- Omar Khan
This Article Is Fake: The Information War in Ukraine and Beyond By Omar Khan
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors and do not reflect the official policy or position of The Diplomatic Review. Any content provided by our writers are of their opinion and are not intended to malign any religion, ethnic group, club, organization etc.
WARNING: this article claims to use diverse and verified sources, but in the spirit of diligent fact-checking, feel free to do your own research and make your own conclusion about their trustworthiness.
“They gathered all the locals in Lenin Square, then they organised the public crucifixion of [a boy]…He was only three years old.” This horrific account from Ukraine by refugee Galyna Pyshnyak is completely fake. Pyshnyak made the claim in 2014 about the Ukrainian army on Russian state news – however she was not a refugee at all, but the wife of a pro-Moscow militant. In fact, the city she alleged this happened in doesn’t even have a “Lenin Square”. Nevertheless, this story as well as innumerable other accounts, pictures and videos have been used to convince hundreds of Russians that the brutal invasion of Ukraine is actually a “special military operation” designed to protect their countrymen from the genocidal, neo-Nazi leaders in Kyiv.
Information warfare is a very old feature of conflict – it is thought Genghis Khan used to send people to spread rumours amongst his enemies before attacking. Its low-cost effectiveness explains why it is so popular. Nazis, Soviets and Americans alike have used propaganda as weapons both at home and abroad, with purposes ranging from demonising minorities to vilifying critics and showcasing the government’s successes. Now, in the digital age, information warfare in the public domain poses a very real threat – from climate change conspiracies stalling progress to disinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic causing disruptive protests worldwide and the preventable deaths of many who refused the vaccine.
Disinformation, which is deliberately deceptive misinformation, in warfare can have lethal consequences. Breaking down opponents psychologically has never been easier in the age of the Internet. Russia’s infamous “firehose of falsehood” method sees propaganda rapidly and continuously broadcasted through as many channels as possible, regardless of consistency or lack of evidence. Having used it effectively in Crimea in 2014, the Federation is now deploying it in a desperate attempt to shatter the resolve of Ukrainian civilians and disguise their illegal aggression as a moral crusade. And, despite Western efforts, it seems to be working: “I called my mum to tell her I was alive,” reported a 29-year-old in Kyiv following an air raid. “She answered: “What are you talking about? Of course, you are. Putin is trying to save you.”… I begged my mum not to watch Russian propaganda…But she told me [the West] were zombifying us.”
Putin is trying to save you. The UN, three weeks after the invasion, has reported 800 dead, 1,000 injured and over three million refugees. Still, the Kremlin tells Ukrainians: Putin is trying to save you. The young man’s mother lives in Crimea and maintains that Ukraine was hitting its own civilians with artillery. He later posted on Instagram: “02/03/2022, the day I lost my mum.”
Using fake news as a political tool in peacetime is something many of us are familiar with (examples range from Donald Trump’s presidency to China’s spin on its genocide against the Uyghur people), but unleashing it as a weapon in war is near-impossible to combat. How has disinformation been used in warfare? Can it be stopped? And if not, is it ethical to fight fire with fire?
Initially this article was intended to be a “how-to” guide about spotting fake news. But it seems that the Kremlin has already made one:
“Today we are talking about how you can investigate what is happening…in Ukraine,” explains Sofia Khomenko, a famous child singer, during the presentation titled “A Lesson About World Peace”. The 12-year-old was joined by Denis Polunchukov as they helped Russians, both young and old, understand (quite rightly) that “There is a lot of misinformation” and that “when you get this information from social media, it is very important to verify the source.” This is absolutely true.
For instance, less than a week before the invasion, video footage was shared on Telegram showing pro-Ukrainian fighters attempting to blow up a chlorine tank in separatist Donbas with the post declaring that this was a “direct confirmation of the preparations of the Ukrainian side to unleash hostilities.” Unfortunately, the Russian news agencies that shared this story didn’t take Khomenko’s or Polunchukov’s advice – had they verified the metadata, they would have realised that the video was filmed ten days prior and used audio from a 2010 Finnish YouTube clip to dub over it.
But there are people (or at least, accounts claiming to be people) online who have stepped up to the task of uncovering fake news. After the destruction of a residential building in Chuhuiv, Ukraine on 24 February, many online pointed out that the images and clips of the chaos were actually from a gas explosion two years ago in Magnitogorsk, Russia; they even uncovered that one of the victims was actually a paid “crisis actor”.
Now, it turns out that independent sources, including both photographers who were there at Chuhuiv confirmed that the victim was in fact real as was the collapsing building, the war, the bombing, the crying, the suffering and the dead. It turns out they are all real, and the unsurprisingly of Russian-origin news exposing the fakery was itself false. The same goes for the countless “anti-fake news” websites and “misinformation spotters” found across the internet, under both state-sponsored and private accounts, which provide zero evidence for their conclusions.
Fake news about uncovering fake news about uncovering fake news, and so on. Propaganda Inception.
From images of the set of a 2020 TV show showing makeup being applied to actors to clips of an Austrian climate change protest, claims that the war in Ukraine is a “hoax” have gained popularity as the fighting has intensified. The Kremlin has made spreading fake news illegal and punishable by up to 15 years in prison, but even they are going to find it hard convincing Russians facing a collapsing rouble, rampant inflation and global isolation that everything is fine and Putin is going to save you.
ETHIOPIA’S TRUE LIES
Controlling the narrative is vital to winning any war. While wars have always involved thousands of, if not more, people, modern conflicts have an extra complication: those people have smartphones. With the Internet being bombarded with millions of pictures, posts and propaganda, controlling the narrative has become a tense battlefront.
“Coverage had been hijacked by operatives affiliated with the TPLF,” explained a spokesperson for Ethiopia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Really, though? All the coverage of the ongoing civil war and humanitarian crisis has been hijacked?
They were attempting to justify new restrictions on media reports about the Tigray conflict – the government has been at war with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front since November 2020 with over 50,000 killed, 150,000 starved to death and 100,000 deaths due to lack of health care. Ethnonationalism and political rivalries drove the regional Mekelle leadership and Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government apart and have perpetuated a war that has seen horrific crimes against civilians committed by both sides, now no longer “government vs rebel group”, but rather loose coalitions of ethnic militias, foreign militaries (e.g. Eritrea) and volunteer fighters. Any war fought along ethnic, national or religious lines is immediately polarised, so when Western governments condemned both pro-TPLF and pro-government forces, with reports of “underage girls and old women being raped and gang-raped by the joint forces” in Shire, and “Priests and deacons [being] slaughtered by the soldiers”, supporters of both sides reacted defensively. Protestors gathered to call out Western interference while the government warned the US not to share “shameful fake news and defamation regarding Ethiopia”.
Like in Ukraine, fake pictures and videos are incredibly effective and, more importantly, very convincing. While there is a horrific famine in northern Ethiopia, some images of it are actually old photographs of Somali villages. And while Ahmed did visit his men near the frontline, images of US soldiers have been manipulated to portray him. You may ask: if there really is a famine killing women and children, what difference does it make if the picture isn’t real?
It can make all the difference – how many fake images do you have to be exposed to before you stop believing anything you see? Fake news undermines our confidence in real news and if it continues to spread, there may come a dark day when we cannot tell the difference anymore.
DON’T GASLIGHT ME WHILE I’M GASLIGHTING YOU
China is still trying to dispel the widespread theory that the SARS-CoV-2 virus originated in a lab in Wuhan – ironic then that they have backed Russian claims that the US has helped Ukraine “conduct bio-military plans”.
The most successful lies are those closest to the truth. For instance, it is true that the US and Ukraine voted against a UN resolution condemning the glorification of Nazism – while the Kremlin uses this in its “Ukraine is run by neo-Nazis” rhetoric, it ignores the reasons given. The resolution was Russian-backed and therefore an attempt to greenlight further propaganda. Another example: it is true that certain labs in Ukraine have received US funding – though Moscow says this is proof of a biological weapons scheme, it crucially ignores that the name of the policy is the “Biological Threat Reduction Program” tasked with mitigating the risk of bio-weapons left behind by the Soviet Union.
The invasion of Ukraine has involved one false flag attack after another, a classic example of disinformation in warfare. The heightened Russian chatter about “bio-weapons” has only raised concerns that they may be planning to launch their own biological attack and claim it was the Ukrainians, similar to the initial pretext for invasion. It may not hold the attention of Western onlookers, but disinformation kills. It is worrying to think that a Ukrainian soldier somewhere on the frontline saw the deepfake video of his president calling for his soldiers’ surrender and was, for a moment, prepared to give up. Ultimately, it is a testament to the resolve of the Ukrainian people and the character of Volodymyr Zelenskyy himself that few believed the Russian deepfake.
Disinformation kills, but in warfare it also makes diplomatic peace that much harder to achieve. More significantly, fake news can come from anyone, anywhere in the world allowing foreign powers to become intimately and yet simultaneously distantly involved. Take the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in May 2021, for example, when the United Arab Emirates, having recently normalised relations with Israel, ran a successful disinformation campaign against Palestinian civilians. Or the bloody border clashes between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan where fake images of destroyed villages and false reports of tactical missile systems being deployed on the Tajik side fuelled misplaced anger on both sides.
Politicians have now enabled anyone, regardless of whether there are in a warzone, to dismiss any and all criticism as fake. The danger this poses is clear. Only by continuing to raise awareness and exposing fake news, in times of peace and war, can any progress be made.
The most successful lies are those closest to the truth. But the lies are still lies.