“Ukraine is winning the information war”, the Washington Post and CNBC both proclaimed this week, with identical wording. Fortunately the articles were more nuanced than the premature conclusions of these headlines, but it pointed to an information war about an information war.
The more complex story is that the Ukrainians and the Russians are fighting different information wars, not going head to head on this front.
For the Ukrainians what matters is getting international sympathy and support, and on this front they are winning. Their president Volodymyr Zelenskyy has been out on the streets, building morale and gathering sympathy. A short while back he was a comedian catapulted into political office, now he is being described as “Churchillian”. His cellphone street video was a stark contrast to the depiction of a slightly demented Putin either sitting at a comically-sized table or against a white background far from the battlefront.
Zelenskyy has been helped by the willingness of the Western media to play up these contrasting images, as well as stories of the courageous defence of Kyiv, the slowness and brutality of the Russian advance and pictures of injured women and children and brave Ukrainian soldiers. Not all of this is real, such as the myths that went viral on the “Ghost of Kyiv” (a faceless soldier said to be killing many Russians in the streets of Kyiv) and the “Ukrainian reaper” (a fighter pilot said to have taken out dozens of Russian planes).
The Russian focus is internal: Putin’s concern is to keep the support of his citizens and soldiers. He does not care if the world thinks him deranged, unpredictable and evil, but he does care that people are protesting on his city streets.
His weaponry in this propaganda war is two-pronged. The first is the old-fashioned tools of an autocrat: brutal suppression of his critics, protestors and others who get in his way. The second is to flood the internet, particularly the big social media sites, with fake or half-fake information, and he has developed a formidable machinery to do this.
In his book on how Russia used Twitter in its 2014 Crimean invasion, Sinal Aral found the largest ever spike in false or half-true stories overwhelmingly coming from Russia’s propaganda machinery, much of it automated. One difference this time is that Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Google are actively countering Russian misinformation on their platforms. Chinese-owned Tik-Tok is not.
Aral also argues that the most effective propaganda material has some basis in truth, though it might be exaggerated or twisted, but this time around Putin does not seem to care – and that is also why it may be less effective.
It is too early to know if Putin’s information campaign will be successful. After all, these social media platforms are also ways for his citizens to get access to Western media and alternative information.
As consumers, we need to be on full alert with all the information thrown at us. Both sides are twisting and reporting selectively, though Ukraine’s coverage appears to be more rooted in reality. It is easier when you are the victim of aggression.
Putin has been acting against critical media at home, but it is less widely reported that Ukraine shut down a number of pro-Russian outlets over the last few years. Ukraine’s media freedom has improved under Zelensky, but it still languishes at 97 in RSF’s world media freedom index, well above Russia at 150 but still lower than countries like Hungary and Lesotho.
The American invasion of Iraq taught us (if we didn’t know before) that truth does not reside on one side. We have to treat all information with scepticism, including from the better known sites and channels.
Fact-checking operations have proliferated in recent years, and a number have come together to produce ukrainfacts.org, which does quick checking of social media information on the invasion. It is worth a look just to see how much fake material there is.
An exciting new element in this information war is journalists’ use of OSINT (Open Source Intelligence) – the use of publicly available information such as satellite imagery and data bases to verify photographs and to find stories that expose, for example, the use of illegal cluster bombs.
Its journalistic use was pioneered by the British operation Bellingcat, who famously tracked the origins of the rocket that downed the Malaysian plane over Ukraine in 2014. They also exposed Putin’s poisoners who targeted his enemies around the world. They did this sitting at their desks using cutting-edge internet tools.
Bellingcat have been generous in teaching these tools to other journalists, which is why you see them used extensively to open up another layer of information in the tough battle to find the truth during wartime.
*Harber is the Caxton Professor of Journalist at Wits and head of the Campaign for Free Expression