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Divisive Disinformation: How Russia Uses Media to Justify Invasion of Ukraine

Russian disinformation campaigns are a staple of Kremlin activity, and they have been especially prevalent since the rule of Joseph Stalin in the mid-1900s.  This historical trend has continued throughout Russia’s invasion of Ukraine this year, both internally and internationally.

Currently, Russia uses an overflow strategy when it comes to media coordination of propaganda messaging.  There is an incredibly high quantity of messaging, and these narratives come from more sources than just the government.  Fake social media accounts, media outlets with disguised attachments to the Russian government, and traditional state media combine to output an overwhelming amount of information.

This approach relies on sheer quantity to be effective, as the information itself is not often believable or near the truth.  It is difficult to catch and respond to all individual issues when fact checkers and international organizations are inundated with thousands of offenses.  Rather than convince Russian citizens or international sympathizers of one coherent false narrative, Russia instead tries to confuse and cast doubt on where the truth really is, with the goal of sending people into decision paralysis.

Anti-West rhetoric is the core theme Russia builds most of its disinformation campaigns on.  In regards to the Ukraine invasion, a large emphasis has been placed on showing the United States as an aggressor.  A tactic referred to as whataboutism is used, shifting the conversation from Russian atrocities in Ukraine to controversial actions of key stakeholders in the issue, such as the United States’ involvement in the Middle East.  This approach is used to distract people from the current situation, and relies on existing hatred and animosity to do so.  This specific example is being used as a part of a concerted disinformation campaign aimed at Arabic-language speakers.

Russia has also focused its media forces on Africa, specifically surrounding the grain crisis that the region is now facing as a result of the devastation in Ukraine.  Russian narratives have penetrated all forms of media in many African nations, with Kenyan national media companies going so far as to explicitly blame the U.S. and E.U. for the rise in food and fuel prices.

Antisemitism is also being used to justify the invasion of Ukraine, with Putin himself stating the military action is a result of his efforts to “de-nazify Ukraine”.  This specific line of propaganda draws on hatred, fear, and othering that exists between ethnic and religious groups.  The normalization of this violent rhetoric is done at leadership levels within Russia, with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov going so far as to compare Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to Adolf Hitler.  Within this disinformation topic, social media is widely used to pander to citizens and sympathizers looking for someone to blame.

Outright lies regarding the production and use of chemical weapons by the United States and Ukraine are another consistent stream of propaganda coming out of Russia.  The State Department released a 16 page report in May detailing the extent of this specific disinformation campaign.  Within the report, Russian use of multilateral organizations, multiple conflicting disinformation narratives, and the role of Kremlin funded media was examined and shown to be pushing this narrative internationally.  Russian officials worked tirelessly to fan this fire, with the additional support of Chinese state media and a coordinated social media campaign.

When looking at the reach and ferocity of Russian disinformation efforts surrounding their invasion of Ukraine, it is difficult to address the issue as a whole.  Ukrainian activity online from President Zelenskyy and state officials has helped to dilute and dismiss Russian efforts, spreading the true effects of the war.  This online triage is critical, but more must be done by the international community to limit the effectiveness of this disinformation.  The State Department has advised that the spreading of truth is the ultimate response to Russian lies, which can be achieved through careful deconstruction of Russian narratives as well as relentless spreading of evidence and information regarding Russia’s brutalization of Ukraine.

Remaining educated on Russian atrocities and insulated from Kremlin disinformation is one simple way you can play a part in lessening Russian influence internationally.

DISCLAIMER: McCain Institute is a nonpartisan organization that is part of Arizona State University. The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not represent an opinion of the McCain Institute.

Dylan Hackett, Preventing Targeted Violence Intern
Publish Date
August 17, 2022