Covering up war crimes with disinformation: pro-Kremlin media lie about the events in Bucha
The images of civilians killed in the streets of Bucha have not only sparked public outrage, but also showed the true face of Putin's invasion. Still, the pro-Kremlin media flood the information space with disinformation narratives in an attempt to distract the world's attention from the Russian war crimes.
Infosecurity.sk presents an overview of disinformation trends that have been on the rise in information space in the past two weeks:
- The Kremlin is trying to occupy the information space by flooding it with contradictory "explanations" of the war crimes in Bucha.
- A prominent disinformation narrative states that the events in Bucha are a staged performance by the Ukrainian government, supposedly to divert the world's attention from atrocities committed by Ukrainians, their bioweapon facilities, and war crimes committed by the West in other parts of the world.
- Another topic gaining significant media coverage was Slovakia's donation of the S-300 surface-to-air missile system to Ukraine. The donation triggered a wave of disinformation from the country's pro-Kremlin media as well as political opposition.
- Fake news that the S-300 system had been destroyed by the Russian army began to spread a few days after the donation. In addition, disinformation actors sought to undermine the government's efforts to support Ukraine by claiming that Slovakia was being unnecessarily drawn into the war.
Deflecting the attention from Bucha
The scenes of dead civilians lying on the streets of Bucha have shocked the world. Ukrainian and world leaders expressed horror and outrage at the gruesome scenes, raising accusations of atrocities and war crimes committed by the withdrawing Russian troops.
The pro-Kremlin have moved quickly to try to deflect and obscure the facts of war crimes. The Kremlin is trying to occupy the information space by flooding it with contradictory "explanations" of the events, many of which are now circulating on the Slovak Internet.
The prominent one being that the shocking scenes seen around the world are nothing more than staged performance by the fascist Ukrainian government. The goal of this alleged Ukrainian provocation was supposedly to divert the world's attention from the atrocities committed by Ukrainians against Russian prisoners of war and, of course, from the non-existent Ukrainian bioweapons facilities.
Another disinformation tactic used by some pro-Russian Slovak MPs is to influence public opinion with a stream of "whataboutism"- referring to the “non-existent” weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and other alleged cases of war crimes committed by the West in other parts of the world.
The aim is not only to deflect the blame for the atrocities committed in Bucha, but also to pre-emptively shape narratives for countering and discrediting any evidence or future investigations into war crimes committed by Russian occupying force in Ukraine.
As EUvsDisinfo points out, these disinformation tactics of "flooding and preventively occupying the information space" with various contradictory narratives "come straight out of the Kremlin's disinformation playbook" and have been used before.
The most glaring case is the cover-up of the circumstances surrounding the downed Malaysian flight MH17, shot down by pro-Russian forces over eastern Ukraine in 2014. Again, according to the pro-Russian media, the killing of the civilian passengers was a set-up and a provocation by the Ukrainian government to blame Russia and gain sympathy.
Donation of Slovak air defense system targeted by fake news
Another topic gaining significant media coverage in the country's media was Slovakia's donation of the S-300 surface-to-air missile system to Ukraine. Slovakia donated the system, citing Article 51 of the UN Charter, to help its neighbor defend itself against Russian aggression.
Prime Minister Eduard Heger said the country was providing Ukraine with the air defense system, "believing that this system will help save the lives of as many innocent Ukrainians as possible." Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky thanked Slovakia for the donation. However, the donation triggered a wave of disinformation from the country's pro-Kremlin media as well as political opposition.
Fake news that the defense system had been destroyed by the Russians began to spread only a few days after the donation. The Russian Defense Ministry announced on Sunday that it had destroyed the Ukrainians' S-300 launchers, doing so without providing further details nor evidence. According to some reports, the air defense system was supposed to have been destroyed in the north-east near Kharkiv, according to others in the south-west in the Mykolaiv region.
All of these claims were quickly debunked, however, as the images showing the destroyed Slovak S-300 were weeks-old footage. Nonetheless, the fake news about the alleged rapid destruction of the hardware fueled narratives aimed against the pro-Western stance of the current Slovak government.
The pro-Kremlin media as well as certain members of the opposition were quick to tarnish the donation, claiming that Slovakia had unnecessarily lost an important piece of hardware that it needed to protect itself without having an adequate replacement, even though allied Patriot missile batteries are already deployed in the country and effectively replace the S-300.
Disinformation media and opposition MPs have often claimed that Slovakia is being unnecessarily dragged into the war by the current Slovak "puppet government". The Slovak government was repeatedly accused of provocations and warmongering and of putting the needs of Ukrainian citizens above those of its own.
These accusations were then linked to economic themed disinformation narratives claiming that economic sanctions imposed on Russia "harm Slovak interests." Instead, pro-Russian actors suggest that Slovakia should follow the example of Victor Orbán's government and stop its support for Ukraine.
This rhetoric dominated the discourse on Facebook, as evidenced by the interactions, which posts with this rhetoric received. The following chart shows the top Facebook posts with the keyword "S-300" over the past two weeks, ranked by total number of interactions (likes, comments, and shares).
Apart from a post by President Zuzana Čaputová, the posts that received the most interactions in the last two weeks were published by the country's opposition MPs (Ľuboš Blaha and Robert Fico) and a MEP (Milan Uhrík) and contain the disinformation rhetoric described in this article.
A crackdown on disinformation websites have caused them to migrate to channels with Project Infosecurity.sk organised by STRATPOL – Strategic Policy Institute and Slovak Security Policy Institute, which is supported by the Prague office of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom, continuously monitors the activities of both Slovak and foreign disinformation actors, but focuses mainly on the former. The project activities are built upon daily monitoring of emerging disinformation, hoaxes, and conspiracy theories in the online information space. This approach allows the analysts to identify disinformation posts and narratives that resonated with the public the most, as well as to find out where they originated, and how they spread and evolved on social media. The report takes the form of a bi-weekly summary of arising trends in the spread of malicious information content online. Based on that, Infosecurity.sk can warn the public about emerging and current trends in the field of disinformation, manipulation, and propaganda.