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Russian disinformation, amplified by China, is raising fears that the war in Ukraine could escalate. AP Photo/Vincent Yu

Russia’s false claims about biological weapons in Ukraine demonstrate the dangers of disinformation and how hard it is to counter – 4 essential reads

On March 11, 2022, Vasily Nebenzya, Russia’s U.N. ambassador, told the U.N. Security Council that Russia had discovered evidence of U.S.-funded biological weapons research in Ukraine. U.S. officials denied the claims, accused Russia of using the U.N. to spread disinformation, and warned that Russia’s accusations could be a prelude to it using biological weapons.

a man in a dark business suit speaks at a podium with a red and gold emblem on the front
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian echoed unsupported claims by Russian officials that the U.S. is engaged in illegal chemical weapons development in Ukraine. AP Photo

The statements followed several days of Russian officials making the claim, and Chinese officials echoing it. Several prominent right-wing figures in the U.S. amplified the claims by mischaracterizing Senate testimony from Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland about U.S. support for biological research in Ukraine.

Russia’s claims are part of a strategy of spreading disinformation before and during the invasion of Ukraine. The disinformation aims to bolster support for the war within Russia, undermine Ukrainian morale and sow confusion and discord in the U.S. and Europe. The biological warfare claims show how pernicious disinformation can be: difficult to counter and highly consequential.

Here are four articles from our archive to help you understand how Russia used disinformation to justify the invasion, how disinformation fits into Russia’s use of technology in warfare, what makes disinformation so challenging, and how targets of Russia’s disinformation have learned to respond.

1. False flags, provocations and disinformation

In the run-up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, U.S. officials warned that Russia was preparing false flag attacks, that is attacks on its own forces to create the appearance of aggression by Ukraine. University of Washington’s Scott Radnitz explains the long history of false flag attacks and how difficult they are to pull off in the age of satellites, smart phones and the internet.

Radnitz also explains that false flag attacks are just one of many tools in Russia’s propaganda toolkit. Ubiquitous information technologies are fertile ground for disinformation campaigns. “With the prevalence of disinformation campaigns, manufacturing a justification for war doesn’t require the expense or risk of a false flag – let alone an actual attack,” he writes.

“At the start of its incursion into Crimea in 2014, the Kremlin used ‘active measures,’ including disinformation and deception, to prevent Ukrainian resistance and secure domestic approval,” he writes. “Russia and other post-Soviet states are also prone to claim a ‘provocation,’ which frames any military action as a justified response rather than a first move.”


Read more: What are false flag attacks – and did Russia stage any to claim justification for invading Ukraine?


2. Information warfare

Disinformation campaigns are part of a constellation of Russian high-tech warfare methods, including intelligence gathering, information warfare, cyberwarfare and electronic warfare. Rochester Institute of Technology’s Justin Pelletier explains how these overlapping modes of warfare work and how Russia is using them in Ukraine.

Disinformation is part of Russia’s information warfare strategy. “There is an ongoing contest to control the narrative about what is happening in Ukraine,” he writes.

five men carry a pregnant woman on a stretcher across a plaza strewn with tree limbs with smoke and bomb blasted buildings in the background
The Russian government is using disinformation to deflect responsibility for shelling a maternity hospital in Mariupol, Ukraine. This pregnant woman, wounded in the shelling, and her baby later died, according to a report from the AP. AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka

There is a flood of information about Ukraine on social media, and much of it is neither verified nor debunked. “This underscores how difficult it is to be certain of the truth with a high volume of fast-changing information in an emotionally charged, high-stakes situation like warfare,” he writes.


Read more: Intelligence, information warfare, cyber warfare, electronic warfare – what they are and how Russia is using them in Ukraine


3. The murky nature of disinformation

This difficulty in determining the truth is by design, explains University of Washington’s Kate Starbird. Disinformation campaigns are blends of truth, lies and beliefs that can have particular strategic aims but are also designed to undermine democratic societies, she writes.

“The notion of disinformation often brings to mind easy-to-spot propaganda peddled by totalitarian states, but the reality is much more complex,” she writes. “Though disinformation does serve an agenda, it is often camouflaged in facts and advanced by innocent and often well-meaning individuals.”

“Disinformation has its roots in the practice of dezinformatsiya used by the Soviet Union’s intelligence agencies to attempt to change how people understood and interpreted events in the world,” she writes. “It’s useful to think of disinformation not as a single piece of information or even a single narrative, but as a campaign, a set of actions and narratives produced and spread to deceive for political purpose.”


Read more: Disinformation campaigns are murky blends of truth, lies and sincere beliefs – lessons from the pandemic


4. Baltic elves

Disinformation is difficult but not impossible to counter. Decades of Russian disinformation campaigns have given its targets experience in responding. Terry Thompson of Johns Hopkins University describes how the Baltic states have defended themselves in recent years.

Latvia is home to the Strategic Communications Center of Excellence, a NATO organization that counters Russian influence, including by publishing reports on Russian disinformation activities. The people of the Baltics have also taken up the cause. “‘Baltic elves’ – volunteers who monitor the internet for Russian disinformation – became active in 2015 after the Maidan Square events in Ukraine,” Thompson writes.

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“Disinformation is a key part of Russia’s overall effort to undermine Western governments. As a result, the battle is ever-changing, with Russians constantly trying new angles of attack and target countries like the Baltic nations identifying and thwarting those efforts,” he writes. “The most effective responses will involve coordination between governments, commercial technology companies and the news industry and social media platforms to identify and address disinformation.”


Read more: Countering Russian disinformation the Baltic nations' way


Editor’s note: This story is a roundup of articles from The Conversation’s archives.

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