Tue. Dec 6th, 2022
By Stephanie Diepeveen, Olena Borodyna, Theo Tindall

Multiple theatres of disinformation

The Russian invasion in Ukraine has escalated the stakes of online disinformation. Media reports have suggested we are facing a ‘TikTok war’ or ‘the first social media war’. From TikTok to Telegram, information about the frontlines of the war seems simultaneously more authentic and more uncertain, more controlled and more open to channels that might bypass state-controlled information.

But to claim that there is one social media war is misleading. The role and impact of disinformation – false information that is deliberately spread to cause harm – depends on both its context and intended audience. It may take different forms depending on whether it is aimed at domestic Russian audiences, Ukrainians or a global audience. Each of these contexts provides a distinct set of experiences and potentially very different insights into how and why disinformation matters to the dynamics of war. Russian disinformation domestically has very different implications compared to the disinformation that circulates to western audiences.

Social media allows any user to create, edit and share content, giving way to widespread, individual contributions to mis or disinformation. At the same time, Russian disinformation campaigns remain a central point of contention in debates about an ‘information war’ alongside the invasion. Across broadcast and social media, Russian disinformation generates widespread concerns, within Russia, Ukraine, and for audiences globally.

The reasons for these concerns, however, are different depending on the wider information landscape and people’s agency to critically assess information from different sources. In Russia, for example, contemporary propaganda about the war signals an amplification of a longer-term stream of propagandistic narratives about Ukrainian Nazis, within a tightening domestic media landscape which is increasingly shutting out any independent sources.

In contrast, from the perspective of Ukrainian and global audiences, some media reports have even argued that Putin is losing the information war. Disinformation campaigns appear to hold little weight in the context of a constant stream of content from the frontlines, and strong political and public condemnation of the invasion among western states and western-based companies.

It is too simplistic to view Russian disinformation on the Russia-Ukraine war as one side versus the other. Doing so risks presenting a misleading picture of how disinformation is contributing to public perspectives of the war, resulting in either an unjustified sense of optimism or pessimism about the extent to which disinformation has clouded the information landscape.

In the three pieces that follow, ODI researchers take a look at different theatres of disinformation about the Russia-Ukraine war, and what this means for people’s ability to critically assess disinformation and minimise its effect on public narratives about the war. We address the following key questions:

  • How and why is Ukraine ‘winning’ its early battles against Russian disinformation, and how have these successes helped to mobilise local and international support for Ukraine?
  • How has Russian disinformation affected responses to the war in Russia?
  • What opportunities exist for fighting disinformation in and around the war?

Stephanie Diepeveen
Research Fellow, Politics and Governance, ODI

Olena Borodyna: Ukraine’s united response is helping it win early information battles

As the war unfolds across Ukraine, tackling Russian disinformation has been a whole of society effort, with the country more prepared to respond than in 2014. At that time, Ukraine was caught off guard by the onslaught of Russian disinformation which sought to delegitimise the government of President Poroshenko while justifying annexation of Crimea and denying Russia’s role in the war in eastern Ukraine. That situation has changed. Ukraine is not only better prepared to counter disinformation, but it now appears to be winning some of the early information battles in this escalating war.

Since 2014, Ukraine prioritised, and to a certain degree succeeded, in improving its information security and resilience to disinformation. The Information Security Strategy, first published in 2017, points to the ‘information impact of the Russian Federation as an aggressor state’ and ‘limited ability to respond to disinformation campaigns’ as key security threats. In response, Ukraine strengthened institutional capacity, e.g. through establishing the Centre for Countering Disinformation under the National Security and Defence Council. Institutional capacity, while imperfect, put the country in a stronger position to manage the rising threat.

Civil society and academia have also been critical to building Ukraine’s resilience to disinformation. Initiatives such as StopFake.org debunked common disinformation myths and built the capacity of journalists to spot fake information. These initiatives have started bearing fruit, with recent polls indicating that many Ukrainians are aware that disinformation exists, though many were still unable to spot false information when presented with it. Ahead of the war, the Ukrainian public was therefore more alert to possible disinformation.

In the last two weeks, Russian disinformation in Ukraine aimed to undermine morale and resistance to its forces by spreading false claims about government capitulation and military losses. The Ukrainian government, supported by journalists and civil society, has regularly briefed the public on the latest developments and rebutted these false claims. President Zelenskyy has been particularly adept at using social media to reassure the public that he, along with key ministers, remains in Kyiv. The government has also used Telegram to warn about fake messages proliferating on the platform, while journalists have been warning the public about possible deepfakes.

To negate the Kremlin’s disinformation about the nature of its military activities in the country, Ukraine has also widely reported the bombing of non-military targets and the civilian casualties sustained. Refuting the Kremlin’s narratives is critical to Ukraine’s strategy in this war.

Disinformation primarily aimed at shoring up Russian public support for the war could penetrate Ukraine’s information space through social media and other channels and undermine trust in the government.

High levels of support enjoyed by the Ukrainian government and anti-occupation protests in areas captured by Russian forces demonstrate Ukraine’s early successes in countering disinformation. Many are taking place in cities and towns with significant Russian-speaking populations in the country’s south and east. The mobilisation of Ukrainians, including Russian speakers, against its forces in occupied cities has most likely come as a surprise to the Kremlin, which expected Russian speakers to be more sympathetic and accepting of Russian occupation.

The war is still in its initial stages and protracted conflict will test Ukraine’s capacity and resilience to resist disinformation. While it is too early to judge who will win the battle of narratives or indeed how the tactics on both sides will evolve, Ukraine’s united response is helping it win some of the early information battles.

Theo Tindall: state disinformation and repression in Russia

The wave of censorship and repression that has accompanied Russia’s invasion of Ukraine marks not so much a change as a radical escalation of Russian government policy towards political opposition. The restriction of public dissent in Russia has gradually but inexorably increased in recent years – opposition leader Aleksei Navalny’s poisoning and subsequent arrest on his return to Russia are just the most visible markers of a ‘tightening of the screws’.

Navalny’s arrest in January 2021 was followed by an increase in the use of the ‘foreign agent law’, used to restrict the work of independent political and media organisations. Even before the invasion of Ukraine, the Russian government sought to limit the activities of independent media such as Meduza and TV Rain by declaring them foreign agents. Individual journalists such as Sonya Groisman were also targeted, their new status obliging them to make regular reports on their financial status to the Ministry of Justice and making news outlets reluctant to employ them.

Since the start of the war, repression has increased as the government attempts to control the flow of information about the war. TV Rain and independent radio station Ekho Moskvy have suspended their work, while Novaya gazeta (whose editor Dmitry Muratov won the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize) has ceased reporting on the war. Twitter and Facebook have been blocked, as have news websites including the BBC, Deutsche Welle and Riga-based independent news outlet Meduza. Referring to the ‘special military operation’ as what it is – a war – is forbidden, and on Friday the Russian State Duma hastily approved a law punishing the dissemination of ‘fake’ information on the war by up to 15 years in jail. Over 13800 individuals have been jailed for protesting since 24 February, as riot police have responded with increasing violence against protests. Russians who are able have fled the country en masse as it becomes more politically, economically and socially isolated by the day.

Alongside this often brutal repression of independent media, Russian state media has attempted to promote its own narrative around the conflict – a parallel universe where Ukrainian ‘genocide’ of ethnic Russians is stopped by Russian ‘liberators’ welcomed into occupied Ukrainian towns and cities, and steadfast Russian resistance in the face of a hostile West. This narrative – which reproduces familiar tropes of stability and security within Russia, contrasted with chaos and hostility outside – cannot accommodate the sight of Ukrainian cities being bombed and destroyed, footage of Russians queueing at ATMs to withdraw their savings or, crucially, the constantly increasing numbers of Russian casualties (over 12000 according to the Armed Forces of Ukraine, and up to 4000 according to one senior US military figure).

The Russian government appears to have decided not simply to dominate the information space but to monopolise it, restricting not only what can be reported but also the language with which events can be described. As fears grow that Russia will seek to disconnect itself from the internet completely, most independent news media can currently only be accessed through a VPN – that is to say, only by those who are already explicitly searching for independent content.

The crucial question, then, is where the limits of Russian disinformation lie. As the conflict continues and economic conditions in Russia worsen, will the narratives of state disinformation remain compelling to the two thirds of Russians who watch state television news? Will the Russian state succeed in stemming the flow of information about the war from abroad? And, crucially, as the number of casualties grow, will the government be able to plausibly deny that what is happening in Ukraine is anything other than a full-scale war?

While precise polling data is hard to come by, Russian society does appear to have been genuinely divided by the invasion to a degree which was almost certainly not anticipated by Russian authorities. However, even if dissatisfaction with the war and the Russian economic situation continues to grow, the state’s domination of the Russian information landscape and increasing intolerance of dissenting voices will most likely limit the possibilities for public criticism of Russian government disinformation.

Russia’s failure to achieve its immediate military aims and the increasing effects of sanctions and economic isolation may well make the current Russian war effort unsustainable. However, it is unclear what will follow this first, most active phase of the conflict. Even as the claims of Russian disinformation become increasingly removed from reality and the number of war casualties continues to increase, the Russian state will maintain a near-monopoly over the flow of information. Oppositional voices will likely be further marginalised and drowned out, while state disinformation – as a key weapon of an increasingly violent and repressive Russian state – will only become more extreme.

Stephanie Diepeveen: opportunities to counter the different disinformation wars

The tools available to users to critically assess and respond to disinformation vary greatly across the different theatres of disinformation with respect to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Globally, a range of tools and resources are quickly being developed to assist users in this task of assessing authentic content about the invasion, from Bellingcat’s strategy early on to focus on authenticating the most relevant content about the battles on the ground, to broadcast media and journalists providing information on how to identify doctored videos, to platforms’ continuous efforts to remove inauthentic accounts and content.

Closing down channels for propaganda has also been used as a strategy, albeit with mixed results. The EU banned broadcasting or disseminating RT and Sputnik content a week into the invasion. This was met in Russia with bans on foreign media such as the BBC and Deutsche Welle. While removing potentially problematic content, this indicates how limiting content can have a perverse effect, becoming a weapon for all sides to remove dissenting voices.

More importantly, access to direct experiences of the war seems to play a strong role in mitigating the traction of disinformation, as they highlight the disjuncture between disinformation and reality. The continued stream of content from the Ukrainian President via social media and TV broadcasts, Ukrainian citizens and Ukrainian and foreign journalists has bolstered international support for Ukraine, at least in western countries.

In Russia, we have seen how the potential for these different resources to highlight the fiction that is disinformation, is increasingly constrained. In recent days, many prominent activists and journalists have left the country, and the government has shut down or blocked almost all remaining independent media outlets. In the first few days of the war, individual influencers and protestors in Russia voiced opposition to the war, labelling it a war, on Instagram and TikTok. However, while the Russian offensive on the ground wasn’t met with a quick victory, space for alternative narratives – other than the state’s barrage of varying propaganda and conspiracies – has largely closed.

In Ukraine, the reality of the war on the ground makes it difficult for disinformation that denies the reality of the violence to gain much traction. The costs of the war in Russia – from economic to military and civilian deaths – might suggest a similar possibility could arise for Russian audiences as people more directly experience the cost of the war, both economically and in soldiers’ lives lost. But again, it is important to consider the political and social contexts in each of the different theatres of this information war. In Russia, state capacity for media repression and violence has been built up over years and remains at a high level, and citizens’ willingness and ability to identify, access or engage with alternative narratives without reprisal is increasingly thin.

Thus far, disinformation seems to have had very little presence in accounts of the Russia-Ukraine war for a western audience. The range of efforts in place by tech companies and journalists to verify content, combined with a constant supply of verified content from the frontlines, has helped to mitigate its presence in the media landscape.

In contrast, as the war continues, domestic disinformation in Russia is likely to become increasingly important to helping to prop up domestic support for an increasingly costly war. Some suggest that the accumulation of lived experiences of the cost of war in Russia could expose disinformation and introduce opportunities for cracks to form in disinformation campaigns.

However, if the events of the first weeks of the Russia-Ukraine war are an indication of the Russian government’s approach to information control, there are clear barriers preventing the cost of the war from becoming a catalyst for open resistance to Russian disinformation. Even if evidence of a rising number of deaths of Russian soldiers could temper the hold of disinformation, this is unlikely because of the Russian state’s longstanding domination of the media landscape in Russia, and its demonstrated willingness to use violence and to prosecute a foreign military campaign with no clear end in sight.

Credit | ODI

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