Russia’s disinformation campaign and the role of social media.
“It is to get people out of their misery, out of this genocide, that is the main reason, the motive and purpose of the military operation that we began in Donbas and Ukraine”.
This is how Putin explained the reasons for the current war in Ukraine in his speech at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium during the celebration of the eighth anniversary of the annexation of Crimea. It is a rhetoric that Putin has displayed since before the war broke out – a war that he defines as a commitment to Russia’s “Christian values” – and that plays a fundamental role in his strategy. A strategy that makes of propaganda, misinformation, and false flag operations the main operational tools.
This is certainly nothing new or innovative. Hannah Arendt already spoke of the management of information, as being fundamental to the control of the population. In a 1974 interview with the French writer Roger Errera, she said that when people hear only lies, they stop believing in anything, they lose their ability to judge and think rationally, and “with such a people you can do what you please”.
In recent years, Putin has succeeded in gaining almost complete control over the dissemination of information in Russia, through media outlets that are entirely subject to state control and the simultaneous control of blogs and social networking sites. Independent media within the state are not only very few but are also heavily persecuted and forced to make no reference to the war in Ukraine. Journalistic activity itself is criminalized, it is no longer possible to use words such as “war,” “invasion,” and “attacks,” and the dissemination of “false news” – meaning any information that does not respect the regime’s official line – is punishable by up to 15 years in prison. Indeed, several independent media outlets, such as Tv Rain, have been shut down for reporting on the war.
In an effort to control the portrayal of the war that has spread throughout the country, Russia’s education minister has handed teachers a two-page document reflecting the regime’s narrative, which they must read to students before projecting a video of President Putin. When students ask if Russia is at war, teachers are supposed to answer: No, it is not at war, but is carrying out a peacekeeping mission to prevent the genocide of millions of ethnic Russians.
There are countless examples of the misinformation campaign carried out by Russian state organs. For example, after the bombing of the children’s hospital in Mariupol, Russia declared that the hospital was empty and served as a base for Ukrainian nationalists. However, this was promptly refuted, both by the testimonies and photos published by international newspapers and by the posts published on the Facebook account of the same hospital before the attack. Not only that, after the photo of a pregnant Ukrainian influencer, Marianna Podgurskaya, was published, Russia claimed that she was in fact an actress hired to make the hospital appear operational stating, among other things, that she was also playing the “role” of another woman on a stretcher, although they were clearly two different women. Furthermore, to justify the attacks on several civilian buildings, the Russian news agency Tass wrote that the Ukrainian neo-Nazis had placed heavy weapons in the apartments and forced the residents to stay inside. At the time of the March 4 attack on the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant, a Russian government statement claimed that the establishment was already under the control of Russian forces and that the attack and resulting fire were therefore actually caused by the Ukrainian neo-Nazis.
At the March 11 meeting of the UN Security Council, the Russian Defence minister accused the United States of jointly developing chemical weapons with Ukraine, in violation of international treaties. This accusation was refuted by several sources, including the BBC, in a detailed fact-check. As the U.S. Ambassador noted, the purpose of spreading this Fake News appears to be to use this false flag operation to achieve the use of chemical weapons, something that is not new to the Russians. Among its most important false flag operations is the one of the Soviet invasion of Finland in 1939. At the time, there was a non-aggression pact in force between the two countries. Therefore, the Soviet Union bombed Mainila, a Soviet town on the border with Finland, and blamed it on Finland as a justification for the consequent attack.
The Internet – and especially social media – have played a key role in this conflict, both as a tool to spread disinformation campaigns and as a counter to them. For example, many fake fact-checking videos have been posted on Telegram and Twitter. A few days ago, a video of a woman in Germany began circulating on Tik Tok, reporting on some Ukrainian refugees who supposedly had beaten a sixteen-year-old Russian-speaking boy to death. But it was just another fake news, as confirmed by the police, who denied the incident. However, the video has continued to spread, confirming the Russian government’s version of events, which describes the war as a necessary operation to protect the Russian-speaking population, victims of persecution and violence by Ukrainians. According to an investigation by Vice, some influencers are paid to post pro-Kremlin content. In addition, on Instagram, some accounts advocating Putin’s policies pose as local news outlets in Poland and spread fake news about a series of alleged attacks on Poles persecuted by Ukrainian refugees.
As said, social media has also proven indispensable in combating disinformation campaigns and providing Russian citizens with access to information not authorized by their government. From Ukrainian Tik-Tokers sharing short videos of their daily lives in a war-ravaged country and the spread of photos of ordinary citizens and children taking up arms, to Meta’s decision to allow Facebook and Instagram subscribers to relax censorship of posts against the Russian army, Putin, and Lukashenko-a move that Anton Gorelkin, deputy head of Russia’s Committee for Technologies and Communications, called a clear incitement to racial hatred.
The tech industries later decided to block access to Russian state media such as Sputnik and Russia Today (RT) to protect their users from Russian disinformation campaigns. Even Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and Tik Tok have blocked Russian state media in Europe, a decision promptly condemned by Russian Foreign Minister Maria Zakharova, as these bans prevent the rest of the world from learning Russia’s point of view. Russia’s media agency – Roskomnadzor – has also confirmed that the BBC and other international newspapers have been made inaccessible in Russia, as well as access to Instagram and Facebook and the use of Twitter.
The succession of these mutual constraints and blockages only confirms the importance that the Internet in general and social media in particular have in our society and their ability to influence conflict. First of all, social media has shown that it is much more difficult to hide the truth from citizens and prevent access to dissenting information than in the past. Unfortunately, as Arendt also opined, it is enough to spread doubt, making it impossible to distinguish what is true and what is not, and doing so it’s very easy in the era of social media. As Patrick Warren of Clemson University’s Media Forensic Hub explains: “The reason that it’s so effective is because you don’t actually have to convince someone that it’s true. It’s sufficient to make people uncertain as to what they should trust”.