Propaganda is as old as warfare, and remains integral to it. Deployed effectively, clever misinformation can divert troops or destroy morale, while well-chosen images and messaging or clear communication of good news can rally support and reinvigorate your own side.
As a result, it’s no surprise that there is a fervent online information “war” alongside the horrors of what is happening on the ground in Ukraine. What is perhaps surprising is how one-sided that information war feels – and not in the direction that people may have expected, however much we might circulate videos of propaganda streaming on Russia’s state-owned television channels.
It is strange because Russia has long been regarded as a master of online information operations – by using so-called bot accounts on social media to inflame online debates, conducting hack-and-leak operations against adversaries, or spreading misinformation to confuse reporting of its own atrocities, such as the Salisbury poisonings or the destruction of the passenger flight MH17.
Now, however, any propaganda efforts Russia is making outside of its own borders are virtually non-existent – drowned out by Ukraine’s incredibly effective messaging, and that of its supporters around the world. There is a limit to what misinformation actors can do: only so much can be explained away, and only when a limited number of people are paying attention or care. Russia’s information ops were clever and effective, but never on quite the scale that some suggested. Faced with the impossible task of framing an unprovoked invasion as a peacekeeping operation, they have run into a brick wall.
Ukraine, meanwhile, has a huge and energised supporter base ready to push its narratives and its successful imagery. It can play down its losses and pump up its triumphs – posting images of abandoned vehicles or tanks, of civilian heroism, of inspiring quotes.
[See also: Putin’s war in Ukraine has torn my family apart]
The number of people across the world looking on in horror and willing to amplify Ukrainian messaging vastly outnumbers the dwindling cohort of useless idiots who will push pro-Russia messages. The country’s supposedly unassailable info ops are reduced to noise on the sidelines. This is true even within Russia, where Putin enjoys huge control over state media, keeps independent journalism on a tight leash, and has muted most of social media. There are limits to what Putin can get the Russian population to believe. People living in countries with controlled media are not stupid: they quickly learn to take everything they hear with a pinch of salt.
Putin cannot manufacture pictures of cheering Ukranians welcoming their liberators – they simply don’t exist. He is unable to show anything from the “special military operation”, which is all Russian outlets are allowed to call the invasion. But Russia and Ukraine are close – people share relatives, friends and more – and, on the quiet, Russians are hearing what is happening. Influencers within Russia, normally well outside the usual opposition to Putin, are calling the invasion a “war” to their followers – who often number in their millions. When you have spent months telling your people their Ukrainian neighbours are their people, it becomes impossible to justify bombing them for your own ego.
Putin has enjoyed extraordinary success with the information war over the past two decades. This year, he is finally learning its limits.