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🎥 World War Reddit: Propaganda & Its Consequences in the Russia-Ukraine Conflict

March 14, 2022 - Pedro L. Gonzalez

Every conflict brings to bear propaganda. But the volume of misinformation, the speed at which it has concretized into “truth,” and the political-cultural complicity of our elites in its promulgation during the Ukraine-Russia war are unprecedented. And though Russia is notorious for propaganda, the vast majority of West-facing misinformation in this conflict has poured out of Ukraine.

On the one hand, Russian efforts seem aimed at the Russian people, to conceal the cost of the war from them for as long as possible and justify its continuation. That is not to say Russia does not have West-facing misinformation, but it appears concentrated on the image of the war at home.

On the other hand, Ukrainian misinformation is pointed largely at the West, with outright propaganda promoted by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky himself. Ukraine’s efforts are designed to bring the United States and NATO into the war. Sometimes it is subtle; other times, it is as unsubtle as a hammer hitting an anvil.

This issue is a roundup of Ukrainian misinformation that has shaped the West’s perception of the war. Apart from sheer volume and virality, it has been spread by state and non-state actors, by both Ukrainians and Westerners who are not officially engaged in the conflict.

Every war uses propaganda to shape public opinion, justify and condemn, demoralize and lift morale. But this conflict has done more to usher in the era of fifth-generation warfare—where memes matter more than reality—than any other.

On this battlefield, author Daniel H. Abbott explains, the “ability to shape the perception—and therefore the opinions—of a target audience is far more important than the ability to deliver kinetic energy.”

That has never been truer than it is now.

One of the first viral stories was the “Ghost of Kiev.” Supposedly a Ukrainian ace had single-handedly downed several Russian fighters on his own. But the story was completely fake. There’s no evidence that this person existed.

Nevertheless, the meme went viral. Even Republicans Dan Crenshaw and Adam Kinzinger fell for the lie. rationalized the propaganda to Americans. In other words, a U.S. military publication defended a foreign country’s misinformation efforts.

The New York Times also issued an explainer on the matter.

“We are in an era of endemic misinformation—and outright disinformation,” the Times warned last year. “Plenty of bad actors are helping the trend along.” The Gray Lady can include herself among them.

Another story was the Snake Island massacre.

Snake Island is about 30 miles off the southern tip of the Ukrainian mainland in the northwestern Black Sea. A viral recording appeared to reveal the final exchange between a Ukrainian soldier and a Russian warship.

Russian officer: “This is a military warship. This is a Russian military warship. I suggest you lay down your weapons and surrender to avoid bloodshed and needless casualties. Otherwise, you will be bombed.” Ukrainian soldier: “Russian warship, go f*** yourself.”

It was widely reported that the Russians had massacred every man on the island. “All border guards died heroically but did not give up. They will be awarded the title of Hero of Ukraine posthumously,” Zelensky said. The incident was especially popular with American firearm Instagram accounts.

George Weigel, a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center who was a booster of the Iraq war, latched onto the event during an interview with The Catholic World Report. “The defiance of Ukrainians defending a small island in the Black Sea before they were annihilated by a Russian naval vessel whose personnel demanded the Ukrainians’ surrender has inspired many Ukrainians, and ought to inspire everyone who cherishes freedom,” he said.

But it wasn’t true. After running the story as fact, even CNN was forced to add the following update: “The Ukrainian soldiers on Snake Island were all feared to have been killed in the Russian attack on February 24. On February 28, however, the Ukrainian Navy released a statement saying the troops were ‘alive and well,’ but were forced to surrender ‘due to the lack of ammunition.’”

Evidence of their survival had emerged before Feb. 28.

As the legend of Ukraine’s Thermopylae went viral, footage appeared to show Snake Island soldiers receiving water and rations from their captors.

One captured soldier interviewed by reporters was surprised to learn about Zelensky’s eulogy for him and his comrades. *Twitter subsequently suspended the account for telling the truth*

Another viral story appeared to show former Ukrainian beauty queen Anastasiia Lenna armed and ready to enter the fray.

However, the images were actually old and featured toy guns. Lenna said in a statement that she had not gone to the front lines.

NEXTA, a Twitter account with nearly a million followers that claims to be the “largest Eastern European media,” posted a video that appeared to show a Ukrainian pilot shooting down Russian attack aircraft.

It was video game footage from Arma 3.

The clip, which is still online as of this writing, has more than a million views.

NEXTA also reported that Poland would provide Ukraine with MiG-29 fighters and Su-25 attack aircraft and receive F-16 fighters in exchange from the U.S. But the Chancellery of the Prime Minister of Poland’s official Twitter account replied to the contrary.

Another example shared by Maria Avdeeva, a misinformation specialist and director at the European Expert Association, appeared to show Russians indiscriminately shelling residential areas.

However, the building targeted in the video is a known base for the Ukrainian Azov Battalion.

Hromadske, a digital broadcasting station in Ukraine, reported that the group, which began as “Sect 82,”

occupied the building of the regional administration and acted as a local “Self-Defense.” Soon, on the basis of the “Sect,” a “Schidna Corps” was formed—a volunteer formation that soon entered the structure of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and was supposed to protect Kharkiv in the event of a war on its territory. Interior Minister Arsen Avakov called the corps “his black hundred in Kharkiv.”

Azov had reportedly been using the administrative building at the time of the strike, which meant that it was a military target.

In another instance, Ukrainian journalist Anastasiia Lapatina shared a video that she claimed showed Russians shooting at civilians.

But that doesn’t actually happen in the footage, which she later admitted.

Lapatina also writes for the Times., the self-described best source of “independent citizen media about Ukraine,” has attempted to pass off several images from other conflicts as reporting from Ukraine, including pictures of wounded children from Syria in which their skin and hair appear to have been lightened.

Then there are the images supposedly showing Zelensky in combat.

While Zelensky is reportedly still in Ukraine, the viral pictures of him in kit are actually old.

Even more egregious forms of misinformation have emerged in the last few days. Whatever subtlety there was has melted away, with Zelensky attempting to morally manipulate and emotionally blackmail his Western audience.

On March 1, he claimed that Russians had bombed Babi Yar, a ravine in Kiev that was also the site of massacres committed by the Nazis during World War II. Some 33,771 Jews died there. Zelensky’s chief of staff reportedly confirmed that the Russians bombed the site.

The Ukrainian president’s tweet has more than 300,000 likes and over 75,000 retweets.

But on March 2, Israeli journalist Ron Ben Yisha reported after touring the site that the memorial had not been destroyed or damaged, as Zelensky and his officials claimed. Translated from the Israeli news website ynet:

The memorial site in Babi Yar was neither destroyed nor damaged. After touring all over the large site I can report with certainty that no monument was damaged and no bomb, missile or shell hit the grounds. The closest impact to Babi Yar was in the Kiev media and television tower complex, about 300 meters from the new monument, and about a kilometer from the old monument to the victims of the WWII massacre.

Zelensky and his officials lied to the world. Worse, their lie suggested that all those who chose inaction were essentially collaborators in the next holocaust.

Then it happened again.

On March 4, Zelensky and his officials claimed that Russian tanks were shooting at nuclear units in the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant. Zelensky branded it “nuclear terrorism” in a video posted on Friday.

He had previously claimed Russian capture of Chernobyl posed an imminent threat to “the whole of Europe.” But that was, of course, totally untrue.

Zaporizhzhia was different, though. Here was the largest nuclear power plant in Europe under siege.

“Russian tanks are shooting at the nuclear blocks. These are tanks equipped with thermal imagers, so they know what they are aiming at,” Zelensky said. “Only immediate action by Europe can stop Russian troops. Do not allow the death of Europe from the catastrophe at the nuclear power plant.”

Korrespondent, one of Ukraine’s biggest newspapers, reported that, according to Zelensky, he had discussed the situation with President Joe Biden, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and the head of the European Council, Charles Michel. Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal also called on NATO to create a no-fly zone and “close the skies” over the facility. “It is a question of security of the whole world.” An unidentified Ukrainian official said radiation levels had risen in the area.

But they lied.

The Associated Press reported:

U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm tweeted that the Zaporizhzhia plant’s reactors were protected by robust containment structures and were being safely shut down. In an emotional speech in the middle of the night, Zelenskyy said he feared an explosion that would be “the end for everyone. The end for Europe. The evacuation of Europe.”
“Only urgent action by Europe can stop the Russian troops,” he said. “Do not allow the death of Europe from a catastrophe at a nuclear power station.” But most experts saw nothing to indicate an impending disaster.
The International Atomic Energy Agency said the fire had not affected essential equipment and that Ukraine’s nuclear regulator reported no change in radiation levels. The American Nuclear Society concurred, saying that the latest radiation levels remained within natural background levels.

Reuters reported the same and cited Ukraine’s energy minister:

U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said on Thursday the reactors at Ukraine's Zaporizhzhia nuclear power station “are protected by robust containment structures and reactors are being safely shut down.”
Granholm said on Twitter she had just spoken with Ukraine's energy minister about the situation at the plant, where a fire broke out during fighting between Russian and Ukrainian forces. “We have seen no elevated radiation readings near the facility,” Granholm said.

Another Reuters report cited a plant spokesman:

Background radiation levels remain unchanged at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in Ukraine where a fire has broken out following an attack by Russian military, the RIA news agency cited a plant spokesman as saying.
Separately, RIA quoted Ukraine’s emergency service as saying that the fire was outside the station perimeter and one of the blocks at the station had been switched off. (Reporting by Moscow bureau; Editing by Jacqueline Wong)

Mark Nelson, managing director at Radiant Energy Fund, noted that Zelensky’s claims were deliberately misleading.

Canadian nuclear arms expert Claire Wählen said the same.

So dangerous was this lie that the U.S. State Department sent out an urgent message to all American embassies in Europe, instructing them to not share a tweet by the U.S. Embassy in Kiev claiming that Russia was trying to blow up the nuclear power plant.

Fortunately, NATO refused to establish a no-fly zone at the behest of Zelensky and his government.

Doing so would inevitably escalate the conflict into a world war between nuclear-armed countries.

Adam Korzeniewski, a Marine Corps combat veteran, explains:

Russia is a nuclear power, perhaps the ultimate nuclear power. A No-Fly Zone or any unannounced, nonconsensual Western air incursion would be considered an act of war by Russia and an escalation of a conflict that hasn’t been seen even in the Cold War. American and Russian troops have never shot at each other except in proxy wars since World War II. This peace was kept very delicately, with several incidents of a near-global thermonuclear apocalypse.

But rather than admit he had needlessly caused a panic with potentially catastrophic consequences, Zelensky issued more moral blackmail. “Every person who dies from today will die because of you,” he said, The Economist reported.

The fact that there was fighting around the facility suggests that the Ukrainian military had deliberately engaged Russian troops from that location.

Combat footage appears to show Ukrainian forces firing rockets from the nuclear power facility, which reportedly sparked return fire from Russian troops.

This aspect of the incident has been completely omitted from mainstream discussion.

It also wasn’t the first or the last time Ukrainians positioned themselves in such a way that return fire from Russians would either incur civilian casualties or damage civilian infrastructure.

The most recent example of this appeared in an article by Lynsey Addario in the Times. To be clear, every civilian casualty is a tragedy. Russia will have much to answer for when this is over. But the discrepancy between what Addario tweeted and what she wrote is stark.

According to Addario’s viral tweet, civilians were “deliberately” targeted. But that’s not what her article says.

Ukrainian forces were engaged in clashes nearby, but not at the site where civilians were moving along the street. Outgoing mortar rounds could be heard from a Ukrainian position about 200 yards away.
The shelling suggested either targeting of the evacuation routes from Irpin, something of which the Ukrainian authorities have accused the Russian army after a railroad track used for evacuations was hit on Saturday, or disregard for the risk of civilian casualties.

In other words, Ukrainians were firing mortars from a nearby civilian area, virtually guaranteeing that return fire would result in civilian casualties. The efforts by Russians to take prisoners of war and their repeated requests for civilians not to engage with them suggests that Addario’s final suggestion is correct: inaccurate return fire was to blame.

There is also evidence of Ukrainian units like Azov using civilians as human shields.

Westerners are familiar with these tactics—in the Middle East.

Human Rights Watch recently said that the firing of rockets at Israel by Palestinians in Gaza during the conflict amounted to war crimes and it ensured return fire would result in civilian deaths. The tactics employed by Zelensky’s government are essentially the same.

Misinformation is one thing and, of course, expectable in war. However, what is truly remarkable about this conflict is that all claims of impartiality have been abandoned by the self-appointed arbiters of truth. People who push back on misinformation are increasingly accused of “helping” Russia in a war with Ukraine in which the United States is not formally involved. Merely asking questions about the media’s duty to verify and inform invites scorn

The Times article on misinformation argued that there are “social and psychological forces that make people prone to sharing and believing misinformation in the first place.” It named three driving factors.

First, social identity is a powerful “source of strength and superiority, and that other groups can be blamed for their problems.” Second, there is “the emergence of high-profile political figures who encourage their followers to indulge their desire for identity-affirming misinformation.” The third factor is the rise of social media.

All these factors, often with the same themes and tropes used to manufacture consensus around Black Lives Matter and the coronavirus, are at play shaping the narrative around Zelensky and the Ukrainian government. The conflict has been framed essentially as a Marvel movie with Zelensky in the lead role.

But these seemingly banal efforts by Western elites to create a Manichean war narrative can have real consequences for innocent people.

Readers can draw their own conclusions about what might happen if we declare that there are no more innocent or neutral Russians, as Stanford professor Michael McFaul tweeted.

Daniel Strand, an ethics professor at the USAF Air War College, tweeted that he can’t make a simple distinction between innocent Russian civilians and Putin.

These are just a few examples of the increasingly unhinged rhetoric from the experts who will never find themselves on the front lines of this war.