How Russia’s Western Propagandistsare Undermining Justice for War Crime Victims
Chris York looks at the Kremlin’s increasingly reliance on foreign ‘influencers’ to sow doubt and disinformation about the regime’s war crimes in Ukraine
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Since finding its main state-backed media channels blocked across much of Europe, Russia is relying increasingly on a small group of foreign influencers ready and willing to broadcast the Kremlin’s twisted version of the truth to western audiences.
These self-proclaimed journalists are playing a crucial role in Russia’s disinformation war and just what responsibility they have for the potential war crimes they help deny and cast doubt on is a question now being raised by politicians and legal experts.
“It’s a huge problem, says Natalia Krapiva, a former prosecutor and now tech-legal counsel for civil rights group Access Now. “It really undermines the trust in the investigative efforts and evidence collection.
“It means there is a lack of interest and a dismissal from the public and international institutions to do more to achieve accountability and bring people to justice for those attacks,” she told Byline Times.
“There needs to be more done to look at what their contribution is to the war effort and the crimes committed. They’re causing a lot of harm and undermining the ability of victims to get justice.”
A recent study from the think tank Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) identified 12 influencers posing as citizen journalists who peddle Russian disinformation on the war in Ukraine.
ISD analyst Julia Smirnova, told Byline Times: “While governments and social media platforms have been focusing on Russian state media accounts in their efforts to curb the spread of propaganda, we found that the same narratives can easily reach audiences in Europe and the US when they are spread by other actors, such as influencers posing as citizen journalists.
“In some cases, their accounts have been instrumental in helping Russian state media to circumvent platform moderation and automatic labelling, by sharing links to archived versions of RT website and by uploading RT videos directly into their Facebook profiles.”
Often embedded with Russian military forces or accompanying state media in areas of occupied Ukraine, the pro-Kremlin influencers all tell similar stories of how Ukraine is full of Nazis, Russia is simply liberating these areas, the widespread destruction is Ukraine’s fault and Russia is helping to feed and rebuild cities.
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Any notion that Russia invaded a democratic and sovereign nation, laid siege to and indiscriminately shelled the areas it now occupies killing thousands of people, is entirely absent.
“It’s not only disinformation, it’s a crime,” says Oleksandr Merezhko, a Ukrainian MP and head of the country’s Committee on Foreign Affairs.
“And those foreign journalists who are involved in this, they’re criminals. They’re not journalists, they’re not even propagandists, they’re war criminals.”
Merezhko cites two historical precedents in his case for prosecuting those who peddle Russian disinformation – Nazi propagandist Julius Streicher who was convicted of crimes against humanity during the Nuremberg trials for his role in inciting hatred and violence against Jews during the Holocaust, and Felicien Kabuga, currently awaiting trial at The Hague for, among other things, the role his radio stations played in inciting the genocide in Rwanda in 1994.
None of the influencers highlighted in the ISD’s report has gone as far as Streicher or Kabuga and openly called for genocide, but legal and humanitarian experts told Byline Times that international law needs to address the effects influencers with large social media platforms can have on holding the perpetrators of war crimes to account.
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War crimes investigators are already collecting evidence about atrocities committed during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, some of which may pass the threshold to count as crimes against humanity or possibly even genocide.
“Some of the people currently spreading disinformation over Ukraine are the same career conspiracists behind the lies spread online about the war in Syria,” says Laila Kiki, executive director of the human rights group The Syria Campaign.
“[They are] creating doubt and confusion about some of the most egregious war crimes of our time, which could have devastating consequences for justice and accountability and is acutely painful for victims and survivors of these crimes.”
One of those highlighted in the ISD report is Eva Bartlett, a Canadian blogger who made a name for herself by propagating pro-Russian conspiracy theories about the war in Syria.
Her debunked claims were readily promoted and given a platform by Russian officials and state-backed media channels as a way to discredit those who were documenting the countless war crimes committed during the conflict by Russian forces and their Syrian government allies.
Bartlett has since moved to Russia and her reporting on Ukraine has been allowed to continue by the Kremlin, which has instigated a draconian crackdown on genuinely independent media.
Others who evidently conform to Russia’s propaganda model include Graham Phillips, a Brit recently described as a modern-day equivalent of Nazi propagandist Lord Haw-Haw, and American Patrick Lancaster who has reported a number of fake news items from Ukraine.
“They’re causing a lot of harm and undermining the ability of victims to get justice,” says Krapiva
“There needs to be more accountability. Any legal action to halt the spread of such harmful disinformation would be hugely significant.”
Bartlett, Phillips and Lancaster were approached for comment and asked why they thought the Kremlin had allowed their reporting to continue while conducting a draconian crackdown on independent media. None replied.