The volume of Russian disinformation seeking to frame Ukraine as a threat to justify military action by Russia has more than doubled in the past weeks. The reports across Russian state-linked news outlets and pro-Kremlin social media accounts are amplifying claims – without evidence – of attacks and plots blamed on Ukrainian forces against Russia-backed separatists. This includes an article on 1 February falsely reporting that the government in Kyiv was planning a “major war” in the separatist-held Donbas region.
The Kremlin has a track record of using false information to create confusion and doubt when trying to avoid blame for an attack or to create an excuse to act. It happened during the smirking coverage of the 2018 nerve agent poisonings in the English city of Salisbury, by Russian state media, which aired a bizarre interview with the alleged Russian poisoners, who claimed to be humble salesmen of nutritional supplements with an interest in medieval architecture.
Russian disinformation has also targeted Ukraine for decades, aimed at trying to make Moscow look good and the West appear aggressive. The downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine in 2014 was the textbook case. Russian media spun out a range of conspiracy theories to explain the tragedy, from the somewhat-plausible to the absurd. The Dutch Joint Investigation Team, which conducted the criminal investigation into the crash, concluded that the aircraft was brought down by a Buk missile system that ultimately belonged to the Russian army.
WHAT ARE THE METHODS USED BY PRO-KREMLIN OUTLETS?
Promoting unverified stories: Russian media have a history of promoting emotive content and questionable claims that portray Ukraine in a negative light.
Portraying Ukraine as pro-Nazi: Suggesting that Ukraine is a country aligned with Nazism has been a regular feature of Russian media coverage.
Readers’ comments used to represent public opinion: In recent weeks, some Russian state media outlets have featured misleading headlines about international support for Ukraine based solely on user comments on Western media sites.
Using Western voices to exaggerate support for Russia: Activity on accounts spreading pro-Russian propaganda increased dramatically in November last year, according to research from the counter-disinformation group Mythos Labs.
During this month, these accounts were tweeting about Ukraine 213 times a day on average.
One tactic – as noted by researchers – was to share material from non-Russian voices with views that fall in line with Moscow’s stance.
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This weaponization of information is not some project devised by a Kremlin policy expert but is an integral part of Russian military doctrine — what some senior military figures call a “decisive” battlefront.
“The role of nonmilitary means of achieving political and strategic goals has grown, and, in many cases, they have exceeded the power of force of weapons in their effectiveness,” Gen. Valery V. Gerasimov, the chief of the general staff of the Russian Armed Forces, wrote in 2013.
A prime Kremlin target is Europe, where the rise of the populist right and declining support for the European Union create an ever more receptive audience for Russia’s conservative, nationalistic and authoritarian approach under Mr. Putin. Last year, the European Parliament accused Russia of “financing radical and extremist parties” in its member states, and in 2014 the Kremlin extended an $11.7 million loan to the National Front, the extreme-right party in France.
The Russians are very good at courting everyone who has a grudge against liberal democracy, and that goes from extreme right to extreme left. Conveying the message that “liberal democracy is corrupt, inefficient, chaotic and, ultimately, not democratic.”
In Germany, concerns over immigrant violence grew after a 13-year-old Russian-German girl said she had been raped by migrants. A report on Russian state television furthered the story. Even after the police debunked the claim.
In the UK, the Kremlin’s English-language news outlets heavily favored the campaign for the country to leave the European Union, despite their claims of objectivity.
In the Czech Republic, alarming, sensational stories portraying the United States, the European Union and immigrants as villains appear daily across a cluster of about 40 pro-Russia websites.
Both RT and Sputnik portray themselves as independent, alternative voices. Sputnik claims that it “tells the untold,” even if its daily report relies heavily on articles abridged from other sources. RT trumpets the slogan “Question More”. However, not all Russian disinformation efforts succeed. Sputnik news websites in various Scandinavian languages failed to attract enough readers and were closed after less than a year.
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