Warsaw – In recent years, Russia’s disinformation apparatus has seemed unstoppable.
With the skilful planting of falsehoods and herringbone on social media platforms by magic factories, and then reinforced by Russia’s official news media such as RT, the Kremlin has repeatedly been able to mix questions, obscure facts and define false stories, manipulate audiences. which can be receptive, say Western officials and independent analysts.
They have often expressed frustration over how Russian disinformation has taken hold, managed to speed up the 2016 race for the US presidency, exacerbated the political divisions in Europe during the 2016-16 refugee crisis and in Syria form a story that connects opponents to the Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, as well as the first to wear the White Helmets, with jihadists and the Islamic State terrorist group.
But since Russia’s armed forces have been captured on the battlefield in Ukraine by a smaller, agile and more motivated opponent, its propaganda operation has also seemed flat-footed. The stories that the Kremlin promulgates in order to shift the blame for its own actions to others and to make its invasion defensive in nature, have struggled to get the appeal that Russian propagandists could have expected, they say.
CIA chief Bill Burns told a US congressional committee last week that in his opinion, Russian President Vladimir Putin is “losing the information war” on Ukraine. He’s not the only one who sees it that way.
“Vladimir Putin has long enjoyed a reputation as a master of information warfare. Over the past decade, his arming of social media and aggressive marketing of false stories has proved crucial,” said Anders Aslund, a senior fellow at the Stockholm Free World Forum. think tank in Sweden but Aslund assesses “it is already clear that the information war has been lost in a decisive way” by Russia.
Aslund and other observers say that despite Russia’s turn to its sophisticated disinformation handbook, the international community has rallyed overwhelmingly in support of Ukraine, judging Russia’s invasion in good versus bad terms, and imposing unparalleled economic sanctions. Major global brands and companies have struggled to break ties with Russia, and humanitarian donations to Ukraine from institutions and individuals around the world have skyrocketed. Martin Griffiths, the UN’s coordinator for emergency aid, noted on Monday how only his office has received aid donations from 143 countries.
So why has Russia’s well-practiced disinformation machine failed to mud in the water as so often in the recent past when it has succeeded in confusing facts with fictions? Maybe the reason is simple, says Tetiana Popova, a PR expert and a former Ukrainian deputy information minister. “The best counter-propaganda is truth,” she told VOA.
FILE – Russian President Vladimir Putin appears on a TV screen on the Frankfurt Stock Exchange, Germany, February 25, 2022. The lower third of the screen reads “Propaganda wars online and on TV.”
Efforts were thwarted
The presence on the ground of a large international press corps and the speed and alertness of Ukraine’s own formidable and experienced information warriors, who have been quick to grasp Russian statements to prove them false, have thwarted Russian propagandists’ efforts to control the story of the war. Ukraine’s information warriors have often surpassed their Russian rivals, she and other observers say.
Russian disinformation has increasingly been despised around the world and branded as Orwellian. When Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on March 10 rejected the stunning visual evidence and eyewitnesses showing that Russian forces were targeting Ukrainian civilians, his comments were met with widespread surprise – as was his surprising claim that Russia had not attacked Ukraine at all.
Michael Willard, a former Russia and Ukraine chief executive of the global public relations firm Burson-Marsteller, said Putin and his top officials had been “clumsy” and “clumsy with their communication tactics.” “Modern communication has shrunk the world. News eventually slips out,” he says.
The distortions, including from the outset that Putin only launched a “special military operation” and did not carry out an invasion, have been too great for Russia’s infamous disinformation machine to hone, he and other PR and marketing experts say. Open-source investigators and freelance geolocalizers, such as Bellingcat, a consortium of journalists founded by British blogger Eliot Higgins, have made it even more difficult for Russian propagandists to form a semi-convincing narrative for audiences who are likely to be receptive.
Last week, after Russian shelled a maternity hospital in the besieged port city of Mariupol, killing three people including a child and injuring 17 people, a coordinated operation by Russian embassies around the world, backed by Kremlin-controlled magic factories, sought to establish the story of the hospital had been transformed into a military base by Ukrainian nationalists. “The truth is that the maternity hospital has not functioned since the beginning of Russia’s special operation in Ukraine,” the Russian embassy in Israel tweeted. “The doctors were dispersed by militants from the Azov Nationalist Battalion,” it added.
But the photo, which Russian embassies posted to show where Ukrainian militiamen were based, was geolocated by investigators linked to Bellingcat ten kilometers from the maternity hospital. RT, the Kremlin-controlled television channel, devoted an entire episode on Monday to attacking Bellingcat and NGOs such as Amnesty International for what they accused of misinformation in their documentation of the shelling of apartment buildings and humanitarian corridors for civilians to flee and the use in residential areas with cluster bombs, airborne or ground-fired explosives that emit or fire smaller sub-ammunition.
Ordinary Ukrainians have been anxious to document the war and have used their mobile phones to record bombings and their destructive consequences.
Russia’s information war campaign has also faced other major setbacks with social media giants Facebook and Twitter, which have taken steps to remove Russian and Belarusian disinformation from their platforms and to dismantle suspicious networks that try to manipulate algorithms to sexually drive a pro-Russian story. And Russia’s disinformation campaign has been severely hampered by the EU’s ban on Russian state – controlled media RT and Sputnik to send to the bloc of 27 nations.
FILE – An anchor from the state-controlled TV company RT (formerly Russia Today) is seen preparing to go on the air in one of the broadcaster’s studios, in Moscow, on June 8, 2018.
EU top diplomat Josep Borrell told EU lawmakers after the ban was announced: “They are not independent media, they are assets, they are weapons, in the Kremlin’s manipulation ecosystem.” He added: “We are not trying to determine what is true and what is false. We do not have ministers of truth. But we must focus on foreign actors who deliberately, in a coordinated way, try to manipulate our information environment.”
In particular, Russia’s disinformation machine has some response on the global stage to Ukraine’s social media-savvy President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his daily video addresses, which have gone viral and helped gather support for his belligerent nation.
In the main match between the man-of-the-people comedian and the rigid spy master, Zelenskyy comes out better. “From the point of view of one who studies crisis leadership, he has been extremely effective,” according to historian Nancy Koehn, author of the book Forged in Crisis, which examines wartime leadership.
“He has shown a skilful ability to swing and improvise when the circumstances surrounding the crisis change. He communicates brilliantly with his own people and citizens around the world, and seems to get better as the days go by,” she told the Harvard Gazette. “Then add the emotional awareness and moral clarity that Zelenskyy uses, over and over again, to explain to the rest of the world what is happening to his nation and people. And his personal bravery and unwavering commitment to repel Putin’s aggression, too. in the face of great odds, are not only inspiring to millions of others, they are also a source of real personal power for the leader himself, “she added.
Even in the strictly controlled media environment in Russia, the Kremlin has faced challenges. An employee of the Russian state Channel One managed to interrupt a live broadcast of the night news on Monday and shouted “Stop the war! No to war!” News correspondent Marina Ovsyannikova, whose father is Ukrainian, held up a poster in Russian and said: “Do not believe the propaganda. They are lying to you here.” Studio producers rushed to interrupt her.