Ukraine and Russia’s second front is a propaganda war. But who is winning?

Nov 14, 2022
Ukraine map and donots is marking with Ukraine and Russia flags.

Since Russia launched its “special military operation” into neighbouring Ukraine, media, political organisations and researchers in Ukrainian allied countries have accused Moscow of launching a propaganda blitzkrieg meant to justify the invasion.

Most notably the Kremlin has claimed Ukraine was committing “genocide” against its Russian-speaking population in the country’s east.

It has also accused Kyiv of being aligned with Nazism, citing the “denazification” of Ukraine as a key reason for the invasion, and of operating biological weapons laboratories with US support.

However, experts say the Ukrainians have also been running a propaganda campaign of their own.

And while Ukraine has proved surprisingly effective against better equipped Russian forces on the battleground while still suffering some heavy losses, the story is much the same in the information war as well.

The propaganda learning curve

War propaganda is the use of either real or fake information to manipulate opinion and evoke strong emotional reactions, such as fear, anger, guilt, admiration or outrage, explained Paul Baines, Professor of Political Marketing at the University of Leicester.

It has been used throughout history as a key tool of war and has become a “necessity” of conflict that can take many forms, Mr Baines told the ABC.

While Russian claims of great victories against Ukrainian “Nazis” may be regarded as laughable in the West — where in some cases evidence to the contrary has been publicised before the claim itself — researchers say these tactics have proved highly effective within Russia and among Russian allies.

Russia has spent decades perfecting a propaganda machine, through media control, censorship and harsh laws that forbid the dissemination of “false information” about the Russian army.

But early in the conflict, myths began to emerge from Ukraine as well.

Photos from other conflicts, movies and even video games were posted on social media claiming to be Russian attacks.

While researchers say these did not appear to originate from state-sanctioned internet “trolls”, as was the case in Russia, there were other narratives that were spread by government sources.

One story that was debunked by experts was that of the so-called Ghost of Kyiv, a mystery fighter pilot who was credited by the Ukrainian government with having shot down 10 Russian fighter jets.

The image below turned out to be footage from a video game.

It’s not just states or citizens involved in the conflict who have been spreading disinformation.

People “who have no apparent stake in the war have also been spinning conspiracy theories”, said Esther Chan, APAC bureau editor at the Information Futures Lab.

Ms Chan said they were often just looking to boost their own social media following.

However, Ukraine needs the backing of NATO and Western allies, where exuberant claims can backfire in the face of independent media and non-government watchdogs and think tanks.

While Ukraine supporters do still periodically post fake videos and false claims, the Ukrainian government has in more recent times taken a different approach.

More subtle tactics

While the Kremlin focused on deception and defamation along with censorship, Ukraine focused on diplomacy with the West, highlighting Russian atrocities and Ukrainian combat wins, Mr Baines said.

As Russia used fear and anger in attempts to justify it’s invasion, Ukraine, who had been plunged into the war and by many counts held the moral high ground, used guilt and outrage to gain support from the West, he explained.

“Talking about their dire situation is not untrue, but the Ukrainians can play on that feeling of guilt,” Mr Baines said.

He added that President Volodymyr Zelenskyy — a former comedian and actor — had effectively weaponised the suffering of Ukrainians to exacerbate feelings of guilt and responsibility in the West.

“Zelenskyy’s efforts at guilt tripping the West have resulted in probably one of the biggest shifts in military material to another country in history.”

Kyiv and Mr Zelenskyy himself have further built up an image of the “brave Ukrainian”, helping with recruitment efforts as well as morale, Mr Baines said.

In recent weeks, Western media has been flooded with accounts of Russians fleeing conscription, with both real and fake images of convoys of fleeing Russians spreading on social media.

Meanwhile, Mr Baines said the “overarching narrative” in Ukraine has focused on the thousands of Ukrainians who volunteered to fight.

But conscription has also long existed in Ukraine and at the beginning of the conflict, the Ukraine government banned all men aged 18-60 from leaving the country, instead instructing them to report for duty at a military recruitment office.

Russia still winning information war on many fronts

While Ukraine may be winning hearts and minds in the West, elsewhere, Russia’s more blatant tactics are succeeding, according to Darren Linvill, an associate professor at Clemson who co-leads the Media Forensics Hub.

“While we like to think Ukraine is winning the information war, outside of the West, they are just not,” Mr Linvill said.

“It’s an uncomfortable reality … but a lot of the world is on Putin’s side.”

Mr Linvill has been researching Russian propaganda and social media troll farms since their involvement in the 2016 US presidential election, identifying many millions of accounts with hundreds of thousands of followers on multiple platforms.

But the Kremlin’s disinformation campaigns against Ukraine are not primarily aimed at English language news outlets.

“The main target audience of most disinformation is a country’s own people,” he said.

He said it was clear Moscow’s defamation campaigns had gained traction everywhere besides English-language social media and western Europe.

Russia’s false-flag propaganda 

One remarkably effective tactic used by Russia early in the war was disinformation false-flag operations, Mr Linvill said.

Dozens of videos were circulated claiming to debunk apparently nonexistent Ukrainian fakes.

The goal was to cast doubt over real images of Russian defeats, civilian deaths and destruction caused by the Ukraine invasion, he said.

Russian troll accounts, that were created to spread propaganda and fake news, began posting warnings to beware of propaganda and fake news, he said.

“It’s because of disinformation that that particular form of disinformation was so effective at reaching a broad audience,” he said.

“We were primed to look for disinformation.”

Mr Linvill said the distrust that has resulted from fake news has led to unhealthy levels of distrust in society and has spurred harmful conspiracy theories.

While critical thinking is important, so is being able to trust.

“You can’t simply distrust everything you read,” he said.

“You just have to learn what to trust and learn the processes by which information flows.”


Tracey Shelton is a journalist at the ABC’s Asia Pacific Newsroom.

First published by Oct 19 2022

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