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Cognitive warfare: Why disinformation is Russia's weapon of choice in the war on Ukraine

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Just days into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the internet is rife with disinformation about the war.

Accounts spanning Instagram, Twitter, TikTok and more have been flooded with misleading information and manipulated images claiming to show how the Russian attack on Ukraine is unfolding, prompting experts the world over to urge users to scrutinize content before hitting share.

These warnings are not new. In a world where conspiracy theories, doctored images and misleading messages are commonplace on social media, the idea that a war documented online in real-time wouldn’t contain disinformation is unreasonable.

But experts warn users falling victim to sharing disinformation from the frontlines is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the war in Ukraine.

Some say Russia is using disinformation as a weapon.

‘COGNITIVE WARFARE’

It’s no secret that Russia has been using targeted propaganda and disinformation campaigns for decades, with major efforts in Europe, the United States and Canada.

Marcus Kolga, founder of DisinfoWatch.org, says much of these efforts are dedicated to the Kremlin’s underlying goals: recreating the Soviet Empire, protecting the Putin regime and preserving its sphere of influence.

“Vladimir Putin engages in using disinformation, or as I call it ‘cognitive warfare,’ to help consolidate and maintain his power,” Kolga, a leading Canadian expert on Russian and Central and Eastern European issues, told CTVNews.ca by phone Friday.

“His position requires him to present that there is a constant threat to Russia—that there are constant crises that only Vladimir Putin can save the Russian people from.”

Russia’s disinformation ecosystem consists of five main pillars, according to the U.S. State Department: official government communications, state-funded global messaging, cultivation of proxy sources, weaponization of social media, and cyber-enabled disinformation.

“The Kremlin bears direct responsibility for cultivating these tactics and platforms as part of its approach to using information as a weapon,” reads a 2020 report released by the State Department detailing Russia’s efforts.

“It invests massively in its propaganda channels, its intelligence services and its proxies to conduct malicious cyber activity to support their disinformation efforts, and it leverages outlets that masquerade as news sites or research institutions to spread these false and misleading narratives.”

One of the most commonly used narratives is the idea that Russia is a victim, according to Kolga, who says this has been very clear amid the Ukraine crisis.

“According to Putin, NATO is threatening Russia and Russian sovereignty. Ukraine is somehow threatening Russia's sovereignty, even though nothing could be further from the truth,” he explained.

At the heart of the conflict is the potential for Ukraine to one day join NATO, although previously such an invitation has been blocked by Germany and France.

Putin says he considers the prospect of Ukraine joining the Western military alliance a “hostile act,” claiming that the former Soviet nation’s aspiration to join the military alliance was a dire threat to Russia.

Over the last eight years, Moscow has been accused of engaging in hybrid warfare against Ukraine, using cyberattacks and propaganda to stir up discord. Putin has repeatedly referenced unsubstantiated claims that Ukraine is carrying out a "genocide" against Russian speakers in the Donbas region, for example.

These tactics have escalated in recent months, and in early February the U.S. State Department claimed Putin was preparing a false-flag operation to create "a pretext for an invasion."

“We've seen Russian troll farms constantly push out content, whether it's around the elections in the United States or Canada or various parts of the European Union,” Thomas Holt, professor in the school of criminal justice at Michigan State University, told CTVNews.ca by phone Thursday.

“This is one of those times where we can expect Russian troll farms to be heavily active in an attempt to either depict a narrative that fits the notion that they're a peacekeeping force, or that there's false flag events that have occurred that justify their presence there or the use of serious violence against civilians or anything else.”

HOW IS CANADA AFFECTED?

Canada too has fallen victim to Russian disinformation campaigns thanks to its involvement in NATO.

“Putin wants to recreate the Soviet empire and he can only do that if the West is fractured. So, it's been his goal over the past two decades to erode the cohesion within the transatlantic alliance,” Kolga said.

“When NATO stands together, Putin has no chance of defeating it. So, a lot of the disinformation that we've seen over the past decade also targets NATO's cohesion with regard to Canada and its mission in Latvia.”

In 2017 during the Canadian military’s deployment in Latvia, troops were subject to a variety of disinformation campaigns ranging from stories about Canadians being accommodated in luxury apartments at taxpayers’ expense, to images that purported to show them littering, all in an effort to sow distrust in NATO’s presence.

More recently, over the course of the pandemic, Russian state media, and platforms aligned with it, published and amplified narratives that questioned the existence of COVID-19, along with the legitimacy of Canadian public health protocols, says Kolga.

“A lot of it targets our own democracies to erode our trust in our democratic institutions, our elected officials,” he said.

But as the conflict in Ukraine intensifies, Kolga says Canada’s Ukrainian population is at increasing risk of being wrapped into harmful narratives.

“The worst of it is that it's also targeted the Ukrainian community right here in Canada with various different narratives…. suggesting that Ukrainian community in Canada controls all of Canada's foreign policy. And that is intended to delegitimize their voice and marginalize them,” he said.

“This tool—disinformation propaganda—is truly a front line and ominous weapon that Vladimir Putin uses and uses it very effectively… and it's a heck of a lot cheaper than bombs and guns and tanks. He will continue to use it against us, not just Ukraine, as long as he remains in power.”

WHAT CAN YOU DO?

Social media companies find themselves at a complicated crossroads when it comes to monitoring misinformation and disinformation related to Ukraine.

The head of security policy at Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, tweeted Thursday that the company has established a special operations centre staffed by experts, including native speakers, to monitor and respond to the conflict. However, the company has already faced allegations that posts coming from legitimate individuals on the ground were inaccurately labelled as misinformation.

Late Friday, Meta announced it is prohibiting Russian state media from running ads or monetizing on its platform anywhere in the world, noting that the company is continuing to apply labels to additional Russian state media.

Twitter Canada spokesman Cam Gordon told The Canadian Press that the company is looking out for potential risks related to the crisis, including “identifying and disrupting attempts to amplify false and misleading information and to advance the speed and scale of our enforcement."

But what can social media users do to ensure the information they’re getting is accurate and not part of a larger propaganda effort?

“I know it's going to be slower compared to just looking at individual accounts on your social media platform of choice, but one of the best things that you can do, at least in the short term, is to go to legitimate print media or traditional legacy media sites and try to look at what they're saying before you start trusting what you're seeing through individual accounts on social media sites,” said Holt.

That includes following journalists on the ground in Ukraine who work for trusted media outlets.

“Then secondly, when you are seeing content, look at the way in which hashtags are being used, often with bots or attempts to troll and draw people into false narratives," he continued.

Holt notes that previous disinformation campaigns related to U.S. politics often used Democratic and Republican hashtags simultaneously.

“The goal is to make sure that people on both sides are seeing a false narrative to create confusion or to sway individuals from either side towards some specific agenda,” he explained.

“More broadly, if something seems too salacious or you know, it's been retweeted 500 times by people who don't necessarily know… try to use your best judgement.”

- With files from CNN and The Canadian Press

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