How Russia is spreading blatantly false information about the war in Ukraine

CIA director William Burns told the Senate Intelligence Committee Thursday that he believes Vladimir Putin is losing the "information war" over Ukraine, and this may chip away at his domestic support for the invasion. But what are Russian citizens hearing about the war? Anton Shirikov, who researches misinformation at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, joins William Brangham to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    CIA Director William Burns told the Senate Intelligence Committee today that he believes Russia's President Vladimir Putin is losing the so-called information war over Ukraine, and that this may chip away at his domestic support for the invasion.

    But what exactly are Russian citizens hearing about this war on Russian media?

    William Brangham explains.

  • William Brangham:

    On TV screens and social media feeds around the world, it's an endless stream of the brutality and terror of Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

  • Man (through translator):

    They behave like fascists.

  • William Brangham:

    But, in Russia, the script is flipped upside-down. And, for Russian citizens, this means they're seeing a distorted reality of their nation's war.

  • Sergey Lavrov, Russian Foreign Minister (through translator):

    We didn't attack Ukraine. As we have been explaining many times, they created the threats against the Russian Federation.

  • William Brangham:

    Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov today repeated this false accusation. It was the same one Putin used as pretense for launching the invasion.

  • Vladimir Putin, Russian President (through translator):

    We will strive for the demilitarization and denazification of Ukraine, and will bring to justice those who committed multiple bloody crimes against civilians.

  • William Brangham:

    Putin said he was launching a limited military operation, one intended to save Ukrainians from a genocide.

    It's a familiar distortion. It's one Putin used in a speech announcing his annexation of Crimea, a peninsula in Ukraine, back in 2014.

  • Vladimir Putin (through translator):

    The initiators of that coup d'etat were nationalists, anti-Semites, radicals.

  • William Brangham:

    Now the Kremlin is tightening the reins on the media even more. Last week, Putin signed a law that effectively criminalizes accurate reporting about the war. Even the word war is banned. Publishing so-called false information is now punishable with up to 15 years in prison.

    The government forced independent channel TV Rain to close. Its editors signed off by playing "Swan Lake," a clear jab at the government, which played the same loop on state TV in 1991 when a failed coup was under way against Mikhail Gorbachev.

    Russian authorities also shuttered the country's last independent radio station, Echo of Moscow. It's banned Facebook, too, though Russians can still use apps like Telegram, WhatsApp and Instagram, for now.

    Instead, the government is steering propaganda at even the youngest Russians, releasing this virtual lesson on — quote — "why the liberation mission in Ukraine is necessary."

  • Tucker Carlson, FOX News:

    Good evening.

  • William Brangham:

    And Russian disinformation gets a boost from some U.S. media as well.

    FOX News' Tucker Carlson has repeatedly criticized U.S. involvement in Ukraine and expressed support for Putin, and those clips have made it onto Russian news.

  • Tucker Carlson:

    People are so ghoulish. And, of course, they're promoting war.

  • William Brangham:

    In the U.S., Carlson's view is just one of many that Americans can listen to and weigh for themselves.

    But, as the carnage of Putin's war continues, the reality for many Russians is only as real as their government allows.

    And joining me now is Anton Shirikov. He researches disinformation and propaganda inside Russia at the University of Wisconsin.

    Anton, very good to have you on the "NewsHour."

    So, we touched on a little bit of the media that the Russian people are seeing? Can you give us a better sense of what the average Russian is seeing about Ukraine on their news?

    Anton Shirikov, University of Wisconsin: Yes. Thank you for having me there, first of all.

    So, what Russians are seeing is mainly that there is some military action going on in Ukraine, but this is all very targeted, this is targeted against Nazi battalions, against military infrastructure. It doesn't hurt any civilians. And most Ukrainians are welcoming Russians.They want to get rid of their corrupt and fascist government. But the government is resisting and government forces are resisting. And so that's why Russian forces are in Ukraine.

  • William Brangham:

    And these depictions of certain parts of Ukrainian society being fascist or Nazi, as you're mentioning, those, as you have written, tie into a fairly long history as far as Russian information about Ukrainians.

    Can you explain that a bit more?

  • Anton Shirikov:

    There is a long history, so Ukraine has been a thorn in Putin's side, in Kremlin's side for quite.

    Ukraine had a couple of successful social revolutions, where pro-Russian governments were toppled. And the Kremlin has been trying to portray all those revolutions and the democratic development in Ukraine since then as these corrupt attempts to install a regime that doesn't have public support, that is installed by the West.

    And so — and that ties into this wider narrative that the Russian government is promoting that NATO and the West are behind most of Russia's troubles, and this is one of them. And they are speaking to this — to this grievance that Russia has, Russians have because of the Soviet collapse, because of the West winning this Cold War, and that this is what the government is trying to exploit.

  • William Brangham:

    And can I ask you sort of a chicken-or-the-egg question?

    Is this — does this media feed into people's preconceived notions or does this media create those notions?

  • Anton Shirikov:

    I think it's both.

    So, there is definitely a lot of grievances about the West, a lot of bad feelings towards the West. But what propaganda does, it builds on those and it constantly provides information that's consistent with those beliefs.

    And if you repeat this, if you throw a lot of those false narratives, then people — over time, people get used to them. And they sort of start think — they believe — they feel like they have believed this already before. So, this is a feedback loop, essentially.

  • William Brangham:

    We have been hearing certain reports of Ukrainians calling family members in Russia, saying, we're under attack, the bombs are going off, and that their relatives in Russia are saying, what are you talking about? That's not happening.

    I mean, that has got to be an incredibly jarring experience for Ukrainians, to have their basic reality being denied.

  • Anton Shirikov:

    Yes, that is terrible. That is absurd.

    I mean, I, myself, having relatives in Russia, have had a similar experience. When I say that, yes, Ukrainian cities are bombed by Russians, they say, no, nothing like that is happening. It's just those Nazi battalions that are making provocations. They are just pretending that there is something going on. But, really, we are there to help.

    That's it.

  • William Brangham:

    Given that there are these other social media and messaging apps, like Instagram and Telegram and WhatsApp that are available, can people get an accurate portrayal of what's happening in Ukraine if they want it?

  • Anton Shirikov:

    I think, if they want it, they still could.

    So, on Telegram, there are — there are still channels that cover Ukraine truthfully, or — more or less. People can use a VPN. They could go to one of the independent media Web sites that are still working. They're working mostly from outside of Russia, but they're available yet.

    So, if you want, you can. But most people in Russia still don't seem like they want it.

  • William Brangham:

    There are seemingly some signs that this facade is starting to crack. We read some reports today about some state broadcasters mentioning that the sanctions are biting quite hard in Russia, and perhaps the president ought to consider dialing back, as they call it, this limited operation.

    Do you think that that is real? Do you think that facade will continue to crack?

  • Anton Shirikov:

    I think that's the billion-dollar question for now.

    So, there are probably some people who — some anchors, some people on TV who said something like that. But the question is, if this dissent would be eliminated quickly, I think the government will still be able to hold this impression of winning, of being on the right side for some time.

    But I think what's more important is that people would still start feeling the new reality soon, because of the sanctions, because of — unfortunately, because of the bodies that are coming home from Ukraine. So, I think that might have more — a deeper impact on Russians' perceptions of the war.

  • William Brangham:

    Right. There's a certain level that you just simply can't escape, the fact that your economy is tanking and your people are dying.

    Anton Shirikov from the University of Wisconsin, thank you so much for being here.

  • Anton Shirikov:

    Thank you.

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