Misleading claims, manipulated photos, conspiracy theories… Since the start of the war in Ukraine, a myriad of false information has been circulating on social networks.
If these come from the Russian camp as from the Ukrainian camp, Moscow has distinguished itself since the beginning of the conflict by a much more structured, systematic, almost industrial even recourse to the manipulation of public opinion: as shown by a survey from Worldan army of anonymous little hands is spreading rumors on social networks, including in France, to sow doubt about the reality of the situation, and find relays in conspiratorial and even political spheres.
This strategy is hardly a surprise for Belgian history teacher and essayist Marie Peltier, who analyzes the effects of Russian disinformation on Western societies since the civil war in Syria. According to the author ofObsession: behind the scenes of the conspiratorial narrative (Inculte, 2018), the Russian strategy of poisoning public debate has taken on insidious forms since the pandemic, but it has always been there.
Is the level of Russian disinformation on social media around the war in Ukraine surprising?
Not at all, no. I am not even convinced that there is more now than during Covid-19: the level of Russian disinformation in our societies has been very high for five years. As there are military and strategic interests at the moment, this is even more active, but the proportion seems similar to me. We often imagine that there is more disinformation than before, but it is above all that we are more aware of it.
Basically, the narrative is very similar to what was already happening in Syria: the Kremlin relays work to constantly distill doubt about what is really happening on the ground, using conspiratorial postulates: “the media is lying to you”, “the politicians manipulate you”, etc These conspiratorial elements were already there in 2016 when Aleppo fell. Moreover, we focus on the Kremlin, but this type of misinformation is a common point in most dictatorial regimes. Since 2003 and the war in Iraq, they have been undermining Western democracies with this kind of talk.
What is different is that in Syria Russia was working a civilizationist rhetoric by presenting itself as the last bastion against Islamization, which cannot work for Ukraine. This civilizational story has therefore turned into a story of the fight against neo-Nazism. But the logic is the same.
How was the link formed between the anti-vaccine rhetoric and the rhetoric excusing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine?
Anti-vaccine rhetoric, at least on Covid-19, is largely the child of Putinian semantics, in the sense that it uses anti-system rhetoric a lot to sell itself. That’s the link. Putin’s discourse presented itself as a critique of democratic excesses. It is not the antivax movement that leads to Putinism, but the opposite. It must be remembered, however, that in Russia Vladimir Putin himself was not anti-vaccine. This anti-system discourse coming from a dictatorship was therefore already there, upstream [de la pandémie].
But I will qualify by noting that people have become politicized in the light of Covid-19. They did not yet have a speech or a built political commitment, they refined it thanks to confinements and Internet traffic, and they can now put the experience they have acquired from an anti-system posture in the defense service of Vladimir Putin. In this, the Covid-19 served as an experimental laboratory for this positioning, it brought politics, and for some anti-system thinking, into the intimate. It is now anchored. They might not have had the same level of activism before.
Can banning Russian state media programs like RT and Sputnik reverse this way of thinking?
Banning these sites is a very good thing, it was necessary to cast shame on this type of speech. But we reacted too late, this discourse is already well established. And RT stars, like Alexis Poulin, have already been recruited elsewhere to broadcast their speech. Because it is important not to believe that RT had a monopoly on Kremlin propaganda. There has been a trivialization of this discourse well beyond, and for several years, including in the traditional media, with the multiplication, since the civil war in Syria, of opposition between pro-Assad and anti-Assad, as if they were two democratic options. The worm is already deep in the fruit.
What forms do these discourses of pro-Russian disinformation take today?
They are akin to what some call soft propaganda: “I’m not for Putin, but…” We are not saying that we are for Russia, but we are condemning a “double standard” in the West, and media and humanitarian attention for Ukraine that would be disproportionate compared to other conflicts, such as Yemen .
This is the critique of selective obsession. Nobody says they are pro-Assad, nobody says they are pro-Putin, but you are criticized for not talking about all the victims, as if our struggles weren’t coherent enough. It’s not so much misinformation as what I would call desensitization, rhetoric that aims to make us look away from Vladimir Putin’s war crimes, and in doing so clear him of it. It is the weapon of discredit, and the great victory of the Kremlin.