All You Need To Know About Exquisite Art Of Russian Propaganda & Media Lies

Hromadske International’s Sunday Show Examines The Russia-Ukraine Media War


The Sunday Show is the flagship TV-show produced by the Hromadske International team from its global headquarters in Kyiv, Ukraine. This is the only prime-time TV program explaining the Eastern European geopolitical storm in English.

This week:

anchored by Nataliya Gumenyuk and Ian Bateson

produced by Katherine Jacobsen, Isobel Koshiw and Maxim Eristavi

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The Ukraine-Russia war: when media battles matter more, than military gains

President Putin’s rule in Russia has encompassed increasing censorship and distortion of events through multiple tools in order to create and sustain myths of Russia’s position as a global super power. Since the beginning of the Maidan protests, the Kremlin has further revved up its campaign of disinformation in order to justify its interference in Ukrainian internal affairs, the annexation of Crimea and the ongoing war in East Ukraine.

The Kremlin has successfully manipulated and twisted events in Ukraine to re-shape reality at home and abroad. Arguably its most powerful tool, is the idea of ‘relativism’ — every country is equally corrupt, every government lies just as much as the next. The idea that there is no single moral authority or truth. It has created widespread cynicism and confusion, causing people and politicians alike to hesitate in confronting the Kremlin.

The Ukrainian efforts to counter the spread of Russian propaganda have come under widespread criticism, too. In December 2014, the Ukrainian parliament approved the creation of a Ministry of Information. Dubbed by critics as the ‘Ministry of Truth’, it now employees its own iArmy and hopes to launch an English language TV network, Ukraine Tomorrow. Many see the Ministry as a step backwards in terms of media freedom in Ukraine and worry that it plays into this Kremlin idea of ‘relativism’.

The Question We Asked Our Audience:

PHOTO: BLOOMBERG NEWS

The Weaponization of Information

A former Russian TV insider and author who has written extensively on the subject, Peter Pomerantsev, explained to Hromadske that the Kremlin has been developing a military doctrine since 2008. Known as the Russian Doctrine of Information Psychological War, its aim is to create contactless warfare, “The aim is to bring a country to its knees without ever touching it, by using very aggressive media economic blackmail, subversion, infiltration”. Within this doctrine, information is viewed as a weapon to shape reality by controlling or dividing the information space, i.e. ‘the weaponization of information’.

“Russia cannot censor the West, so instead it trashes the information space”, Pomerantsev told Hromadske. The campaign is waged through a number of ways: through social media, with the help of an army of paid trolls; whispering campaigns, local people paid to repeat rumor or blatant lies; funding fringe political groups throughout Europe; buying newspaper space abroad and expanding the international presence of Kremlin-backed TV channels and news sites such as RT and Sputnik.

President Putin’s entire image was crafted by television and the first thing he did when he came to power was to seize control of TV, said Pomerantsev. The Kremlin’s grip on what is broadcast in Russia is incomparable to the West. Pomerantsev told Hromadske, “Imagine if the America ony had Fox News — that’s the situation in Russia”.

The Soviet idea that “propaganda can create a new reality, a new individual and so a new world,” has become very, very concentrated under Putin, and is done by presenting a unified message on television. This message includes a strong dose of cynicism, about Russia as well as the West. Russia openly admits to its people that it is not a proper democracy but it also constantly sheds doubts on the credibility of other governments and value systems, creating a situation where everything and everyone is equally as bad. This works to de-motivate people. Their logic becomes - why vote if you don’t believe in the world around you, and then people start to believe in conspiracies.

Pomerantsev suggests that news organisations employee disinformation editors as the weaponization of information is being deployed by an increasing number of countries, particularly authoritarian regimes. The disinformation editors would simply not print stuff which is not fit to print.

What can 70 hours of Russian-state TV do to you?

Russian émigré author and academic, Gary Shteyngart spent 70 hours locked in the posh Four Seasons Hotel in New York City and watching only Russian TV. He wrote about his experience for The New York Times Magazine.

According to the author, if Russia was a normal country with a normal economy, it would be a natural thing for Russia to become Western. But there is a feeling that Russia can only be a super power and if it lacks that status then “people are upset”. The state media therefore backs this idea that “Russia is a special country no matter what”. The relentless message is maddening, Shteyngart said.

In light of the faltering economy, the state media is projecting the idea that Russia has to be an exceptional super power at all costs. Shteyngart said that he felt that several programs were about ordinary Russians and their ability to survive anything. It was designed to push home the message that, “we have to tighten our belts for the sake of the ideology,”, said Shteyngart.

The idea of an external enemy was also perpetuated surprisingly more so than during the Soviet Union. Shteyngart told Hromadske that if had known nothing about the situation in Ukraine, he would have had the impression from watching Russian state-owned TV that Ukraine was now controlled by a neo-Nazi regime which was “bent on destroying everyone from Russians, to Jews, to Tartars….With Hitler parades across the streets of Kyiv and a government which is attacking innocent Russian speakers of the Donbas region.”

Pro-Russian rebels fire artillery rockets towards Debaltseve, near Vuglehirsk, Ukraine, on Feb. 18, 2015. Photographer: Pierre Crom/Getty Images

The Art Of Lies Behind Media Fakes

Fake news stories has been widely discussed feature of the conflict. The use of which marked a definitive extension in the lengths the Kremlin was willing to go to. Emotion-filled misinformation is rampant in the Ukraine-Russian conflict, said Yevhen Fedchenko, the the founder of Stop Fake, an organization that exposes misinformation relating to the conflict. To dispel the mis-truths, it is important to take out the emotion from news stories and really dissect what is going on in the story, Fedchenko said. The idea is not about creating one fake narrative, it’s about creating many fake narratives — to make sure that people are confused. His website has chronicled a total of 300 fake news stories over the past year, just shy of one a day.

Anything is Possible

There are different types of fake stories. There are the simply stories where if you have a critical mind you can easily tell it is fake, but there are a lot of really emotionally charged stories where you really need to look much deeper, Fedchenko told Hromadske. The idea is to stir emotions within people not to make it believable. In fact, the more unbelievable it is, the more people will believe it.

Whisper and Gossip Campaigns

Local people are paid to spread disinformation in the form of rumor or anecdotes, Svitlana Mashkarovska, a Ukrainian political technologist who has employed similar tools during election campaigns, told Hromadske. She gave the example of what happened before Crimea:

Before the annexation of Crimea, people were scared by stories about trains with aggressive nationalists who were travelling to Crimea to kill people Crimean people.

People are employed on both sides and given special training to implement this whispering campaign. These paid rumor mills will tell stories, for instance, of how their nephew’s friend was killed by Nazis in Kyiv. The stories will often be told in a public place, on a bus or at a train station, the intention being that people will overhear and repeat the story — shaping the reality.

Ukraine’s ‘Ministry Of Truth’

The initial response, in March 2014, to the Kremlin’s campaign by the Ukrainian authorities was to block Russian television stations, in the name of protecting the country’s “information space”. Then in December 2014, the Ukrainian government decided to establish a Ministry of Information to “to ensure the information security” of the country. The Ministry has been widely mocked, dubbed the ‘Ministry of Truth’, in reference to the book, 1984 — it is seen as a step back in terms of media freedom in Ukraine. The Ministry’s reputaion is not helped by the fact that the Minister of Information, Yuriy Stets, is a close friend of President Petro Poroshenko. Stets also worked for many years on Channel 5, which is owned by Poroshenko.

In an unconvincing defense of Ukraine’s efforts, Tetiana Popova, the Deputy Minister of Information and an adviser to the Minister of Defense, told the Sunday Show that:

“Ukraine’s iArmy is not an official army of Internet trolls, rather it is a group of messengers who will convey the Ukrainian perspective on various issues”.

She said there were around 30,000 paid internet trolls now employed, 5,000 of which are in Russia. The ministry also plans to create more information channels in Ukraine’s Donbas region as well as an international channel based on RT, which will be called Ukraine Tomorrow. However, funding is very tight and the project is unlikely to happen any time soon.

The Ministry of Information’s budget compared to RT

The Ukrainian Fakes

“Stop the Fake” told Hromadske that they monitor Ukrainian fakes as well, though they are not as numerous as the Russian ones, and not as systematic. Fedchenko, Stop the Fake’s founder, warned that Ukraine’s use of paid trolls and fakes plays further into the hands of Russia and Kremlin propaganda. By the Ukrainian government copying the Kremlin’s tools, blame can then be placed on both sides and people begin to view the situation as Ukrainian propaganda versus Russian propaganda, i.e. both sides are as bad as each other. It also strengthens this Kremlin idea of relative cynicism and leading some to believe that there is no truth at all. Therefore the official Ukrainian counter efforts in their current form could do more harm than good.

A particularly worrying trend witnessed within the Ukrainian journalism community is towards “too much patriotism” which leads to self-censorship, head of Ukrainian Reporters Without Boarders Oksana Romanyuk told Hromadske. Many Ukrainian journalists are torn between following journalistic standards and their own feelings of patriotism, fearing that criticism will harm the war effort. Though she stresses that this trend of self-censorship in Ukraine is not vertical, as is the case in Russia.

One effective antidote to Russian propaganda in the Donbas, according to Romanyuk, is to restore peoples’ trust in the local media. When the violence first started, people did not trust the picture from Kyiv or Russia because they were so at odds with each other, but the local media spoke their language. Reporters Without Boarders recorded 39 attacks on local media offices at the beginning of the war and resources must be given to local journalists to allow them to operate. Romanyuk also stressed the importance of a quick official response from the Ukrainian side, especially after shellings. The Ukrainian authorities can often take hours to issue an official response, whereas the Russian response appears almost immediately in social networks.

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