whole families lost every male relative. “My grandfather, his brothers – they all died in the war,” she said. “It was only when I left Russia that I realised this was not normal”.
What struck Galina forcefully was that, as soon as Putin invaded Ukraine, everyone she spoke to in Russia told the same story.
“They all said this was a just war, that Putin was removing the Nazis from Ukraine,” she explained. “This is very emotional for Russian people as they see the country as having saved the world from the Nazis in World War Two. Everyone sent me the same information on WhatsApp about the history of Russia to try and justify it”.
Galina also described how people she spoke to repeat the line of Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, that this was “not a new war, it started eight years ago and now we are finishing it,” she said.
The propaganda influencing her old friends and colleagues comes both from social media and the mainstream media. She shared a documentary fronted by a popular actor ‘which all the people love,” she explained. “He made this programme justifying the war and accusing Ukraine of atrocities. And people believe it”.
The war, Galina believes, has become a useful tool for Putin to satisfy a restless and disappointed electorate. “Before this,” she told Byline Times, “when I talked to people back home they would complain about the economy, about pensions, and criticise Putin. Now he is the saviour and fighting what they call a just war”.
To see people she loves and respects taken in by pro-war, pro-Putin propaganda is incredibly upsetting for Galina.
“They are like zombies,” she said.
Snake Island and the maternity hospital bombing have been the focus of numerous conspiracy theories spread by the pro-Putin far-right, who willingly repeat the Russian President’s propaganda.
Those defending Putin in these spaces accuse the Ukrainian Government of “lying to its people” and ask “does the entire international press take over the fake news from the BBC, CNN and Reuters?” Posts mock how the “world’s public will believe any lie if it is well-packaged”.
The irony of course is that those posting in support of Putin’s invasion have been taken in by disinformation coming out of Russian propaganda channels – both in Russia’s state-controlled media and in conspiracist spaces on social media.
These members of far-right groups congratulate themselves on taking the ‘red pill’ and seeing the truth through the mainstream media’s “lies”, while failing to recognise they have become useful stooges for an aggressive regime.
Far-right Telegram channels are also spreading disinformation about President Zelensky, including that he is no longer in Ukraine. These conspiracy theories echo similar lies about the White Helmets and human rights defenders told throughout the Syrian conflict, where Russia supported Assad’s brutal and repressive regime.
David Lawrence, Senior Researcher at Hope not Hate, told Byline Times that “over the past decade, Putin’s authoritarianism and illiberalism have seen him celebrated by the European and American far-right, perceived as a counterweight to American imperialism, globalism and progressive ideals, and, for some, alleged Jewish influence. This understanding has fed an instinctive support of the invasion of Ukraine as a pushback against Western or Jewish-controlled interests”.
Lawrence added that “support for Putin is far from uniform among the far right, however, with others viewing Putin’s actions as foolhardy or part of a conspiracy to destroy white nations, making the conflict a divisive issue among the far-right”.