It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Digital technologies of communication were supposed to liberate us from the effects of propaganda, censorship and the ‘fog of war’.
And yet, from the outset, the war in Ukraine has produced a catalogue of demonstrable falsehoods and questionable truths on all sides.
Of course, there’s nothing new about states waging information wars. What is relatively new though is the way in which the term disinformation has itself become intensely weaponised, with far reaching implications for press freedom in Russia, Ukraine and the West.
There’s perhaps no better illustration of the kind of hysterical and knee-jerk posturing on this issue than the US government’s new Disinformation Governance Board, which was disbanded last month almost as quickly as it was established a few weeks prior.
“In recent years mendacity and deception have ceased to be abnormal and become an entrenched feature of the British system.”
The roots of this phenomenon lie in a culture of political lying that, according to Peter Oborne, became entrenched during the UK’s New Labour government in the 1990s under Tony Blair.
In 2005 Oborne wrote: “All governments have contained liars, and most politicians deceive each other as well as the public from time to time. But in recent years mendacity and deception have ceased to be abnormal and become an entrenched feature of the British system”.
The most tragic manifestation of this was the 2003 US-led war in Iraq, which was sold to the American and British public on what turned out to be entirely false pretexts. Especially from this point on, more and more people knew they could not trust their political leaders or the media that supported them.
But there are two more far reaching consequences that underlie the current information war.
Current information war
First, this culture of political lying became exploited by populist and authoritarian regimes around the world. It both emboldened and provided cover for Putin’s own lying machine, culminating in his assurance as late as mid-February this year that Russia had no intention of invading Ukraine, and was in fact pulling back some of its forces from the border.
The second consequence was even more significant: the culture of lying decimated trust among western publics and audiences in both mainstream politics and media.
Underlying the untold billions spent by state agencies, academic institutions and civil society on tackling the disinformation problem is a fatally flawed assumption: that trust in Western politics and media has been eroded by the spread of Kremlin lies.
This assumption mistakes cause for effect. The seeds of distrust were sown in Western countries themselves before Putin even came to power and provided the hook by which he could gain some degree of a foothold on Western audiences.
Just one recent example: the intelligence-sourced story about Russia offering bounties to militants to kill US troops in Afghanistan from June 2020. The following year, US spy chiefs reported they had “low to moderate confidence” the story was true.
Added to this toxic mix is the sheer speed of communication and depth of polarisation of discussions fostered by social media, both of which provide fertile ground for disinformation.
“The seeds of distrust were sown in Western countries themselves before Putin even came to power.”
The response of US and UK intelligence agencies has been akin to what James Harkin dubbed ‘Operation Overshare’: the unprecedented publicising of intelligence, often with little in the way of verification or substantiation.
According to an NBC report back in April: “Multiple US officials acknowledged that the US has used information as a weapon even when confidence in the accuracy of the information wasn’t high. Sometimes it has used low-confidence intelligence for deterrent effect, as with chemical agents, and other times, as an official put it, the US is just ‘trying to get inside Putin’s head’.”
Manipulating online discourse
Perhaps more troubling is that this somewhat reckless approach to sharing intelligence has been accompanied by an outsourcing of efforts to manipulate online discourse. In 2019, hacked documents exposed the existence and activities of the Integrity Initiative, a shadowy think tank spending state funds on pushing headlines critical of the Labour Party leader.
Recent years have seen increasing numbers of former spooks-turned journalists working in the field of ‘Open Source Intelligence’. Hence, Bellingcat: self-branded as an “intelligence agency of the people” but funded in part by a US state agency and featuring staff and contributors with links to, or former associations with, the national security state.
“Increasing numbers of former spooks-turned journalists work in the field of ‘Open Source Intelligence’.”
Nevertheless, Bellingcat produces some good journalism. Its reporting on neo-Nazi elements within the Ukrainian national guard was extensive and exemplary (at least prior to the Russian invasion).
But its output is too often picked up by mainstream media uncritically and without qualification, and it has made some serious mistakes.
In March, for instance, Bellingcat was the source of a story in the Wall Street Journal that alleged Russia had poisoned Ukrainian peace negotiators. This briefly dominated headlines before it was quickly and quietly debunked by both US and Ukrainian officials, as well as a member of the negotiating team who branded the story “false”.
Yet to this day, a Google search yields a litany of headlines that make no mention of the story’s debunking.
The UK has set up a cross-departmental Government Information Cell (GIC) ”to identify and counter Russian disinformation targeted at UK and international audiences”, the Cabinet Office says.
This involves a Counter Disinformation Unit (CDU) which, the government says, “includes working closely with the major social media platforms… ensuring that platforms are promoting authoritative content which accurately depicts the ongoing situation in Ukraine”.
Who knows what these operations involve. When asked in parliament how many staff the CDU has, the government refused to say.
The UK’s Foreign Office also says it “works closely” with the Ukraine government “to counter Russian disinformation” and that its Counter Disinformation and Media Development Programme has “developed a number of projects involved in identifying disinformation”.
Declassified has shown that the British government is spending tens of millions on media projects in Eastern Europe which are often presented as fighting “Russian disinformation”, but which may involve the UK’s own information operations.
Censorship on the ground
Ukrainian officials have also been responsible for unjustified censorship of reporters on the ground. On assignment for Harper’s magazine, investigative reporter Seth Harp recently complained of widespread obstruction making accurate reporting of casualties and other developments seemingly impossible.
And US journalist Kim Iversen drew attention to how the fall of Mariupol to Russian forces was reported by Yahoo News, among others, as the “completion of a Ukrainian combat mission” and evacuation of its remaining soldiers.
Indeed, what’s perhaps most striking about western media coverage is how stories pushed out by Ukrainian officials – which bear all the hallmarks of war propaganda – have at times dominated headlines often without the slightest caveat.
“The Ukrainian war has triggered a wave of censorship and repression.”
The story of Ukrainian border guards killed by Russian forces after heroically refusing to surrender was a defining feature of the immediate post-invasion coverage, until the guards were discovered alive three days later, having been captured by the Russians. Of course, there can be a legitimate defence of propaganda that seeks to amplify the struggle and indeed heroism of civilians and soldiers on the front line of resistance to an invading superpower. But this entirely different to the promotion of falsehood.
Meanwhile, the Ukrainian war has triggered a wave of censorship and repression which has seen the comprehensive blocking of Russian media in the UK and EU, prompting the UN to condemn the ratcheting up of media bans and blacklists on both sides of the East-West divide. In the UK, the Secretary of State for Education affirmed that the government is “on the case” of academics described as Putin’s “useful idiots”. They included Tara McCormack, a Lecturer in International Relations at Leicester University, called out for the apparent crime of drawing attention to “disinformation on both sides”.
Much of this has targeted the few independent news outlets that have platformed dissenting views including Consortium News, an established investigative news outlet founded by the late Associated Press investigative reporter Robert Parry. Last month, the website announced that Paypal had inexplicably cancelled its account.
Fueling Putin’s information war
Of course, none of this should be used to obscure, much less excuse the rampant disinformation pumped out by the Kremlin and echoed by its state and client media – from the use of pseudo-evidence to allege the staging of civilian atrocities, to framing Zelensky as a Nazi. But it does speak to a dangerous repressive turn in Western democracies.
What’s more, it ultimately serves little purpose other than to fuel Putin’s information war, which is predicated on growing distrust among western audiences of official and mainstream narratives.
Kim Iversen perhaps put it most pointedly when she asked: “Why can’t we just be told the truth? I think that’s the ultimate big question. With all of the fighting against misinformation, why are we being fed a diet full of it when it comes to the war in Ukraine?”
Ironically, the most effective way of truly exposing Putin’s disinformation and repression is to support rigorous and genuinely independent journalism in the public interest, including fearless critical scrutiny of Western, as well as Russian soft power.
In other words, the exact inverse of what western governments have been doing.