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Opinion: The Real Goal of Kremlin Disinformation Isn’t What You Think

Opinion The Real Goal of Kremlin Disinformation Isn t What You Think
Date Posted: Tuesday, March 22nd, 2022

Disinformation is designed to sow apathy as well as confusion. Here’s how that works.


Opinion by Rory Finninand Jon Roozenbeek


On Sept. 1, 1939, the New York Times ran a banner headline reading, “German Army Attacks Poland, Cities Bombed, Port Blockaded.” What became known as World War II had begun.

Weeks later, however, the banner headlines were gone. On Oct. 27, in a slim column below the Times masthead, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt dismissed any “talk” of the United States entering the war in Europe as “fake.” “‘Boys of American mothers’ won’t go abroad, [Roosevelt] says, reaffirming neutrality,” the article read.

Today we rarely recall Roosevelt’s early assertions of “neutrality” or his categorical pronouncements of what the American military would not do when faced with a war of aggression and conquest in Europe. (Given his own recent statements about what the American military will not do in Ukraine, President Joe Biden seems to have forgotten some of this history.) We have also forgotten that, as the Nazis were beginning to construct Auschwitz, our headlines read, “1940 Born in Wild Revelry; Good Year for Nation Seen.” We avoid the tragic truth that we stopped paying close attention even as millions were dying.

In 2022 the challenge of sustaining our focus is especially daunting. We live in a hyperactive attention economy of unprecedented scale and intensity. And as we swipe and scroll through our news feeds, the Kremlin is biding its time and waiting for us to succumb to “Ukraine fatigue.”

In fact, they are banking on it. For years Russian President Vladimir Putin and his propagandists have mocked the West as weak, decadent and self-involved. The massive outpouring of global support for Ukraine today must seem to them little more than ephemeral virtue signaling. In their view, especially as gas and food prices increase, we’ll look for the first excuse to fall back into a familiar position: sympathetic indifference.

A coming onslaught of Russian disinformation will try to offer us those excuses. Putin’s chorus of deception will flood us with messages designed to sow enough confusion and doubt that some may even begin to reinterpret the meaning of the invasion he launched on Feb. 24 to wipe out a diverse, freedom-loving, democratic neighbor. They will be abetted by groups in the West on the extremes of the political spectrum, long supported by Kremlin money.

Over the months ahead, then, the cause of peace and security will depend in part on our ability to retain moral and intellectual clarity amid the thickening fog of an information war.

The Russian gaslighting has already begun in earnest. On March 10, Putin’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stated that “we did not attack Ukraine.” Such patently false claims are primarily meant for a Russian domestic audience being fed lies about a “special military operation” in Ukraine, but the secondary audience is us. If only for a moment, we are invited to disbelieve our own eyes and interrogate the obvious. The more audacious the lie — “denazifying” a country without a far-right party in parliament, a country with a Jewish president and a recent Jewish prime minister — the more time we waste trying to debunk it.

To help sustain our attention and navigate the coming waves of distractions and distortions, we should anticipate the Kremlin’s go-to disinformation tactics and inoculate ourselves against them. Here are three.

Tu quoque. The tu quoque (“you too”) or hypocrisy fallacy is a Russian mainstay. Kremlin disinformation tries to deflect from Putin’s crimes by gesturing to those of Western “partners” — the feigned collegiality is standard — and by quietly calling into question the basis for the very concept of the crime itself. It twists violations of rules into an opportunity to imply that those rules are irrelevant. Whenever Putin cites with indignation the U.S. interventions in Yugoslavia, Iraq, or Libya, he is not affirming the need for a rule-based global order; he is undermining it.

Retconning. Retconning, or “retroactive continuity,” involves rewriting the past to suit the present. Kremlin disinformation regularly revises yesterday’s realities to chime with today’s events. In launching his unprovoked invasion, for example, Putin declared the “denazification” and “demilitarization” of Ukraine as his key objectives. Now, due to dramatic Russian failures on the battlefield, the Kremlin trots out Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko to allege that “Ukraine would have attacked Belarus, had it not been for Russia’s preemptive strike.”

Ukraine’s prospects for NATO membership is the product of an extended Kremlin retcon operation. Even in the immediate wake of Putin’s annexation of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine in 2014, more Ukrainians were against joining NATO than favored joining the alliance. Until December 2014, Ukraine maintained a neutral “non-bloc” status. But unprovoked aggression from Russia and its proxies in eastern Ukraine have tipped the balance in the other direction. Now Putin is fashioning his chauvinist aggression toward Ukraine as a response to a NATO “encroachment” he triggered himself. Unfortunately, even some American scholars and analysts take the bait.

Predictive projection. Predictive projection is a preemptive flying of a false flag. If you want to understand what the Kremlin will do next, pay attention to what it says others will do first. Before Putin’s invasion, Russian officials claimed that Ukraine was preparing to taunt the 150,000 Russian troops amassed on its border and attack its own sovereign eastern territory under Kremlin occupation. Now Russian state media is conjuring the specter of Ukraine building a “dirty bomb” and making biological weapons in secret labs with American conspirators. Russian military officials are tying themselves in knots to allege that Ukrainians in the city of Dnipro are laying mines in their own hospitals so as to cause them to explode while Moscow’s jets fly overhead. Such ominous finger-pointing is a characteristic projection of the Kremlin’s own actions and intentions.

These are just three of the disinformation tactics that the Kremlin is employing in its brutal aggression against Ukraine, but there are many more at its disposal — from outrage manipulation (e.g. the fabricated 2014 story about a young boy from eastern Ukraine “crucified” by the Ukrainian military) to conspiracy feeding (i.e. generating a glut of implausible conspiracy theories to pollute the information space, as we saw after the downing of Flight MH17 in July 2014). Once you know these tried-and-true moves from the disinformation playbook, it’s easier to spot them in action.

Make no mistake. In the weeks and months ahead, Putin’s disinformation machine will try to confuse, retcon, and gaslight us — not only to muddy our moral and intellectual clarity about his war of aggression in Ukraine, but also to usher us onto more comfortable islands of apathy.

We can’t let that happen. Ukrainian armed forces and civilians are sacrificing and dying in a war of fear against freedom, of authoritarianism against democracy. But this war involves us all. Beyond supporting Ukraine with ambitious military and financial assistance, one of the most important things we all can do is focus and sustain our attention and mentally arm ourselves against Putin’s disinformation weaponry so we can continue to focus on what’s at stake.

Source: Rory Finnin and Jon Roozevbeek

Date Posted: Tuesday, March 22nd, 2022 , Total Page Views: 2257

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