Politics

Russia’s Most Dangerous Export

A researcher on how the Kremlin’s disinformation is coming to America.

Bystanders gather in front of an illuminated billboard at night
A sign in St. Petersburg, Russia, on Friday displaying a quote from Vladimir Putin’s recent address: “We had no other chance but to act differently.” Sergei Mikhailichenko/AFP via Getty Images

Russia’s war effort in Ukraine began years ago, but it has often raged out of view. Organized disinformation campaigns against Ukraine have been pervasive, with extensive hacking and practical operations similar to ones that targeted U.S. elections in 2016 in favor of Donald Trump. Now there is some evidence Russia’s manufactured narrative about the current war on the ground in Ukraine is reaching America, too.

Jane Lytvynenko has made it her job to monitor, identify, and study such disinformation campaigns as a senior research fellow at the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard. She was born in Ukraine and still has close family there, and told me she hasn’t slept in weeks. With full-scale war now underway, we talked about what the disinformation campaign against Ukraine looks like, its impact, and how to spot its influence in American outlets. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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Aymann Ismail: How has Russia’s disinformation campaign worked in the war against Ukraine so far?

Jane Lytvynenko: Putin’s entire invasion of Ukraine is justified by a disinformation campaign. His speech earlier this week completely distorted Ukrainian history and attempted to make Ukrainians look like we shouldn’t exist. And we see similar lines from that speech being spread online through Kremlin propaganda, Telegram channels, media, and social media posts. There are also out-of-context photos and videos being circulated. This included videos all along Donetsk and Luhansk that blamed explosions and artillery fire on the Ukrainian army, which was false. There was also a staged exploded car with dead bodies inside that open-source evidence suggests were retrieved from a morgue. Bellingcat is keeping an ongoing list of dubious videos. It’s going to be difficult to get clarity in this situation for anyone who isn’t following reporters on the ground or official channels.

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Is this creating any confusion on the Ukrainian side?

Ukrainians know why Putin is doing this. I think the confusion is mostly taking place in the West. Putin caused this war, and he’s spreading disinformation to justify it. But there is intentional confusion, and there is also unintentional confusion. After an attack, it takes time to understand the extent of it. There’s going to be a lot of confusion and a lot of false or misleading or just rumor-based information going around. I think the main thing to understand about the information environment right now is how fluid it is. Things are going to be changing minute to minute, hour to hour. This is war. We need to get comfortable with this information environment, because this is not ending anytime soon.

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Some reporters in Ukraine are urging people to assume everything that’s coming from the Kremlin to be disinformation. Others have accused U.S. outlets like Fox News of parroting—or becoming—Russian propaganda. As a researcher, do you see this? 

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I do. It’s very obvious. It is the same false information that Putin and his supporters spread that is being spread in much of American media. We should not trust the word of the attacker to describe the attack. One big push that I’ve seen on the channels that I monitor is to make the Russian army look successful, and the Ukrainian army look weak. In reality, the Ukrainian army is fighting valiantly. The intent is to create confusion over details like how many planes got shot down, or how many troops fell, or which strategic objectives were taken. There will be false information about every single attack on Ukraine.

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Do you have any theory of why some right-wing media in America and elsewhere would be receptive to this disinformation? 

That’s a really difficult question. Of course, it doesn’t just happen out of nowhere. It has to do with the 2016 election and Russia’s interference. Russia’s interference played a central role in politicizing the country. But we saw a consistent narrative that Russia hadn’t done anything wrong, or their various disinformation campaigns, hacking campaigns, cyberattacks were all fabricated. I would guess that a part of that is an extension of the politicization on this issue that has stemmed from 2016.

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But what the 2016 election proved is Russian disinformation knows no borders. We’ve also seen Russia spread false information around various elections around the world, not just the U.S.’s. And there was, in 2014, an international disinformation campaign after the downing of flight MH17 over Ukraine in order for Russia to deny culpability. Russia was not above spreading false disinformation about that huge tragedy. Keeping that context in mind, there’s no way that they won’t continue spreading false information aggressively about Ukraine.

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Do the reported swarms of Russian bots who post to websites like Twitter and Reddit concern you on the same level?

I would say that automated activity is part of our information environment, but the key thing with disinformation is that it needs people to spread. It doesn’t rely on automated activity only. There is a clear tug of war in the information space. Disinformation works because real people keep the wheels spinning, and it is incredibly important for social media companies to be particularly stringent with any automated or inauthentic activity that they find. I have seen some activity with prominent takedowns some time ago.

How can we tell whether the Russian disinformation is working?

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Misinformation is there to undermine democracy and undermine a people’s freedom of expression. The disinformation muddles the waters and hinders international understanding of this war. If Western politicians don’t have the support of their people in defending Ukraine, then they’ll provide less support. I would speculate that that’s a part of the calculus. Very early on in the escalation, there was a lot of division between world leaders on the best way to respond to this. Germany was a particular standout, who offered the weakest response among Western leaders. If the West appears divided, and the constituents for the politicians appear divided, then the response to the war will also be divided.

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For people not very literate in what’s happening, how can they spot and avoid these efforts?

Follow reporters on the ground. Kyiv Independent is a great independent English-language news outlet within Ukraine. Looking for sources who are in Ukraine who can explain the situation is the best possible thing you can do. And get educated about Ukraine’s history. Research the 2014 revolution, because that’s how Ukraine broke away from Russia.

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Is there any not-so-obvious consequence that I’m not thinking about?

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Well, right now I am wondering where the bombs are falling, whether Russian troops have taken over Hostomel. That is important to me personally, because people I love are close and I don’t know how much I can rely on what I’m seeing and reading to know that they’re safe. I’m sorry to get personal, but the fog of war, the obfuscation of this war, this escalation, has a very direct result both on how we think about it and on me personally.

There’s a lot of questions about why this is happening, how this is happening, the confusion that we’ve talked about. And I think it’s really important to remember that, in 2014, Ukrainian people fought for their independence and died for their independence. As a result, Russia annexed Crimea, and began the war in Donbas. That is the war that is being escalated, right now. It is the war for Ukrainian independence that started in 2014. And in the simplest possible terms, to cut through all the misinformation, that is what we’re seeing here.

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