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How Russia is losing — and winning — the information war in Ukraine

Russia’s war in Ukraine isn’t just being fought on the ground and in the air with tanks, artillery and fighter jets. It’s also playing out online, where the Kremlin and its allies are using propaganda, fake social media accounts, forged documents and manipulated videos and images to push false narratives, in an effort to deflect blame from Moscow and undermine support for Ukraine.

To defeat Ukraine on the battlefield, Russia needed to strangle all sympathy and support for Ukraine as well,» analysts at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab wrote in a new report analyzing the Kremlin’s information operations in Ukraine.

Facebook takes down Russian network impersonating European news outlets
Facebook takes down Russian network impersonating European news outlets
A year into the conflict, Russia continues to deploy false and misleading claims to justify its actions, cast Ukraine and NATO as the aggressors, and deny responsibility for the war.

It’s a continuation of a strategy President Vladimir Putin has pursued long before February 24, 2022 — stretching back to 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and threw its support behind separatists in eastern Ukraine.

That includes falsehoods like the claim Ukraine is run by Nazis with support from the U.S., which was the subject of a recent documentary posted online by state-backed broadcaster RT. It’s one of 50 such films RT has published since the invasion — nearly one a week — according to Newsguard, a company that rates news websites’ credibility.

But the bogus claims don’t end there. Russian media and Kremlin-linked campaigns depict Ukraine’s government as rife with Satanists and terrorists. They’ve denied documented atrocities by Russian soldiers against civilians in Bucha and claimed the bombing of a maternity hospital in Mariupol was faked, using actors. They’ve spread rumors Ukraine is selling western-provided weapons for a profit on the dark web.

Russia’s strategy is to confuse people
Since last February’s invasion, Russian-linked influence operations on social media have «used a throw-the-spaghetti-at-the-wall-to-see-what-sticks kind of approach,» said Nathaniel Gleicher, head of security policy at Facebook parent Meta.

The point is not that people will believe every one of these narratives, or even be fully convinced by any single claim, said Roman Osadchuk, a DFRLab research associate.

«The main idea is to inflate the information space with multiple false theories and denials of what actually happened in order to make people disinterested, or just be too puzzled,» he said.

In addition to sowing doubt, this approach pays off when some narratives break through.

Like the claim that Ukraine was developing biological weapons with the assistance of the U.S. government, which was picked up and amplified in the U.S. by far-right online influencers, followers of the QAnon conspiracy theory, and even Fox News host Tucker Carlson.

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