At a glance.
- Evidence of atrocities.
- Disinformation at the UN.
- Debunking by presentation.
- The uses of obvious lies.
- Meta's action against adversarial networks.
Evidence of atrocities as Russian forces retreat from Kyiv.
The massacres in Bucha seem, the AP writes, to have represented a turning point in world opinion. Russian disinformation seems to be working nowhere save in Russia itself.
The Telegraph, the Washington Post, the Guardian, the New York Times, the Associated Press, Time, and Newsweek, among others, report that large numbers of civilian dead were left behind by Russian forces as they retreated from the regions around Kyiv.
The evidence seems unanswerable, but it’s nonetheless become the subject of Russian disinformation operations, with the customary call for impartial investigation, etc., that have been trotted out by the Kremlin for every outrage from the invasion of Crimea to the Novichok assassination attempts (and the casual Novichok inadvertent murder of an utterly uninvolved bystander).
Official Russian sources deny killing civilians. The atrocities, the Kremlin says, are provocations staged by the Ukrainian government. The official denial seems to have found few takers internationally, but RT reports that Russia is "scrambling" (as in scrambling interceptors, presumably) the UN Security Council today to address the crisis in Bucha. RT quotes a Telegram post by Russia's deputy permanent representative to the United Nations, Dmitry Polyansky, who described the situation as follows: “In light of the blatant provocation by Ukrainian radicals in Bucha, Russia has demanded a meeting of the UN Security Council to be convened on Monday, April 4. We will bring to light the presumptuous Ukrainian provocateurs and their Western patrons."
As senior members of the Russian government (including President Putin) are increasingly called "war criminals" (former International Criminal Court war crimes prosecutor Carla del Ponte's characterization is typical of informed international reaction to Russia's conduct of its war), TASS is authorized to disclose that "Russian Investigative Committee investigators have questioned more than 12,000 evacuees from the Donetsk and Lugansk people’s republics and recognized as victims of abuse nearly 9,000 of them, the IC’s press-service said on Friday following an on-site meeting IC chief Alexander Bastrykin held in Rostov-on-Don." Thus in Moscow's view the war criminals are Ukrainians (along with their patrons in London, Washington, etc.).
Reuters is direct in its reporting: the wire service's reporters in Bucha saw clear evidence of Russian atrocities after the Russian army retreated from the town.
Disinformation at the UN.
It’s necessary to devote some attention to Russian disinformation and its debunking, since we can expect to see Russia’s themes planted and amplified online.
After the United Nations Secretary General this morning called for an immediate end to the war against Ukraine ("a humanitarian cease-fire"), Ukrainian President Zelenskyy addressed the United Nations Security Council. He denounced, in detail, Russian atrocities in Bucha and other cities Ukrainian forces have now retaken.
We all know, Mr. Zelenskyy said, what Russia will tell the world. "They will blame everyone, just to justify their own actions," he said. Russia’s method, he said, has been to insist that there are differing accounts of events, and divergent interpretations, but this is done just to sow confusion. In this case, however, President Zelenskyy said, the evidence is incontrovertible, and preserving that evidence, and publicizing it, is vitally important. "The Russian military and those who gave them orders must be brought to justice immediately for war crimes," he said. And he called for trials like those held in Nuremberg after World War Two, pointedly reminding Russian diplomats that the Nazi foreign minister Ribbentrop didn't escape punishment in 1946.
His peroration called for equal treatment of all nations, and an end to the privilege Russia has enjoyed as a permanent member of the Security Council. "Either remove Russia as an aggressor and a source of war...or else dissolve yourself altogether." He asked the Council to watch a brief video in which names of towns were displayed, without narration, over images of dead civilians, many of them naked, some of them burned, many of them with hands bound behind their backs, clearly executed at close range.
After President Zelenskyy's address, the members of the Security Council spoke, almost all of them to denounce Russian methods. The Chinese representative was most measured, but even he concentrated on calling for a ceasefire and negotiations, and not on reinforcing Russia’s frankly incredible claims that atrocity and indiscriminate warfare are Ukrainian and not Russian crimes.
Russia's representative, Vasily Nebenzya, in a strikingly mendacious response, asked that the UN recognize Russia's humanitarian work in Ukraine. He deplored Ukraine's interference with those efforts. He characterized Russia's mass abduction of Ukrainian citizens to Russia as a voluntary, humanitarian effort. He addressed President Zelenskyy directly, to "place on your conscience the ungrounded accusations against the Russian military which are uncorroborated by any eyewitnesses." He accused Ukraine of betraying hopes of an end to Ukrainian attacks against Donetsk and Luhansk, of conducting a campaign against the Russian language, and of failing to comply with the Minsk agreements.
Mr. Nebenzya also reiterated Russian claims that the Nazis are "running the show" in Ukraine, and are bent on destroying Russian language and culture. He called for the world to "cut out the malignant Nazi tumor" that's engulfing Ukraine and would eventually engulf Russia. Russia would do that, he said, and would succeed. And in a strikingly creative explanation of Russian combat failure, he explained military incompetence as evidence of humanitarian restraint. He called the March 30th withdrawal from Bucha a "gesture of good faith," and claimed that "not a single civilian suffered from any violence" while Russian forces controlled the town, and he asked that the world recognize the humanitarian aid Russia brought to the Kyiv oblast as a whole. And all that shelling around Mariupol? It was the work of Ukrainian guns. Says Russia. And any atrocities around Bucha must have been the work of the Ukrainians themselves.
As we note above, these themes can be expected to reappear in Russian disinformation over the coming week.
Debunking by presentation.
The UK Ministry of Defence tweeted a three-part thread with presentation animations in a laconic debunking of Russian claims that it's encircled by the Atlantic Alliance. "NATO is not an aggressive alliance. NATO is not encircling Russia. NATO never promised that it would not expand. President Putin says @NATO is aggressive and a threat to Russia. It is not. President Putin says @NATO is encircling Russia and threatens Russia's security. It does not." One key "fact check:" Russia's border in total is more than 20,000 kilometers long, and only 1215 kilometers of that border, or 6%, is with a NATO member. The arithmetic makes "encirclement" implausible (even if you treat all that sea ice as an honorary member of NATO.
Why bother with planting unconvincing lies?
Because they might be useful in eroding trust in news sources you'd rather people not pay attention to. The New York Times describes an ongoing Russian campaign in which Ukrainian media outlets and social media accounts are hacked to display wildly implausible messages. Prominent among these was the patently false report that Ukrainian President Zelenskyy had surrendered his country to the Russians. This appeared in many outlets, none of whom placed the story themselves. It was displayed, for example, in a crawler across the bottom of the television screen during a Media Group Ukraine broadcast: Russian disinformation operators had hacked the station's chyron and inserted the text. The goal isn't to persuade anyone that Ukraine had surrendered. Instead, in the purely disruptive style of Moscow's most successful disinformation campaigns, the purpose was to induce informational friction, and thereby to erode public trust in media that might be telling unwelcome truths about Russia's invasion.
Meta disrupts adversarial threats.
The Washington Post reported this morning that Facebook's corporate parent Meta had disrupted influence networks operating in several parts of the world. Russian and Belarusian disinformation figure prominently in Meta's report, but the activity is by no means confined to Moscow or Minsk. The company's Quarterly Adversarial Threat Report summarizes its discoveries and the actions it took:
- "We took action against two cyber espionage operations from Iran. The first network was linked to a group of hackers known in the security industry as UNC788. The second was a separate, previously unreported group that targeted industries like energy, telecommunications, maritime logistics, information technology, and others."
- "We removed a hybrid network operated by the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Azerbaijan that combined cyber espionage with Coordinated Inauthentic Behavior (CIB) to target civil society in Azerbaijan by compromising accounts and websites to post on their behalf."
- "Our findings also include an update on our enforcements in Ukraine, including attempts by previously disrupted state and non-state actors to come back on the platform, in addition to spam networks using deceptive tactics to monetize public attention to the ongoing war."
- "We removed Coordinated Inauthentic Behavior operations from Brazil, Costa Rica and El Salvador, and previously reported networks from Russia and Ukraine. The Brazilian network is the first operation we’ve disrupted that primarily focused on environmental issues."
- "As part of disrupting new and emerging threats, we removed a coordinated violating network in the Philippines that claimed credit for bringing websites down and defacing them, primarily those of news entities."
- "Under our Inauthentic Behavior policy against mass reporting, we removed a network in Russia for abusing our reporting tools by repeatedly reporting people in Ukraine for fictitious violations of Facebook policy, in an attempt to silence them."
- "Also under our Inauthentic Behavior policies, we took down tens of thousands of accounts, Pages and Groups around the world for inauthentically inflating the distribution of their content and abusively building an audience. We did so through large-scale automated detection, complemented by manual investigations."