Fake news, false information fly into a person. Information war, hybrid war, war in the media space. Cyber warfare, DDoS attack, fakes, hackers and cybercrime, phishing, propaganda.
π Geopolitics π Digital
Asymmetrical warfare: new strategies on the battlefield

Ukraine: disinformation on the battleground of a hybrid war

Carole Grimaud, Expert at the Geneva Geostrategic Observatory and Lecturer in Geopolitics of Russia at Université Paul Valéry and Arnaud Mercier, Professor of Information and Communication at Institut Français de Presse (University of Paris 2 - Assas)
On November 2nd, 2022 |
7 min reading time
Carole Grimaud
Expert at the Geneva Geostrategic Observatory and Lecturer in Geopolitics of Russia at Université Paul Valéry
Arnaud Mercier
Professor of Information and Communication at Institut Français de Presse (University of Paris 2 - Assas)
Key takeaways
  • Information is an essential weapon in times of war, especially when the conflict is so close to home.
  • In France, mainstream information tends to support a singular point of view which can lead people to seek different sources of information.
  • Russia has created fake sites from where information is relayed by fake accounts to influence mainstream sources.
  • Fake accounts and fake news are intended to distort the narrative and sow doubt.
  • It is the image of the West that is being targeted: fake accounts do more damage in societies where anti-Western sentiment is already present.

Since the start of the war in Ukraine, atten­tion to dis­in­for­ma­tion, one of the bat­tle­grounds of hybrid war­fare, has increased. Infor­ma­tion is key in wartime, espe­cial­ly when the con­flict is so close to home. Rus­sia has under­stood that a demo­c­ra­t­ic coun­try can­not afford to help Ukraine in the long term if its pop­u­la­tion is opposed to it or suf­fers too many reper­cus­sions (such as high­er ener­gy prices). The war is there­fore also tak­ing place on the infor­ma­tion front. The chal­lenge for the Krem­lin is to suc­ceed in spread­ing its pro­pa­gan­da in the West­ern media and on social networks.

This war was first played out on the vir­tu­al bat­tle­ground of disinformation.

Car­ole Gri­maud, founder of the Cen­tre for Research on Rus­sia and East­ern Europe (CREER), is cur­rent­ly work­ing on the influ­ence that Russ­ian pro­pa­gan­da can have on French cit­i­zens, par­tic­u­lar­ly students.

The aim is not to convince, but to raise doubts

From the first moment the Russ­ian army set foot in Ukraine, a mul­ti­tude of exam­ples of dis­in­for­ma­tion emerged, start­ing with Vladimir Putin’s jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for this war1. The Kiev regime is said to be neo-Nazi, and to have been per­pe­trat­ing geno­cide on the Russ­ian-speak­ing pop­u­la­tion of Don­bass since the begin­ning of the war in Feb­ru­ary 2014. How­ev­er, recent events, such as the dis­cov­ery of the mass grave in Izum – a town in the Kharkiv region lib­er­at­ed from Russ­ian occu­pa­tion by Ukrain­ian forces, in which a mass grave con­tain­ing at least 450 bod­ies was dis­cov­ered – have brought to light images that call into ques­tion the Krem­lin’s ver­sion, which is hard to dispute.

“The Ukrain­ian gov­ern­ment expects oth­er dis­cov­er­ies of the same type in oth­er cities under occu­pa­tion,” says Car­ole Gri­maud, “because the city of Izum is not the first. Mar­i­upol and Butcha are exam­ples, and satel­lite images are avail­able, but Moscow still denies respon­si­bil­i­ty.” All this leads one to imag­ine that these are not excep­tions, espe­cial­ly since they are real evi­dence of war crimes. “Many civil­ian bod­ies show signs of tor­ture, and oth­ers of star­va­tion,” she says. “This is con­sid­ered a war crime. The army that occu­pies a ter­ri­to­ry must guar­an­tee the right to life of the civil­ians liv­ing in that ter­ri­to­ry, some­thing that the Russ­ian army is clear­ly not con­cerned about.”

The Krem­lin’s dis­in­for­ma­tion about the Boutcha mas­sacre may “seem absurd”. Accord­ing to the Moscow regime, the images of the hun­dreds of civil­ian vic­tims are noth­ing more than a set up to put the blame on Rus­sia2. For Car­ole Gri­maud, this state­ment is con­sis­tent with the Russ­ian strat­e­gy. “The dis­in­for­ma­tion used in the case of Boutcha may have been effec­tive with the Russ­ian pop­u­la­tion, but abroad, the objec­tive was rather to sow doubt. It worked with cer­tain French per­son­al­i­ties, who took up the Krem­lin’s lan­guage3.”

How­ev­er, Rus­sia is not the only one to prop­a­gate this doubt, some French peo­ple invol­un­tar­i­ly par­tic­i­pate in it, and the researcher notes: “In France, main­stream infor­ma­tion tends to sup­port one view­point, as if there was only one side of the sto­ry. Every­one must agree, there is no longer any real debate. This can push peo­ple to seek dif­fer­ent, less main­stream infor­ma­tion.” The risk is then that they will come across infor­ma­tion fab­ri­cat­ed by the Russ­ian counter-dis­course. “We know that false infor­ma­tion, or infor­ma­tion that pro­vides a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive, even if it is lat­er dis­proved, leaves its mark on the mem­o­ry of those who have been exposed to it,” she concludes.

“The infor­ma­tion broad­cast by the gen­er­al media in France is the infor­ma­tion of the Ukrain­ian gov­ern­ment. How­ev­er, it is a gov­ern­ment at war that has been apply­ing mar­tial law since Feb­ru­ary,” she says. West­ern­ers do not have sol­diers on the ground to ver­i­fy the infor­ma­tion giv­en, but civil­ians, NGOs and the var­i­ous human­i­tar­i­an aid work­ers on the ground bear wit­ness to what they observe. Their feed­back is more impar­tial and most of the time cor­rob­o­rates Kiev’s version.

Ukrain­ian pro­pa­gan­da is also a factor

The Ukrain­ian gov­ern­ment is not exempt from all blame in terms of dis­in­for­ma­tion. Sev­er­al exam­ples show this, as Car­ole Gri­maud explains: “A wor­ry­ing event con­cerns an Amnesty Inter­na­tion­al report, in which the NGO accused Ukraine of endan­ger­ing its own civil­ians. In response to this accu­sa­tion, the Ukrain­ian gov­ern­ment insin­u­at­ed that the organ­i­sa­tion was repeat­ing Moscow’s pro­pa­gan­da. In the end, this com­mu­ni­ca­tion strat­e­gy made it pos­si­ble to keep the report some­what qui­et. This is since Ukraine, in order to sur­vive this inva­sion, has to keep the pub­lic opin­ion of the coun­tries that are help­ing it on its side. If French pub­lic opin­ion changes sides, for exam­ple, there is no guar­an­tee that the gov­ern­ment in place will con­tin­ue to finance the war, and for the Ukraini­ans, this is vital.”

Arnaud Merci­er, pro­fes­sor of infor­ma­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tion sci­ences, con­sid­ers that the war of dis­in­for­ma­tion between these two camps began long before the phys­i­cal con­fronta­tions tak­ing place today. It has only become more pro­nounced since then: “Both sides have been try­ing for a long time to present the facts as it suits them. They also avoid talk­ing about things that might inter­fere with their own nar­ra­tive. The Ukraini­ans, for exam­ple, pub­lish the sup­posed num­ber of Russ­ian sol­diers killed every day, with­out ever men­tion­ing their own. Every­thing is dis­in­for­ma­tion war­fare, even the deci­sion to remain silent. This does not mean that the mobil­is­ing and manip­u­la­tive rhetoric is equiv­a­lent between the two sides, espe­cial­ly as the two bel­liger­ents have cho­sen very dif­fer­ent com­mu­ni­ca­tion strategies.”

If dis­in­for­ma­tion is unde­ni­ably a weapon of war, the strate­gies put in place and the rea­sons for their use dif­fer sharply in this con­flict: one uses it to jus­ti­fy the inva­sion of a sov­er­eign state, the oth­er to try to pre­serve this sovereignty. 

Spreading misinformation through our communication channels

It is there­fore impor­tant for Rus­sia, to cre­ate this kind of doubt, to spread its dis­course through our com­mu­ni­ca­tion chan­nels. A recent report by the NGO EU Dis­in­fo Lab high­light­ed one of their ways of doing this4. The NGO iden­ti­fied fake sites bear­ing the names of real media. Thus, 20 min­utes wit­nessed the birth of its usurp­er – 20min​uts​.com instead of 20min​utes​.fr –, through which arti­cles con­sis­tent with the Krem­lin’s dis­course were disseminated. 

There is thus a direct desire to influ­ence main­stream news sources – the British news­pa­per The Guardian, the Ger­man Der Spiegel, and more than fif­teen oth­ers are also vic­tims of this decep­tion. These pro-Russ­ian arti­cles are then dis­sem­i­nat­ed en masseon social net­works, through fake accounts. 

The NGO EU Dis­in­fo Lab has iden­ti­fied fake sites bear­ing the names of real media outlets.

Arnaud Merci­er, pro­fes­sor of infor­ma­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tion sci­ences at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Paris Pan­théon-Assas, believes that the Krem­lin’s pro­pa­gan­da strat­e­gy is that of an “arson­ist”. He says that “dur­ing the Cold War, the strat­e­gy was to belit­tle the adver­sary and enhance its own image. Today, Rus­sia iden­ti­fies the points of ten­sion in our soci­eties and seeks to exac­er­bate them by throw­ing oil on the fire, hop­ing to divide our societies.”

This strat­e­gy has been seen in the past when Rus­sia has tried to influ­ence the elec­toral process in West­ern coun­tries. And in each of these events, the most effec­tive medi­um for spread­ing its dis­in­for­ma­tion has been social net­works. “The rise of influ­ence strate­gies on social net­works goes back to at least 2016, with the elec­tion of Don­ald Trump and Brex­it,” he says. “But it had already hap­pened in 2014 dur­ing the par­lia­men­tary elec­tions in Germany.”

“A large num­ber of fake accounts then appear on the net­works. These are antin­o­mi­an accounts that spread mes­sages to rad­i­calise both sides,” says the pro­fes­sor. “This is done to desta­bilise vot­ers. These mes­sages are then tak­en up and spread in turn by real users. There are peo­ple who, faced with infor­ma­tion that is not very cred­i­ble, are fooled and play the use­ful idiot by relay­ing it,” he adds, “and oth­ers who are already convinced.”

How­ev­er, it is dif­fi­cult to have an exact esti­mate of the num­ber of false accounts on the net­works. Accord­ing to Arnaud Merci­er, the exam­ple of Elon Musk’s attempt to buy Twit­ter is proof of this5: “The bil­lion­aire’s con­di­tion for buy­ing the plat­form was to have an esti­mate of the num­ber of bots [fake accounts] present. Twit­ter was unable to meet this demand, so the takeover deal was ter­mi­nat­ed. How­ev­er, we do know with some cer­tain­ty that there are at least a hun­dred thou­sand accounts.” This cer­tain­ty comes from the esti­mate made by Twit­ter itself at the time of the poten­tial takeover: fake accounts would rep­re­sent at least 5% of active users, which Elon Musk dis­putes, esti­mat­ing that the fig­ure would be clos­er to 20%6. Of course, not all these fake accounts are Russian. 

The mass dis­sem­i­na­tion of con­flict­ing infor­ma­tion is also a source of doubt for the recip­i­ent of the infor­ma­tion. “They allow dif­fer­ent inter­pre­ta­tions to cir­cu­late in a halo of uncer­tain­ty. There is a desire to sur­round a fact with mul­ti­ple inter­pre­ta­tive pos­si­bil­i­ties,” says the researcher, “to cre­ate a cer­tain amount of doubt. Charles Pasqua had already described this tac­tic: when there is a sto­ry, you must cre­ate a sto­ry with­in a sto­ry, and then anoth­er con­tro­ver­sy until peo­ple don’t under­stand any­thing any­more. Fake accounts and fake news aim to make peo­ple lose track of events.”

The image of the West is being targeted

Ulti­mate­ly, with its fake accounts – and the thou­sands of mes­sages they dis­sem­i­nate – Rus­sia man­ages to instil its dis­course in West­ern pub­lic opin­ion and has done so for many years. This strat­e­gy has become more pro­nounced since the start of the Ukrain­ian con­flict. “Vladimir Putin now talks about the dam­age that Euro­pean sanc­tions are doing to the economies of the old con­ti­nent,” says Car­ole Gri­maud. He main­tains that the pri­ma­ry vic­tims are the Euro­peans, and that win­ter will be hard on them. All this is done in the hope that pub­lic opin­ion will turn in his favour. Doubt is a sneaky weapon of war.

Although these prac­tices are present in West­ern coun­tries, the main tar­gets are oth­er coun­tries around the world.

Non-West­ern coun­tries are also tar­get­ed. “These false accounts do more dam­age in soci­eties where anti-West­ern sen­ti­ment is already present,” notes Arnaud Merci­er. In Asia, Latin Amer­i­ca, and more recent­ly in Africa, the Krem­lin’s dis­course is much more eas­i­ly accept­ed. The exam­ple of the Sahel is, in this respect, quite con­vinc­ing, espe­cial­ly as it direct­ly con­cerns France. First arriv­ing in the Cen­tral African Repub­lic, Rus­sia man­aged to estab­lish itself in the region. Under the guise of fight­ing ter­ror­ism, dis­in­for­ma­tion attempts to dis­cred­it the French armed forces – present there dur­ing Oper­a­tion Barkhane7.  

“The strat­e­gy is, once again, to inflame a sit­u­a­tion that is already tense due to a con­flict,” he adds, “in the case of Oper­a­tion Barkhane, mul­ti­ple accu­sa­tions have been made. From pae­dophile sol­diers to the dis­cov­ery of mass graves – for which France is the prime sus­pect – to ques­tion­ing the objec­tive of this operation.”

A recent case of this con­flict of influ­ence between France and Rus­sia is the dis­cov­ery of the Gos­si mass grave in Mali on 21stApril 2022. A few days after the han­dover of the French mil­i­tary base in Gos­si to Malian forces, a Twit­ter account pos­ing as a Malian sol­dier announced the dis­cov­ery of a mass grave not far from the base. “This is what the French left behind,” he said, shar­ing a video of the mass grave. Only, France had filmed the whole scene with a drone that remained on site. The video showed cau­casian sol­diers –  not Malians – with Chi­nese equip­ment, thus asso­ci­at­ed with Russ­ian forces, bury­ing the bod­ies. Accu­sa­tions were made that France was respon­si­ble for this mas­sacre, even though it was the mer­ce­nar­ies of the Wag­n­er group, who had arrived to take over from Barkhane, who had com­mit­ted this act.

How­ev­er, for a local, access to infor­ma­tion is already lim­it­ed in favour of Russ­ian dis­course. Since the Malian mil­i­tary jun­ta has decid­ed to cen­sor the French media France 24 and RFI8, a Malian now gets his or her infor­ma­tion from Russ­ian state media, such as Rt News or Sput­nik9

Pablo Andres

Our world explained with science. Every week, in your inbox.

Get the newsletter