Russian disinformation: a weapon in its war on Ukraine

Russian disinformation: a weapon in its war on Ukraine

Lawmakers, academics and citizens are becoming increasingly aware of the threat posed by disinformation and malinformation. ‘Disinformation’ refers to falsehoods spread deliberately to stoke distrust or promote an agenda. It is a widespread issue, overshadowing elections everywhere from Brazil to the USA, fuelling hate speech, such as in India, and impacting stock prices around the world. Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine this year brings a new sense of urgency to the discussion.

The disinformation that preceded the invasion was widespread, and has only grown as the war has continued. It has combined false narratives that justify the invasion with doctored images that undermine independent reporting from the front. Though many of these techniques have been used for decades, the current iteration is relentless in disseminating disinformation effectively. Rather than being a strategy that runs alongside the invasion, Russia’s disinformation campaign is key to the military campaign.

As we set out in our module on this topic, international law treats propaganda separately to dis- and misinformation. Article 20 of the ICCPR prohibits the spread of propaganda, providing that it advocates for war or for hatred that constitutes incitement. The challenge is that much of the disinformation online and on social media does not meet those thresholds. In this article, we look at how Russia has created such a powerful disinformation ecosystem, and its impact on journalism.

An information vacuum

The environment in which Russian disinformation works lends itself particularly well to its consumption and circulation. Normally, in a healthy democracy, fake news must compete with numerous independent media sources. To avoid this scenario, Russia has cracked down on dissenting voices and ensured a fertile ground for the state narrative.

For instance, since 2012, Russia has been enforcing its widely-condemned “foreign agent” law. The media outlets and journalists labelled as such can expect harassment, police raids on their homes, and fines. The designation is now even applied to the lawyers who defend the media, such as in the case of Galina Arapova. Despite the European Court of Human Rights finding the legislation “unlawful” in June 2022, Putin approved its expansion in July.

This crackdown on independent journalists was exacerbated when, in March 2022, Russia toughened its “fake news” law. Anyone found to have “knowingly” spread alleged false information about Russian state bodies operating abroad risks fines of 1.5 million rubles (~€13,000) and prison sentences of up to 15 years. In the wake of this draconian law, and the war it sought to disguise, hundreds of journalists fled. Now, with almost all independent media in exile or subject to military censorship, there are very few left to challenge the disinformation that has filled the vacuum.

Moreover, it seems that Russia is trying to replicate this vacuum inside Ukraine too, but with different methods. Russia has repeatedly launched missile strikes on transmission towers, including the radio and TV tower in Kyiv. As Netblocks documents, Ukraine has also faced internet disruptions during the war, including full-scale outages since missile attacks restarted in October 2022. In formerly-occupied Kherson, the internet was rerouted through Russia.

Beyond destroying infrastructure, there are also accounts that Russian troops have been targeting Ukrainian journalists. We have seen instances of this in our work too. Media Defence is representing victims in two separate cases before the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in which Russian forces are alleged to have killed or abducted Ukrainian journalists. By crippling key means of communication and threatening the lives of those reporting from the ground, Russia can create an information blackout that leaves Ukrainians in chaos and prevents evidence of Russian aggression ever seeing the light.

Alternative narratives

A striking element of Russia’s disinformation campaign has been the sheer volume and diversity of the false narratives. Its goal is to overwhelm and confuse.

Prior to the invasion in February, stories emerged across the web claiming that the invasion of Ukraine was a “denazification” mission. Then came allegations that Ukraine was the aggressor, shelling Russians and threatening to invade Belarus. There were articles in multiple languages portraying Ukraine as a puppet state, hosting Western armies ready to attack Russia. These conflicting narratives are spread concurrently, along with the assertion that the ‘imagined’ invasion was nothing but Western ‘hysteria’. By advancing multiple narratives like this, Russia muddies the waters and adapts its story to better influence individual audiences.

The disinformation is relentless, with new conspiracy theories that Ukraine is staging attacks, training terrorists and using civilian shields. There have been repeated allegations that Ukraine is attacking its own people and blaming Russia for their deaths. Faked footage accompanies these so-called “false flag” attacks, which is effective in convincing Russians citizens, particularly the older generations. In October, Russia cited “credible sources in various countries” that Ukraine had plans to detonate a radioactive “dirty” bomb. Government Twitter accounts then shared the claim, with officials alluding to it later, giving the story another lifecycle outside of Russia.

At the same time, our Ukrainian partner Human Rights Platform has been tackling a different vein of conspiracy theories. “Russia is spreading disinformation within Ukraine, discrediting the power and reputation of its government,” explains media lawyer Oleksandra Stepanova. This includes claims that Ukraine’s government had surrendered and President Zelensky had fled, and that Ukraine is killing its own prisoners of war. These invented narratives, spread particularly in the occupied territories, are meant to endear people to Russia by demonstrating that Ukraine’s government has abandoned its people. “Unfortunately,” continues Stepanova, “after months of occupation and a complete information vacuum, this tactic may be fruitful.”

Channels of disinformation

There is a multi-pronged approach to this campaign that helps to spread disinformation at speed. The carefully developed disinformation ecosystem mixes official government communications with foreign-facing websites, falsifications, and social media. This means that it is harder to avoid Russian disinformation online. While many may be wary of news coming from Russian state media, there are countless proxy news sites and trolls who disguise their affiliations. It becomes difficult for people to understand the source of the news they are reading.

There are hundreds of thousands of Twitter bot accounts in service of Russian disinformation. According to one former professional Russian internet troll, they are on duty 24 hours a day, in 12-hour shifts, and each has a daily quota of 135 posted comments. These so-called “web-brigades” have three key advantages within the disinformation campaign. Firstly, they can boost its reach, repeating and amplifying disinformation to make certain topics gain traction internationally. Secondly, they abuse and intimidate critics of the invasion, making people reluctant to publicly challenge the state narrative. Finally, they lend the Russian government a veil of plausible deniability: these are not official accounts, after all.

The Kremlin was also quick to understand the potential of the Chinese social media platform TikTok. According to one study, as of 9 March 2022, videos on TikTok featuring “#ukraine” had collectively amassed more than 26.8 billion views. In comparison, “#ukraine” on Instagram had 33 million posts. It is, by design, a user-friendly tool for splicing videos, images and sound together. Bad actors can exploit these features to create and diffuse misleading footage with ease.

Finally, there is the messaging app Telegram, already popular prior to the war in both Russia and Ukraine. Telegram has a number of features, built in the interests of privacy and safety, that now make it one of the major vectors for disinformation. It facilitates groups of thousands of people, permits anonymous forwarding, and allows accounts to operate without an associated phone number. For these reasons, Telegram is the app of choice of ultra-right-wing political groups in Brazil and India. As a result, subscriptions to Telegram have grown 48% since February 24, jumping by 8 million.

Exploiting gaps in restrictions

Russian disinformation has continued to shadow reporting from the front, despite attempts by governments and platforms to prevent it. The major social media platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, have pledged to tackle Russian disinformation. One early study, however, found that 91% of Facebook posts containing disinformation about Ukraine escaped detection. More recently, there have been indication that Russia is intensifying its disinformation campaign, unhindered by platforms’ new measures.

To avoid bans on Russian state media, official media outlets started pushing their content through new accounts. Posing as think tanks, independent media and experts, a simple rebranding exercise seems to be enough for Russian content to evade recent restrictions. Equally, the Kremlin is leveraging its diplomats as channels to spread its disinformation. But at the heart of the problem is the business model that these platforms use. Novel and sensational stories attract more engagement on social media, and their algorithms in turn promote the most engaging stories. In fact, research shows that true stories take six times longer than disinformation to reach 1,500 people. This feedback loop is demonstrated by the strong performance of Russian disinformation on Google news, too.

Using languages other than English also presents a loophole in the measures to prevent disinformation. There are fewer resources available to challenge conspiracy theories in languages other than English, even widely-spoken ones. This is visible in the largest-ever analysis of Google’s ad practices on non-English websites, which reveals wide-spread disinformation. Russian disinformation in other languages is finding a foothold in Latin America, the Middle East and Africa. Even with bans in force in Europe and North America, these conspiracy theories can take root elsewhere and come back via friends, family and connections abroad, bypassing any restrictions.

Tactics for challenging disinformation

As we set out in a previous article, heavy-handed “false news” laws are rarely the solution. These laws are over-broad and lend themselves to abuse and institutional censorship. Instead, educational and social strategies provide a stronger approach to curb disinformation.

Given the breadth of the problem, news consumers need to use an array of techniques to sort fact from fiction. It is important, before re-sharing anything online, to check that it comes from a reliable and trusted source. Be aware that Russian disinformation can mimic established media outlets, so check the media outlet’s own website directly. Fact-checking sites such as Snopes, EUvsDisinfo and UkraineFacts are also a useful port of call. Moreover, there are reverse image searches available to determine if a photo or video is old, misappropriated, or doctored.

More effective than attempting to disprove each individual false claim as they arise, is to get ahead of disinformation. Bad actors often have an advantage in offering the first impression, setting up the belief that others need to disprove. If audiences are already primed to the techniques and narratives of disinformation, however, they are partially inoculated against it.

Finally, it is essential that we continue to support independent reporting from Ukraine and further afield. Many Russian newspapers, media outlets and journalists have relocated to Europe, especially the Baltic states, to continue their critical reporting. Other independent outlets are using anonymous journalists to get information from the ground in Russia, and corroborating evidence from Ukraine with geo-tags, time-stamps and satellite imagery. These journalists and outlets need funding and strong protections to ensure they can continue to challenge Russian disinformation and fill its place with accurate, robust reporting.


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