Vladimir Putin’s regime hunts down the truth and celebrates lies. It threatens to jail those who describe honestly what is happening in Ukraine – a war. It brazenly denies documented attacks upon civilians. It concocts claims that the US and Ukraine plot to spread pathogens using migratory birds. It accuses others of its own sins: known for its willingness to fake events, it claimed that a heavily pregnant, visibly injured woman photographed leaving the bombed maternity ward in Mariupol was an actor.
Those images, and her story, were captured by a photographer and a reporter from the Associated Press. The absence of information in a blockade has two goals, noted the reporter, Mstyslav Chernov: chaos, as people panic, but also impunity. “With no information coming out of a city, no pictures of demolished buildings and dying children, the Russian forces could do whatever they wanted.” Chernov has revealed that Ukrainian soldiers had risked their lives to extract him and his colleague from the city because Russians were hunting for them – hoping to force them to retract their work on camera and say that everything they had filmed was a lie.
Russia has long sought to create its own reality, both by denying the truth and by inventing a new story. But at home its repression has dramatically expanded since the invasion. Facebook and Instagram have been banned, and Twitter blocked; access to foreign news media restricted. The introduction of a law that punishes spreading “fake news” with up to 15 years in prison prompted journalists to flee the country; independent outlets including the Meduza website and radio station Ekho Moskvy were blocked or shut down. Meanwhile, state media pumps out lies. That many of Russia’s denials and accusations are demonstrably untrue, deeply unconvincing or plainly ludicrous may not matter. The goal is to confuse, not convince.
Russian disinformation penetrated our society long ago: working to promote Donald Trump’s campaigns in the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections; meddling in the Brexit referendum. In some cases the aim has not been to further a particular cause, but to foster division, such as by amplifying strongly pro- and anti-vaccine messages. And beyond direct involvement, Russian meddling has contributed to a political style – most obviously, that of Mr Trump – which treats truth and fact as dispensable and irrelevant.
The challenges are growing as technology develops. Last week, a deepfake surfaced: a short clip purporting to show Volodymyr Zelenskiy telling Ukrainian soldiers to lay down their arms. Though crudely executed, it points towards the new perils ahead. But sunlight remains a powerful disinfectant. The US, Ukraine and the UK have begun “prebunking”: warning when they anticipate that Russia will launch “false flag” operations, and revealing that a hoax video call had been made to the defence secretary, Ben Wallace, before the hoaxers released it. Disinformation campaigns must be fully investigated and exposed – something the UK signally failed to do in the case of the Brexit referendum, as the intelligence and security committee’s report on Russian influence noted. This may also mean ensuring that tech firms archive, not simply delete, disinformation, to ensure it can be traced back.
But supporting those who get it right is as important as holding bad actors accountable. Above all, we must celebrate the courage of those who speak the truth, be they Ukrainians on the frontline like the AP team, or Russians like Marina Ovsyannikova, who disrupted Channel One’s main news broadcast, and the staff of newspaper Novaya Gazeta. As Chernov, the AP reporter, observed: “I have never, ever felt that breaking the silence was so important.”
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