Russian propaganda is a crucial human rights violation

By Anastasiia Ivantsova

Russia is not only a threat to Ukrainians. Russia is also a threat to you. And this threat is slower and more insidious, because their war is already going on in your minds.

I am writing a part of this text from bombshelter. Today, the threat comes from cruise missiles launched by Tu-95 strategic bombers. They are fast and heavy, but thanks to Western weapons from our partners, they we can shot them down. Nevertheless, we are hiding in the underground parking lot of our own apartment building at 5 a.m., because even the fragments of a missile can cause a lot of damage. Ballistic missiles, hypersonic missiles and Iranian kamikaze-drones are also flying towards our peaceful cities. And as a civilian Ukrainian woman living a few hundred kilometers from the front line, I feel only a small part of the war. But it is here nonetheless. I can take pictures of its consequences and show them to you, I can describe it to you.
But disinformation is more difficult.

It’s not only “it’s good to be friends with Russia” this time or “Ukraine provoked a war” another time. It is the systematic use of false information by the Russian government to influence public opinion and behavior. It is a kind of psychological warfare that undermines trust in democratic institutions and promotes Russia’s interests through chaos.

And I want you to remember: Russian propaganda is a crucial human rights violation. We need to counter it not only to know the truth but to make wise democratic decisions.

In Vox Ukraine NGO, we’ve seen those attempts all the time from the moment of our creation in 2015. February 2022 made them a lot worse. Pro-Russian actors in Europe began to discredit the Ukrainian political leadership and the army, including false accusations of war crimes. They also attempted to deny Russian atrocities and deliberate killings of civilians.

So in May 2022, VoxCheck (the fact-checking departament of Vox Ukraine) presented the first database of Russian disinformation narratives in the European countries media. Now the “Propaganda Diary” database to monitor six countries: Germany, Italy, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary.

During a year and a half of monitoring, we found 27 Russian disinformation narratives.

And I’m sure we’ve heard them. The most popular is “The actions of Ukraine and the West provoked and forced Russia to start a war”. We’ve heard it sinse 2014. Obviously, our desire to be independent and our attempts to have a democratic European-like government is very “provocative”.

There is also a thesis on “military biological laboratories in Ukraine and drug laboratories”. This have been regularly mentioned by Russian propagandists. Allegedly, they are one of the reasons why Russia is defending itself, because the “evil US and NATO” have surrounded it with their laboratories producing biological weapons. But actually Russian speculations about American biolabs date back to the times of the USSR. As claimed by the American scientist Milton Leitenberg, from 1949 to 1988, the Soviet Union conducted an almost continuous information campaign against the USA, accusing them of using biological weapons. For example, in the 1980s, the Soviet Union tried to convince the world that “HIV was created by Americans and deliberately released in Africa to annihilate the African population.”

Another one narrative is based on topics concerning historical events. Im sure you’ve heard such takes in Tucker Carlson’s interview with Putin. Of course we fact-checked it and Vladimir Putin’s historical “knowledge” turned out to be very poor and manipulative. As historian Timothy Snyder said “Putin took a couple of hours to say ‘I must destroy Ukraine because I have no idea what Russia is'”.

But Russia also invests a lot in propaganda not directly related to the war. Many fakes are related to health care or the “inability” of your countries to provide some medical services. And this is actually a clever move. Because you may understand nothing about weapons, nuclear energy, or foreign politics, but you know when you’re ill and you know it feels bad.

Have you heard of the “Weaponized Health Communication” study? In 2018, researchers turned their attention to Twitter posts spreading conspiracy theories about vaccination. When readers believed that vaccines are safe and effective, the authors of these posts created a different impression – as if there is still a debate surrounding vaccinations. That is why it is necessary to doubt, they said, not trust anyone and look for an “alternative truth”. It turned out that these accounts were administered in a coordinated manner from Russia.

Why do they do that? Because the Russian government benefits from chaos. Russian propaganda aims to undermine trust in democratic institutions. When we do not trust our government or the media, we are less likely to participate in the democratic process. This can make it easier to manipulate people, to corrupt media and politicians.

The best way to protect ourselves is to cut Russian news and pro-Russian experts from the wide public information bubble. This is not a violation of free speech. It’s exactly the opposite. This way you are making a space for new media and for new voices that aren’t corrupted by Russian disinformation.

Anastasiia Ivantsova is an analyst at VoxCheck, the fact-checking project of the independent analytical platform “Vox Ukraine” and M100 Alumna.

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