Ideas Festival speakers explained why is Russian propaganda so dangerous and how does it work

On June 25 — July1, the Aspen Institute (USA) held the Ideas Festival. One of the panel discussions, “The Fog of War: How do you know what to believe” was dedicated to Russian propaganda and disinformation. Speakers explained the specifics, key narratives and ways in which they are spread.

Russia doesn’t destroy Ukrainian cities and kills Ukrainians only by missiles. One of its most powerful weapons used world-wide is propaganda and disinformation. Aspen Institute Kyiv Executive Director Yuliya Tychkivska, Bellingcat CEO and Lead Investigator Christo Grozev and Aspen Cybersecurity Group Co-Chair Chris Crebs analyzed this weapon at the Ideas Festival. Aspen Digital Executive Director Vivian Schiller moderated the discussion. 

Information is another way how Russians waging war

Chris Crebs is sure that the word cybersecurity doesn’t effectively exist in the security parlance of Russians. He explained that they view cyber-component as information in technical and psychological terms:  

— It is all an integrated operation that aligns up underneath a combined arms approach. While we chase rabbit holes around attacks on critical infrastructure, you should be looking at a cyberattack not necessarily just as the physical effect or outcome of that attack but what is a psychological impact of a cyber attack. 

Christo Grozev mentioned that all military academies throughout Russia has a special faculty — a department for special information propaganda  

What is common between Russia and  the dystopian novel “1984” by George Orwell

The official motto of the nation of Oceania in Orwell’s dystopia “1984” is “War is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength”. Yuliya Tychkivska stressed that the same principle is used by Russian propaganda. 

— A big part of propaganda is replacing the meanings of already well-known facts. They are not talking about war, they are talking about conflict. They are not talking about killing Ukrainians, they are talking about liberation. They call a person who doesn’t want to transfer the sovereignty of his/her country to Russia a Nazi. Russian propaganda does not call a spade a spade in an absolute and deliberate sense. In order to kill the dragon, it must be called by name. If people can’t understand the true name of the dragon, they won’t be able to defeat it. 

Another feature of Russian propaganda is using both truthful and false information as long as it fits the narrative.  

Since truth doesn’t matter, it’s easy for the propagandists to mix truths and lies to manufacture a story that works. The story is  constructed in a way that evokes strong emotions like anger, hate or adoration. Once that emotion is evoked, there is no need to think and analyze. The brain is seduced into believing the story.

Chris Crebs also underlined that Russians are attempting to seed doubts in their propaganda audiences. 

— They are trying to undermine the confidence and the legitimacy of Zelenskyy as well as Ukraine as a country. Moreover, they try to undermine the legitimacy of the United States in supporting Ukraine. What they are looking to do is destroy and to confuse. The intent is never to establish a single proofpoint. 

What is firehose technology and how is it used by Russians

Christo Grozev mentioned that in the past, Russians were very good at creating one fake alternative narrative. That was happening over the last six — seven years. Now Russian propaganda produces many narratives reflecting the same event. It makes it very difficult to debunk such narratives: when you debunk one version, another one follows. Many scientists call this technology the “firehose”. Some investigators also call it the “multiverse”. Christo explained how this technology works in the example of the Malaysian airliner MH-17 catastrophe. In 2014, it was downed by a Russian missile:

— Instead of coming with an alternative narrative saying it wasn’t a Russian but a Ukrainian missile, Russians came with a total of 19 alternative narratives. These are some of them: it was a Ukrainian missile, it was a Mossad operation, it was a Ukrainian fighter plane, it was a Ukrainian missile that tried to shoot down president Putin’s plane which was flying about a thousand miles away. There was also an alternative theory that the plane was per-filled with dead bodies and it was just a setup. The last version they came up with in one source was: “Yes, we did shoot the plane down but it was a provocation. It was a Ukrainian setup thus shooting down the wrong plane”. 

There are similar examples in the case of Russia’s full scale invasion of Ukraine. Russia came up with 6 alternative, mutually exclusive, incompatible narratives about the Kremenchuk Trade Center shelling by their missile. Lavrov said that Russians didn’t shoot at this location at all. Another government official came up and said: “We shot at that location but we shot at an arms depot that was provided by the Americans.” The third alternative version was: “Yes, we hit the shopping mall but it was a shopping mall converted into a depot”. 

How Ukrainian society wins the battle of memes vs Russian officers

During the full-scale invasion of Russia in Ukraine, a lot of Ukrainian memes became popular all over the world. Among them are a destroyed Russian warship, a tractor that pulls a knocked-out Russian tank and a granny who asks Russian soldiers to put sunflower seeds in their pockets. Yuliya Tychkivska explained that a sense of humor is the biggest asset of Ukrainians. She stressed that all these creative stories are grassroot initiatives.

Сhristo Grozev added that such a situation is a complete equalization of the technical capability of the citizen versus the capability of the state in terms of quality of a video. Furthermore, this technical capability is paired with the the virality of the Tik Tok or YouTube environment.

— It just means that when you have a hundred thousand Ukrainians producing quality content because they are able to on their phone vis-a-vis literally 50 Russian officers creating their own memes it’s a losing battle for the Russians.