‘Deny, deflect, distract’: How Russia spreads disinformation about the war in Ukraine


When a missile struck a nine-storey apartment building in the southern Ukrainian city of Dnipro last week, Yevhen Fedchenko knew what to expect from Russian news coverage of the strike.

“They immediately started to build disinformation narratives on the top of the story, first of all accusing Ukraine of doing that,” Fedchenko told CBC Radio’s The House in an interview that aired Saturday.

Fedchenko said Russian disinformation is aimed at convincing its audience that Ukrainians bomb their own infrastructure in order to discredit Russia in the eyes of the world. Russian media also accuse Ukrainian forces of being incapable of operating military equipment supplied by their western allies.

“On the one hand, nothing unique was happening,” Fedchenko said of the Russian coverage of the strike on the apartment building, which killed at least 45 people.

“But on the other hand, you still cannot grasp how sinister this system can be.”

CBC News: The House9:30Fighting the disinformation war

The House speaks to Antaloyi Grudz, director of research at the Social Media Lab at Toronto Metropolitan University about how vulnerable Canadians are to Russian disinformation, and then sits down with Yevhen Fedchenko, co-founder of StopFake.org, a Ukrainian organization working to debunk the Kremlin’s misleading messages.

Fedchenko is a co-founder of StopFake.org, an organization made up of journalists, professors and students working out of the Mohyla School of Journalism in Kyiv. The group was formed nine years ago, after Russia annexed Crimea.

Since then, StopFake.org has debunked thousands of stories — including Russian claims that Ukrainians and their allies staged the massacre of civilians in Bucha early last year, using crisis actors and doctored photos.

Numerous human rights organizations have reported that Russian troops committed war crimes in Bucha and the International Criminal Court has opened investigations into events there, based on reports it has received.

Emergency workers at a destroyed apartment building.
Emergency workers search the remains of a residential building that was struck by a Russian missile on Jan. 15 in Dnipro, Ukraine. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Stopfake.org also focuses on stories that have not hit the international press — such as a recent post that appeared on Russian Telegram channels claiming that Ukrainians are buying Christmas tree ornaments embossed with swastikas.

Stopfake.org says the images were actually taken at a German museum that once exhibited Hitler-era Christmas decorations.

Fedchenko said this story fits into one of the overarching narratives repeatedly pushed by Russia’s media and propaganda machines — that Ukraine is run by Nazis.

“This narrative was very heavily promoted by Russian disinformation before attacking Ukraine in February [2022] and it became one of the pretexts of the war — liberating Ukraine from Nazis. So we have hundreds [of examples] where Ukraine and Ukrainians were blamed to be Nazis,” he said.

Fedchenko said his group has identified about 20 main “themes” promoted by Russia propaganda.

“We’ve seen everything and, to some extent, the narratives are repeating themselves,” he said. “But every bit of disinformation is finding different angles about promoting [those narratives] and finding different audiences.” 

Russian disinformation efforts reach Canada

While Russia has long been known for using propaganda as a military strategy, the Internet era has put those information operations “on steroids,” said Anatoliy Gruzd, director of research at the Social Media Lab at Toronto Metropolitan University.

Those operations target audiences beyond Ukraine and Russia.

Russian troll farms — a co-ordinated network that posts provocative or misleading information to sway political opinion or stoke division abroad — were widely acknowledged to have attempted to sway the results of the 2016 American presidential election. Gruzd said their work also has affected Canadians.

In a study last year, Gruzd and fellow researchers found that about half of Canadians were exposed to “at least one persistent, false claim” about the war on Ukraine. Nearly half of Canadians believed “to some extent” the false claim that NATO had been surrounding Russia with more military bases since the end of the Cold War, the study said.

“We may think the Kremlin is far away and they may not care about Canadians, but in fact their messages are propagating through different channels to Canadians,” Gruzd said in an interview on The House. 

He said that as platforms like Twitter and Facebook proactively ban some Russian state media accounts, official accounts — such as those run by Russian embassies — are also contributing to disinformation operations.

Last year, the Russian Embassy in Canada posted a homophobic tweet.

While its content was not about the war in Ukraine, Gruzd said the post attempted to deflect attention from what is happening in eastern Europe and to sow division within Canada. It’s part of an overall strategy to “deny, deflect and distract” through disinformation and provocative posts, he said.

“It’s an information strategy to polarize Canadian society and maybe tap into some of the population in our country who may be aligned with those views,” he said.

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