At a glance.
- Information operations in Russia's hybrid war.
- Contrasting styles of presentation.
- Deepfake videos.
- Wishful thinking as a source of misinformation.
Information operations, by and against Russia.
The Washington Post has an account of FSB strong-arm tactics used as early as September of last year to pressure Apple and Google to trim their policies to accommodate official Russian sensibilities. Those tactics extended to threats of arrest made against corporate personnel in Russia. The Post characterizes the threats as preparatory work for the censorship the current hybrid war against Ukraine has brought in its train, and it says the companies at the time "blinked."
Influencers remain engaged in Russia's war against Ukraine, and here, as is the case with other items influencers flack, from clothing to drinks, they're being paid for their services. Vice reports a Russian campaign to pay influencers to retail Moscow's propaganda to their gullible followers. The US National Security Council is running a rumor-control effort that specifically addresses the spread of Russian disinformation through TikTok. Prominent TikTokers, the Washington Post says, were given a Zoom meeting by the White House in which the lines of Russian propaganda and the human cost of repeating it were outlined.
Meta's platforms Facebook and Instagram have relaxed their customary strictures against hate speech to permit stronger language about Russia's war against Ukraine to pass its filters, and Russia has responded by adding Instagram to its blocked list. Authorities in Moscow have also asked a court to designate Meta an "extremist organization," which, Bloomberg comments, would effectively criminalize all of its activities in Russia. Meta spokesman Nick Clegg issued the company's response, which repeated familiar claims of commitment to free speech and opposition to hate speech, and said that the relaxed rules apply only to users in Ukraine, the expression of whose outrage Meta is unwilling to censor. Mr. Clegg says in particular that the company on whose behalf he speaks won't tolerate "Russophobia." Meta did clarify in other communications that it wouldn't permit people to call for the death of a head of state. Unnamed here is Mr. Putin, whose death a number of people had publicly desired. So, everybody, no more "death to Putin" posts.
Russian and Ukrainian influence operations contrasted.
The Washington Post is among those who give Ukraine high marks in its information operations, scoring well above Russia, which has found itself unable to find many international takers for its positive disinformation. In general Ukraine has been able to present its case in a human, empathetic way, and Russia has not.
Consider President Putin's approach to domestic dissent. His response to any inside Russia who might not hew to the official Kremlin line has been direct and couched in brutal, contemptuous terms. Russia will spit out the "traitors and scum" who spread Western lies, and Russia will be the stronger for it. Bloomberg reports Mr. Putin's remarks as follows: “Any people, and particularly the Russian people, will always be able to tell the patriots from the scum and traitors and spit them out like a midge that accidentally flew into their mouths. I am convinced that this natural and necessary self-cleansing of society will only strengthen our country, our solidarity, cohesion and readiness to meet any challenge.” That's a point of view, to be sure.
The self-presentation of Russian and Ukrainian leaders has also been a study in contrasts. President Putin appears in a suit, his expression is grim (in fairness, the big, folksy American grin isn't the Eastern European style at all, but Mr. Putin looks grim even by Russian standards). He's surrounded with imperial trappings, like absurdly long tables, like the slender young guards with rigid postures and Ruritanian uniforms who open doors for him. President Zelenskyy and the senior members of his government wear t-shits and sweatshirts; the men are scruffily unshaven in an everyman, relatable shabby chic. Their messages have been comparably relatable, stressing human values and pleading for an end to human suffering. Russia's messages have been from an old great-power playbook, decorated with implausible and atavistic claims that Russia's really fighting Nazis again, just like in 1941. The evidence of atrocities Ukraine has been presenting suggest that in this case the Nazis are marching from the East.
While in recent years Russia has shown considerable ability in successfully mounting disruptive, negative disinformation campaigns, it's largely flunked when it's had to persuade an audience to a particular point of view. It's been much better at confusion.
Deepfake video of President Zelenskyy.
Meta detected and removed a deepfake video of Ukrainian President Zelenskyy saying that Ukraine was surrendering to Russia. Meta's Nathaniel Gleicher took to Twitter to explain: "Earlier today, our teams identified and removed a deepfake video claiming to show President Zelensky issuing a statement he never did. It appeared on a reportedly compromised website and then started showing across the internet. We've quickly reviewed and removed this video for violating our policy against misleading manipulated media, and notified our peers at other platforms." He directed readers to Facebook's policy against manipulated media.
The fake video called upon Ukrainian soldiers to lay down their arms. According to NPR, the video was crudely prepared, badly lipsynched, voice and accent wrong, head not quite matching body, etc., which would make it seem more shallow- than deepfake. It was swiftly debunked, but was nonetheless widely amplified on Vkontakte and other Russian platforms. President Zelenskyy said in response that the only people he'd invited to lay down their arms were Russian soldiers.
Wishful thinking as a source of misinformation.
A photo of a tractor towing a military aircraft was widely circulated on social media on March 10th under the headline, "BREAKING: Ukrainian farmer captured a Russian military jet." By the following day more than 48.000 people had "interacted" with the post. But, as a Reuters fact-check pointed out, the photo that was posted shows nothing of the kind. "Reuters traced the image back to Croatia in 2011 when local news outlets reported on a military jet being towed through Zagreb while en route to an event marking the 20th anniversary of the country’s armed forces (here, here and here). The image is not at all related to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine."
An attentive observer would note at least four things wrong with the story the picture was said to tell. First, signs on buildings in the background use the Roman alphabet, and Cyrillic would be much more common in Ukraine. Second, the markings on the aircraft's tail are Croatian, not Russian. Third, the aircraft is a MiG-21, which the Russian air force retired some years ago and wouldn't be using in Ukraine. And fourth, consider the simple plausibility of the story: where in the world would a farmer be able to hitch up and tow an apparently undamaged fighter? Are Russian aircraft operating from captured airfields in Ukraine? Are they sitting on the ramp unguarded? Are they being taxied through Ukrainian streets? Did Farmer Taras drive over the border to a Russian airfield? Inquiring minds would want to know. Sure, strange things happen, but extraordinary stories should be accompanied by extraordinarily sound evidence. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but this one's not worth even the hundred-fifty-two we just offered in rebuttal.
The enemy of your friend may be your enemy, but that's a matter of commitment, and commitment has its own cognitive pathologies.