The groundwork for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Thursday was seeded by a mass disinformation campaign that continues to be ongoing as the conflict escalates.
As the pretext of the invasion, pro-Russian online disinformation campaigners flooded the Internet with images and videos depicting Ukraine as aggressors.
This tactic has continued as Russia launched its full-blown military invasion, attacking Ukrainian cities and military sites by air, land and sea. Their efforts have been promptly dismantled by experts and fact-checkers; however, the sheer volume of disinformation in media reporting and social media means it is still a pressing problem.
So how is this disinformation campaign being carried out and what can you do to make sure you are not sharing false information?
False flags in the build-up to the invasion
There have been three main unsubstantiated claims used as a justification for the military action by Russia, according to a report by the European Expert Association – a research group that focuses on security in Ukraine – and the technology watchdog group Reset Tech.
This report was independently evaluated by the Global Disinformation Index, a non-profit research group, at the request of the New York Times who said it appears to be reliable.
One of these claims was that Ukraine was preparing an attack on Donbas.
“It [the claim] was the biggest disinformation campaign that I have ever seen,” Maria Avdeeva, the Ukrainian founder and research director of the European Experts Association, told Euronews Next.
“Russia sent 12 Russian war correspondents to the occupied Donbas, and they are allegedly connected with Russian special services. And they started to make fake videos and photos and every kind of disinformation message claiming that Ukraine is attacking Donbas, which was completely untrue.
“Ukraine has made numerous statements about that, and we have international observers and the group of international correspondents out on the front lines who have seen for themselves that no such kind of aggression is happening. But it didn’t stop the Russian side”.
Another unsubstantiated claim was that Ukraine was planning to attack separatist-held territories in the east of the country using chemical weapons.
“The minister of defence of Russia [Sergey Shoigu] said in his public speech [on December 21] that Ukraine has chemical weapons supplied here by some American private military company and that Ukraine is preparing to use these chemical weapons against the citizens in Donbas,” Avdeeva explained.
“After that, that message appeared in numerous channels, on media, on the messaging app Telegram”.
Often these unsubstantiated claims are picked up and amplified by Russian state media which gives them further reach.
And there are numerous other examples of false information being disseminated through Russian media and social media users.
Eliot Higgins, the founder and creative director of Bellingcat, a Netherlands-based investigative journalism website, used open-source intelligence tools to debunk a video that had been released on February 18 on the Telegram channel of the press service of the People’s Militia of the Donetsk People’s Republic.
It showed videos of “Polish-speaking” soldiers trying to sabotage Russian tanks. His investigation found that some of the footage was shot in early February and the audio was taken from a video shot during a Finnish military exercise in 2010.
Anatomy of a Russian Seperatist False Flag - On February 18th the Telegram channel of the press service of the People's Militia of the Donetsk People's Republic published the following video, claiming to show a sabotage operation targeting chlorine tankshttps://t.co/Syk8NG2zKx pic.twitter.com/R4mfggxbPg— Eliot Higgins (@EliotHiggins) February 20, 2022
Many misleading posts also portray the Ukrainian government as corrupt, neo-Nazi, and Russophobic.
That kind of rhetoric is “straight out of Putin’s mouth,” according to Frantisek Vrabel, the founder, and CEO of Prague-based Semantic Visions, which identifies potential disinformation based on the use of language patterns online.
Vrabel told AFP that the sheer amount of anti-Ukrainian and anti-NATO rhetoric increased 75 times online since last October in the Czech Republic alone and has replaced COVID-19 as the main topic of disinformation.
“The main themes are that the Russians are the liberators and that there is genocide in Ukraine,” he said. “This is now the dominant narrative”.
[Thread] This is a short analysis of textbook war propaganda, mostly taken from Russian state-controlled media RT and Sputnik— Marc Owen Jones (@marcowenjones) February 24, 2022
1) First up, don't mention the war! Well almost, Russian websites don't like the term 'invasion', preferring 'special military operation' #Ukraine pic.twitter.com/I8vVkGYcvb
How can we play our part to not propagate disinformation online?
Social media users have been sharing graphics, videos, and images about the Russian invasion.
However, if not properly investigated first you could be unintentionally spreading false information. So how can you make sure this is not the case?
Be very, very careful over the next few days with military information. The Russians want to persuade Ukraine to surrender and they will use disinformation, fake video, fake photos.— Anne Applebaum (@anneapplebaum) February 24, 2022
“Be cautious about what you see online,” said Matthew Holroyd, Euronews’ social media correspondent.
“During times of crisis, when people are hungry for information, that is when false claims and disinformation can spread. Even if something has been viewed and shared hundreds of thousands of times, it does not mean it is verified. Try to find the original source before you share something, and use Open Source Investigations Tools to help”.
The News Literacy Project, an NGO that educates the public on how to be smart news consumers, also advises that memes aren’t news.
“Memes and social media posts created by complete strangers online are often inaccurate and misleading. Do not share anything you or experts cannot verify,” they said.
The group also says to seek out the experts.
“True experts tell you how they know what they know by citing strong evidence,” they said. “They don’t oversimplify complex trends and events, and they adjust their analyses in the face of new information”.