On 1 April, the former Swiss intelligence officer Jacques Baud made startling revelations about the war in Ukraine. A large chunk of the Ukrainian armed forces were made up of a 102,000-strong paramilitary militia that included, he claimed, far-right militants, most of whom were foreign fighters.
The war, which the media claims began on 24 February, in fact started eight days before, with a Ukrainian attempt to invade the Russia-controlled Donbas region in the east of the country. This led to a “massacre of the Donbas population”, and included Polish saboteurs who were looking to carry out chemical attacks, forcing Vladimir Putin to respond.
All was going to plan for Putin, said Baud. The slowdown of Russian forces before Kyiv was simply a “consequence of having achieved their objectives” – ie, pressuring Volodymyr Zelensky into negotiations.
Baud’s essay spread like wildfire. Three far-left websites – MROnline, Labour Heartlands and Marxist.com – republished it in full. The film director Oliver Stone pushed it hard. Aaron Maté, of The Grayzone, featured it on his cult YouTube show. John Pilger went wild for it. The former Jeremy Corbyn adviser Steve Howell retweeted it, adding: “judge for yourself – an alternative view on the military situation to the one given in most Western media.”
The allure of the essay is obvious: here is an “insider” who – just like “Q” in QAnon – must know the facts because he has been inside the system. The article, replete with diagrams and tables, is so comprehensive that it has to be true.
It is, however, end-to-end disinformation. There are far-right-aligned units inside the Ukrainian military. But they are under military discipline (ie, not a militia), and constitute a tiny minority of both the National Guard (a paramilitary police force) and the army.
The attacks by Ukraine on Donbas recorded after 16 February began at almost precisely the moment in which only Russian-aligned observers were there to fake them, after the OSCE monitoring mission moved out a few days before. According to online investigators, the video of a “Polish chemical attack” was filmed ten days before and included stock sound from a firing range in Finland. And by the time the article was out, Russia had pulled out of its Kyiv offensive and the negotiations were over.
People who share this kind of material do so because they want to believe it. The websites, Twitter accounts and YouTube channels spreading such disinformation target an audience that has drunk so much Kremlin Kool-Aid, from RT, Sputnik and George Galloway, that they cannot drink anything else.
As with the far right in the US, during the upsurge of QAnon, anti-vax ideologies and insurrectionary Trumpism, we’re seeing the emergence of an “anti-imperialist personality” – people increasingly apologetic for Putin, sympathetic to Donald Trump and Bashar al-Assad, and full of hate for liberalism. They call themselves “left” but end up fuelling the narrative of Fox News.
But this is no spontaneous phenomenon. Putin spends hundreds of millions of dollars a year on disinformation campaigns targeted at the West. It is part of a hybrid warfare strategy that sees the undermining of belief in democracy, trust in government and the media as crucial to disorganising Russia’s adversaries.
Disinformation is often defined as false information purposefully spread. But the most effective disinformation comes from spreaders who don’t know it’s false: who ardently believe it, and who interpret the ridicule aimed at them as a wider elite conspiracy to silence them.
Most Western governments have struggled to catch up. The EU runs a counter-disinfo service, EUvsDisinfo, which monitors Russian output in 15 languages and issues rapid responses. In the UK, the government runs a Counter Disinformation Unit but has blanked freedom of information requests for details of its operations.
Last week, the US federal government took the plunge. It announced the formation of a Disinformation Governance Board within the Department of Homeland Security. Led by the 33-year-old infowar expert Nina Jankowicz, it has no executive powers or capabilities but is there to advise the US’s domestic security agencies about counter-disinformation strategies.
The move was greeted with outrage. The disinformation websites led the charge, terrorising and ridiculing Jankowicz who – being educated, female and feminist – fell into their prime target category. Photographs and videos from her teenage to young adult life was splashed across the internet. A procession of white, male and middle-aged “anti-woke” commentators labelled the organisation a “ministry of truth”. The press joined in – from the Wall Street Journal and Fox News to the liberal Washington Post – claiming the mere existence of the board was a threat to the US’s First Amendment, which guarantees free speech.
The Grayzone editor-in-chief Max Blumenthal outlined the logic. Blumenthal accepts there are no actual attempts to censor disinformation. What he objects to is the state trying to force, or persuade, the major internet companies to alter their algorithms to deprioritise the hate speech, lies and threats generated by the online far right and the pro-Kremlin left.
The algorithms, which have netted Google, Facebook, TikTok and Twitter billions of dollars by showcasing misinformed content and incitement to violence, must remain as they are – designed only to generate income, which (as the disinformation industry knows) is easiest to generate through spreading lies that people want to believe. Any attempt to regulate the algorithm is akin to regulating free speech.
Via the Online Safety Bill currently passing through parliament, the UK will have such powers taken overtly by the legislature. In the US, disinformation is effectively protected by the First Amendment – so that even an attempt to advise law enforcement on the threat it generates can be read as an attack on free speech. Thus, America’s dysfunctional constitution has turned it into the most fragile democracy and left its civil society the most vulnerable to hybrid operations.
If this is an information war, the solution is to arm the people and to strengthen institutions. Society is not just made up of atomised individuals plus the state: we have trade unions, parties, churches, NGOs and many other organised communities. Each has a right to operate a counter-disinformation strategy, and to draw on guidance provided by the state.
Yes, there are risks. The British state under Conservative rule has developed the muscle reflex to see the entire left and progressive movements as an enemy within. As someone targeted daily by the disinformers, both right and left, I do not trust the state to distinguish genuine security threats from legitimate criticism. So all counter-hybrid strategies and organisations must be open to scrutiny.
We are in the infancy of counter-disinformation, and facing a Russian state that has operated disinfo strategies for decades. Getting it right will take time. Understanding that each and every one of us is on an information battlefield is the first step.