How Putin’s Fake News Machine Spread From Ukraine Across the Globe
Outrageous media hoaxes, Internet trolls and repression at home are all key instruments in the Kremlin’s political tool box
by SÉBASTIEN ROBLIN
The American press is awash with reporting on how fake news is flooding the Internet, and may have impacted the U.S. election. Blatantly false articles designed to stoke partisan passions on both sides generated clicks, ad revenue and righteous outrage that could be manipulated to serve political ends.
But while the 2016 may be the year that fake news on the Internet became the news, the outbreak of the fighting in Eastern Ukraine in 2014 was the first time it was weaponized in full public view.
It is natural, of course, that Russian media would have its own perspective on a conflict pitting ethnic Russians against Ukrainians. Accurate information is exceedingly difficult to obtain out of any armed conflict, and both loyalists and rebels in Ukraine engaged in “information warfare” and its fabrications.
What is not “natural” — or at least, naturally-occurring — is the concerted state-sponsored effort by the Kremlin to manufacture false news stories and commenters and push them through both official and unofficial outlets under its direction and control in order to enable Russian foreign policy objectives.
The methods pioneered in 2014 were a harbinger of the deluge that struck Europe and the United States in 2016.
Did you hear about the dastardly Ukrainian troops who crucified a three-year-old boy in the rebel-held city of Sloviansk? Nobody in Sloviansk had. But it definitely happened, even if tearful mother interviewed didn’t seem familiar with the city’s key landmarks.
What of the Malaysian airliner shot down over Ukraine by a Buk surface-to-air missile system? Please disregard the now-deleted posts circulated on social media boasting that rebels shot down a “Ukrainian military transport plane” at the same time and location — it was absolutely not the fault of pro-Russian separatists!
Those European investigators reporting the contrary are just pawns in NATO’s anti-Russian conspiracy, of course, according to Russia’s state-owned foreign broadcaster R.T. Clearly, R.T. tells us, it was shot down by a Ukrainian Su-25 Frogfoot attack plane.
Never mind that the Frogfoot is a ground attack plane that can only carry short range air-to-air missiles, and that when loaded for combat it is actually slower and has a lower maximum altitude than a cruising Boeing 777 airliner, making the former attacking the latter literally a bit of a long shot.
Of course, a user with a Moscow I.P. address helpfully “corrected” upwards the Frogfoot’s service ceiling on Wikipedia around the time of the claim.
But wait! As proof, the Russian Union of Engineers authenticated this satellite photo catching the guilty Su-25 in the very act of shooting down MH17!
Oh, as it turns out that’s an image of an Su-25 and a 777 copy pasted into a satellite photo. Whoops, must have gotten those files mixed up. Technology these days, what can you do?
Anyway, did you hear Ukrainians are fighting Russia because of their Nazi sympathies, as evidenced in these photos of a Ukrainian girl next to a Swastika banner.
Funny how this photo appears to come from the set of war movie Match filmed in 2012. And what of this photo of a child mourning her mother killed by the villainous Ukrainians?
Oh wait, that’s actually an image from the 2009 film Fortress Brest about a real occasion in which Ukrainians and Russians fought together against the Nazis. Still, it really shows us the cruelty of Western democracy.
Oh, and did you hear about the American M-1 Abrams tanks photographed in Ukraine, proof that Obama secretly intervened on behalf of his Eastern European puppets?
A little odd, however, that the photo in question seems a bit similar to one from a U.S. Army public affairs article.
But did you see on Russia 1, a state-owned national news channel, the interview with an innocent bystander protesting the Ukrainian government when he was shot by their American-made guns?
Oh, and here is an interview of a German spy and mercenary leader on NTV news confessing he was dispatched by an unnamed Western agency to Ukraine to restore order, but was shot by Neo-Nazis.
Hmmm, a bit familiar looking. Perhaps the guy appearing at 2:23 on this clip of the National Independent News of Crimea seems O.K. after all. He’s a pediatrician who was shot by the Ukrainian Nazis. It’s happening all the time over there.
Well I, personally, don’t know what to think about this war!
A lot of these fakes are shockingly easy to disprove. But they still help stir doubt and anger. But look — the individuals producing this propaganda are liars, but they’re not stupid. The intent is to create a feeling of subjective reality and gaslight foreign audiences into wondering if the obvious evidence before their eyes is true.
As even basic facts about the conflict are called into question by ostensibly serious-sounding sources, people begin to give up trying to critically evaluate the evidence and embrace just the accounts that confirm their preexisting biases. The ones that feel right.
If there are inconvenient facts that can’t be easily denied, conspiracy theories can explain them away. Sure, somebody massacred at least 60 anti-Russia Ukrainian protesters in 2014, leading to the overthrow of the pro-Russian government there.
But actually the protesters shot themselves, R.T. explains. They were part of a U.S.-orchestrated coup, after all, a Russia Insider article tells us. While opposing or neutral parties might howl at such outrages, those predisposed to certain points of view will seize on them and rationalize away information that might call their beliefs into question.
Fake news stories are just the tip of the Russian iceberg of state-sponsored propaganda designed to influence public opinion abroad.
It is well known that the Russian government operates troll farms where hundreds are employed by the Saint Petersburg-based “Internet Research Agency” to leave pro-Putin comments on foreign websites using multiple user names — with a quota of 135 comments per 12 hour shift, according to a former employee.
Any article which criticizes Putin is slated to receive multiple negative comments, from a simple “very bad article” to multi-paragraph political rants.
Internet comments may seem an ineffective propaganda tool, but by flooding the Internet with pro-Putin messages, the trolls give the impression that those views are widely held, while discouraging people who disagree with them from participating. The farms also employ blog writers and political cartoonists, and sometimes staged forum discussions in which “doubters” are persuaded to recognize the correctness of the Kremlin’s policies.
Meanwhile, state-owned outlets such as R.T. and Sputnik have spun off local branches all across the globe, with translation of articles into Spanish, Vietnamese, French, Arabic and German. These act as a megaphone for Moscow’s foreign policy messaging that cuts across language barriers.
There are also countless pro-Russian media sites that are not officially connected to the Russian state, but reliably parrot its talking points, mixed in with conspiracy theories designed to undermine trust in democratic institution and the global economy.
While Soviet-era propaganda hewed to communist ideology, modern Russian state-sponsored media will happily stoke the fires of contradictory causes as long as they happen to further the cause of destabilizing state adversaries. Extreme right- and left-wing parties alike have benefited from propaganda which supports their critiques of the establishment.
R.T. complains about Americans aiding fascists in Ukraine. Meanwhile Putin has provided financing and support for political parties associated with fascism such as the Nazi-collaborator founded National Front in France — which received a nine million euro loan from a Russian bank — as well as the anti-Semitic Jobbik party in Hungary, the Mussolini-loving Italian Northern League and neo-Nazi Golden Dawn in Greece.
For a good measure, Moscow supports the leftist Syriza party in Greece as well.
Other examples of contradiction abound. Xenophobic Americans are committing hate crimes against Muslims in North America, Sputnik points out. Those terrible Muslims are driving Germans out of their own country, again reports Sputnik.
Meanwhile, the Kremlin has systematically targeted any domestic or international organizations which could offer an independent voice within Russia — especially individuals criticizing Russia’s intervention in Ukraine.
Putin brands these organizations as foreign-backed plotters looking to subvert the legitimate Russian government, as he believes occurred when protesters contested his victory in the 2011 Russian elections.
A 2012 Russian law states that any domestic organization receiving any part of its funding from abroad can be labeled as a “foreign agent” if it undertakes any “political activity.” Since the law’s passing, 149 groups have been labelled as “foreign agents,” and 28 have been shut down, including the prominent Agora organization of human rights lawyers.
The groups targeted are generally involved in human rights, social sciences and demographic research, election monitoring, environmentalism and LGBT issues.
For example, Memorial, an organization documenting human rights abuses under the Soviet Union, is now facing closure. The Russian government deemed Memorial “politically active” because one member of the organization personally criticized the war in Ukraine. Memorial was also designated a “foreign agent” for receiving a one-time donation of 5,010 pounds from a British university to help fund a virtual museum on Stalin’s gulags.
In May 2015, the Russian parliament passed a new law making it possible to ban international NGOs and jail any Russians working for them for up to six years. Organizations banned include the National Endowment for Democracy, the International Republican Institute, the Open Society Foundation and several others.
The Russian government does not attempt to repress every single act of dissent on web forums or spoken in private by ordinary citizens. Instead, minor expressions of dissent are mostly tolerated … except when they’re not.
Like the man jailed for stating his atheist beliefs on a web forum. Or the anarchist punk rock group sentenced to two years in jail after a two minute demonstration in a Christian Orthodox church. Or the guy sentenced to three years in prison for participating in four protests in six months, one more than allowed under law.
Higher profile critics of the Kremlin — journalists or politicians — know they can be hounded from their jobs for critical statements … or worse.
Consider Pavel Sheremet, an award-winning journalist from Belarus who first gained attention for criticizing the autocratic government in the 1990s before emigrating to Russia. A well-established contributor on the Russia’s state-run ORT television station, he resigned in 2014 over disagreements on Russian reporting on the conflict in Ukraine and moved to the latter country, claiming he had been “hounded” from his job.
He continued his career there with Ukrainian Pravda. A mysterious car bomb killed him this July.
Another critic of the war in Ukraine was Boris Nemtsov, an influential and prominent politician who came close to the presidency on a number of occasions. Nemtsov criticized the Russian intervention in Ukraine in an editorial in September 2014.
“This is not our war, this is not your war, this is not the war of 20-year old paratroopers sent out there,” Nemtsov wrote. “This is Vladimir Putin’s war.”
Afterwards, several friends recalled that the Nemtsov said he was concerned he would become targeted for assassination.
On Feb. 10, 2015, two days before he was scheduled to appear at a peace rally, Nemtsov was shot four times while a crossing the Moskvortesky Bridge, a short distance from the Kremlin. Russian police arrested several Chechens for the killing — convenient bad guys to explain any crime in Russia — and government investigators concluded Nemtsov was “killed by someone from his own opposition movement who wanted to create a martyr.”
Those clever opponents of Putin, always killing each other for good publicity.
Still, political murders in Russia are not routine — because they’re no longer necessary. Prominent examples such as Nemtsov, or the journalist Anna Politkovskaya, a critic of the war in Chechnya who was killed in 2006, have taught journalists and politicians that if they don’t get with the program, they’ll lose their jobs, get imprisoned or meet some other unpleasant fate.
Everyone else is more corrupt
When confronted with contrary information, the Kremlin’s defenders often fall back on two typical replies. The first is “Whataboutism” — otherwise known as “changing the subject.”
Are Russian warplanes deliberately targeting hospitals and bakeries in Aleppo? Well, America bombed Hanoi during the Vietnam War. Did Putin blatantly lie about Russian troops seizing Crimea? But George W. Bush lied about WMDs.
And so forth. By implication, anyone who criticizes Putin are willfully excusing or ignoring some equivalent sin of the United States. In this zero-sum worldview, one cannot be opposed to both.
More bluntly, Putin’s defenders argue that Russian propaganda is fundamentally no different than the biased and pervasive Western media. In other words, “you are no better than we are.”
Indeed, American media is colored by national biases and ideologies. At times, the press has failed to adequately challenge claims made by the U.S. government, such those made about WMDs in the lead up to the invasion of Iraq. Nor is there any denying that the U.S. media’s great reach has a powerful influence across the globe, for better and for worse.
The Pentagon and CIA are also guilty of orchestrating various old-fashioned propaganda operations — often quite clumsily, such as the anti-Castro Radio Martí radio station, or an attempt to pay for positive news stories about the new government in Iraq. A U.S. government sockpuppet campaign, Operation Earnest Voice, sought to spread pro-American propaganda online. Internet troll farms have also been created by governments in Britain, Ukraine, China and likely many others.
So Western media is no different, right? There’s practically nothing separating them from Russia’s propaganda … except little things like the American or European press being allowed to criticize their own heads of state, governments and their national policies, and those news outlets are generally not shut down or arrested for doing so.
Michael Moore was not mysteriously found dead in his apartment after criticizing George W. Bush. Dick Cheney did not ban Fahrenheit 9/11 from showing in theaters. Mysterious gunmen didn’t plink Sen. John McCain while he took a stroll on the Washington Mall after opposing Obama’s foreign policy. Nor was he jailed on corruption charges after losing in the 2008 election, like former oligarch Mikhail Khodorovsky. Nor did Obama send the FBI to raid Fox News and padlock its doors — as occurred to the Moscow branch of Amnesty International last month.
And the article about the Pentagon’s fake news scheme in Iraq came from … The Washington Post.
Which is precisely why Putin sees press freedom and open access to civil society organizations as a weakness and vulnerability. He has done his best to purge domestic and international organization in Russia that could independently report on or challenge his policies, while simultaneously creating a coordinated media apparatus to influence populaces in Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and North and South America.
The Kremlin’s propaganda has found receptive audiences across many Western countries. Pro-Moscow leaders and policies have prevailed in elections across the globe. The new government coming to power in Italy wants Russian sanctions lifted, as does Francois Fillon in the center-right Republicans party and Marine Le Pen’s far right National Front after the upcoming French elections.
One of the last key targets, and one of the hardest to crack, will be Angela Merkel’s government in Germany. In the United Kingdom, Theresa May has also supported continued sanctions despite Brexit.
Meanwhile, incoming U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is a personal friend of Putin, a recipient of the Russian Order of Friendship, and CEO of an oil company which would make billions of dollars if sanctions were lifted.
Of course, the political wave sweeping Europe and North America has many causes — and it’d be too easy and likely wrong to blame the widespread defeats of center-left parties solely on Russian propaganda. Financial and political incentives drove many Americans and Europeans to churn out fake news stories for their own ends. Russian propaganda just helped fan the flames.
But forget the T-14 tank, the T-50 stealth fighter or the S-500 anti-ballistic missile system. Putin’s most effective weapon has been far less expensive.