As Russian bombs and cruise missiles rocked cities across Ukraine early Thursday morning, another front broke out in the protracted conflict. The Internet quickly became a battleground in its own right, and propaganda and disinformation threatened to muddy the waters for post-crisis Americans from afar.
Digital disinformation has long been a favorite tactic of the Kremlin — as Americans learned from the spread of “fake news” during the 2016 presidential election — and the Ukraine crisis was no exception. Over the past few days, researchers have warned that the regime of President Vladimir Putin pushesas well as will keep pushingfalse stories aimed at justifying their aggression.
According to Graham Brookie, senior director of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, at least some of these narratives are finding support in an American public divided by previous waves of disinformation. “What we are seeing is a fair amount of organic audience activity from US citizens who are predisposed to have their former beliefs reinforced by Russian disinformation.”
For example, anti-vaccination groups that are already skeptical of the US government, he said, are now willing to disbelieve the US government’s official version of Ukraine.
Russian “influence operations” based on disinformation “are in a steady state” and have been in existence for many years, Brookie added, but the deployment of the war in Ukraine has caused a “massive upsurge”.
Jennifer Granston, head of social media analytics at Zignal Labs, said the conspiracy theory that the Ukraine conflict is a government-manufactured distraction from the alleged harms of COVID-19 vaccines is one of the disinformation narratives her company has been tracking in recent days. , along with a statement, backed by Russian state media, that the invasion is a mere “peacekeeping mission”.
Reaction to Russian-backed propaganda has been mixed. Even among far-right groups that have sympathized with Putin in the past — a strong leader often praised by former U.S. President Trump — the complexities of the moment have led to some splits in their loyalties.
“The far-right online space is pretty confusing right now,” said Heidi Beirich, co-founder of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism. “Some commentators on secondary sites strongly support Putin and attack NATO and the idea that any intervention should take place in Ukraine. I even saw posts asking Putin to invade the US and get us rid of Biden.”
“But the conversation is quite complex and broad,” she added via email. “There are also Telegram posts backed by American white supremacists trying to recruit into the Azov Battalion,” neo-Nazi unit in the Ukrainian army.
Daniel J. Jones, president of the nonprofit research group Advance Democracy, noted a similar dynamic. Historically, he said, American fringe groups have helped spread Russian disinformation, and Russia has in turn propagated “home-grown” American disinformation.
But this interaction has been disrupted by the current Ukrainian crisis. “Most of the U.S. right-wing groups and platforms we follow argue that an invasion would never have happened under former President Trump,” Jones said in a text message; some such groups even claim that the crisis was fabricated by Biden “to divert attention from his ‘corruption’ and polling results.”
Regardless of how the conflict is perceived by Americans, Putin’s first priority is to control information in his own country, said Brookie, director of the Digital Forensics Lab. He called Putin. recent speech about Ukraine is “a feat of historical revisionism … aimed at increasing support, or at least demonstrating increased support for the Russian people.”
To spread his preferred narratives on social media, Putin relies heavily on content produced by state-affiliated media outlets RT and Sputnik. In 2017, in testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee, Clint Watts, senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, said the fake news and conspiracy theories originally reported by RT and Sputnik were often spread by sites like Breitbart and InfoWars, leaking from there into the wider conservative media ecosystem.
RT got fully involved in coverage of Ukraine on Thursday. “War in Ukraine started 8 years ago, Russia is ending it now,” Moscow claims, read one of the headlines. On Facebook, where he has more than 7 million subscribers, the publication posted a 26-second video with the caption “Putin on the military operation: “What is happening is a necessary measure, we had no other choice.”
On Friday, Nick Clegg, vice president of global communications at Meta, formerly known as Facebook, said Russian authorities had ordered the company to stop fact-checking reports made by four state-owned Russian media outlets, but that the company refused to comply.
“As a result, they have announced that they will be restricting the use of our services,” Clegg wrote in statement on twitter. Meta owns the Facebook platform as well as Instagram, WhatsApp and the Facebook Messenger app, among other subsidiaries. The company did not immediately respond to a request to comment on which four Russian media outlets were involved in this decision.
While RT may look like a brilliant broadcast channel, it is closer in spirit to the Soviet-era newspaper Pravda, some observers say. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube label it as state-controlled media.
“It’s definitely the mouthpiece of the Russian government,” said Catherine Stoner, professor of political science at Stanford University and author of Russia Resurrected: Its Strength and Purpose in the New Global Order.
This week the National Broadcasting Council in Poland adopted a resolution remove Russian channels, including RT, from its roster. The United Kingdom official also expressed concern that RT would spread “harmful disinformation” about the Ukraine crisis. according to Reuters.
The publication did not respond to The Times’ request for comment.
“We are in a moment of new media disruption where the world is getting used to social media channels and the Kremlin media is actively using this to confuse the situation,” said Nicholas Kull, professor of public diplomacy at the University of Southern California. , during Thursday’s panel discussion on the information war in Ukraine. “It amazes me how unprepared the US government is for an information war with the Russians.”