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How to Wage an Information War

FILE - An activist holds a banner with a portrait of Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh as he demonstrates outside the Dutch embassy in Kyiv, Ukraine, Feb. 5, 2016. The activists demanded that Dutch people ignore what they say are Russian propaganda, ahead of an upcoming Dutch Ukraine-European Union Association Agreement.

“One clear lesson is that you can't fight propaganda with propaganda,” says Tetiana Popova. “If you do that you lose credibility yourself and bring all facts into doubt,” adds the former Ukrainian deputy minister for information policy.

“And that is what the Russians want,” she said firmly.

Now working with the Ukrainian media NGO Information Security, Popova recalled for VOA her part in Ukrainian campaigns to counter Russia propaganda in the 18 months she was a minister. It was partly thanks to her that the Ukrainian military set up an embed program for reporters to cover the conflict in east Ukraine.

And she was one of the driving forces behind the replacement of TV masts and transmitters in Ukraine’s eastern region of the Donbas so that locals in the conflict zone occupied by pro-Russian separatists wouldn't be receiving "news" only from Kremlin-controlled Russian channels, but would have access to a broader spectrum of information and opinion.

Like many media experts in Europe, Popova worries that Russia is turning free speech against the West and using democratic information tools such as Twitter as weapons in a hybrid war.

More sophisticated disinformation

Just in the handful of years since the 2014 ouster by popular protests of pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych, Popova has seen a rapid learning curve by Russian propagandists.

She says at first the disinformation was crude.

As an example she cites the frequency of photographs and video from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan appearing on Russian TV with the channels claiming they had been shot in east Ukraine.

“They then turned to producing more made-up stories about crucified boys and raped girls, like the fake story in Germany about Lisa, the Russian-German girl, who reportedly had been raped by Arab migrants,” says Popova.

“Now, they are more sophisticated, taking a real story or facts out of context and manipulating it, tailoring and shaping it for the audiences they want to influence,” she says.

Targeting elections

There have been allegations in recent weeks across Europe about multilayered Russian disinformation campaigns, apparently aimed at meddling in U.S. and European elections and influencing opinion in a West that’s being buffeted by change and is caught in a feverish political climate. Western officials and media monitoring groups say Russian propagandists are deft in using new information technology to coordinate narratives across diffuse platforms — from TV to radio, social media to print — to reinforce and re-cycle narratives with astonishing speed.

Russian officials vehemently deny they are doing anything of the sort. Or that they are using troll factories, fake accounts and bots to spread and accelerate propaganda and disinformation on social media platforms like Twitter.

The Russians have been accused also of funding anti-European Union parties and ‘think tanks’ in the West and broadcasting "fake news" on Kremlin-directed state media enterprises such as RT (formerly Russia Today) and Sputnik.

FILE - Russian President Vladimir Putin and Editor-in-chief of RT (formerly Russia Today) 24-hour English-language TV news channel, Margarita Simonyan, are seen at an exhibit marking RT's 10th anniversary in Moscow, Russia, Dec. 10, 2015.
FILE - Russian President Vladimir Putin and Editor-in-chief of RT (formerly Russia Today) 24-hour English-language TV news channel, Margarita Simonyan, are seen at an exhibit marking RT's 10th anniversary in Moscow, Russia, Dec. 10, 2015.

Social media as tool of 'counteraction'

But in an interview with The New York Times last week, Dmitri Peskov, President Vladimir Putin’s press secretary, boasted, “Now you can reach hundreds of millions in a minute.” He denied Russia was waging an information war of its choosing, preferring to dub it, a “counteraction.”

Earlier this month, Facebook revealed it had unknowingly sold $100,000 worth of ads to a shadowy Russian company seeking to target U.S. voters. The ads pushing an anti-migrant narrative could have reached 70 million Facebook users — a large potential audience for a relatively small cost outlay.

American officials are now reviewing whether the Kremlin-owned news agency Sputnik violated the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act by acting as the Kremlin’s propaganda arm in America. News of that review prompted a threat from Moscow to retaliate “to the outrageous actions of the American side.”

“The pressure of the U.S. authorities on the Russian news agency is an obvious violation of international commitments regarding the freedom of expression and media activities,” complained Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova last week.

Her complaint is dismissed by Ukrainian political scientist Oleksy Garan, a professor at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. “The Russians are using democracy to undermine democracy,” he says. “They are using the democratic rules of the game in Europe and the United States to try to destabilize democracy.”

Information war

He says the Kremlin has three main targets in its information war. “The first is a domestic one, because it is necessary for Putin to justify what he is doing and increase his popularity ratings in Russia. And I would say the propaganda is effective, thanks to the Kremlin’s domination of television in Russia,” he says.

“In Ukraine, the Russians are trying to shape a narrative through pro-Russian proxies on television and in social media. They pick up some marginal news or they create fake news and then they try to spread it so it becomes the news for the mainstream. And finally, the West is another target, where the Russians want to split the West and undermine the transatlantic relationship. They are continuing the old Soviet strategy with digital means,” he adds.

Garan argues Western governments are being too restrained in their response, arguing that they should follow some of the steps taken by the Ukrainian government to limit the danger of Russian propaganda.

FILE - An employee works at Yandex headquarters in Moscow, Russia, Dec. 2, 2014.
FILE - An employee works at Yandex headquarters in Moscow, Russia, Dec. 2, 2014.

Last May, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko issued a decree blocking access to some popular Russian-based social networking sites, including Yandex, the Russian equivalent of Google, and Vkontakte. The Russian sites are appealing the ban in the courts and until the case is heard they can still be accessed in Ukraine.

In 2014, Ukraine imposed a crippling measure on Russian TV channels, whereby no Ukrainian entity could have any economic relations with them, which in effect meant IP providers and cable companies in Ukraine could not broadcast them.

Popova is supportive of the TV ban, saying it doesn't harm freedom of speech as Ukrainians can still watch the channels, if they use a VPN or have satellite, but she thinks media bans should be imposed by courts and not government and that open societies shouldn't restrict freedom of speech.

“The thing that works best is letting journalists do their jobs,” she argues. “Universities and non-profits are doing a good job in monitoring the Russian output but more is needed,” she adds, citing the work of fact-checking sites in the U.S. and Europe, which are often funded by journalism departments and think tanks.

“In the longer term, educating the public to be more discriminating about media is crucial, and that needs to start at school with media literacy classes, but all of that will take time,” she says.