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Russian disinformation is part of its war effort in Ukraine. How can the West respond?

Is Russia winning the disinformation war? Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

This report is part of ongoing coverage of the Russia-Ukraine war. Visit our dedicated page for more on this topic.

As a pretext to war, Russian President Vladimir Putin has claimed incessantly that his country is a victim that must defend itself against NATO. Russia declared, misleadingly, that it had removed forces from the Ukrainian border—even as it was strengthening its presence. 

Larissa Doroshenko, postdoctoral teaching associate in the College of Arts, Media and Design, poses for a portrait.

Larissa Doroshenko, postdoctoral teaching associate in the College of Arts, Media and Design. Photo by Ruby Wallau/Northeastern University

Misleading internet images that appear to show hostile Ukrainian actions against Russia have been used to justify the invasion.

Such propaganda campaigns are reminiscent of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. But the efforts go back further, says Larissa Doroshenko, a postdoctoral teaching associate of communication studies who last year published research on Russian disinformation in 2014 during its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine. 

The current propaganda war is being waged on a number of fronts including within Russia, where fake news is convincing citizens to support the war effort, and in the U.S., where the Biden White House responded with preemptive transparency, says Doroshenko.

Doroshenko spoke Thursday with News@Northeastern about the disinformation efforts and how they may be mitigated. Her comments have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Are the tools of the disinformation campaign by Russia during its 2014 annexation of Crimea being utilized today?

Yes. It’s a coordinated, multiplatform campaign. It creates a blur so that—even if you are sophisticated—it’s hard to tell sometimes whether it’s true or not. 

So much information is out there, and it’s hard to figure out which is true and which is not. That is exactly what is happening today.

Why is there a focus on providing disinformation within Russia?

They have to justify the war. Putin is not in a good position right now, economically and politically—he’s not as strong as he’s been in the past. 

Part of the amplifying of this disinformation for local audiences is to present Russia as not being the aggressor, but rather the defender of Russian people against Ukraine and NATO. It’s also to boost the morale of those people who are sent to Ukraine to kill their brothers, essentially. Because this is not like Germany and Russia in World War II. We have these countries that are so interconnected with each other. So it’s about selling the point that it’s necessary to invade Ukraine.

Why is the U.S. disinformation campaign important regarding a war thousands of miles away?

The more incoherent, the more divided that these countries are, the stronger Russia will be in its fight against them.

Russia’s biggest enemy is not Ukraine, per se; it’s NATO, it’s the West. And the reason why they’re invading Ukraine is because Ukraine wants to side with NATO.

We saw all of the disinformation that was pouring into the United States [during the presidential election] in 2016. And it’s still continuing because it weakens the country and creates more divisions between Republicans and Democrats.

During the war buildup, the U.S. responded with transparency—providing unprecedented details on troop movements and publicly warning of Russian disinformation. Was this effective?

That response was unpredicted. And the less predictable the West and the U.S. are, the better.

But is that enough? How can Western countries combat Russian disinformation?

The West has lost the battle against the disinformation campaigns of Russia. Russia has this whole [digital] apparatus that is working in sync with the government and the military to push certain agendas online with trolls and automated bots. 

I don’t think we can win this battle unless we do similar hacking. Maybe it doesn’t sound good to say this. But how can we win if we’re not using the same tools?

For media inquiries, please contact Ed Gavaghan at e.gavaghan@northeastern.edu or 617-373-5718.

 

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