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Russia using disinformation to create 'division and distrust', EU official says

Some anti-vaccine accounts on social media have now have turned to spreading lies about Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine.

Image: Alamy Stock Photo

DISINFORMATION ABOUT RUSSIA’S actions and Ukraine’s leadership is part of efforts to create “division” and “distrust” among people in countries that oppose the invasion, according to an EU official. 

Additionally, some anti-vaccine accounts on social media that published false information about Covid-19 have now have turned to spreading lies about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Delphine Colard, head of the European Parliament’s spokesperson’s unit, which monitors disinformation, said that internal propaganda in Russia is an effort to create ‘buy-in’ among citizens for the invasion while false information pushed outside its borders tries to dispel opposition to its aggression.

Speaking to reporters this week in Strasbourg, one of the seats of the European Union’s parliament, Colard outlined some of the tactics used by Russia to spread false information about the war and its motivations.

“Mastering the information has always been the key in wars. It is something that has been prepared,” Colard said.

“Certain words have been implanted in the national narratives but also in Russia Today and Sputnik, which are not media – they are outlets of the Kremlin machine.”

She described how Russia has leveraged words like genocide to create a false picture of Ukraine; has claimed that Ukraine has chemical and biological weapons that it was preparing to use against Russian-speaking minority groups; and has made other allegations against the country and its treatment of Russian speakers.

“It’s been fueling the population with those narratives for months,” Colard said.

Russian state-backed media like Russia Today and Sputnik – which the EU banned from member states last week – have been used to spread false, anti-Europe messages, she said.

“It’s not a question of being a media and answering to the codes that relate to media and journalism,” she said.

“It’s not journalism… they are just printing narratives that are from a government. They are a propaganda instrument and that’s it.

“Whenever they cover the European Parliament and they come here, they take an extract from the plenary and then they make it say what they want from it.”

july-7-2018-moscow-russia-mobile-tv-studio-russia-today-on-manezhnaya-square-in-moscow Russia Today's mobile studio in Moscow, 2018 Source: Alamy Stock Photo

Colard explained that the aim of the disinformation is to “increase and sow division in our countries, distrust in the politics we have, and to make sure that autocractic regimes are seen as something desirable”.

“The idea is that their regime is better and more able to answer the needs of the citizens,” she said.

Online techniques

“It used to be bots and fake accounts, but now the platforms are taking them down – at least in English,” Colard said.

“What they do now as a technique is, for example, using the comment section of very reputable websites like Le Monde or the Times. They create comments and then people say you’ve seen on the Times that people support the war in Russia or the position of Kremlin – of course, they implanted the comments themselves.”

In the first 14 hours of Russia’s invasion, factchecking organisations found and analysed 34 pieces of disinformation in Europe about the conflict. 

Since then, that number has grown to more than 350, according to the European Digital Media Observatory.

“Everybody is allowed to have an opinion. You may disagree… and you can spread it on social media, if you want,” Colard said.

However, “if you share [false information] on purpose, using tools to amplify it and give the impression that it’s the sole view that has worth, then it’s different”.

It’s not a question of your opinion, it’s that you pretend that it’s a fact and you pretend that there is grounds behind it – you create a false amplification behind a narrative.

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During the pandemic, there were waves of false information about the virus, vaccines, masks, restrictions, and more – many of which The Journal debunked.

Since the invasion of Ukraine, on social media, “some anti-vaccine accounts are now all of a sudden not talking about Covid anymore but talking about Ukraine and spreading the Russian narrative”, Colard said.

“They’ve been using that over the past with Covid and again now because the aim is to sow division,” she said.

In Russia, the Duma – its parliament – passed a new law last week that imposes a prison sentence of up to 15 years for spreading intentionally “fake” news about the military. The Russian state is insisting that its military is not waging a war or invasion but a “special operation”. 

The decision has led to media outlets pulling out of Russia, including major international media like CNN, the New York Times and Bloomberg News.

“It’s most concerning when you see independent media being closed in Russia and also the correspondents of newspapers in Europe not being able to do their work.”

About the author:

Lauren Boland

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