The information battle happening in Russia
As Russian and Ukrainian tensions have boiled over in recent months, Russia’s media scrutiny is giving them the first victory without firing a shot.
Over the past few months, Russia has increased its level of aggression towards Ukraine. By placing forces closer to the border and Pentagon intelligence leaks warning of an attack, Putin at least establishes the threat of an attack.
Diplomacy between Russia and Ukraine deteriorated some time ago, starting with Ukraine’s departure from the Soviet Union. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, nuclear weapons spread to four countries, two of which were Russia and Ukraine. Ukraine gave up arms in exchange for diplomacy with Russia.
The problems arose when the United States invited Ukraine to join NATO, which made Putin feel threatened by the Western alliance group. The threat is based on having a western allied power so close to the mother country.
In 2015, Putin threatened a similar attack: pushing military forces to Ukraine’s border with Russia with a surge of Russian propaganda in the region.
Now Russia is pushing on Ukraine’s borders again, moving tanks, military personnel and resources. While their administration denies any attempt at aggression, the US military thinks otherwise. On the brink of war, Russia pursues the essence of the Putin administration: controlling the narrative its people receive.
The vast majority of Russian-based media is government-controlled, allowing the government to drive the narrative reported to the masses. Mariëlle Wijermars, assistant professor of cybersecurity and politics at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, described the rise of Russian control over the media.
“When Putin came to power, he launched a campaign to take power back from the oligarchs, including in the media sphere,” Wijermars wrote. “Slowly but surely, he nationalized television stations and took control of most newspapers. Since then, reporting has again become one-sided, although there are still some exceptions, and Russian state media are not shy about using propaganda and conspiracy theories.
The Russian government over the past year has attacked the Ukrainian government through the media with articles calling them “pro-Nazis” and detailing the story of a boy who was crucified in Ukraine.
Coupled with their alliance with the United States, Ukraine’s portrayal in Russian media is meant to show the need for an invasion. Along with selective stories, the twist placed on the stories is usually meant to push through certain ideals as well.
The media often peddles messages about anti-Western culture, primarily targeting America. By portraying Biden as weak and dangerous, Russia is able to generate hysteria towards Americans through their media channels.
The anti-American coverage is no accident – Russia repeatedly vilifies America and their transgreans in general. The establishment of the bias against the United States allows the Russian public to blame Biden for the lack of diplomacy.
According to the Moscow Times, Russian media blame the United States for reports of an invasion of Ukraine. The government denies these claims and believes the US is simply trying to generate “hysteria”.
“The majority of the Western elite believe that eventually Russia will evaluate everything and withdraw, allowing Kiev to forcibly cleanse the Donbass of everything Russian,” a presenter told the Moscow Times. “But alongside this illusion there is also a concrete plan, and we know who is behind it, to pit Russia and Europe against each other in an all-out sanctions war.”
Besides instilling ideals, the Russian government has the ability to redirect the attention of the Russian people and some of them in America with denials of what is really going on. As for recent displays of aggression, their contradictory relationship with America raises questions for both sides.
“Even as Russia gathers troops on the Ukrainian border, Kremlin messengers have planted the seed that Ukraine and/or Western governments are planning a false flag operation to incite conflict with Russia,” he said. the Alliance for Securing Democracy. “Officials and state media have warned of Ukrainian/Western terrorist attacks, chemical weapons attacks and sniper fire, among other alleged plans to provoke war.”
If Russia were to start a war against Ukraine, the Russian people could, theoretically, be the last to find out that it happened and started.
The flow of information slows down when information is channeled through the Russian government, creating a delayed reaction to events or allowing events to be told in a different way.
An example of the transformation of information can be found in the story of the car that exploded on the borders of Ukraine. A few cars caught fire and outright exploded, a “false flag” the Russians wanted to use as a means of invasion. Russian media blamed the attack on the United States, saying the action was a means of prokation and turning Europe against them.
Such a case shows the control Russia has over an event, but mainstream media is not the only way to do it. Over the years, Russia is targeting the new source of information: social media.
The new censorship policies offer greater control over what is seen on social media, with Russia passing a similar law against hate speech that Germany has already passed.
“Since 2017, major platforms must have a complaints mechanism for users to report illegal content,” Wijermars wrote. “Russia is making smart use of it by simply saying ‘listen, Germany is doing this too and Germany is a very democratic country, we are just following their lead by banning information from social media that can be harmful’. In reality, Russian censorship of course goes much further than what the Germans do in terms of limiting hate speech online.
Combined with the dominance of traditional media, Russia’s grip on the social media realm stifles information.
The state of the media in Russia provides a key example of how Putin is able to shape his narrative not just among his people, but around the world. The inconsistency of reporting necessitates digging deeper with Western journalists or intelligence operatives in order to truly know what is going on in the Kremlin.
The rise of social media activists is a lifeline for Russian media consumers. According to Maastricht University, there are groups protesting and spreading information at a faster rate in Russia. These groups are able to circumvent the “hate speech” legislation put in place.
Yet the rise of these militant groups casts doubt on who Russians can turn to for information about their own country. These groups of activists remain scattered and can transmit only a limited quantity.
“I also find it quite disturbing to consider social media the beacon of democracy and freedom of expression,” Wijermars wrote. This is why it is so important to remain a critical thinker.
The United States, as well as NATO, could start talks with Putin on a non-violent resolution, but the flames of a Russian attack are already fanned among the Russian people.
As the United States and Russia work toward a possible diplomatic resolution, the battle for control of the narrative is already won. For his people, Vladimir Putin comes back on top, adding to his credibility for a real potential attack down the line.
Image courtesy of Geralt from Pixabay.