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Putin’s invasion of Ukraine changed everything, especially the information war

Disinfo Matters is a weekly newsletter that looks beyond fake news to examine how manipulation of narratives, rewriting of history and altering our memories is reshaping our world. We are currently tracking the war in Ukraine. In this edition: early lessons of disinformation from Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia fear for their sovereignty and the Kremlin’s new tactics

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This week, a well known U.K. podcast asked me to be a guest on their show. The interviewer wanted to talk about information warfare and Ukraine.  “Don’t you think Ukrainians are being so clever about their information war?” he asked me. I wasn’t sure what he meant, because I had assumed they were just trying to survive. 

“But don’t you think they are using really interesting tactics on social media?” he pressed me. All the stories, he said, were so human and touching, a new level in the whole disinformation struggle. 

The host was, obviously, still catching up. After all, Putin’s terrifying invasion of Ukraine did change everything, including the disinformation game. The story of Ukraine right now, I tried to explain, packs in so much drama, so many heroes and such an obvious villain that it has shifted the global narrative overnight. 

Of course, there’s no shortage of disinformation on both sides, I agreed. And yes, Ukraine does happen to have a president who is not just jaw droppingly brave but is also an astonishingly effective communicator. But no, I told the podcast host, Ukrainians were not being clever. They were simply doing exactly what most of us do: creating a digital record of this moment in their lives. Theirs just happened to be a hell of a lot more eventful. 

Over the last decade, the United States and the European Union have poured tens of millions of dollars into fighting Russian disinformation. They funded academic research, backed fact-checking initiatives, held countless conferences and created a new generation of information warriors. It didn’t work.

Then, on February 24th, after months of saying that he wouldn’t, Vladimir Putin launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine and, just like that, he lost the information war with the West.  

Hundreds of thousands are now taking to the streets in cities around the world in support of Ukraine, memes about the size of Volodymyr Zelensky’s balls (you can see them from space apparently) have taken over the internet, and the world is in awe of the superhuman stoicism of Ukrainians living under the Russian bombardment. 

The whataboutery, the moral ambiguity, the doubt that always fueled Russia’s disinformation network has suddenly dried up. Overnight, Ukraine proved that disinformation is not about pieces of fake news that can be debunked, but about narratives that need to be countered. And that true stories about real people are the best antidotes to disinformation. 

And here comes the “but” part. The longer this war goes on for, and it could go on for a very, very long time, the more short-lived the West’s info war victory is likely to be. 

It is already looking shaky. In part because of a self-indulgent narrative of unity with Ukraine that has emerged in Europe and the United States. The slogan is “we stand with Ukraine,” but unless more is done to protect lives, this slogan will turn into a demoralizing, empty promise that Putin will exploit. 

Currently, the West is not doing enough, warns Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite in her powerful letter “Cowardly West? Or accomplices to putin’s war crimes?” (note the intentional lower case in “putin” throughout the letter).

“The West still does not understand that there is a European war going on in Ukraine. Either you participate in it and fight the aggressor or become an accomplice to war crimes by just standing and watching Ukraine and its people being destroyed. Yes, an accomplice,” she wrote.

Putin is already paying a high price for his latest and by far craziest adventure. Economic sanctions are unprecedented and so is Russia’s looming isolation.  

But as we try to comprehend our newly changed world, we must remember that this war is only just beginning. While Putin’s soldiers advance on Ukraine’s cities, his information warriors are looking for empty promises and slogans. They will become the new frontlines of Putin’s information war against the West. For it is not the lies that Putin will tell, but the truths that he will be able to exploit that should worry everyone who is concerned about this devastating war.

TRENDS WE ARE WATCHING: 

Tech Giants response: Ukrainian activists have long asked social media giants to take down prominent Russian accounts spewing hatred and disinformation that has been fueling the war for years. It is finally happening: Twitter said it will label content from Russian state media outlets; Facebook announced it is blocking access to Russian state media in the EU; and Google, YouTube, and Facebook claimed they are blocking Russian state media from running ads. But Ukrainian activists I spoke to are angry with what they see as too little too late and tech rights experts we are talking to warn that this knee jerk reaction must translate into serious policy change. My colleague Caitlin Thompson is watching closely in her weekly Authoritarian Tech newsletter. Sign up here

Reactions of Russians: “I feel like I am on an airplane that has been hijacked,” a Russian journalist friend texted me while packing a suitcase to leave Moscow. Most Russian journalists I know personally have now left the country as the government cranked up censorship to pre-Perestroika levels. This week the iconic independent radio station Ekho Moskvy, which has been broadcasting since 1990, was dissolved. Newspapers are shutting down. The BBC is going back to old-school shortwave radio broadcasting in Russia. It is, literally, back to the USSR. But for every Russian who is trying to get out there are thousands who will be choosing to stay and many of them because they approve of their President. 

The Kremlin’s new info war tactic: “You don’t trust us? Here’s what Western media has been saying about Ukraine.” This seems to be a new Russian tactic in the information war. The ever-prolific Russian Embassy in the U.K. account is tweeting pieces by Western journalists about neo-Nazis in Ukraine. It’s a trend we are noticing elsewhere. If you want to dig into that, make sure you read this Coda Story piece that looks at Russian neo-Nazis who went to fight in Ukraine. And here’s a short video version if you are in a rush. 

Moldova and Georgia: These are two non-NATO states that have been on the frontline of Putin’s hatred for the West for years. While the media is largely focusing on Putin’s expansion westward, into Eastern Europe, Moldovans and Georgians worry that they are a low hanging fruit and that if Kyiv falls, their sovereignty is next. Putin’s ally Alexander Lukashenko fed the fear when he appeared on state TV in front of a battle map showing troops movements that suggested an invasion of Moldova might be part of Putin’s plan. Batu Kutelia, Georgia’s former ambassador to the United States told me he fears that Putin won’t even have to invade the two countries, he’ll simply take over.

WHAT WE’RE READING

There is so much great journalism coming out of Ukraine right now. Here are some of our team’s must follow Ukrainian accounts: Olga Rudenko and Ilya Ponomarenko of Kyiv Independent, Katerina Sergatskova of Zaborona Media, Natalyia Gymenyuk, Olga Tokariuk and Kristina Berdynskykh among many many other astonishingly brave Ukrainian reporters. But do make sure that you are following their verified accounts because many of them are now under attack from clone accounts set up by Russian trolls. 

And if you are wondering how we got to this mess, here are a few of Coda’s pieces that explain where all this hatred is coming from: 

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