Russian propagandists turn their attention to Gaza

Shougat Dasgupta

 

Earlier this week, social media influencer and Russian state television’s favorite political commentator Jackson Hinkle celebrated reaching 2.2 million followers on X. He called on his vast audience to subscribe to his X Premium account for $3 to help him “CRUSH ZIONIST LIES!” The California-born Hinkle, only 24, has become a prominent social media presence solely due to his zealous pursuit of untruths.

Since Hamas’s Oct. 7 assault on Israeli civilians, Hinkle has devoted himself to posting anti-Israel content on social media, particularly X. Nearly all of his posts are blatant falsehoods and manipulations. Recently, for instance, he claimed that Israeli authorities staged a scene for Elon Musk, who recently visited the country, with unfired bullets in a crib. It was soon pointed out, however, that the bullets had indeed been fired. Nevertheless, the tweet is still up. Hinkle doesn’t bother with deleting posts or taking them back after errors have been exposed. He just continues to post more — and it works. His audience impressions over the last month alone run into the billions.  

Before the Hamas attacks, Hinkle spread Russian propaganda about the war in Ukraine. “Putin has God on his side in his quest to defeat NATO satanists,” Hinkle posted on X back in July. While Hinkle no longer posts about Ukraine, he is still serving Russia’s interests. On Nov. 27, for instance, Hinkle faithfully reported that “Hamas has released a Russian-Israeli citizen as a ‘thank you’ to President Putin for supporting Palestine!” More generally, though, the war in Gaza is an opportunity for Hinkle to do what the Kremlin most wants — focus online attention on the West’s seemingly unreflecting and hypocritical support for Israel. 

Hinkle has become a leading figure in that strange, social media-based netherworld of conspiracy theorists who have moved seamlessly from raging (or rather fomenting rage) about Covid vaccines, to raging about U.S. support for Ukraine, to now raging about the war in Gaza.

According to Pekka Kallioniemi, a propaganda researcher from Finland, these issues are “part of the same disinformation package.” In 2022, Kallioniemi began Vatnik Soup, a website and series of tweets in which he exposed, often sardonically, people and organizations he saw as “vatniks,” or useful idiots who would parrot Kremlin talking points online.  

Often, he told me, it is the same people who spread disinformation about Covid and vaccines and then about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, who are now spreading pro-Hamas disinformation. “Their style is distinctive,” Kallioniemi said, because they have so successfully adopted the Russian propaganda technique of “high volume and multichannel disinformation.”

Posting on X, Kallioniemi recently noted the rapid proliferation on TikTok of videos purporting to show that Russian troops had been dispatched to “help” Palestinians defend themselves. “This is of course not true,” he wrote. But it didn’t matter. The larger narrative purpose was served — Russia is an ally and friend to those bullied by the West. “October 7,” he said, “was a big win for the Kremlin. It took the attention completely off the invasion of Ukraine. You began almost immediately to hear about an unwillingness to fund Ukraine’s defense indefinitely and about the need for peace talks.”

It is to Russia’s benefit, he added, that deliberate disinformation about Israel be allowed to infect the global conversation. “There has been a coordinated effort,” Kallioniemi told me, “to lower people’s trust in the authorities and to weaken democratic functioning.” A low-trust society, as the U.S. has gradually become, is “very vulnerable to disinformation and deep-state conspiracies,” he said. The pandemic proved to be particularly fertile ground for conspiracy theories, giving fresh impetus to a narrative about a globalist elite plotting to take over the world. Globalist narratives tend to be antisemitic, with Jewish people accused of being loyal to supranational entities that enhance control over, say, international banking or the media. In 2020, a study commissioned in the U.K. revealed that antisemitic content was rife in 79% of 27 leading anti-vaccine forums. 

The only long-term fix, Kallioniemi said, is education. “What Finland gets right,” he told me, “is that media literacy, critical thinking and checking sources are introduced very early. Even in pre-school, there is some understanding of the concept of disinformation and its impact.”        

Sometimes, though, education and critical thinking are not strong enough to withstand emotion and ideology. Jewish groups have long claimed that antisemitic disinformation is rampant on American university campuses. Some of these groups have just filed a lawsuit against the University of California, Berkeley for enabling “unchecked” antisemitism. If Russian propaganda about Gaza, spread by the likes of Hinkle, is finding an audience, it is because it cleverly exploits existing tensions.  

Dublin’s disinformation riots

Even broad educational achievements and moderate politics can fail to make societies immune to disinformation, as Ireland discovered last week. On Nov. 23, three young children and their teacher were stabbed in Dublin. Far-right groups called for young men to descend onto the scene of the crime, claiming that the stabbings had been committed by an illegal immigrant. The crowd quickly became violent, smashing storefronts and setting police vehicles and buses on fire. It took the police by surprise and hours elapsed before the riot was brought under control. The authorities quickly assigned blame to a far-right faction that they said had been “radicalized” online. It turned out that the attacker was an immigrant, an Algerian who had lived in Ireland for 20 years and was an Irish citizen. For what it’s worth, he was prevented from doing further damage by a much more recent immigrant, a Brazilian delivery driver who knocked him to the ground with his motorcycle helmet. 

If the rioting was shocking, disinformation experts argue that it could have been anticipated. Eileen Culloty, a professor in the communications department at Dublin City University, has written that “the COVID-19 pandemic marked a major turning point for disinformation in Ireland as various conspiracy theorists, anti-establishment actors, and, in particular, right-wing and far-right extremists mobilized online and offline.” Anger over lockdowns and vaccines curdled into anger over immigration, as Ireland took in a disproportionate number of refugees from Ukraine in addition to record numbers of asylum seekers. Contributing to the anger were a housing crisis, a cost-of-living crisis and the belief that local people were being cut off from benefits and forced to compete for scarce resources. Over the last year, there have been a number of protests. Inevitably, the social frustration has been amplified by deliberate and targeted disinformation on social media, including from X owner Elon Musk. As Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar called after the riots for new legislation to deal with hate speech, Musk weighed in. “Ironically,” he posted, “the Irish PM hates the Irish people.” Not the first time Musk has aligned himself with right-wing xenophobes. Varadkar’s father, incidentally, was an Indian-born doctor.

Rise of the trolls

And speaking of right-wing xenophobes: Dutch politician Geert Wilders is poised to form a coalition government in the Netherlands, after his party’s surprising success in snap elections earlier this month. If he can persuade anyone to work with him, that is. It is likely to prove challenging because in his public comments about Muslims in particular, Wilders can sound like an internet troll. He says his leadership style will be less confrontational, that he will be a prime minister for all Dutch people. Though he has yet to get the top job, his election success has already been celebrated by his far-right counterparts across Europe, including Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and France’s Marine Le Pen. He has also received acclaim from fellow Islamophobes in India. Last year, Wilders became a hero for Hindu nationalists when he defended Nupur Sharma, at the time a confident, abrasive spokesperson for the governing Bharatiya Janata Party. Sharma had appeared on a television debate show and made unprintably offensive remarks about the Prophet Muhammad and his third wife, a child bride, which provoked violent demonstrations in India and a diplomatic backlash from important trading partners such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE. The BJP ultimately suspended Sharma, but Wilders described her as a “hero who spoke nothing but the truth.” He added that “Hindus should be safe in India. It is their country, their homeland, it’s theirs! India is no Islamic nation.” It’s a sentiment that has won Wilders friends for life among Hindu nationalists in India, however rooted his words are in disinformation and conspiracy theory. 

WHAT WE’RE READING:

  • Foreign-born media owners are not unheard of in the U.K., including Rupert Murdoch and Evgeny Lebedev, the son of a former KGB spy. So why is it causing such consternation that a consortium led by former CNN boss Jeff Zucker and funded largely by the vice president of the UAE, Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, is seeking to buy conservative broadsheet The Telegraph? Surely there is something concerning when a senior member of the autocratic government of a country not known for encouraging the free press finances the takeover of a national newspaper in another country? The soft power benefits to the UAE seem obvious, but what will the consequences be for The Telegraph?
  • “Across Ukraine at least two dozen Pushkin statues have been removed from their pedestals since the war began,” writes Thomas de Waal in Englesberg Ideas. Given that the 19th-century poet, novelist and dramatist is considered to be Russia’s “national writer,” de Waal adds, “take down Pushkin’s statue and you are challenging Russia as a whole.” This excellent essay makes a compelling case for the need to emancipate rather than fetishize Russian literature.

Disinfo Matters looks beyond fake news to examine how the manipulation of narratives and rewriting of history is reshaping our world.