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How Russia is losing — and winning — the information war in Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a patriotic concert in Moscow just ahead of the one-year anniversary of Russia's invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 22, 2023.
Natalia Kolesnikova
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AFP via Getty Images
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a patriotic concert in Moscow just ahead of the one-year anniversary of Russia's invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 22, 2023.

Russia's war in Ukraine isn't just being fought on the ground and in the air with tanks, artillery and fighter jets. It's also playing out online, where the Kremlin and its allies are using propaganda, fake social media accounts, forged documents and manipulated videos and images to push false narratives, in an effort to deflect blame from Moscow and undermine support for Ukraine.

"To defeat Ukraine on the battlefield, Russia needed to strangle all sympathy and support for Ukraine as well," analysts at the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab wrote in a new report analyzing the Kremlin's information operations in Ukraine.

A year into the conflict, Russia continues to deploy false and misleading claims to justify its actions, cast Ukraine and NATO as the aggressors, and deny responsibility for the war.

It's a continuation of a strategy President Vladimir Putin has pursued long before February 24, 2022 — stretching back to 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and threw its support behind separatists in eastern Ukraine.

That includes falsehoods like the claim Ukraine is run by Nazis with support from the U.S., which was the subject of a recent documentary posted online by state-backed broadcaster RT. It's one of 50 such films RT has published since the invasion — nearly one a week — according to Newsguard, a company that rates news websites' credibility.

But the bogus claims don't end there. Russian media and Kremlin-linked campaigns depict Ukraine's government as rife with Satanists and terrorists. They've denied documented atrocities by Russian soldiers against civilians in Bucha and claimed the bombing of a maternity hospital in Mariupol was faked, using actors. They've spread rumors Ukraine is selling western-provided weapons for a profit on the dark web.

Russia's strategy is to confuse people

Since last February's invasion, Russian-linked influence operations on social media have "used a throw-the-spaghetti-at-the-wall-to-see-what-sticks kind of approach," said Nathaniel Gleicher, head of security policy at Facebook parent Meta.

The point is not that people will believe every one of these narratives, or even be fully convinced by any single claim, said Roman Osadchuk, a DFRLab research associate.

"The main idea is to inflate the information space with multiple false theories and denials of what actually happened in order to make people disinterested, or just be too puzzled," he said.

In addition to sowing doubt, this approach pays off when some narratives break through.

Like the claim that Ukraine was developing biological weapons with the assistance of the U.S. government, which was picked up and amplified in the U.S. by far-right online influencers, followers of the QAnon conspiracy theory, and even Fox News host Tucker Carlson.

Russian and Central African Republic flags are waved by demonstrators last year in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic, in a demonstration in support of Russia in its offensive against Ukraine.
Carol Valade / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Russian and Central African Republic flags are waved by demonstrators last year in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic, in a demonstration in support of Russia in its offensive against Ukraine.

Russia has gained more traction in Africa and Latin America

The wide range of narratives also reflects how the Kremlin tailors messages for specific audiences.

In Africa, Latin America, and southeast Asia, Russia has been working to expand its influence, including through local media and Russian state outlets. There, messages often tap into anti-colonial sentiment to encourage distrust of western governments, researchers say.

"There's been a major focus on non-English-language information," said Kyle Walter, head of research at Logically, a company that tracks online misinformation and disinformation. "They're broadly going across the spectrum, both to try to change their opinions of the invasion, but also to position themselves as a better strategic partner moving forward."

Those efforts have had an impact. RT's Spanish-language channels get high engagement on Facebook and Twitter in Latin America, DFRLab found. Logically's Walter links Russian messaging to lower levels of support for Ukraine in the global south.

"You've seen a lot of that manifest in different U.N. resolutions," he said. "Particularly in Africa and southeast Asia, 15 of the 20 regional countries will abstain from the vote, and maybe two or three actually condemn the invasion."

But Russia has hit roadblocks in its information operations. After the invasion, big U.S. social networks moved quickly to label Russian state media outlets and restrict their reach. The European Union banned RT and Sputnik, another Russian broadcaster, entirely. Facebook started warning users when they clicked on or tried to share a link from a Russian state outlet.

A splintering global internet

Researchers and the social media companies say that's pushed Russia to adapt its tactics. It turned to proxies, like the Chinese government and right-wing figures in Europe and the U.S., to launder its narratives into public conversation.

It's turned to other platforms like TikTok and the messaging app Telegram. It's set up new web domains to try to escape restrictions on platforms such as Facebook. RT videos are posted to YouTube scrubbed of their identification with the channel, which has been banned from the Google-owned video site.

As the big platforms have curbed the reach of Russia's official channels, there's been an uptick in covert activity linked to Russia, according to officials at Meta. In the past year, the company took down two big networks trying to influence perception of the war, involving more than 3,000 accounts, pages and groups — its biggest takedowns of Russian-linked operations since 2017.

But unlike the more sophisticated influence efforts Meta has caught in the past, the company said the tactics used to target Ukraine have been more reminiscent of the spammers' toolkit: high volume and low quality.

"These campaigns resembled smash-and-grab operations that used thousands of fake accounts across social media, not just our platforms, in an attempt to overwhelm the conversation with content," Nick Clegg, Meta's president of global affairs, said.

As Russia's messaging campaigns have proliferated across the social media landscape, the Kremlin has also cracked down at home, blocking Russians from accessing many big U.S. internet platforms including Facebook and Twitter. It all adds up to a more splintered global internet, where what information you are exposed to is increasingly determined by where you are in the world.

Researchers expect Russia will continue to use this mix of tactics to promote its narratives — and exploit the erosion of trust it has been contributing to for years.

"It plays to the fact that everything at this point is up for debate," Walter, the Logically researcher, said. "Truth is up for debate, democracy is up for debate, institutions and their role in providing human rights, for example, is up for debate. They've brought everything into question."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Shannon Bond is a business correspondent at NPR, covering technology and how Silicon Valley's biggest companies are transforming how we live, work and communicate.