Updated Feb 21, 2022 - World

Russian disinformation frenzy seeds groundwork for Ukraine invasion

Illustration of a line of tanks coming out of a static-filled TV screen.
Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

Russia is testing its agility at weaponizing state media to win backing at home, in occupied territories in eastern Ukraine and with sympathizers abroad for a war of aggression.

The big picture: State media has pivoted from accusing the West of hysterical warnings about a non-existent invasion to pumping out minute-by-minute coverage of the tensions.

Zoom in: NewsGuard, a misinformation tech firm, identified three of the most common false narratives being propagated by Russian state media like RT, Sputnik News, and TASS:

  1. The West staged a coup in 2014 to overthrow the Ukrainian government
  2. Ukrainian politics is dominated by Nazi ideology
  3. Ethnic Russians in Ukraine's Donbas region have been subjected to genocide

Between the lines: Social media platforms have been on high alert for Russian disinformation that would violate their policies but have less control over private messaging, where some propaganda efforts have moved to avoid detection.

  • A Twitter spokesperson notes: "As we do around major global events, our safety and integrity teams are monitoring for potential risks associated with conflicts to protect the health of the platform."
  • YouTube's threat analysis group and trust and safety teams have also been closely monitoring the situation in Ukraine. The platform's policies ban misleading titles, thumbnails or descriptions that trick users into believing the content is something it is not.

Why it matters: U.S. officials have for weeks stressed that fabricating pretexts for aggression is part of Russia's "playbook," and that Kremlin-controlled media will play a key role in whatever justification Putin ultimately cites.

  • State media is an asymmetric advantage that Putin retains in his information war with President Biden, who faces independent media sometimes skeptical of U.S. intelligence and government pronouncements. 
  • Meanwhile, some Americans, especially on the political fringes, get news from dubious sources that may launder Russian propaganda.

What's happening: For months, Russian state media downplayed the presence of more than 100,000 troops on Ukraine's borders and insisted the West was fabricating the threat of an invasion.

  • That all changed last week, when shelling broke out in eastern Ukraine and pro-Russian separatists began claiming that Ukrainian forces were planning a military offensive, which Kyiv has vehemently denied.
  • After separatist leaders ordered the evacuation of civilians, Russian state media began flooding the airwaves with reports of explosions and artillery shelling blamed on Ukraine — as well as images of children being loaded onto buses.
  • State media has also amplified Russian officials — including President Vladimir Putin — accusing Ukraine of perpetrating a "genocide" and claiming they have uncovered mass graves filled with civilians.

Last week, ahead of Secretary of State Antony Blinken's speech to the U.N. Security Council, a senior administration official told reporters that Russia had circulated a document to members that it called "a joint project of the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation and RT News Channel."

  • It detailed allegations of supposed war crimes committed by Ukraine.
  • "Each of these allegations are categorically false ... and we should expect more false reports from Russian state media over the coming days," the official warned.

Be smart: Much of the disinformation being pumped out on Russian media is intended for a domestic audience whose support — or opposition — could shape how the conflict plays out.

  • Experts have repeatedly called out how amateurish Russia's "false flags" appear to be, suggesting that Putin isn't particularly concerned about how the outside world will view the so-called evidence.
  • For example, metadata from the messaging app Telegram shows that videos of pro-Russian separatist leaders ordering "emergency" evacuations from eastern Ukraine days were actually created days before.

What we're watching: Most major social media platforms have updated their policies to label state media accounts, which has forced Russian disinformation campaigns to adapt.

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