Tearing Down the Curtain: Countering the Kremlin’s Information War

A person stands at a window, pulling back a curtain

Disinformation has become a primary vehicle of the war waged by the Russian Federation against Ukraine, leveraging entrenched narratives to convince Russians how its military forces carry out a “special military operation” to liberate the people in Ukraine while criminalizing the use of terms such as “war” and “invasion.” As these propaganda narratives permeate borders for exploitation by other governments, countries like Belarus now risk playing a complicit role in the crisis demonstrating the dangerous reach of the disinformation threat. The trajectory of this crisis, and people’s understanding of the real threat, will have lasting implications on peace and stability across Europe. How can tearing down Russia’s information curtain mobilize anti-war sentiments and strengthening democratic resilience?

On March 31, the International Foundation for Electoral Systems’ (IFES) Regional Europe Office (REO) hosted the 17th installment of its Democratic Resilience in Europe discussion series to explore these issues. The event gathered 141 participants from 29 countries and is now available in English and Ukrainian. Participants rated the discussion 9.2/10 on average, higher than any previous installment, and 53 percent of participants had taken part in previous discussions.

Anya Cumberland, IFES Regional Director Europe and Eurasia, emphasized the importance of addressing disinformation during the war in Ukraine, especially as how the war is perceived by and justified to Russians is a dangerous threat to democracies in the region. Cumberland argued that encountering information that challenges preexisting beliefs leads to cognitive dissonance, and it is difficult for people to suddenly accept a new world view. Cumberland emphasized that IFES assists efforts in many European countries to protect fundamental principles of democracy in the current challenging operating environment including countering malign Kremlin influence, civic education, cybersecurity and political finance.

Viktor Berezenkov, Founder of the Institute of Cognitive Modeling, stated that the main Kremlin narratives are that Ukraine is part of Russia, Russia is an innocent victim, Russia is fighting Nazis and public protests are organized by Western countries. A number of audiences must be reached in this information war, including Ukrainians, citizens of Belarus and Russia and the people of the world. Telegram has become an efficient way of reaching all of these audiences, but subsequently there are many Russian propaganda channels also taking advantage of this.

Iryna Shvets, senior program manager at the Civil Network OPORA, noted that the impact of disinformation on Ukrainians is so far limited as the Russian propaganda is too far from the reality that Ukrainians are experiencing. Shvets agreed that while there have been victories fighting Russian disinformation in Ukraine, it is still necessary to keep fighting it. The role of the civil society is very visible in this war, and Ukrainians already knew what to do, because Russian propaganda started long before the military invasion.

Rasto Kuzel, from MEMO 98, a Slovakia-based media monitoring organization, claimed that Putin might be losing the power over controlling the narrative about war in Ukraine due to banning of independent media and social media platforms like Signal, Instagram and Facebook in Russia. Kuzel argued that despite President Lukashenka’s support of Putin, forming a narrative to advocate for Putin’s Russia might prove to be a challenge for the Belarusian leader in the face of resentment, including from the Belarusian military, who is refusing to join the Russian army in Ukraine.

Artyom Liss, Director of Flying Fox Media and journalist, argued that fighting disinformation should utilize different approaches in targeting different audiences. It is important how you tell someone the truth – it can be similar to taking somebody out of a sect, in which telling them that the sect leader is a fraud may only alienate the audience – instead, you need to address the issues step by step. He also noted that truth is the first casualty in a war and speculated if we have reached the stage where traditional journalistic standards no longer apply.

The Q&A focused on key issues, such as if it is the right of Western governments to ban Russian media outlets, and whether media study reports coming from Ukrainian authorities face sufficient criticism.

Published on April 14, 2022.

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