The year 2022 may be gone but its most unexpected wars of this century may linger on beyond the battlefield, experts gathering at a conference in Nairobi say.
When Russian invaded Ukraine early in February last year, the war was roundly condemned. However, the battle for information on who is winning, why the invasion happened or who is to blame predates it, and may continue in the new year, experts argue.
The details came to the fore at a recent workshop of senior journalists in Nairobi to discuss ‘Russian Propaganda and the Media’ and how fake news is both a tool and medium of this war began by the Russians.
One way the Russians have controlled the narrative, argued senior journalists who have covered the war, is the information reaching its troops on the battlefield, as well as what domestic audiences consume. These journalists said Russia circulated different editions of publications to the troops.
Natalia Gumenyek, a journalist based in Kyiv, Ukraine, told an audience earlier in December that journalists trailing the battlefields found pamphlets sent to the troops and showing that Russia was in Ukraine to “liberate” Ukrainians from “Nazis”, a sort-of rallying call to save Ukraine.
“I found a copy of a popular Russian newspaper; a special edition,” she said referring to one of the areas Ukrainian troops had liberated.
“It was full of fake news. They were saying that there is no war in Ukraine… People didn’t buy into that but they used this in two ways: to explain to the villages why they came [invaded Ukraine], and they [the soldiers] believed in it,” Ms Gumenyek added.
Yet this misinformation wasn’t only targeted at domestic audiences. As the war began, Russia was obviously facing criticism of invading another country when it is a signatory to the UN Charter. It turned around the criticism by, for example, telling African audiences that it never colonised any country and that it has always liberated countries in the past from colonialists.
“Russia is paying particular attention to Africa to try to swing opinion in its favour, in places such as the Sahel and South Africa. But Kenya is not immune. Russia is using platforms here to amplify disinformation within Kenya and beyond,” said Guy Harrison, the Head of Political Press Section of the European Union (EU) Delegation in Nairobi.
“The Russian regime’s mantra is: repeat lies long and often enough and they will stick. Unfortunately, they often do stick.”
While the international community condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, including the rare vote at the UN General Assembly to reprimand Moscow, the sympathy for Ukrainians seemed drowned in an information war fronted by the Russians.
At the workshop in Nairobi organised by Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, experts said Russia’s prowess in misinformation did not start today but had been nurtured as a war tactic to defeat competing narratives.
Generally referred to as fake news, misinformation is passing on or spreading incorrect information while disinformation is deliberately passing on deceptive information.
“Russia has been using disinformation globally for years now…We know Russia has set up large operation centres in Russia to produce disinformation and distort opinion across the globe,” said Mr Harrison.
“They aim to steer your and my opinion, often successfully, from the factual and objective truth to an agenda that suits the Russian regime.”
Moscow has consistently denied propagating false news, however. And after the Workshop, Russia’s ambassador to Kenya, Mr Dmitry Maksimychev, told the Nation his country only seeks the truth.
“Russia never uses misinformation because we strongly believe that truth is the most powerful and effective tool to deliver our views to the world public,” he said.
Nonetheless, Russia’s ability to market the war more as a liberation venture than an invasion is something experts say has helped sustain domestic support for the war, allowing Moscow to seek alliances abroad.
It has gone beyond seeking alliances. The EU DisinfoLab, a fact-checking organisation in Europe, says Russian actors have since May this year been carrying out an intense campaign to discredit media in the region and assert Moscow’s influence.
“The narratives of the [disinformation] campaign are all aligned with Russian propaganda,” EU DisinfoLab argues in a bulletin.
In a report released on September 27, the EU DisnfoLab said Russian actors have been using multiple “clones” of authentic media in Europe and targeting users with fake articles, videos and polls.
The clone websites and social media pages were then used to spread disinformation favouring Moscow, including, “depicting Ukraine as a failed, corrupt, and Nazi state. [and] Promoting Kremlin narratives on the Ukraine war such as denying the Bucha massacre.
“Our findings show that disinformation actors behind this campaign have implemented a sophisticated and coherent strategy of replicating and impersonating authentic media. It involves, amongst other tactics, spoofing domain names or creating videos falsely attributed to legitimate media,” EU DisinfoLab states.
“It also includes clever techniques such as smart redirections or geo-blocking users based on location.”
In Nairobi, the Russian diplomat denied any disinformation or misinformation campaigns. Mr Maksimychev, instead, argued that NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation that serves as a collective defence bloc for the West and its allies; are the ones pushing a narrative to paint Russia in an unfavourable light.
“We are tired of being accused of aggression by aggressors, of war crimes by war criminals, of rape by rapists, of colonialism by imperialists, colonialists and racists. But Truth always prevails and all of them will be brought to justice for their crimes.”
He further shifted blame from Russia, instead accusing NATO and its allies of “trying so hard to muffle all our information resources, both official and independent.”
“Russia’s position and actions are being systematically and deliberately distorted and vilified by NATO propaganda outlets (“mainstream media”), but the majority of the world is much more open, understanding and positive to us.”
Mr Harrison of the EU, told Nation.Africa that the EU and its Member States have always tried to maintain good relations with Russia and strike a balance between the sovereign will of Ukrainians and others.
But, “none other than Russia itself has proven that the trust that has been shown to it has been misplaced”, especially with its attack on Kyiv,” Mr Harrison says.
One battle area in the information world is whether Russia violated the UN Charter on respecting the territorial integrity of a sovereign state, and respecting a global rules-based order.
Additionally, the invasion has led to displacements of civilians, as well as the death of more than 200,000 people, according to an EU count. Moscow in the past resisted criticisms on the UN Charter, by referring the world to previous violations by others.
“On Ukraine, almost everything you read or hear in the NATO propaganda outlets is fake. In most cases, they accuse us of something they are doing themselves,” Mr Maksimychev argued.
“Unlike NATO and its clients, Russian military never attack civilian targets, never target or oppress civilians, never use civilians as human shields.”
To counter disinformation, Mr Harrison says, the world needs to keep telling the truth “as often and as persistently as those that are trying to spread falsehoods.”
“It is important to counter disinformation proactively, but also not to cross a line. The EU for sure, will not cross the line into spreading falsehoods in order to counter the original disinformation.”