Putin’s Willing Disinformation Agents
When it comes to war in Ukraine, Putin has found left and right-wing figures willing to spread his propaganda, as Dr David Grimes explains
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War makes strange bedfellows, and the conflict in Ukraine is no exception – as Putin cheerleaders from a range of political backgrounds willingly share his propaganda.
In the European Parliament, left-wing Irish MEPs Clare Daly and Mick Wallace have repeatedly blamed NATO aggression for Russia’s attack, a stance implicitly echoed on the left by groups like Stop the War.
At the opposite end of the political spectrum, figures like Fox New’s Tucker Carlson and Trump-aligned Republicans regurgitate Kremlin approved conspiracy theories, buttressed by an eclectic supporting cast including Glenn Greenwald, QAnon, Tulsi Gabbard, and even Russell Brand.
That such canards are shared by such a diverse array gives insight into how disinformation thrives, and why amplification falsehood is so useful to Putin.
Disinformation – the spreading of deliberate falsehoods – has a long political pedigree. It can be traced back in its etymology to a Russian root, dezinformatsiya. During the Cold War, the sharing of disinformation was a central policy of Soviet intelligence.
Its purpose was defined by KGB Major General Oleg Kalugin as “not intelligence collection, but subversion: active measures to weaken the West, to drive wedges in the Western community alliances of all sorts”. Such campaigns were insidious: designed to engender conflict in perceived rival nations while distracting from the USSR’s own dubious undertakings. Schemes ranged from concocting documents to imply a fake Nazi past for Western politicians, to crafting the dangerous fiction that AIDs was a US-made bioweapon.
Such efforts were cheap and effective, and they have re-emerged with a vengeance under Putin. Its wide-reaching ramifications can be in the role of Russian influence in Trump’s 2016 election, and even with inflammatory fictions about COVID-19, – the latter designed to “..aggravate the public health crisis in western countries, specifically by undermining public trust”, according to the European Commission.
The goal of such exercises remains cynical as it ever was. Disinformation is used to sow discord within the ranks of perceived enemies, fracturing trust and cohesion. By creating a storm of conflicting narratives and false equivalences, autocrats can capitalise heavily on the confusion this induces, efforts again visible in Russia’s anti-Ukraine propaganda.
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This “Russian firehose” model of propaganda is well-named: high-volume, multichannel, and unrelenting.
Its spinning of multiple narratives is a divide-and-conquer strategy that neutralises effective opposition – making it a beloved tactic of authoritarian regimes. For disinformation to be effective, it requires a ready and seemingly unconflicted means of dissemination.
In recent history, this required the large-scale co-opting of journalists, or even entire printing presses, willing to spread propaganda. Now, in the era of social media, getting disinformation into the hands and minds of readers has exponentially decreased this difficulty, as the existence of state troll farms attests.
But while the bots play their part, the most useful drivers of disinformation are prominent figures in the public eye. When established voices repeat the right lines, it not only obscures the source of the propaganda, it allows devious regimes report such utterances as independent sentiment.
Falsehoods are thus crafted to resonate with existing prejudices across the spectrum, ensuring ready adoption by those who fail to question propaganda that chimes with their beliefs.
Clare Daly and Mick Wallace are left-wing cases in point, with a long-standing propensity to adopt the positions of autocratic regimes. Prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, they repeatedly vectored debunked Russian disinformation without due diligence. Examples include Wallace’s insistence that Syrian human rights activists “staged” chemical attacks, and Daly wrongly besmirching Belarusian journalist Roman Protasevich as a “neo-Nazi” after his illegal detention by dictator Alexander Lukashenko.
Their attempts to deflect from the wrong-doing of autocratic regimes has often descended into victim-blaming. They have demonised Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny and blamed the 2015 Paris attacks on “France’s militarisation of the planet”. Despite existing on the extreme fringe of European politics, Daly and Wallace are highly cited sources in Russian and Chinese media, where this repetition of propaganda is presented as independent opinion.
No surprise then, that as the Ukraine war unfolds, they have refused to condemn the Russian invasion. This tendency to embrace anti-western positions has rendered them potent if perhaps inadvertent amplifiers of Kremlin propaganda.
Sharing pro-Putin disinformation is in no way solely a problem for the far-left. Indeed, the most adamant American mouthpieces for Russian propaganda have been far-right figures.
Tucker Carlson, Fox New’s star anchor, has repeatedly echoed Russian state messaging into the living rooms of millions of Americans – telling fallacious tales of Ukrainian Biolabs and even parroting Putin’s line that Ukraine is not a real country.
Carlson’s utterings have been proven to be useful to Putin’s regime: a leaked report from Russian media insisted it was “.. essential to use as much as possible fragments of broadcasts of the popular Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who sharply criticises the actions of the United States [and] NATO, their negative role in unleashing the conflict in Ukraine… the defiantly provocative behaviour from the leadership of the eastern countries and Nato towards the Russian Federation and towards President Putin.”
The US right’s willingness to amplify Russian propaganda is in part, motivated by a deep-seated antipathy to the Democratic Party. It’s an antipathy that Russian intelligence has readily exploited. High-profile celebrities have also embraced Kremlin disinformation, including Gabbard, Greenwald, and Brand.
While reflex contrarianism might fuel part of this, these sentiments are easily weaponised by expert propagandists. Whatever the motivation and regardless of politics, these figures are uncritically amplifying disinformation without any obvious concern for its veracity. Like the journalists of the 1930s who gave a veneer of legitimacy to Stalin’s show-trials, their utterances are parroted on State-controlled media of oppressive regimes, lending an illusion of respectability to odious falsehoods.
Regardless of political leanings, the unchecked propagation of falsehoods is damaging to our collective understanding, impeding understanding and the ability to make informed choices. Public figures have a disproportionate influence on public perception and should be accountable for their claims. As Ukraine suffers now, those who insist on propagating poisonous fictions should be viewed as complicit ‘useful idiots’, treated with only contempt.
Dr David Robert Grimes is a scientist and author of “The Irrational Ape: Why We Fall for Disinformation, Conspiracy Theory and Propaganda” (Simon and Schuster UK) Twitter: @drg1985 Instagram: David_robert_grimes