Russian misinformation tries to confuse, fail to convince





As the war envelops Ukraine, Russian sources have sought to create a miasma of disinformation about the invasion. Among many attempts to distort reality, the Russian Defense Ministry recently claimed that US-backed labs in Ukraine have been developing bioweapons. Bizarre as this lie may be, Fox’s Tucker Carlson gave credence to it by stating that the US government’s response was a “cover up.”

As the war between Russia and Ukraine intensifies, so will the flow of disinformation. This is an age-old strategy that Russia has long used, and a playbook that others, particularly anti-vaccine activists, have borrowed liberally from. But instead of focusing its efforts on convincing people of a lie, the Russian strategy is taking a course reminiscent of one long adopted by the tobacco industry: to sow so much doubt about what is true that it paralyzes people. of decisions. Faced with a cacophony of wild and contradictory claims, people do nothing, unsure of what is right.

Despite being only a small part of our media diet, disinformation campaigns in our digital world can be devastatingly effective. We are intrinsically biased towards information that is emotionally visceral. We give more importance to content that frightens or outrages us, with the ability to provoke anger if the biggest predictor of content goes viral. This propels the most visceral, divisive stories to the forefront of discourse, creating a noise and fury of passionately debated claims and counter-claims. In that atmosphere it becomes more and more difficult to determine what to believe, and easy to give up the task of discerning the truth.

If we don’t want to fall victim to such unfair dishonesty, it’s critical now that we question our sources more carefully than ever before.

Indecision and distraction have long been central to Russia’s dezinformatsiya (disinformation) policy, a term coined by Stalin himself. Though it was an old concept, in the Imperial era Russia had mastered dark obfuscation techniques that were refined for the mass communication era. At the dawn of the Soviet empire, they realized this potential on an industrial scale and in 1923 established the world’s first office dedicated to disinformation. In the 1960s, the KGB covertly sponsored American fringe groups, reinforcing conspiracy stories about everything from the assassination of President John F. Kennedy to water fluoridation.

The aim, as KGB Major General Oleg Kalugin clarified in 1998, was “not intelligence gathering, but subversion: active measures to weaken the west, to drive wedges in the western community alliances of all kinds, especially NATO, to sow discord among allies, to weaken the United States in the eyes of the people in Europe, Asia, Africa, Latin America….† Operation INFEKTION, a clandestine attempt in the mid-1980s to spread the myth that AIDS was a CIA-designed bioweapon, was just one infamous example. Though utterly fictional, it resonated with communities ravaged by HIV and neglected by the heartless indifference of the Reagan administration. Despite Russian intelligence taking responsibility for this lie in 1992, the legacy of AIDS denial continues to this day worldwide.

During the Cold War, the doctrine of “active measures” was the beating heart of Soviet intelligence. This philosophy of political and information warfare had a broad remit, including front groups, media manipulation, counterfeiting, infiltrating peace groups, and even occasional assassinations.

And in our media-saturated age, Russia was by far the most avid user of disinformation. Take the 2016 US presidential election and the controversial Brexit referendum; Russia seems to have influenced through both lies and distortions.

But disinformation isn’t just limited to geopolitics. By the summer of 2020, the European Commission identified a joint Russian effort to spread COVID disinformation worldwide. From the start of the pandemic, Kremlin-backed troll farms have spread the story that COVID was an engineered bioweapon, spreading the explosive fiction that 5G radio frequencies caused the virus — a lie that resulted in dozens of cell tower arson attacks around the world.

There is a dark irony in the observation that conspirators can be armed in conspiracies of which they are completely unaware. The enduring popularity of the virus-as-a-bioweapon mantra is a stark reminder that such manipulation has become easier and more effective in the age of social media. Perhaps the most odious example of this is the cynical rise of anti-vaccine propaganda.

The sheer effectiveness of vaccination is scientifically indisputable, and after clean water, immunization is the most life-saving intervention in human history. Despite this, the past decade has witnessed a sharp decline in vaccine confidence worldwide. The renaissance of diseases once virtually vanquished led the WHO to declare vaccine hesitancy a top 10 public health threat in 2019.

Vaccine hesitation is a spectrum rather than a simple binary, and exposure to vaccine conspiracy theories drives recipients to reject it. Most importantly, many who refuse vaccination are not seasoned anti-vaccine fanatics, but are simply terrified by what they have heard, not knowing what to believe. Our propensity for the illusory truth effect exacerbates this inertia, because the mere repetition of a fiction is enough to make us accept it, even if we know it is intellectually flawed. While Russia has often bolstered anti-vaccine conspiracy theories to heighten tensions, the anti-vaccine movements exist independently of these efforts, and are masters of casting doubt with torrents of conflicting and emotional claims.

This illustrates the stark reality that disinformation has no need for consistency and no connection whatsoever with objective reality; claims are often contradictory and argue both sides of the coin in exaggerated and divisive ways. This “Russian Fire Hose” propaganda model has a high output, is contradictory and has multiple channels. The current encourages us to sleepwalk into apathy, suspicious of everything. This makes us extremely malleable and dangerously disconnected.

When it comes to vaccination, concerned parents often choose to stick with the devil they know, delaying or even rejecting vaccination rather than sifting through the symphony of conflicting claims to which they are subject. Likewise, the avalanche of fictions about Ukraine, its president, Volodymyr Zelensky, and the war is designed to overwhelm our capacity for analysis, making us implicitly accept uncertainty about aggressor and aggrieved—a manufactured doubt that benefits Russia and other nations.

Persuasion is not the main purpose of disinformation; sowing doubt. This is why anti-vaccine activists are so successful online, and why Russian troll farms are deploying ample resources just about everywhere to sell lies. The ubiquity of these fictions gives them an implicit layer of legitimacy, fueling polarization and mistrust.

This is the strategy Putin continues to pursue; though Russian propaganda has tried to portray Ukraine (or NATO/America) as aggressors with staged disinformation. This has been made less effective by the Biden administration’s creative approach to releasing intelligence prior to the operation. Through social media, Russian front organizations are still trying to raise doubts, efforts that will only increase as the war progresses. The truth, the old saying goes, is the first casualty of war.




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