How Russia’s Disinformation Apparatus Ran Aground in Ukraine
Idrees Ahmad shows how the propaganda weapons the Kremlin tried out in Syria are missing their targets in the current war, but urges vigilance to new ones
Days before Aleppo fell in December 2016, a video took social media by storm. Distributed by the viral video service In the Now, the video featured an “independent Canadian journalist” at a press conference at the UN who, according to the caption, “totally crushes MSM reporter on what’s actually going on in Syria”.
Eva Bartlett—the “independent journalist”—claimed that the media was misleading audiences by relying on “compromised groups like the White Helmets” who use “children that have been recycled in different reports” such as “a girl named Aya who turns up in a report in a month, say, August, and she turns up in the next month, in two different locations”.
The video spoke to people’s generalized scepticism of the media and their vague paranoia about being misled by warmongering elites. It soon garnered 4.5 million views and 108,000 shares on In the Now’s Facebook page; 323,000 views and 7,500 shares on its Twitter feed. It was also copied and shared by hundreds of other accounts. It was viewed 4.2 million times on the libertarian We Are Change’s Facebook page alone.
Bartlett however was neither “independent” nor a “journalist”; she is a pro-Assad activist who had returned from a regime-chaperoned tour of Aleppo during which she drew derision for sporting an “I ♥︎ Bashar” wristband. The thing that lent credibility to the episode was the august setting of a UN press room. The event, however, was organized by the Syrian regime’s representatives who had merely booked the UN venue.
Propaganda is parasitic, and the success of Russian propaganda has always relied on a vast pool of willing hosts. Some are paid, but many carry the messages through the propulsive force of their own ideology or prejudice
The viral service In the Now is in fact a front for the Russian state broadcaster RT (formerly Russia Today). The video was heavily promoted by Sputnik News, and RT’s foreign language subsidiaries, raking in millions more views (RT France, 1.4 million; RT Deutsch 1.8 million; RT Español, 590,000).
Bartlett’s claim that a girl had been “recycled” in rescue videos was based entirely on the fact that three girls had appeared in videos who wore roughly similar clothes (light blue jeans, aqua green top). The girl Aya, 8, was filmed in Telbiseh, Homs on October 10; the girl Rawan Alloush, 5, was filmed in Bab al Nairab on September 23; the third, unnamed girl, was also filmed in Bab al Nairab in August, but she had darker hair and slighter build, bearing no resemblance to the other two. None of the photographs was taken by the White Helmets, and there was corroborating footage in each case showing airstrikes on the locations from where they were rescued.
It was a propaganda coup. It was Russian media using people’s scepticism of the media to get them to question their own moral judgment; it was the belligerent using people’s aversion to war to deflect attention from its own brutal war. It created doubt at the precise moment when evidence of mass crimes from Aleppo was mounting and its vanquished population was being uprooted. Instead of war crimes and forced expulsion, the conversation became one about media manipulation, staged rescues, and “crisis actors”.
It was therefore unsurprising that on March 9, when Russian forces bombed a maternity hospital in Mariupol, Ukraine, the information war would revert to battle-tested tropes.
The bombing had killed 3 and injured 17, including Instagram model Marianna Podgurskaya. In a widely-shared image from the aftermath, a pregnant woman can be seen being carried away in a stretcher; while in a separate news clip the pregnant Podgruskaya can be seen wrapped in a blanket.
A claim, originating on Facebook, soon spread on Russian Telegram channels that Podgruskaya, a paid model, had been paid to play both the pregnant women and that the scenes had been faked. The claim was then amplified by the official Twitter account of the Russian embassy in the UK.
The claims were immediately challenged by Bellingcat founder Eliot Higgins on Twitter and, as he noted, Podgruskaya’s own Instagram provided evidence of her pregnancy. Journalists and fact-checking services also followed up and confirmed that while Podgruskaya gave birth to a girl a day later, the other pregnant woman and her child did not survive.
Twitter removed the Russian embassy’s false claims. And a week later, when Russian ambassador Alexander Shulgin repeated the claim in a television interview, the visibly impatient host made no attempt to hide her contempt.
The Fight Back: Open Source Journalism
Unlike in Syria, Russian disinformation in Ukraine has so far failed to gain traction. Some of the reasons are specific to Ukraine: Russia’s aggression is too blatant to be covered up by propaganda; Ukraine’s long exposure to Russian disinformation has left it in a heightened state of preparedness; and, most significantly, the effectiveness of Ukrainian messaging and the character of the messenger.
Volodymyr Zelenskyy earned extraordinary legitimacy in Ukraine and around the world by standing his ground when defeat looked inevitable and his survival looked uncertain. This unity of political and communicative power in a single individual with moral authority has helped Ukraine consolidate the image of stoic resistance in the face of naked aggression, thus neutralizing the Kremlin’s vast propaganda apparatus.
But there are also broader developments that have worked to Ukraine’s advantage. Over eleven years of war in Syria, the Kremlin had already tried most of the methods it is currently deploying against Ukraine: as it used ISIS as an excuse in Syria for attacking the anti-Assad opposition, so in Ukraine, it is using Azov as an excuse for attacking the entire country; and as in Syria it seeded multiple counternarratives to obscure the truth about each, so in Ukraine, it is promoting mutually contradictory claims to deflect attention in the case of each war crime. But these twice-told tales are finding limited traction.
A significant development in Syria was the emergence and maturation of open-source journalism. The invention was born of necessity. The Syrian regime restricted access to all but a few sympathetic journalists. Consequently, much of the war was documented by citizens through their cell phones. The war coincided with the proliferation of smartphones and social media, allowing victims, witnesses and even perpetrators to capture the war in all its complexity.
Syria is perhaps the most closely monitored and extensively documented war in history as a result. And open-source investigators like Bellingcat elevated the verification, geolocation and analysis of such data to an art form. In response, even national intelligence agencies have had to adapt their methods, shedding some of the unnecessary secrecy and acting with more agility. In the case of Ukraine, this meant timely warnings of troop buildups, information ops, and assassination plots.
But where in Syria’s one-sided war the Kremlin’s main concern was to obscure its atrocities, in Ukraine it has bigger worries: it is suffering unsustainable losses (9,861 soldiers killed according to the Russian Ministry of Defence’s own admission), its economy is collapsing under sanctions, and it has little to show for all the loss in blood and treasure.
QAnon and Weaponised Conspiracies
The sparks of dissent flaring up around Russia can potentially become a conflagration. The Kremlin is worried. Its information war is now directed as much inwards as it is outwards. Two weeks into the war, its news agency Tass insists that Russia hasn’t invaded Ukraine; Tass has also promoted the claim that Ukrainian peace negotiators include an American spy; and as its forces captured the Chernobyl nuclear plant, state broadcasters insisted it was being used to prepare a “plutonium-based” dirty bomb.
In a clumsy attempt to reach younger people, Russia recently recruited several TikTok influencers to read a scripted pro-war message. The notoriously non-populist Putin has been forced into organizing a televised public rally with pageantry worthy of Leni Riefenstahl; but unlike Hitler, Putin is no orator and his relationship with the Russian people was always transactional. So Putin had to make do with a speech to a captive audience from inside a bulletproof glass box wearing £10,200 Loro Piana jacket.
There is more than a whiff of desperation in all this. But it is too early to pronounce the death of Russia’s powerful messaging machine. Propaganda is parasitic, and the success of Russian propaganda has always relied on a vast pool of willing hosts. Some are paid, but many carry the messages through the propulsive force of their own ideology or prejudice.
Russian propaganda has long relied on people on the political fringes for amplification. Its messaging is calibrated to the sensitivities of people on the far left and far right. So while its propaganda effort has been hampered by RT America’s decision to cease operations and by the banning of Kremlin-backed news outlets across the EU, its messaging still finds traction through the ecosystem of alternative news sites. But it achieves its best results when it seeds false claims and then amplifies the disinformation produced independently by third parties, thus exploiting the concerns—or paranoia—of actors on the fringes.
Consider the infamous Biolabs story, which is a case study in information laundering and the resilience of false beliefs. Russia’s initial claim that it was invading Ukraine to “denazify” had found some traction on the left but its appeal was limited since many on the right are drawn to Putin because of his apparent anti-liberalism, anti-“globalism” and his presumed defence of white Christian values. So claims about the existence of US-funded Biolabs in Ukraine presented Russia with a unique opportunity to ride the wave of Covid-scepticism and the QAnon phenomenon and exploit its demonology, which includes everything from Dr Anthony Fauci to biological research.
The story originated on Twitter with a QAnon account which used the occasion of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24 to make the claim that the US was producing bioweapons in Ukraine to target Russia, just as it had produced the coronavirus to target China, and that Russia’s invasion was aimed at neutralizing this threat. The allegation was not new and had in fact been made a year earlier by a security advisor to Vladimir Putin and amplified by Dilyana Gaytandzhieva, a Bulgarian journalist with a history of channelling Kremlin-friendly disinformation. The claim was immediately debunked by Snopes, but it spread through QAnon networks all the same and was given further amplification by former think-tanker and current Moscow State University professor Maxim Suchkov. Again, it was debunked.
Yet, three days later, on March 10, the story received its biggest boost when on Fox News’ most-watched show, Tucker Carlson made the claim that the US was “funding the creation of deadly pathogens” in Ukraine. To support his claim, Carlson used clips of Russian and Chinese regime officials before turning to the blogger Glenn Greenwald, who suggested that the US government was “not telling the truth.” Carlson would revisit the story on two more episodes, and, a day later, Alex Jones’s Infowars ran a segment that linked the story to Anthony Fauci and the Coronavirus pandemic.
This train of disinformation had barged forth on its own steam. The Kremlin didn’t have to pay or instruct QAnon, Carlson or Greenwald; all it had to do—as a leaked memo revealed—was to brief Russian media to “use as much as possible fragments of broadcasts of the popular Fox News host Tucker Carlson”.
Bringing it Home
A far greater vulnerability, which the Kremlin has exploited since the Soviet era, is to target people’s legitimate concerns with separate issues to draw attention from the crime at hand.
One Russian media front Redfish, which positions itself as a progressive “grassroots” outlet, scored a minor coup on the day of the invasion when an infographic it produced went viral featuring a map of other places that were also being bombed. “Condemn war everywhere”, the infographic said, shaming people for focusing only on Ukraine.
This, of course, was convenient for a Kremlin-funded media outlet, but it resonated with progressive audiences all the same. For anyone who is concerned with Yemen, Palestine, or Somalia, and thinks that the issue doesn’t get nearly enough attention, such messaging has potent appeal. Many promoted the infographic without knowing its provenance, but those who learned of its origins were not unduly troubled since they believed it was merely articulating their actual concerns.
Skilful propagandists always leverage people’s pre-conceived notions to steer the conversation away from what is prejudicial to their side’s interests. The tactic works because it often deflects attention towards other injustices that are also real, making it easy to elicit a strong emotional response that blinds the audience to the underlying cynicism. Redfish, for example, was able to exploit genuine resentments over the real mistreatment of black people during the evacuation from Ukraine; or over the EU’s double standards in its treatment of Ukrainian refugees compared to refugees from elsewhere. Few took the time to consider, that black people in Ukraine wouldn’t be in this desperate situation if it weren’t for the Russian invasion; or that refugees from Syria and Ukraine would’t have to test Europe’s uncertain generosity if it weren’t for the indiscriminate ordnance of Redfish’s paymaster.
For now, Russia’s propaganda war is faring as poorly as its ground war. It is failing both in its function to persuade at home and obfuscate abroad. Russia is having trouble concealing its losses because open-source investigators like Oryx are collecting photographic evidence of every lost jet, gunship, tank or truck. And Russian atrocities are becoming harder to conceal since every event is being captured on cell phones and even live feeds. Vladimir Putin, who spent years cultivating an image of unapologetic machismo is looking far less manly with his designer jacket and long table than Zelenskyy in his Ukrainian Armed Forces t-shirt huddling with advisors, soldiers and citizens.
But if the Syrian experience teaches us anything, it is to avoid complacency. At the end of the day, the only virtue the international order recognizes is power. For now, Ukraine is standing firm and giving the invaders a bloody nose; but as Putin’s losses mount, he is likely to switch to more indiscriminate means, such as ballistic missiles, whose cost will be borne mainly by civilians.
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Should the war develop into a stalemate, the story will lose its novelty, atrocities will become mundane, and the media will move on. And once attention fades, the default response of the media and audiences is to allay their guilt by declaring the situation “complex”. The challenge for us in the coming days will be to maintain a moral perspective and ensure that, regardless of how long this crisis lasts, the distinction between victim and perpetrator isn’t lost.
Dr. Muhammad Idrees Ahmad is the Director of the International Journalism programme at the University of Stirling. He is on Twitter: @im_pulse
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