Since the Kremlin launched a full-scale invasion of his country five weeks ago, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his government have used every available social media channel to drum up Western support.
In Facebook photos, they showcase Russian bombings of Ukrainian apartment blocks and hospitals. In Telegram videos, they deliver impassioned speeches about the value of democracy. On Twitter, they laud the battlefield triumphs of Ukrainian soldiers. Nearly all the content is translated into English.
After years of U.S. hand-wringing over the power of Russian disinformation, Ukraine is demonstrating how to drown out the drone of Moscow’s propaganda.
To those in Mr. Zelensky’s orbit, it is an internationalization of the communications savvy he has shown since 2019, when he effectively employed social media in his come-from-behind election victory.
“He rules the war by making his public statements, he rules the country by his public statement,” said Serhiy Lushchenko, a former member of the Ukrainian parliament who is advising the President’s chief of staff on Russian disinformation. “This is the typical Zelensky approach, with the skills he demonstrated during the election campaign.”
The Ukrainian government has teams working on different aspects of the information operation, he said. One handles Mr. Zelensky’s speeches, which include twice-daily videos and regular addresses to parliaments around the world. Other groups run his social media and produce videos from the front lines of the war.
The Ukrainian military’s on-the-ground updates have struck a particularly distinctive tone. They often pair images of incinerated Russian military equipment – and occasionally, the corpses of Russian soldiers – with one-liners. In a series of English-language tweets earlier this week, for instance, the Ukrainian Defence Ministry handed out “Oscars” for videos of its troops defeating Russian units.
“Best Actress: Javelin for the powerful performance in Burning Orcs,” read the caption for one clip of Ukrainian soldiers firing an anti-tank missile.
By comparison, the Kremlin’s efforts to blame Kyiv and NATO for the war have fallen flat among U.S. voters. A Pew Research survey this week found 72 per cent of respondents have confidence in Mr. Zelensky to do the right thing, while 92 per cent have no confidence in Russian President Vladimir Putin. Such results were consistent across the political spectrum.
It’s a sharp blow to a propaganda operation that was once credited with helping tip a U.S. presidential election.
In 2016, hundreds of Russian trolls employed by a Kremlin-connected company posed as Americans to bombard the internet with memes and advertisements attacking Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. A Russian intelligence agency, meanwhile, hacked and released embarrassing e-mails sent by Democratic Party officials.
Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a communications professor at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of a book about that interference operation, said the difference this time is also due largely to efforts by U.S. President Joe Biden and other officials to “pre-bunk” Russian propaganda.
Starting late last year, Mr. Biden, his cabinet and staff repeatedly warned that the Kremlin was building up troops on Ukraine’s borders and plotting an invasion. They also made public U.S. intelligence that Moscow was planning a “false-flag” operation – staging an attack on Russia and blaming it on Ukraine. This ensured that, when Russia ultimately invaded, Americans saw the war for the Russian aggression it really was.
“The Biden administration has telegraphed routinely in anticipation of what the Russians are going to be doing and so minimized the likelihood that Russian disinformation would find a receptive audience,” Prof. Jamieson said.
Another factor is that the U.S. is not the main target of Kremlin disinformation this time around. Christopher Paul, an expert in Russian propaganda at the RAND Corporation think tank, said Moscow is now more interested in reaching a domestic audience, people in its “near-abroad” of neighbouring countries and Europeans more generally, than aiming messages at Americans. “We’re like the fourth-tier intended audience for this,” he said.
It is also unclear whether Russian disinformation was ever particularly effective.
One study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that Twitter users who unwittingly interacted with Russian troll accounts in 2017 did not change their political attitudes. The study posited that the trolls were mostly interacting with hyperpolitical social media users whose views were already polarized.
And as extensive as the disinformation efforts were, the actual product was often laughable.
One Russian-generated Facebook meme, for instance, showed Jesus Christ arm wrestling the devil under the caption “Hillary is a Satan, and her crimes and lies had proved just how evil she is.” An Instagram post aimed at discouraging Black, Democratic-leaning voters from going to the polls used similarly awkward syntax. “We cannot resort to the lesser of two devils. Then we’d surely be better off without voting AT ALL,” it read.
“The troll farms were employing people with English skills ranging from pretty poor to pretty good, but without a lot of Western cultural awareness,” Mr. Paul said. “You’d look at the copy and say, ‘Wait a minute, there’s no way someone in Texas wrote this.’”
Still, even if Russia’s Ukraine narratives have so far not moved mainstream public opinion in the U.S., they have started to get some traction.
For the past month, pro-Trump and QAnon Telegram channels and Twitter accounts have been filled with a Russian conspiracy theory: that Ukraine has secret Pentagon-controlled “bioweapons labs.” Tucker Carlson, the popular Fox News host, and Republican Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene have also promoted the narrative.
The Russian military added a new twist last week, claiming that the President’s son, Hunter Biden, and liberal financier George Soros were behind the labs, thus tying the story to two prominent hate figures of the U.S. right.
The conspiracy theory may telegraph something about how far Russia is willing to go as it struggles on the battlefield and in the information war.
“Are they going to just use this argument to explain current brutality?” Mr. Lushchenko said. “Or are they going to use this argument for future steps, like using chemical weapons in Ukraine?”
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