Russia has flooded social media with disinformation as part of its offensive on Ukraine, but unlike its previous campaigns to spread falsehoods, few people seem to be falling for it
Russia has invaded Ukraine from land, air and sea, but it is faltering on the disinformation front.
On 24 February, as Russian soldiers set foot into Ukraine, conflicting reports spread across social media, muddying the waters and making it difficult to see how far Russian forces had progressed in their invasion.
This was by design. Russia has long relied on its prowess in the military doctrine of maskirovka, or altering the perception of reality so much as to sow confusion, and it has been a policy for decades, says Lynette Nusbacher, former head of the UK government’s Strategic Horizons Unit.
“Russia can be counted on to optimise its ability to operate in enemy depth and shape enemy perceptions using deception, camouflage, disinformation and perhaps deceptive artillery fires and armoured attacks in order to achieve their aims,” she says.
We have already seen that in Ukraine. Alongside using what seem like staged videos that attempt to frame Ukraine as the aggressor, Russia has swarmed social media with disinformation and sent threats to Ukraine’s population, reportedly including text messages sent to Ukrainian soldiers encouraging them to put down arms and surrender.
The social media maskirovka strategy is one that Russia has honed since 2014, when it annexed Crimea, a peninsula that was formerly part of Ukraine. “This is Russia’s bread and butter,” says Ed Arnold at the Royal United Services Institute, a UK think tank. Arnold was serving with NATO in 2014 when Russia invaded Crimea.
Russia can succeed with this strategy where Western governments can’t because of differing attitudes to honesty, he says. “We just can’t compete in the information war,” says Arnold. “Democracies, and the way you do these things, makes it very difficult.”
Western efforts at combating misinformation instead tend to fall to independent open-source intelligence (OSINT) organisations like Bellingcat, which trawl social media to puncture Russian propaganda.
The combination of grassroots OSINT investigators and top-down rebuttals by nation states has already tackled large volumes of Russian disinformation around the invasion of Ukraine as it is being spread online. The US and UK governments took the unusual step of revealing Russia’s plans to invade Ukraine, sharing intelligence warnings of Russia’s invasion prior to boots arriving on the ground. When the invasion began, OSINT investigators disseminated troop movements as they happened.
But the fight against maskirovka has been made more difficult by social media platforms’ suspending OSINT professionals for sharing Russian disinformation as they attempt to debunk it.
Several researchers trying to use social media breadcrumbs to track Russian troop movements were suspended from Twitter on 23 February. Twitter’s head of site integrity, Yoel Roth, said it was human error that caught legitimate fact-checkers up in the dragnet designed to stop social media manipulation.
Despite social media’s hiccups, it appears that, for the first time, the West has Russia’s number when it comes to disinformation. “In my assessment, Russia is decisively losing this information conflict,” says Emerson T. Brooking at the Atlantic Council, a US think tank. “Its actions have received nearly universal condemnation. Its disinformation and false flags have been largely dispelled before they could take root,” he says.
That will make it harder for Russia to reach a political settlement on the Ukraine conflict, Brooking says. After pumping social media full of fake information, the international world won’t believe them in any negotiations.
It could also make it more challenging when Russia has to reckon for its actions. “The internet does not forget. The evidence now being recorded of air strikes, firefights and artillery bombardments will become the battlefields for future information conflict,” says Brooking.
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