Russian disinformation and its impact in Ukraine
The recent escalation in violence in Donbas has again been preceded and accompanied by an increased amount of disinformation in pro-Kremlin media. This has been reported by the EU East StratCom Task Force, who have tracked the upsurge of hate-speech and aggressive rhetoric in a number of discussion programmes on Russian TV.
In particular, almost every mention of Ukraine in these media outlets includes the adjectives “nazi” or “facist” and continues to seek to portray the Revolution of Dignity as a coup. On 8 February, a speaker on the Russian TV programme “Vremya Pokazhyet” openly called for a violent overthrow of the Ukrainian authorities. This contradicts the reality of the revolution where former president Viktor Yanukovych was impeached by parliamentary process and new elections agreed after he fled the country in early 2014.
The direct correlation between this onslaught of aggressive disinformation and increased violence on the ground suits the Russian narrative. On 28 March 2015, the Russian Defence Minister, Sergei Shoigu, stated, “The day has come when we all acknowledge that words, cameras, photographs, the internet, and information in general have become another branch of weaponry, another branch of the armed forces.” And on 22 February 2017, Shoigu confirmed to the lower house of the Russian parliament, the State Duma, that the Russian Army now has troops whose specific purpose is for “information operations”.
As well as seeking to undermine the support of Western allies, this use of extreme hate-speech reflects a deliberate strategy to desensitise the Russian public and justify the costs of a protracted war - the loss of human life and the drain on Russia’s economy.
To achieve greater impact, the repetition and saturation usage of terms like “nazi” in the media are often accompanied by fake images. In early 2016 this article appeared on the “TeleRadio Company Star” website titled, “Cutthroat Nazism: how Ukrainians were taught to hate Russians."
Investigation by the Ukrainian group ‘StopFake', revealed that the photo was, in fact, from Russia and was taken during the 2013 nationalist meeting known as the Russian March.
Yet even when stories are debunked and images revealed to be false, the original disinformation persists in the public sphere. Images linger in our minds and are critical in evoking emotions of disgust, fear and rage. Images add a sense of credibility to even the most outlandish headline, and are a tool in disinformation to build up a whole set of associations around the chosen target. Indeed, it seems that the more extreme the disinformation, the better.
In 2014 the photo below appeared on the “AntiMaidan” site with the caption “Is it a truce? No, it isn’t! Young boys, supporters of Novorossia, were murdered by Anti-terrorist forces”. However, the punk singer, Arnold Shubin, was surprised to read of his supposed death and reposted the bizarre and clearly false claim.
This is a long-term strategy and is designed to cultivate a visceral response in the audience and to consistently categorise Ukraine as a violent aggressor.
The recent surge in anti-Ukraine disinformation from Russia coincides with the anniversary of the 2014 Revolution of Dignity. Over the dates of February 18-21, Ukraine commemorates the Euromaidan protestors who were killed during the last days of the Yanukovych regime. It is clearly crucial for the Russian authorities to label this movement as a “fascist coup” even though this is radically at odds with the events that occurred. Images of cross-generational, peaceful crowds mourning those who were killed present a picture that Russia is desperate to deny and smear.