Fear, Lies, and Discredit. Overview of the Main Areas of Russian Disinformation in the First Half of 2021

On September 7, the press center of Ukraine Crisis Media Center hosted a presentation of the report “Overview of the Major Russian Information Influence Operations in Ukraine for the First Half of 2021”. The study was conducted by UCMC’s Hybrid Warfare Analytical Group. 

As the Chair of the Board of UCMC Valeriy Chaly explained, despite the consolidation of the global community around Ukraine in response to Russian aggression, Moscow does not cease its efforts to destabilize our state. Although the military threat remains real (after the Russian-Belarusian exercise “West-2021” held in the summer, a reinforced Russian contingent continues to be located near Ukraine’s borders), the Kremlin is focusing its efforts on the information field.

“Being ready and well-equipped to deal with such threats — this is the issue facing not only the state but also the civil society and the whole Ukraine. This is what we do by joining forces with our partners. These connections, this network for counteracting Russia’s information aggression, have been a very good result in recent years,” Chaly said.

The main results of the monitoring of Russia’s information operations in the first half of the year were presented by Oleksandra Tsekhanovska, the head of UCMC’s Hybrid Warfare Analytical Group. She mentioned the main goals of these operations such as internal political destabilization, legitimization of the Russian occupation of Ukraine, strengthening Moscow’s influence on internal processes, and discrediting official Kyiv before Western partners. At the same time, Russia’s informational influence remains rather effective because of its adaptability: the constant adjustment of both messages and methods of their dissemination. 

Methodologically, the monitoring is based on an expert survey and an overview of the sources of Russian narratives. They can be divided into three groups: Russian media, pro-Russian mass media in Ukraine (TV channels from V. Medvedchuk’s pool and “Nash”), and a network of mostly anonymous Telegram channels spreading fakes and disinformation. During the first half of this year, the monitoring recorded four sequential thematic waves. 

The first wave was aimed to discredit vaccination against COVID-19 by supporting the anti-vaccination movement and undermining confidence in certain vaccines approved in Ukraine. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate and TV channels of V. Medvedchuk’s pool (the latter promoted the Russian vaccine Sputnik V) also contributed to this information campaign. 

The next wave was the “military alarm” over the threat of the open Russian invasion of Ukraine. This information operation was aimed to spread despair in Western partners’ support as well as to intimidate Ukrainian society. In the same context, O. Tsekhanovska cited an example of an attempt to disrupt the Sea Breeze 2021 military exercise, during which unidentified individuals distributed online forms among the servicemen to collect their personal data. The memorable dates of May 8 and 9 stimulated the traditional escalation of the “war of memory” over the events of World War II and the image of the USSR. Among the key methods of conflict mobilization, O. Tsekhanovska mentioned the “Immortal Regiment” march and the revival of rhetoric about “fascism in Ukraine.” 

The most recent wave was dedicated to the topic of Ukraine’s relations with Western partners. At the bilateral level (Hungary, Poland), the same issues of memory policy are actively used, and at the general level — the provocation of despair in Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic prospects and the emphasis on “external governance” by the IMF. I. Tsekhanovska also told about the Group’s forecasts for further areas of Russian information attacks.

“Of course, we expect the continuation of anti-vaccination campaigns, the discrediting of Western vaccines, new attacks on the healthcare system, and discrediting reforms in Ukraine in general. This includes, of course, a narrative about external governance, attacks on the Crimea Platform, a continuation of illegal passportization in the occupied territories, and Ukrainian citizens voting in the elections to the State Duma. Also, new communication channels will appear to share disinformation,” the speaker summed up.

Roman Shutov, a network coordinator of the Open Information Partnership project in the Eastern Partnership countries, spoke about the main measures to counteract the Russian information aggression that the Ukrainian authorities should take. Here, the main problem is Ukraine’s reactive position: when the initiative is taken by the aggressor, the resistance becomes rather ineffective, being limited to responses and retractions of individual fakes.

To turn the tide, R. Shutov proposed a strategic shift to the restructuring of the education system to “provide the population with access to knowledge about the world.” These efforts should be coordinated by a special state body that will have political guarantees of freedom of action and sufficient resources.

Ksenia Ilyuk, an analyst at the Detector-Media NGO, highlighted the technological perspective of misinformation resistance. According to her, in a few years, Artificial Intelligence technologies can radically change the approach to combating fakes. Neural networks are already capable of creating fake news, but, according to K. Ilyuk, the real post-truth era will come when a person will be unable to distinguish between the deep fake created by artificial intelligence and reality. It is Ukraine that can prove to be a testing ground for these technologies — which is why it is worth considering the training of relevant specialists. 

Summing up the presentation, Valeriy Chaly emphasized that information security issues should be addressed by the state based on institutional continuity, regardless of changes in political power. At the moment, we can talk about a setback in some positions. V. Chaly cited the example of satellite TV in eastern Ukraine: while domestic channels have encrypted their signal for commercial reasons, Russian broadcasting is unhindered and the share of its consumption is growing. V. Chaly also named another problem of the information space of Ukraine — the “fragmentation” of mass media audiences of different political orientations.

If earlier there was a balance of opinions in the central mass media, now the audiences “dispersed to different apartments”. On the one hand, there are pro-government channels — or oligarchic ones — that support the government’s actions. If we watch opposition channels we can see that Ukraine is failing there, and the statements there are worse than Russian ones. If earlier the spectator could find a common denominator, now different groups start standing stock-still in their beliefs,” he said. 

In conclusion, the Chair of the Board of UCMC expressed his conviction that the results of the monitoring will be useful to both the government and civil society — and called on both sides to develop a culture of critical self-esteem and communication skills.