Russian journalist Marina Ovsyannikova interrupts a journal with a sign protesting again the war in Ukraine and the Kremlin propaganda
While Russian and Ukrainian troops face each other on the battlefield, a separate war continues. It is one that is subtle, yet dangerous, and it concerns a growing area of power: the media.
This conflict is broadly being fought on social media and traditional media. The public opinion in the West seems to crown Ukraine as the winner of the mediatic war. With his videos on Instagram crying for help and encouraging the civilian resistance, the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is drawing attention to the inhumanity of the Russian’s actions. Videos of bombed buildings, dead families and atrocities are being seen all over the world. The majority of the public opinion seems to be rooting for the Ukrainian resistance. However, Russia is trying to win the infowar by spreading its official narrative. Putin’s mediatic apparatus is strong and pervasive, especially in Russia, where people seem to have a distorted view of the conflict.
The pro-Kremlin propaganda
Russian media has been portraying Ukranians as the aggressors since 2014, when the real conflict started with the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula and the growing tensions between Ukraine and the pro-Russian separatist regions in the Donbass (Eastern Ukraine). Today, the Russian media is playing a key role in the perception Russians have of the conflict.
First of all, the word “war” doesn’t appear in the official narrative. Putin called it a “special military operation” (специальная военная операция), which is strictly connected to the justification the Kremlin gave for the “invasion”. The aim of the operation is to free Ukraine from the ‘nazis’ that run the country, according to Russian’s powers. As The Economists reports, Russians do not know the faces of these Nazis Ukraine is being freed from, but they know their actions and their victims. According to the official narrative these consist in ‘torturing people, breaking ribs, stabbing and stabbing, pullig out teeth with tongs and branding people with red-hot iron, with ery iron, crushed skulls, mutilating’. On February 26th an article appeared on Ria Novosti, the main state news agency of the country, declaring: “Russia restoring its historical fullness, gathering the Russian world, the Russian people together—in its entirety of Great Russians, Belarusians and Little Russians [a pre-Soviet term for Ukrainians]”. The celebratory article was written in advance, probably because Russians powers were certain to win the war very quickly. The article was published at 8am and quickly pulled from the website that same day, as Russians had not yet won the war.
What appears to be an article published by mistake, reveals the strength of Russia’s official propaganda, that is portraying this invasion as an attempt to restore Russia’s greatness and regain their “legitimate” territories.
Dimitri Kiselev, a Russian reporter who also controls Ria Novosti, broadly known to support Putin’s action, contributed to spreading false stories about the conflict from the beginning. For example, before the invasion started, he claimed that NATO and the United States were arming Ukraine and getting ready to invade Russia.
As a consequence of such pervasive propaganda, Russian civilians do not know the full truth about the conflict. Media outlets are not talking about the severe sanctions Russia is being subjected to, or about the fact that the economy of the country is collapsing. This information is only mentioned briefly, in an attempt to try to create an informational bubble around the population where they are only fed official and controlled information and propaganda.
The diffusion of an official narrative is regulated by the law. In 2019, the Russian Parliament approved a legislation intended to punish forms of dissensus online, fining whoever publishes “fake news” online or shows signs of disrespect towards the government. In the past days, the Douma approved another law, modifying the Criminal Code, threatening prison time to whoever publishes what is considered false information about the “special military operation” in Ukraine. Anyone found guilty faces up to 15 years of prison and a fine of up to 1.5 million rubies. Following this decision, many foreign news agencies have decided to stop reporting from Russia.
The role of Telegram
Putin’s geopolitical project is not only limited to Russia, but also to the rest of the world. His program lies at the heart of expanding his pro-russian propaganda outside of the country. Telegram is playing a key role in this. Many pro-Kremlin channels such as “Donbass Insider” and “Bellum Acta” were created the day of the invasion. These channels started publishing videos of the war and messages in different languages (English, Spanish, French). They keep spreading misinformation as the conflict goes on. For example, they reported that the Ukrainian President Zelensky had fled the country. In addition to “unofficial” Telegram channels, institutional channels can be found. News outlets RT and Sputnik are playing a key role in spreading pro-Kremlin propaganda through Telegram, which then circulates through the internet thanks to trolls and bots.
Facebook, Apple, Google and Microsoft have all moved to limit the reach of media outlets spreading pro-Russian propaganda. These actions go from making them harder to find on social media to removing and blocking them from the platforms.
The breaches to Putin’s propaganda
Anti-war protesters have marched in many Russian cities despite the danger of being arrested. This is a clear sign that Putin’s propaganda and censorship are not as strong as they aspire to be. Protests are repressed, and demonstrators arrested. Anyone who tries to go against the government is being held and put in jail. As of March 16th, 14971 people were detained at anti-war actions in Russia.
What will really overturn the Kremlin’s official narrative will be the stories from the soldiers who are fighting in Ukraine. According to Novaya Gazeta, one of the last independent Russian newspapers, many members of the army thought they were taking part in a drill, which they later understood was the invasion of Ukraine. Their families believed the same too. Moreover, the hacking group Anonymous declared cyberwar against the Russian government, and their actions are aimed at weakening Putin’s propaganda machinery. On Twitter, they summoned hackers all around the world to cyber attack Russia and they are inviting civilians to awaken and realize that Russia destroyed independent media. Anonymous has taken down Russian government websites and news outlets in the past week. On February 28th, many important media services were hacked at the same time and displayed a message opposing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Their mission is to spread the truth about what is happening in Ukraine. However, experts say that it is hard to determine the extent of these attacks.
The mobile internet has been slowed down to keep unofficial information from spreading, As of March 4th, Twitter and Facebook have been blocked to Russian users to prevent Russian-speakers from getting access to outside information. The Internet is playing a key role in breaking this propaganda barrier.
On March 10th Meta Platforms announced they would change their hate speech policy, allowing Facebook and Instagram users to publish forms of political expression that would normally violate their rules like violent speech such as ‘death to the Russian invaders’. These temporary policy changes only apply to some countries in Eastern Europe, such as Romania, Poland, Georgia, and more. As a response to this policy, starting from March 14th Russian Instagram users will no longer be able to access the platform. With this decision, Russian internet users are now cut from the all biggest social media platforms: Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.
Moreover, some independent internet television channels, radio stations or independent newspapers are telling people the truth. On March 5th, after the decision of the Douma to approve a law that prevents freedom of press, Russia’s last independent TV channel, TV Rain, broadcast its final statement: ‘no to war’. After that, all the employees walked out of the newsroom in protest. During its final seconds on air, the channel broadcast the Swan Lake’s ballet. The use of this particular ballet is not casual. During the Soviet era, it was played during times of political crisis or after the death of a leader. In 1991 during the putsch that led to the collapse of the USSR, it was shown by every TV network. The Swan Lake served during the Soviet era as a camouflage, the television screen masking reality.
The physical aspect of the infowar
The infowar is not only being fought on the media, but also has a physical dimension. Russian troops attacked and destroyed the main television tower in Kyiv, stopping some Ukrainian channels from broadcasting for a brief period of time. Also, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk decided to send Starlink antennas to Ukraine, in order to keep internet connection in the country. The vice Prime-Minister, Yulia Svyrydenko, expressed concerns on Ukrainians losing their internet access after Russians attacked communication infrastructures. Starlink antennas will provide internet access through satellites, which would work even if Russians restricted access to traditional communication services. However, specialists highlighted the danger of using satellite signals, as Russia would be able to detect them and geolocate enemies. Elon Musk warned users on Twitter: “Important warning: Starlink is the only non-Russian communications system still working in some parts of Ukraine, so the probability of being targeted is high. Please use with caution.”.
The mediatic aspect of the conflict highlights the growing influence the media has on traditional power. Both the importance Russia is giving to spreading an ‘official narrative’ and the strength with which the Western world is trying to fight the fake news point to how important shaping public opinion is in our hyperconnected world.