True, fake news, or conspiracy theory? A look inside the Ukrainian information war
Author: Beatriz Buarque
‘What is true?’. Perhaps this is one of the main questions that have come to our minds since February 21st alongside ‘why is Vladimir Putin invading Ukraine?’. Since the Russian president Vladimir Putin announced a ‘special military operation to demilitarise and deNazify Ukraine’ the world has watched with apprehension images of destroyed cities, bombed buildings, families teared apart, millions of people seeking refuge in neighbouring countries, civilians exposed to death. All of this destruction, despair, and death in the name of a supposed ‘protection’. In addition to the anxiety and fear derived from the war, the world has also been engulfed by an information war.
The strategic use of information in warfare is not new. The act of producing messages with the intent to predetermine the decision of the opponent, also known as ‘reflexive control’, was widely used, for instance, by the Soviets in the second half of the 20th century (Snegovaya, 2015). The main difference is that now, in the digital era, the information is delivered much faster and in new ways. If in the past, strategic messages were sent by a limited number of individuals, now they can be easily manipulated by multiple actors and even be amplified by bots. If in the past, a small number of media companies was responsible for reporting the news from the war, today numerous media outlets claim to have access to privileged information.
Russia has tried to restrain the access of Russian people to messages produced by Western actors by manipulating the content available on its TV channels, banning access to Western social media platforms, and even passing a bill that motivated the withdrawal of Western journalists from the country. Furthermore, Vladimir Putin ‘warned’ Russian citizens to not trust the information reported by American and European ‘politicians, political scientists, and journalists’ because what they write and say allegedly is an ‘empire of lies’.
Now, let’s take a look at the other side of the battlefield. Despite its diversity and freedom of expression, Western mainstream media is competing for people’s attention with a number of independent media outlets, which are not necessarily committed to fact checking. At the same time that a number of manipulated pictures have gone viral, the circulation of conspiracy theories under the guise of news has further blurred the boundaries between fantasy and reality. An additional factor that makes things appear particularly confusing is that instead of reporting the pain inflicted by a war, some media outlets are praising Vladimir Putin for his ‘courage’ to supposedly bring down the deep state and his efforts to expose how deceitful Western media ‘is’.
Other media outlets cast doubt on the existence of the war, claiming that it is another ‘fabricated conflict’. One of the most influential far-right media outlets has just released an article that induces the reader to conclude that the Ukrainian war is an instrument used by globalists to impose their environmental agenda. These conspiracy theories may appear more frequently in far-right and anti-vaccine circles as noticed by some journalists and experts. However, this apparent marginalisation does not make them less serious. The aforementioned conspiracy theories are especially harmful for at least three reasons:
Firstly, they reinforce Vladimir Putin’s claim that people should not trust in Western journalists and scientists. In this sense, in addition to eroding even more trust in governments and official institutions, they end up contributing to Russia’s warfare propaganda.
Secondly, they have not been conveyed solely by ordinary citizens. They have been reproduced as ‘facts’ relying on the format and manner of speaking attributed to news. This is particularly troublesome insofar the explanation for this extraordinary event has been given by individuals who are socially perceived as authoritative speakers, that is, individuals who are recognised by the public as on possession of privileged knowledge (i.e. journalists, experts). Similar to what occurred during the pandemic, both media outlets and self-declared experts have been using the internet to imbue conspiracy theories with truth value. An example of it is a US physician who has used her Telegram account (with over 78,000 followers) to claim that the US has supported Ukraine because it has secret laboratories there developing research on infectious disease. This message was amplified by Breitbart News through the speech of a Russian authority and was later dismissed as disinformation by different media outlets and civil society organisations.
Thirdly, Vladimir Putin’s discourses seem to feed the paranoid style of conspiracism found in some far-right circles insofar they display an exaggerated feeling of persecution, representing the enemy as “pure evil” and positioning him as a ‘militant leader’, someone who no longer believes social conflicts can be mediated through diplomatic talks because they are reduced to a battle between “pure evil and pure good” (Hofstadter, 1964). This is particularly evident in Putin’s speech on February 24th, in which he speaks of Ukraine not as a sovereign country but as a territory that has been degraded and that now, through the invasion, supposedly has an opportunity of redemption. At first sight, it may appear absurd that far-right actors celebrate the military invasion made by a former communist power. However, a ‘military operation’ partly justified by a desire to protect ‘traditional values’ and remove a territory from the control of ‘deceiving institutions’ is perceived in some far-right communities as a ‘brave attack’ on liberalism.
All in all, conspiracy theories provide oversimplified explanations to complex events and now we are witnessing a phenomenon in which they have been legitimised by a state and multiple independent media outlets. It may be difficult to discern what is true and what is not in this digital information war but two things can help us navigate through it: the understanding that good journalistic practices are based on checked facts, and that social conflicts are much more complex than a battle between ‘pure good’ and ‘pure evil’. In case of doubt, not sharing the conspiratorial ‘news’ piece can potentially limit its dissemination.
Beatriz Buarque is a Lecturer in Conspiracy Theories and Democracy at King’s College London and a PhD Candidate at The University of Manchester, UK. Her dissertation entitled: ‘A transdisciplinary study of the alt-right multitude: how and why alt-right conspiracy theories have been legitimised in online spaces’ proposes a novel way of examining discourses produced as ‘truth’ by amorphous digital phenomena such as the alt-right. Outside academia, Beatriz is the founder of the NGO Words Heal the World, and recipient of two international prizes, including the prestigious Luxembourg Peace Prize. Her main research interests are political communication (especially the populist use of conspiracy theories), critical security studies, and the politics of truth in digital spaces.
Hofstadter, R. (1964). The paranoid style in American Politics. NY: Vintage Books.
Snegovaya, M. (2015). Putin’s information warfare in Ukraine: Soviet Origins of Russia’s Hybrid Warfare. Russia Report 1. Washington, DC: Institute of the Study of War.
Image credits: open source