Russia is turning to its old disinformation playbook in Ukraine. Is the world able to stop it?
Russia has consistently used disinformation to wage warfare. We have to be vigilant as Vladimir Putin uses it again in Ukraine.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine demonstrates how much modern warfare is waged online – and how much democracies have learned in recent years about how to fight back. Disinformation and deception have always been key components of warfighting because lies and perception can impact the outcome on the battlefield.
For years, Russia’s strategic disinformation playbook has largely focused on making itself appear to be a victim, and democracies the aggressors, to justify attacks on Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014, interference in global elections, and its adversarial stance toward NATO and the European Union. On the battlefield, Russian disinformation has focused on weakening the resolve of its opponents and sowing confusion about Russian military action, hiding atrocities against civilians and pointing the blame at its opponents.
In Ukraine, Russia followed the same approach in the months leading up to the invasion. However, in an unprecedented move, the Biden administration declassified intelligence on Moscow’s plans to stage and film a “false flag” operation to make it look like Ukraine had attacked Russia.
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Moscow’s hope was likely that it could sow enough doubt ahead of time that the world would spin its wheels debating whether or not it was an invasion and whether it was justified, giving Russia time to make quick military gains in Ukraine, divide the EU and NATO, and ultimately delay and weaken their response.
But there are certainly signs that Russia’s disinformation playbook is not working as well as it has in the past. With the world’s eyes wide open to Russia’s plans and intentions, NATO and the EU have responded with sanctions against Russia and military aid for Ukraine, more unified than they have been in years.
Moscow's bad bet
Moscow was probably betting on the fact that the United States and its allies have traditionally struggled to respond to adversarial disinformation, especially in violent conflicts. Our bureaucracies have not been agile enough to keep up with the speed with which information and disinformation move online, and Washington historically has been reluctant to risk compromising sources and methods by declassifying sensitive intelligence.
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Russia was also probably unprepared for the sheer number of governments, fact-checkers, journalists, researchers, open-source investigators and, of course, Ukrainians themselves on the front lines who have worked to expose Moscow’s lies almost in real time.
The Biden administration, open-source investigators and fact-checkers showed that Moscow’s invasion was carefully planned by exposing Russia’s military buildup along the border in the weeks before, and by pointing out Russia’s own sloppiness by showing that videos of Russian security meetings were actually prerecorded.
When Moscow claimed Russian’s invasion was a "peacekeeping force" to stabilize the separatist-held Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and Luhansk People’s Republic, videos and images from the front lines spread online that showed them attacking cities across Ukraine.
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Investigators continue to expose staged false-flag operations Russia is attempting to use as justification. Bellingcat, an open-source investigation firm, exposed Russia’s claims of Ukrainian aggression in separatist-held DPR by proving Moscow staged one such video using cadavers and fake explosives damage on a car.
When claims circulated online that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy had abandoned the country, Zelenskyy posted a video of himself from the streets of Kyiv.
Videos and images prove that round-the-clock Russian bombing has targeted civilians, disproving without a doubt Moscow’s continued claims that forces are only hitting Ukrainian military and intelligence targets.
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Over the weekend, Facebook and Twitter removed accounts they said were linked to Russia and a Belarussian hacking group that pretended to be journalists and were pushing anti-Ukraine narratives.
Can Russian disinformation be stopped?
Despite these efforts, it is too early to tell whether these efforts to combat Russian influence operations are working, and the Russian disinformation machine has not stopped. This is because just as disinformation must be both seen and believed to be effective, so must debunks and fact-checks, and we do not know at this point whether they are. The biggest challenge is getting accurate and timely information to the people who need to hear it.
In the days and weeks ahead, Russia will almost certainly continue to take advantage of the increasingly chaotic information environment to seed disinformation aimed at weakening the resolve of Ukrainian troops and civilians, confusing and dividing the international community, and working to justify its attacks. With such rapidly changing dynamics on the battlefield, information that was accurate just a few hours before become misleading, or even obsolete, by the time it's shared. Russia’s efforts will also be bolstered by the many attention-seekers on social media circulating false or misleading information about Ukraine to get followers – and by well-meaning social media users trying to keep up to date who accidentally share their content.
It's going to take a sustained, global effort that prioritizes speed, accuracy and transparency by both Ukraine and its allies over the coming weeks and months to keep ahead of the Russian disinformation game.
Cindy L. Otis is a disinformation expert, a former CIA officer, a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors, and author of “True or False: A CIA Analyst’s Guide to Spotting Fake News” and the forthcoming “At the Speed of Lies.” Follow her on Twitter: @CindyOtis_