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Putin May Be Winning the Information War Outside of the U.S. and Europe

10 minute read

Stengel is the former Editor of TIME, an MSNBC analyst and the author of Information Wars: How We Lost the Global Battle Against Disinformation.

Is Vladimir Putin losing the information war with Ukraine?

Well, it depends on who you ask.

It’s never easy to measure such things, but here are a few numbers.

While 141 countries in the UN voted to condemn Russia’s aggression, the number of African, Middle Eastern and South American countries who have imposed sanctions on Russia is 0.

Last week, President Joe Biden hosted a summit with eight nations of the Association of Southeast Asian nations, and pressured them to criticize Russia. Their response: silence.

When the Russian Federation released an official list of “unfriendly” nations, no country from Africa, Asia, or South America was on the list, and neither was India or China—the two most populous countries in the world—both of which have been pretty chummy with Putin.

Yes, Putin is losing the information war in Europe and America, but he’s holding his own elsewhere.

According to the Economist Intelligence Unit, two-thirds of the world’s population live in countries who are neutral about the war or support Russia. While China is an ally of Russia, the big non-aligned nations—Brazil, South Africa, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates—voted against Russia in the UN, but resolutely refuse to criticize Putin.

Part of the reason for this is that two-thirds of the world doesn’t see the war that we see. That is due to the balkanization of the internet, which Russia is in part responsible for. Today, there are three internets. There’s the American and Western internet which we think of as the internet. There’s the unfree internet in places like Russia, Turkey, and India where content is restricted and policed. And then there’s the Chinese internet, which is censored and not at all free. The Chinese internet—used by one out of five of the world’s internet users—is pro-Russian. In the unfree internet of Turkey and India and the rest, they get much of their information about the war from Russian state media. They are not seeing Zelensky’s nightly invocations to democracy. They are seeing images of noble Russian soldiers. Two of the most popular hashtags on the Indian internet are #IStandWithPutin and #IStandWithRussia.

In the first few weeks after the invasion, there were a spate of stories in America and Western media about how Ukraine was triumphing in the information war with Russia. Zelensky’s inspiring nightly speeches; the destroyed Russian tanks on Instagram and TikTok; the Ukrainian social media influencers decrying Putin’s invasion. The Ukrainians were nimble and modern and authentic and had a powerful story to tell.

By contrast, Russia’s messaging efforts were top-down, clumsy and slow—a little like their invading army. In 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea, the , the infamous Russian troll farm, was still largely unknown. But its use of false personas, phony websites and blog posts, and malicious bots, seemed to be the state of the art of disinformation.

Back then, Russia had the advantage of surprise—remember the Russian troops in Crimea that were first described as “little green men”? The reports of alleged harassment of Russian speakers in Crimea? Few connected this rash of disinformation to a Russian troll farm in an unmarked building. That was two years before the 2016 election and long before the Mueller report detailed Russia’s efforts to interfere in that election.

This time, Putin telegraphed his efforts for weeks and months. He had over 100,000 troops on the border of Ukraine but couldn’t or wouldn’t explain what they were doing there. The Russians were pioneers in what is called hybrid warfare—the mixture of information war and kinetic war—but the Russian military machine seemed to have no meme battle plan or even how the war would be seen on social media.

Read More: Inside Zelensky’s World

Russian messaging was sophisticated in 2014, but they didn’t get much better. Everyone else did. Back in 2014, social media was still text-dominant. Today is the era of real-time video. Zelensky understands this; Putin doesn’t.

When I worked in the Obama State Department, I visited Ukraine in 2015 to help with their messaging. When I met with their then acting information minister, the first question he asked me was, What is a press conference? They were pretty hopeless. But over the next few years, American and European funding for fact-checking organizations and social media training helped jumpstart their transformation.

Now, with their TikTok influencers and multiple channels on Telegram, they are very much up to the moment. . They’ve even launched a state-sponsored volunteer IT army which has been carrying out cyber-attacks on Russian targets. In the early days of the war, they put out a call for volunteers on the messaging app Telegram—which has been the main digital battlefield of the war. As many as half-a-million people responded. They created an open source platform for white hat hackers to fight the Russians. They shut down Russia Today for a day after the invasion. It was like people volunteering to fight for the republicans in the Spanish Civil War, but using laptops instead of rifles.

Supporters and activists of Hindu Sena, a right-wing Hindu group, take part in a march in support of Russia during the ongoing Russia-West tensions on Ukraine, in New Delhi on March 6, 2022. (Photo by Sajjad HUSSAIN / AFP) (Photo by SAJJAD HUSSAIN/AFP via Getty Images)AFP via Getty Images

But while Russia’s messaging has been clunky and old-school, let’s not forget, we are not the primary target. Putin has multiple audiences, but his most important audience—and his most reliable one—is domestic. According to the counter-extremism firm Miburo, 85% of Russians get the majority of their information from Russian state media. There, they get a steady diet of Nazis in Ukraine, claims that Ukraine is not a real nation, concerns that Ukraine is pursuing genocide against Russians, and the professionalism and generosity of the Russian military. It’s a simple formula: Russian state media is a projection of how Putin sees the world. According to the Levada Center in Russia, one of the country’s few independent pollsters, more than half of Russians see NATO and the U.S. as the cause of the conflict. Only 7% blame the Kremlin.

As if this relentless state propaganda was not enough, Russia is inoculating its own domestic audience against Western and international narratives about Ukraine by creating a host of fake fact-checking shows and organizations to pre-emptively undermine any news that contradicts Putin’s narrative. Russia’s largest state channel, Channel One, has created a show called “AntiFake” that rebuts what they say are false stories about the war in Ukraine. It employs all the tropes of fact-checking—statistics, forensic analysis, black-and-white video to prove that claims about Russian atrocities are made-up and staged. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs posts “Your Daily #Fake” which includes short videos debunking Western claims about the invasion. There’s a Russian channel on Telegram—where so much of the digital battle for truth is going on—called “War on Fakes” which says it is debunking “the information war against Russia.”

The encrypted platform Telegram has become the most important battlefield in the information war in Ukraine. It is the instant news channel for the war—used by both the Ukrainians and the Russians. Zelensky has a channel on Telegram where he talks directly to the Russian people in Russian. Russia has created dozens of channels on Telegram. One reason the information war is more hidden today is because so much of it is on an encrypted platform that does not broadcast, rather than Twitter or Facebook.

The other reason the information war is harder to see these days is that the platforms have abandoned neutrality and taken a side. Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Google have basically blocked Russian messaging. YouTube announced a global block of Russian state media and removed over 1000 channels and 15,000 videos. Facebook has restricted access to official Russian outlets Russia Today and Sputnik in the European Union and banned Russian state media from running ads. Netflix suspended its service in Russia. This is new territory for the platforms which have always wanted to appear apolitical. In response, Russian courts have declared Facebook an extremist organization.

Read More: Ukraine Is In Worse Shape Than You Think

Zelensky may be the TikTok Churchill and a champion of Ukrainian democracy, but he has taken some decidedly undemocratic actions at home. In March, Zelensky banned 11 Ukrainian political parties because of their links to Russia. Most of the parties were small, but one, the Opposition Platform for Life, has 44 seats in the 450 seat Ukraine parliament and is Ukraine’s largest opposition party. It is led by a pro-Russian Ukrainian oligarch with close ties to Putin. In that same month, citing national security, Zelensky effectively ended independent television broadcasting in Ukraine by consolidating all national tv channels into a single state platform. This wasn’t much reported on in the West, but it was headline news in Russia and China. Former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev posted the following on his Telegram channel: “The most democratic president of Modern Ukraine has taken another step towards the Western idea of democracy… He completely banned any activity by opposition parties in Ukraine. Well done!”

For the global audience, the U.S. and the European Union have made something of a tactical error in portraying the war as the West versus Russia, or even as Democracy versus Autocracy. This meme is effective in America and Europe, but plays less well among developing and non-aligned nations. In Africa, much of Asia, and the Middle East, the West are the colonizers who did not permit democracy in the lands they ruled. A better way of mobilizing these countries against Russia is to depict the war as a fundamental, illegal violation of Ukrainian sovereignty, as an imperialist Russia trying to violently expand its own borders That’s something they can relate to. These non-aligned nations don’t hearken to America’s frequent invocation of the “free world.” What they want is some acknowledgement from America and the West that they will at least get rhetorical support if their borders are violated. Kenya’s ambassador to the U.N. rebuked Russia without mentioning democracy or autocracy—or Putin for that matter. “Kenya, and almost every African country, was birthed by the ending of empire. Our borders were not of our own drawing. They were drawn in the distant colonial metropoles of London, Parks, and Lisbon.” Russia, he suggested, is simply trying to repossess a now independent colony.

Even if we exaggerate Ukraine’s expertise on the information battlefield, and underplay the extent of Russian influence, I do think we are sometimes deceiving ourselves by talking about information war when there is a real war going on. Yes, there is an information war in Ukraine, but it is not the war. The war is where people are dying every day and homes and schools are being indiscriminately bombed. Winning and losing an information war is an oversimplified way of looking at things. In some ways, it anesthetizes us from the true horror of the conflict. No, a tank can’t stop a meme, but a meme certainly cannot stop a tank. Memes may wound people’s egos, but they don’t kill them. You can win the information war and lose the real one. The republican freedom fighters won the information war in the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, but Franco won the real war. Let’s hope that is not what happens in Ukraine.

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