. . . the digital realm is where Russia found the most success in opening new fronts in its disinformation war. Social media, quasi-legitimate blogs, and bots reached ordinary people en masse all the time. With skill and care, Russian operatives tested and retested how best to polarize audiences. Using different platforms, content, and messaging, they built up a profile of users for their targeting purposes and then reflected back to them a picture of the world that would make them angry, frightened, and despairing—a picture that only exists online. For evidence of this, look no further than recent discourse in the West, where the Kremlin has been amplifying everything from climate denialism to the anti-vaxx movement to QAnon. All these things already existed but were the preserve of conspiracy theorists, quacks, and pranksters—now millions believe, in the face of reality, that climate change was made up by Green extremists, that “they” (whether it be Bill Gates, George Soros, or the World Economic Forum) are using vaccines to microchip people, that there’s a satanic cabal of baby-eaters in Washington, or all of the above.
. . . What the Kremlin failed to anticipate, however, is that the invasion of Ukraine would be the equivalent of Putin screaming at our face in the street—a brief but violent jolt in our collective online consciousness. It’s not just that what he claims about Ukraine is outlandish—after all, the Kremlin has been pushing many of these narratives for a long time, and many in the West believed them until now—but that the reality of Putin’s actions have broken through the unreality of online life.
Of course, this is not the first time Putin has invaded a neighboring country or territory and simultaneously launched an information war. But Ukraine has elicited an international response unlike anything we saw with Georgia in 2008 or Crimea in 2014. It may be because we have better Internet usage and available open source data compared to 2008 (for example, the Ukraine Witness map built by the Centre for Information Resilience, where I serve as director for special projects, Bellingcat and other partners provide easily verifiable data that refute Putin’s claims), and in 2014 no one was willing to kick up a significant fuss over Russia taking over a largely Russian-speaking area. But this spectacular collapse of the Kremlin’s machinery is also because Putin violated two key rules of disinformation this time around.
The first is that arrogance is the death of a disinformation campaign. In the past, the Kremlin has spent months or even years testing messaging to make sure it would land with its various audiences, whereas this time they seem to have assumed success based on previous claims about Ukraine; but those earlier campaigns were not launched during a full invasion of the country. Whatever dissenting voices exist in Moscow—and there must have been some that knew disinformation would have its limits in a time like this—were drowned out by the ever-expanding ego of an autocrat buoyed by no one reacting to his crimes for 20 years.
Putin also seems to have severely underestimated the extent to which the West had grown wiser to its manipulation in recent years and developed new capabilities to combat it. It similarly failed to anticipate the social media savvy of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. While Zelenskyy engages on a human level through his accounts, Putin, Lavrov, and the other graying men sit at comically oversized tables in Moscow. Russia, as a leader in the field, should know that the very best manipulation is led by apparently humble—though morally bankrupt—and ideally anonymous groups of people who don’t take credit even when they are successful, don’t go for overkill even when they think it might work, and definitely don’t make themselves part of the story by looking as ridiculous as Putin has.
Russia has also broken another disinformation rule in Ukraine: lie to others, but not to yourselves. Stories from the frontlines say it all. Russian soldiers were told they were going into Ukraine on training exercises and did not expect actual resistance. Others were told that they were going to be saving Ukraine from Nazis and would be welcomed with open arms, not Molotov cocktails. Still others were told to be on the lookout for followers of Ukrainian nationalist Stepan Bandera, who died 63 years ago.
These missteps have taken the rest of Putin’s disinformation apparatus down with it: his usual apologists abroad have either fallen deathly silent or, even more damning, have openly recanted their former support. And the removal of RT and Sputnik from TV networks, social media, and search engines is, in no uncertain terms, devastating for Russia’s capacity to peddle influence. . . .
Already, the Kremlin’s slipping grip on the flows of information internationally has been devastating for Russia and its war machine. In Ukraine, Zelenskyy’s approval ratings are at 92 percent, and 86 percent of Ukrainians now want to join NATO—up more than 20 points from January. The West, in the form of NATO and the EU, has never been more unified, coming together over sanctions and actions that they would never have agreed to in the past. The war is even breaking down some of the divides that the Kremlin itself helped engineer: in the UK, Brexiters and Remainers are coming together over Ukraine, some talking to the other side without using expletives for the first time since 2016. In the US, Democratic Senator Ron Wyden and Republican Senator Mike Crapo couldn’t be further apart on issues ranging from abortion to gun control to Trump, but they recently led their parties’ joint efforts to ban Russian oil imports.
The golden era for Putin’s disinformation programs is over. . . .