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Russian disinformation looms large as invasion of Ukraine heats up

As the war in Ukraine rages on, the past ten days have seen mass waves of Russian disinformation
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Truth is the first casualty of war. In the case of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, this saying has never rung truer. As the war in Ukraine rages on, the past twelve days have seen mass waves of Russian disinformation and fake news aimed at justifying the invasion and selling Moscow’s reasons for starting a war with its neighbor.

The main narratives that Russia is using for its so-called “special military operation” is that Ukraine is home of “neonazis and drug addicts” that have to be purged, and that the Russian army is “the liberator” of the Ukrainian people.

And for many in Russia, these reasons are enough for them to turn a blind eye to what is actually going on in their neighboring country and how cities and civilians are also being targeted in the multiple attacks that the Russian military is carrying out. Many Ukrainians find out that even their relatives in Russia don’t believe there’s a war, having bought into the official Kremlin messaging. 

Russian authorities have also started to impose censorship, blocking access to social networks such as Facebook and Instagram, and forcing much of the Russian population to get their information from traditional media such as state-controlled TV channels, and so on.

“The Russian government calls all information about the actions of Russian troops and the destruction of civilian infrastructure and civilians fake news, and is also preparing a law on criminal liability for disseminating “false” information about the actions of Russian troops,” 28-year-old St. Petersburg-based lawyer Gabriel tells The Recursive about Russian disinformation.

Steps to restrict and limit disinformation and propaganda

For Russian experts, in such a situation, a significant part of the Russian population isn’t critical when it sees such information on state channels.

“In their perception, everything that the whole world sees as Putin’s war against Ukraine turns into “an operation to save Russia and Ukraine from the Nazis.” This is also connected with psychological motives – it is much easier to allow yourself to believe that you are on the side of the “truth”, than to admit that your country has unleashed a war, bombed cities and killed civilians,” Olga Irisova, political analyst and editor-in-chief of Riddle, an online journal on Russian affairs, tells The Recursive.

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As a response to stop the further spreading of Russian disinformation and propaganda, tech giants such as Twitter and Facebook announced that they will restrict and block content coming from Russian state media, as well as prevent them from running ads. Telecom providers across the EU, US and Australia have also blocked Russian state-owned media such as RT and Sputnik.

While it is important to ban disinformation and propaganda, it is also vital to remember and not to lose sight of the role that different opinions have when it comes to freedom of speech, experts argue.

“We are seeing a radicalisation of opinion on both sides, with the Russians trying to prevent certain information from the West reaching the country, as the war is not supported by many Russian citizens, including in the military. On the Western side, the reaction is similar, and the ban on RT leads to a single opinion regarding the war,” Michael Eric Lambert, specialist in intelligence and international affairs, tells The Recursive.

“While it is good that the EU bans propaganda, it is also important to remember that freedom and differing opinions must also have a place in public debate,” he adds.

How Ukrainian tech is fending off disinformation

Some Ukrainian startups and tech companies have also taken the matter of countering Russian disinformation into their own hands. Reface, a Kyiv-based AI/ML startup and a social platform for personalized content creation, is one of them.

Since the beginning of the Russian invasion, Reface began a campaign using its viral face-swapping app which has more than 200 million users.

“Since Russians have limited access to trust-worthy media, the app has sent a push-notification with a call to protest. We’ve shared a video with real footage from Ukraine. Now, every video made with our app has a watermark with #StandwithUkraine and Ukrainian flag,” Reface’s PR manager Daria Kravets tells The Recursive.

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According to her, up until now, more than 9 million notifications have been sent worldwide, out of which two million have been delivered to Russia.

“More and more people are getting the truth. We must also say that the quantity of created video in Reface  dropped at first, but is stabilizing now. Russians are sharing videos with #StandwithUkraine,” Kravets adds.

However, the campaign has also faced a backlash from some Russian users, as they have given the app a one-star review and reported it on App Store and Google Play, Kravets points out.

Meanwhile, there’s a growing number of crowdfunding campaigns aimed at fighting Russian disinformation by providing Russians with real news on Ukraine. One of them aims to use modern digital advertising to show real news about what is happening in Ukraine.

“We’ve built a team of digital campaign experts, who can get around Russian government restrictions. We’ve already run some test advertising today – showing people news from independent news websites,” the creators of this campaign, which is based in the UK, emphasize.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian authorities are also stepping up their efforts to combat disinformation and fake news arising from the Russian invasion. The Ukrainian Foreign Affairs ministry launched an information platform for foreign audiences, with a goal to provide verified information about the situation in Ukraine, to share specific ways to support Ukraine and to show the human dimension of the resistance. 

The role of social media in the disinformation war

According to Bulgarian data scientist Nikola Tulechki, while most of what is happening is not new, with the help of social media, it is happening much faster and is amplified several times.

“People are inadvertently sucked into such campaigns and become involuntary agents in someone’s plot, and amplifying their propaganda. Moreover, during the pandemic, large-scale influence networks were built and matured, exploiting the uncertainty around the virus and the government’s measures. We are now observing how these same networks are repurposed into becoming the Kremlin’s megaphones,” Sofia-based Tulechki tells The Recursive.

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In turn people who yesterday were intimately convinced that COVID is a hoax and the vaccines are a form of control are today first to point out how Putin is saving people from evil Ukrainian nazis, Tulechki stresses. “It’s both terrifying and extremely interesting to watch,” he says.

In such a situation, experts also suggest that it is up to every social media user to personally check and verify before they decide to disseminate claims or articles that could prove as potentially harmful to the truth.

“Personal responsibility for critical thinking and checking and verifying all information remains a high priority. Also, competent defense structures should demonstrate all their knowledge in the fight against fake news and so-called “information war”,” Skopje-based communicologist and digital literacy trainer Bojan Kordalov tells The Recursive.

And while the Internet and social media remain as the biggest space for rapid dissemination of information, especially in times of crisis, their users have to remember that these platforms are merely platforms that host content, and do not create one.

“We must remember that social media and digital platforms are not media in the traditional sense of the word, but only channels that do not create their own original content, and that this is done by people with real identities,” Kordalov concludes.

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Bojan is The Recursive’s Western Balkans Editor, covering tech, innovation, and business for more than a decade. He’s currently exploring blockchain, Industry 4.0, AI, and is always open to covering diverse and exciting topics in the Western Balkans countries. His work has been featured in global media outlets such as Foreign Policy, WSJ, ZDNet, and Balkan Insight.