Disinformation and Deceit How Russia Attacked Western Democracy
The disinformation tactics used by Russia since its invasion of Ukraine are familiar to anyone who observed them in Syria, the US election and Brexit, reports Sian Norris
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It started with a photograph.
In the wake of Russia’s attack on the maternity hospital in the besieged city of Mariupol, a pregnant woman wrapped in a blanket, her eyes wide and afraid, stared into the lens. The beauty blogger Mariana Vishegirskaya had been attending a medical appointment when the shells hit. She gave birth to a daughter a few days later.
As soon as the photo hit the news networks, prompting outrage around the world, the Russian disinformation machine revved up its engines. She was not a patient, the Kremlin insisted, but a crisis actor. There were no patients in the hospital, argued Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Pictures from Vishegirskaya’s Instagram were quickly shared, designed to prove… to prove what? Can’t a beauty blogger also be a pregnant patient? A victim of war?
That same day, a photo of a pregnant woman being stretchered to safety also went viral. The woman and her unborn child died a few days later. Undeterred by the evidence in front of their eyes, Russian channels and their backers claimed she was Vishegirskaya. Seeing as Vishegirskaya had survived, the conspiracist argument went, the death of this young woman was “fake news”.
A different war, and thousands of miles away, but Vishegirskaya’s story could have been Aya’s – a girl caught up in Syria’s conflict. So-called ‘independent journalist’ Eva Bartlett said Aya’s image was “recycled” in White Helmets rescue videos. She claimed that Aya had been spotted repeatedly in footage shared by Syria’s humanitarian civil society group.
Bartlett was notorious for channelling Russia’s disinformation about the war, as it spread conspiracies that Syria’s White Helmets were a propaganda action by a U.S.-UK-Israeli coalition. She even appeared on Russian state TV channel, RT, to dispute a United Nations report on Russian-led war crimes in Syria.
Once again, the evidence in front of her eyes should have been enough to prove Bartlett wrong. The videos she pointed to clearly showed different girls.
Manufactured accusations that those suffering the brutal impact of war are ‘crisis actors’ has been a crucial weapon in Russia’s disinformation war in Syria and Ukraine. It is a key conspiracist trope – far-right provocateurs such as Alex Jones have claimed that victims of mass shootings and terrorist attacks are ‘crisis actors’.
This crossover in strategies is not surprising, when you consider the relationship between Russian disinformation and the Trump-backing US far-right.
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In 2018, Twitter deleted 200,000 tweets sent around the time of the 2016 US election that the social network determined was tied to “malicious activity” from Russian-linked accounts.
The mass deletion took place two years after Donald Trump’s surprise defeat of Hillary Rodham Clinton during an election dogged by campaigns of Russian interference.
There is no doubt that a Trump-led US was beneficial to Russian interests. His election, according to Catherine Belton’s book Putin’s People, followed two decades of the real estate mogul being courted by Russian investors, with any potential dodgy links brushed aside by the statement “Donald doesn’t do due diligence”. Trump’s belligerent attitude towards the global order, his antagonism towards NATO and the European Union, and his love of ‘strongmen’ leaders was advantageous to an aggressive and imperialist Kremlin.
Analysis into the tweets by Byline Times reveal how Russian-linked attacks used various attack methods in its disinformation war to boost Trump’s popularity and undermine Clinton – including specific targeting of black voters.
Tweets appealed to white supremacist and Islamophobic feeling, warning that “Sharia law is coming to America” and that “#IslamKills”. The Russian-linked accounts riled up hate and fear towards the Black Lives Matter movement, sharing disinformation that it was a terrorist organisation, sharing fake footage of black-on-white violence, and portraying black people as criminals and racists.
Abortion and gun control were also popular subjects, with claims the pro-choice movement was violently attacking those opposed to abortion, and that Clinton and Obama were in favour of taking away guns. While it’s true the Democrats tend to be more pro-abortion and anti-guns, the disinformation on display was deliberately crafted to stoke up fear and resentment.
The majority of the tweets sought to stir up white supremacist feeling. However, a significant number also focused on persuading black voters to support Trump. These tweets claimed the black community had been failed by Obama, and highlighted Clinton’s track record on racism. The latter specifically focused on her description of young black men as “super predators”. “American blacks are waking up to the Democrat plantation,” read numerous tweets.
Of course it is important to call out discriminatory statements from the past and hold politicians to account regarding their attitudes towards minority communities. The accounts did not, however, do the same for Trump, who they claimed would bring real change for the black community. The strategy was somewhat successful – in 2020 Channel 4 News revealed how the Trump campaign targeted 3.5 million black voters with disinformation designed to make them stay away from the polling booths.
Before there was Trump, there was Brexit. The vote to leave the European Union featured in the cache of Russian-linked tweets – with similar tropes in play. The Brexit-related content focused on Islamophobia, as well as antisemitic conspiracy about the billionare, pro-EU philanthropist George Soros.
There has been much speculation about the influence of Russia on Brexit. It should not be ignored that the forces of an anti-EU, anti-migrant and xenophobic media, combined with the impact of the 2008 economic crash and austerity played a vital role in pushing the Leave vote.
That said, researchers at Swansea University in Wales and the University of California Los Angeles estimated that 150,000 Russian-language Twitter accounts posted tens of thousands of messages urging Britain to leave the European Union in the days before the referendum.
The first round of Russian disinformation in UK politics pre-dated Brexit, with Scotland’s independence referendum in 2014. According to a report by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), specific disinformation efforts around the Independence vote included “using pro-Russian internet trolls to circulate disinformation claiming the vote was a fraud, amplifying the voices of those disappointed by the ‘no’ vote, and encouraging pro independence campaigners to start petitions demanding a repeat of the referendum”.
CSIS also found that Russian-linked trolls posted fake videos on Twitter and YouTube that suggested the votes had been interfered with. A report by the DFRLab found the accounts are “consistent with the behavior of accounts known to be run by the so-called ‘troll factory’ in St. Petersburg, Russia, during the U.S. 2016 presidential election”.
Two years after the Scottish vote, and disinformation narratives from Russian-linked trolls successfully exploited the UK’s existing vulnerabilities since 2008. The Brexit disinformation war focused on issues of migration, seeking to fuel a growing resentment towards globalisation that had flourished after the global economic crash.
Ironically, narratives included accusations of corrupt foreign influence on mainstream political parties. Disinformation, shared on social media channels, also sought to paint the European Union as ineffective and attacking British sovereignty.
The Intelligence and Security Committee’s report into Russian interference found that the UK Government “underestimated the response required to the Russian threat and are still playing catch up … Russian influence in the UK is the new normal … the UK is clearly a target for Russian disinformation”.
The Kremlin could do this successfully because those divisions in the British electorate already existed. In the post-2008, austerity-led world, a mixture of political and media narratives, and social media trolling, created an ‘us and them’ narrative that was anti-migrant, anti-progress, and pushed dissatisfied voters towards a creed of nature and nation.
Now, with war in Europe, the Kremlin is using the same disinformation tactics it rehearsed in Syria, the US and the UK. In some corners, it has been successful. Both hard left and far-right actors are becoming willing avatars for Putin propaganda – with the far-right praising Russia for being a white, conservative bastion of traditionalism, and the hard-left repeating Kremlin propaganda that the West is the aggressor.
It’s up to the rest of us to hear the truth. To look into the eyes of victims and survivors like Mariana Vishegirskaya and say: we believe you.
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