At a glance.
- Fact checks as disinformation vectors.
- Disinformation as provocation and pretext.
- Threats as tools of influence.
Fact checks as disinformation vectors.
Fact-checking, by Reuters and others, has been valuable in exposing disinformation and misinformation about the current Russian war against Ukraine. Not all fact-checks, however, are what they appear to be. Pro Publica has an account of fact checking that serves to spread Russian disinformation.
An official of the self-styled "Donetsk People's Republic, Daniil Bezsonov, on March 3rd tweeted a video to reveal “How Ukrainian fakes are made.” It juxtaposed two identical videos of an explosion in Kharkiv, one of them identified as a recent Russian missile strike, the other an unrelated explosion at a munitions plant in 2017. The implication was that Ukraine was repurposing old or stock video to bear false witness against Russia. But there's a problem: Ukraine didn't distribute the falsely attributed imagery. So the Donetsk People's Republic is fabricating the disinformation itself, misattributing it to Ukraine, and then finishing with a righteous fact check.
This isn't, Pro Publica points out, an isolated phenomenon:
"Researchers at Clemson University’s Media Forensics Hub and ProPublica identified more than a dozen videos that purport to debunk apparently nonexistent Ukrainian fakes. The videos have racked up more than 1 million views across pro-Russian channels on the messaging app Telegram, and have garnered thousands of likes and retweets on Twitter. A screenshot from one of the fake debunking videos was broadcast on Russian state TV, while another was spread by an official Russian government Twitter account."
The technique might yield the Russian government some propaganda wins. Russian disinformation has historically been far better at darkening counsel than it has at positive persuasion:
"The goal of the videos is to inject a sense of doubt among Russian-language audiences as they encounter real images of wrecked Russian military vehicles and the destruction caused by missile and artillery strikes in Ukraine, according to Patrick Warren, an associate professor at Clemson who co-leads the Media Forensics Hub."
“'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,' said Warren, who has conducted extensive research into Russian internet trolling and disinformation campaigns. 'In a sense they are convincing the viewer that it would be possible for a Ukrainian propaganda bureau to do this sort of thing.'”
Disinformation as provocation and pretext.
Moscow is recycling implausible and unsupported claims that Ukraine is attempting to create a "dirty bomb," that is, a radiological catastrophe, by mining a research reactor in Kharkiv. Sputnik maintains that Russian forces are actually the heroes in Kharkiv, having secured the reactor and prevented the disaster the Ukrainians had prepared. Russian government-controlled media are also claiming that Ukraine is attempting to conceal a large-scale biowar program it's been operating with US support and collusion. Neither of these seem to have any international legs, but then the audience is probably a domestic one.
Western intelligence services, particularly in the US and UK, have been unusually open and forthcoming in their discussion of Russian actions against Ukraine. Much of that openness has been devoted to what some journalists have called "prebunking," hitting the credibility of disinformation before it's found its legs and gained traction. Yesterday's warning by the White House that Russia may be planning to use chemical weapons seems to be another case of prebunking a building provocation the Kremlin may be preparing. Russian sources have claimed that Ukraine (probably with American assistance) has been preparing both biological and chemical weapons, and those claims have been seconded and amplified by Chinese media. (The claims about bioweaponry have additional interest for China, which continues to feel embarrassment, deservedly or not, over the apparent origins of COVID-19 in a Wuhan wet market.)
Western sources see this as an incipient provocation. The Atlantic Council describes the early stages of this information operation:
"In remarks to Russian media on March 9, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova escalated Kremlin claims that Ukraine intended to use nuclear or biological weapons against Russia. According to the Foreign Ministry Twitter account, Zakharova said that Russia decided to capture the Chernobyl and Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plants “exclusively to prevent any attempts to stage nuclear provocations, which is a risk that obviously exists.”
"Meanwhile, Zakharova went on to “confirm” that Russian special forces had collected proof that Ukraine and the US Department of Defense attempted to destroy evidence of a biological weapons program at the start of the Russian invasion. “We confirm that the special military operation in Ukraine revealed facts of the emergency eradication by the Kiev regime of traces of the military biological program implemented by Kiev with funding from the US @DeptofDefense,” the Foreign Ministry Twitter account quoted her as saying. Zakharova’s remarks reinforced claims made by Russia’s Defense Ministry on March 6."
White House Press Secretary Psaki tweeted a US response to Russian allegations:
"We took note of Russia’s false claims about alleged U.S. biological weapons labs and chemical weapons development in Ukraine. We’ve also seen Chinese officials echo these conspiracy theories.This is preposterous. It’s the kind of disinformation operation we’ve seen repeatedly from the Russians over the years in Ukraine and in other countries, which have been debunked, and an example of the types of false pretexts we have been warning the Russians would invent. The United States is in full compliance with its obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention and the Biological Weapons Convention and does not develop or possess such weapons anywhere."
She mentioned specifically Russia's use of its Novichok nerve agent in the attempted assassination of a GRU defector in the UK (she might also have mentioned that the failed assassination killed at least one uninvolved and utterly innocent bystander). "It’s Russia that has a long and well-documented track record of using chemical weapons," she said, "including in attempted assassinations and poisoning of Putin’s political enemies like Alexey Navalny." She added, "It’s Russia that continues to support the Assad regime in Syria, which has repeatedly used chemical weapons. It’s Russia that has long maintained a biological weapons program in violation of international law."
And the disinformation fits Moscow's style of provocation:
"Also, Russia has a track record of accusing the West of the very violations that Russia itself is perpetrating. In December, Russia falsely accused the U.S. of deploying contractors with chemical weapons in Ukraine.
"This is all an obvious ploy by Russia to try to try to justify its further premeditated, unprovoked, and unjustified attack on Ukraine.
"Now that Russia has made these false claims, and China has seemingly endorsed this propaganda, we should all be on the lookout for Russia to possibly use chemical or biological weapons in Ukraine, or to create a false flag operation using them. It’s a clear pattern."
Threats as a tool of influence.
Russian domestic influence operations continue to rely heavily on censorship. Abroad, there are also some signs of direct intimidation of journalists. Reporters in Odessa say they've received menacing emails from odezzarus@protonmail[dot]com. The Atlantic Council describes what appears to be a coordinated campaign of intimidation:
"The email’s subject line stated, 'your chance to be saved.' The message urged outlets to give up anti-Russian activities and place a pro-Kremlin banner on their websites spelling Odesa with a “Z” instead of an 's.' The letter Z has become a symbol adopted by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s supporters to express solidarity with the invasion, as Russian forces have used the Z marking on their military equipment, likely to avoid so-called friendly fire incidents. The email claimed that these actions would 'soften the inevitable punishment for Nazi involvement.'
The next day, Odesa journalist Konstantin Gak said he received a second email from the same sender. The email included multiple Z’s and claimed local journalists bear personal responsibility for the 'betrayal of Russian identity' and 'dissemination of Nazi propaganda.' The sender claimed 'redemption' is inevitable and to 'soften the sentence,' journalists should 'riot.'"
Even the most assiduous propagandists seem to have trouble finding good help nowadays:
"Gak noticed that the sender forgot to delete a part of the email that provided instructions for how to compose the message. According to the instructions, senders are told, 'add here a few paragraphs on local specifics,' 'these emails should be disseminated every day to crush the morale,' 'send emails individually, not to a list,' and 'think about painful dots to push on.' These instructions suggest the emails could be part of a broader campaign to threaten Ukrainian journalists.
The biggest obstacle to a successful Russian information campaign, however, apart from persuasion being inherently harder to achieve than confusion (as we've seen), may be the pervasive availability of social media and a large international journalistic presence in Ukraine. Unusual Western openness with intelligence, notably used for what some have called "prebunking," the anticipation of Russian disinformation themes and the release of fact-checks before the disinformation finds its legs, seems also to have played a part.