The Kremlin’s disinformation campaign is firing on all cylinders, but propagandists keep getting caught out by metadata.
Russia’s disinformation claiming that Ukraine is launching attacks against its troops and in its territories is so poor that the reports are being debunked faster than Russia can create the disinformation.
But it makes little difference to the Kremlin, because all it is trying to do is bombard its own citizens with information to the point where they just accept whatever they are told, and justify a possible invasion of Ukraine.
Russia’s latest Ukraine disinformation campaign started in October. But in the last few days the speed and volume of the false allegations now being shared online and boosted by Russian state media has shifted dramatically, and new videos are now being shared multiple times a day.
“Since Sunday, they have produced fake videos almost every hour trying to show that the attack is going on, but that’s completely fabricated because we have lots of international journalists right now in the territories controlled by Ukraine along the contact line with the occupied territories, and they see that Ukraine is not attacking,” Maria Avdeeva, research director at the European Expert Association, an NGO that focuses on security in Ukraine, told VICE World News.
The Kremlin’s disinformation campaign runs like a well-oiled machine, with videos “captured” by bogus “war correspondents” on the frontlines in Donetsk shared to their hugely popular channels with hundreds of thousands of followers on the encrypted messaging app Telegram. From there, a sophisticated network of accounts spread the content to hundreds of thousands of people almost instantly.
Then, Russia’s broadly compliant media will pick up the latest video and run it unquestioningly, helping get the government’s preferred narrative in front of millions of people, despite the increasingly slapdash nature of the “evidence.”
Here are just a few examples of propaganda Moscow has used over the last few days to try and convince its citizens that an invasion of Ukraine is justified:
Car bombing: On Friday, Russian state media reported a car bombing in the separatist-controlled city of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine. The car was reported to belong to the head of police for the Donetsk People’s Republic and coincidentally came hours after rebel leader Denis Pushilin warned such attacks were imminent. But it turns out that whoever set the explosion didn’t do a very good job of covering their tracks. The licence plate on the vehicle was still visible after the explosion and it was soon discovered that it had in fact been taken from an entirely different type of car that had in the past been used by the head of the Donetsk military police.
- Chemical attack: For months, Russia has been warning—without evidence—that Ukraine was preparing to launch a chemical attack. So last week when a video was published that purportedly showed Polish-speaking “saboteurs” trying to explode a chlorine gas tank in the Russian-controlled city of Horlivka, it looked like the Kremlin was right all along. Except that the video was quickly debunked because the metadata showed it had been created weeks ago, and the audio from the video actually came from a video of a Finnish firing range posted to YouTube in 2010.
- Emergency evacuation: On Friday, “emergency” broadcasts from the leaders of Russian-backed separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk were published on Telegram calling for the evacuation of the region by all Russians alleging that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was about to give an order to “invade the territories.” Unfortunately for those leaders, Telegram is one of the few platforms that does not strip metadata when people upload videos, so open-source researchers were quickly able to see that the “emergency broadcasts” were in fact filmed 48 hours before the alleged “emergency.”
Elliot Higgins, the founder of open-source intelligence outfit Bellingcat who has tracked Russia’s disinformation campaigns closely for years, called the Kremlin’s recent efforts “genuinely some of the most idiotic efforts at disinformation I’ve seen.”
But the shoddy and often amateurish nature of the efforts to frame Ukraine suggests that this coordinated campaign is not designed to convince the West but to reassure those inside Russia that what they are doing is justified.
The groundwork for this campaign began months ago, researchers have discovered, but the speed with which new false narratives are being shared online and in Russian state media has increased dramatically in recent weeks as Moscow continues to seek justification for a possible invasion of Ukraine.
A report published last week by researchers are the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab entitled “How ten false flag narratives were promoted by pro-Kremlin media” detailed the month-long nature of the campaign and how the false narratives about Ukraine’s hostile actions towards Russia were promoted widely by state-backed broadcasters.
Moscow’s propaganda campaign has also been criticised by US and European leaders
“Russia plans to manufacture a pretext for its attacks,” Antony Blinken, US Secretary of State, told the UN last week. “In the past few days, Russian media has already begun to spread some of these false alarms and claims to maximise public outrage, to lay the groundwork for an invented justification for war.”
After the disinformation campaign increased over the weekend, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba on Monday tweeted: “I categorically refute the disinformation of the Russian Federation,” before listing off a series of claims being boosted by Russia about Ukrainian attacks in Donetsk and Luhansk and “saboteurs” crossing the border into Russian territory.
“I demand from the Russian Federation to stop the fake factory immediately,” Kuleba tweeted, though if anything the volume of disinformation coming from the Kremlin is increasing rather than diminishing.
“The idea is that they create this chaos in the information space,” Avdeeva told VICE News. “[Viewers and readers] cannot tell what is not true [because] they will have no time to verify the information because they are bombarded by fake messages every minute [and so] they just consume the information you bombard them with.”