By Oleksandra Chorna
Russian propaganda has a long history of disturbing Western media. After a recent peak in 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and started armed aggression in Eastern Ukraine, propaganda efforts became even more common after the full-scale invasion of Ukraine that began on February 24 last year.
A year into the war, experts on propaganda have identified some of the most common false narratives Russian propagandists create and some techniques they use to get their message across. They’ve also developed methods to combat disinformation campaigns — and help people avoid becoming victims of false information.
One of the biggest goals of Russian propaganda has been to cast Ukrainians as bad actors. Almost a year ago, when Russia fully invaded Ukraine, the country’s President Vladimir Putin, announced this war as a ”special operation” aiming to de-Nazify Ukraine. The narrative about Neo-Nazis in Ukraine turns out to be one of the most widespread in Canada. A Canada-wide, census-balanced survey suggests that of 51% of Canadians who encountered at least one pro-Russian claim about the war in Ukraine, 35% said it was about Ukrainian nationalism being a neo-Nazi movement.
Canadian disinformation expert Marcus Kolga says this narrative also touches on the Ukrainian government and aims to dehumanize Ukrainians, both in their country and abroad. He notes it intends to make Canadians doubtful and undermine the country’s support for Ukraine.
“The ultimate goal is for Canadians to question: ‘Why are we supporting the regime of Neo-Nazis?’, when it’s clearly not the case,” Kolga says.
Kolga’s suggestion for combating this false narrative is for Canada to spread awareness about the factual situation with political parties in Ukraine — and the world in general.
“We need to be much more effective in getting a counter-narrative across, which is the fact that most European countries, like France, Italy, Austria, and Germany, all have extremist far-right parties in parliament, which Russia has, in fact, supported. And what’s also a fact, is that there are currently no far-right parties in the Ukrainian parliament”, Kolga says.
Other common narratives that Kolga has noticed include claims about weapons delivered to Ukraine being sold elsewhere as well as constant Russian threats of nuclear war if the international support for Ukraine continues.
The graph below shows some other widespread creations of Russian propaganda according to a 2022 Canada-wide survey and the extent to which Canadians believe in them.
When talking about the techniques Russian propagandists use to keep their disinformation campaign going, Kolga highlights the constant repetition of the same lies as well as having the whole network of pro-Kremlin social media agents.
“If it was just the Russian government doing that, it wouldn’t have been as effective. That’s why they have the whole network of proxy platforms and of course the troll farms they use and them constantly repeating the same narratives helps intensify their effect”, Kolga says.
A 2022 study on Russian-Ukrainian war disinformation on Canadian social media suggests one of the most common platforms they use for it is Twitter.
The charts below show the top 5 US-influenced and Russia-influenced accounts on Canadian Twitter and the degree of their interaction with other accounts, hence their authority.
Given the scale of a Russian disinformation campaign, one of the main pieces of advice that Kolga has for Canadians is to be particularly mindful of news headlines that try to invoke a strong emotional response in the reader.
“If they see their friends sharing headlines that accuse the Ukrainian government of corruption or engaging in some sort of genocide against Russians or any other sensational narratives, they might need to take a step back and think about who might be trying to promote them and take a look at where they’re coming from.”
He adds that if you’re in doubt about the truthfulness of a certain news piece, don’t spread it further or click on it. Kolga says the Western reader’s curiosity about any Ukrainian issues can best be satisfied with truly reliable news sources, like the Washington Post or Globe and Mail, that have professional journalists working there.
Kolga also says that any overly-sensational news pieces should be reported to social media companies and if there is a promotion of anti-Ukrainian hate speech, it has to be reported to the local police department.
The graph below illustrates the most common actions Canadians take when encountering disinformation about Russia -Ukraine war.