Getting the real story of what is going on in Ukraine is hard enough. And the Russian media seems intent on making it even harder.
With Russian forces controlling Crimea and with Moscow contemplating further military action in Ukraine, Russian media and leading political figures have been shrill in their denunciations of "fascists" in Kyiv and their claims of anti-Semitic incidents, of attacks on ethnic Russians in the eastern reaches of Ukraine, and of floods of beleaguered refugees streaming across the border into Russia.
Much of this information is demonstrably false, however, emerging from unsourced media reports, then making its way into the statements of Russian politicians, and even into Western media reports. Events are echoing the 1997 U.S. film "Wag the Dog," in which spin-doctors use the media to whip up support for a nonexistent war.
"This is how wars get started. As they say, 'truth is the first casualty of war' and we are really seeing that with the way Russia is handling this," said Catherine Fitzpatrick, a writer and translator who has been live-blogging events in Ukraine for Interpretermag.com. "I think they are really irresponsible. They are inciting a lot of hatred and whipping up a lot of panic. People in places like Kharkiv are watching Russian TV. They may be watching also local TV, but they are dependent on Russian TV and a lot it is not checking out."
Fitzpatrick added that everything from reasons cited by Russian lawmakers in authorizing President Vladimir Putin to use force to the justifications for it offered to the United Nations Security Council this week by Russia's U.N. envoy Vitaly Churkin, have been based on falsehoods.
"The whole premise for the Federation Council's agreement to give its authorization for the use of force and the whole premise being put forth in the U.N. by Ambassador Churkin is that they have to intervene to save and protect ethnic Russians and Russian speakers, who they fear are in danger," she said. "But they have based this whole premise on false contentions about attacks."
In his comments at the United Nations, Churkin also cited an alleged attack on the famous Monastery of the Caves in Kyiv that was widely reported in the Russian media. The monastery has said no such attack took place, and Fitzpatrick was "stunned" to hear Churkin citing the debunked report.
Russian media also widely reported that more than 650,000 Ukrainians have crossed out of southeastern Ukraine into Russia since the beginning of the year. However, the U.N.'s High Commissioner on Refugees says it has seen no evidence of unusual migration on the border.
Ukrainian bloggers uncovered the fact that Russian media illustrated their reports with an undated photograph that was actually taken at the Shehyni border crossing between Ukraine and Poland.
Other stories have a basis in fact, but are unjustifiably spun by Russian media accounts. For instance, on the night of February 27-28, unknown vandals defaced a synagogue in Simferopol.
Russian media blankly reported this as an anti-Semitic attack by the ultranationalist Right Sector group, although Right Sector denied it and the local Jewish community leader Oleksandr Hendin told RFE/RL: "I don't think it was Right Sector. I think someone did this using their logo in order to destabilize Crimea."
Ukraine's chief rabbi, Yakov Dov Bleich, said on March 4 that the main threat to Ukrainian Jews was "provocations" staged by Russia, saying its "the same way the Nazis did when they wanted to go into Austria and [they] created provocations."
Fighting the spin machine
Ukrainian journalist Oleh Shynkarenko, who has written about the efforts
of Russia's "propaganda machine" for TheDailyBeast.com, tells RFE/RL that the campaign has two main purposes: "to provoke hatred toward Ukrainians to make Russia go to war with us" and to produce "justification for aggression," such as that presented to the U.N. by Churkin.
Shynkarenko names Russian television journalist Dmitry Kiselyov, a rising star of Russian journalism who in December was named to head the Russian state media conglomerate Rossia Segodnya, as "the most lying" of Russian journalists. Ukraine's Commission on Journalism Ethics has filed a complaint with Moscow about Kiselyov's inflammatory reports.
Serhiy Balbeko is a 25-year-old journalist from Kharkiv who got fed up with the disinformation and created a website called Fake Control
to fight back.
"I got the idea to run this project with a few of my friends because we realized the amount of disinformation that was coming from media, from social networks, from news and press and some others," he said.
Fake Control was one of the first sites to debunk the Ukrainian refugees story and has recently debunked Russian media claims that Kyiv intends to jail people with Russian passports and reports that a U.S. aircraft carrier is steaming to the Black Sea to attack Crimea.
Balbeko says his group doesn't use any special techniques to unmask the false reports. They merely examine photographs closely, use search engines to access publicly available information, and make phone calls. He sees what is going on as more than just unprofessional or jingoistic journalism.
"I really feel there is some sort of campaign to show what is going on in Ukraine is an absolutely different way," he said.
Blogger Fitzpatrick says that the Russian media-spin machine has met with considerable resistance from sites like Fake Control
"We've gotten to the point where they can orchestrate these planted rumors, but citizen journalists have gotten pretty savvy, so there is a kind of counternarrative where people, they film the buses with the Russian license plates, they film the troops that have the Russian arms that only Russian units have, and the story begins to unravel," she said. "And, I don't know, maybe that's part of what is making the Kremlin propaganda mills work overtime and get even more bizarre. Because they are facing a pretty sturdy citizens' journalist corps."
Flood of disinformation
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, in comments to Interfax on March 5, said that photographs of military vehicles in Crimea with Russian license plates were "complete crap" and a provocation. He repeated the official Russian position that Moscow does not know where the armed troops in Crimea have come from, even as Ukrainian journalists posted a video interview with a soldier who admitted he was in the Russian military
and cited media reports as the reason for his presence in Ukraine.
Journalist: "Why don't you have any insignias? Where are you from?"
Soldier: "Because that's the kind of uniforms we have, without insignias."
Journalist: "Are you Ukrainian or Russian?"
Soldier: "I'm a Russian soldier."
Journalist: "A Russian soldier."
Second journalist: "What are Russian soldiers doing on Ukrainian territory?"
Soldier: "Because ... don't you watch television?"
Some Ukrainians have countered the propaganda with humor, such as a widely circulated graphic showing a Russian-speaking woman who appeared in at least five different Russian media reports with various, differing identification tags
and a humorous video in which activists unsuccessfully hunt for fascist ultranationalists
on the streets of Odesa.
The Kyiv Post
on March 5 published a list of the "Top 10 Kremlin myths and lies used to justify Russian invasion of Ukraine's Crimea."
But such efforts may not be enough to counter the effects of the Russian media reports, Fitzpatrick said. Once a story is out there, it is often impossible to reign back in. A pointed exchange on March 3 between CNN correspondents Wolf Blitzer and Christiane Amanpour illustrates this point. Amanpour took Blitzer to task for citing without qualification Ambassador Churkin's claims that "fascists and anti-Semites" were to blame for Ukraine's unrest.
Russian sociologist Lev Gudkov, director of the independent Levada Center, said is a fundamental purpose of propaganda.
"In propaganda it is very important to consider the effect of squeezing out alternative versions of events, all alternative information," Gudkov said. "As a result, even people who don't believe or who doubt the official information are not in a position to work with other points of view. And this is the foundation of propaganda."
RFE/RL's Russian Service correspondent Yelena Fanailova contributed to this report from Moscow and Tom Balmforth contributed from Simferopol.