Russia’s international disinformation campaign seemed to fail in the early days of the invasion, when stories of Ukrainian bravery dominated the internet. But in Russia, the country’s propaganda machine was spreading a torrent of misinformation aimed at its own citizens.
The story circulated online through state-run and unofficial channels has helped create an alternate reality in which the invasion is justified and Ukrainians are responsible for violence. To control the story at home, Russia also cut off access to several websites and threatened the news media with long prison terms for criticizing the war. There is some evidence that the effort has softened at least some Russians.
Here’s what the war looks like for Russians, based on a review of state news articles, channels on the popular chat app Telegram, and input from several disinformation watchdogs who monitor Russia’s propaganda machine.
After Russian shelling killed Ukrainian civilians, Russia blamed ‘neo-Nazis’.
Some of the most disturbing images of the war come from Mariupol, a port city on the southeast coast. Shelling hit the region, killing several civilians trying to flee the area, during what should have been a ceasefire.
But the Russians got a different explanation online: Ukrainians had fired at Russian troops during the ceasefire and neo-Nazis were hiding behind civilians like a human shield, according to Russia’s state news website Tass.
Neo-Nazis have been a recurring character in Russian propaganda campaigns for years, used to falsely justify military action against Ukraine in what Russian officials have called “denazification.” Those claims have persisted only during the conflict. To explain attacks on other Ukrainian apartment buildings, the same Tass article claimed that neo-Nazis had “placed heavy weapons in apartment buildings, while some residents are forcibly kept in their homes,” without evidence.
Russian social media accounts have used a mix of fake and unconfirmed photos of Ukrainian soldiers with Nazi flags or photos of Hitler. An analysis by the Center for Information Resilience, a nonprofit organization focused on identifying disinformation, showed that the number of tweets linking Ukrainians to Nazis increased after the invasion began.
“Propaganda works when it coincides with your existing assumptions,” said Pierre Vaux, senior researcher at the Center for Information Resilience. “The stuff that sounds in the Nazi stuff is really effective.”
After a nuclear facility caught fire, the Russians claimed they were protecting it.
After Russia attacked an area near the nuclear complex in Zaporizhzhya, triggering a fire, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky called it “nuclear terrorism†
March 10, 2022, 10:59 AM ET
But according to a Kremlin statement reported in Tass, the military has seized the facility to prevent Ukrainians and neo-Nazis from “organizing provocations with catastrophic consequences”. Although Ukrainians heavily fortified the region against an attack, Russian officials claimed they had the compound under control before Ukrainians opened fire. They added that Ukrainians set fire to an adjacent building before fleeing, with no evidence. Western experts said controlling the Zaporizhzhya complex would allow Russia to cause power outages or shut down the entire power grid.
The image of Russia as a world protector resurfaced after the country’s officials claimed to have found evidence that Ukraine was working on an atomic bomb. According to Russian officials, plans for the bomb were discovered at the abandoned Chernobyl nuclear power plant.
“It doesn’t even make sense because if you’re going to develop a nuclear weapon, you’re not doing your secret development in a nuclear power plant,” said Mr. vaux. “But that sort of thing is just broadcast on Russian state television.”
After Russia shelled a residential area, the Russians claimed Ukrainians had done it.
An attack on Kharkiv, a city in northeastern Ukraine bordering Russia, provided additional evidence that Russia had indiscriminately bombed residential areas and killed civilians, according to the Atlantic Council, a US research group. The International Criminal Court opened an investigation into war crimes after the attack.
In one attack with heavy shelling, 34 civilians were killed and 285 were injured, according to the Ukrainian state emergency service.
But Russians who listened to state media or browsed channels on Telegram heard a different story: The missiles, those sources claimed, came from Ukrainian territory.
War Between Russia and Ukraine: Important Things to Know
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No match. The foreign ministers of Ukraine and Russia met in Turkey for the first time since the start of the war, and failed to stop the fighting. Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov of Russia stated that a ceasefire was never in question.
On a Telegram channel for the Russian news site Readovka, a post described how “Ukrainian missiles” had “arrived from the northwest” — an area controlled by the Ukrainian military.
According to an article in the state news agency RIA Novosti, the Russian Defense Ministry said it has never attacked cities, but has targeted “military infrastructure” with “high-precision weapons”.
After attacks by bloodied civilians, Russians called injured Ukrainians to crisis actors.
A woman who survived an explosion in her apartment building became the center of disinformation efforts after her bloodied and bandaged photo was widely circulated through newspapers and Western media.
The woman was a resident of an apartment complex in Chuhuiv, near Kharkov. Photojournalist Alex Lourie shot her portrait after the attack and the image quickly made the front pages of newspapers around the world.
But Russian social media outlets falsely described her as a member of Ukraine’s psychological operations unit, according to an analysis by Ukraine’s fact-checking website StopFake.
A message from “War on Fakes”, a pro-Russian website and Telegram channel that appeared at the start of the invasion, suggested that the blood could be grape juice and that the woman could be “part of the territorial defense”. As proof, the post contained a photo of another woman who bore some resemblance. That image came from a DailyExpertNews photo taken in Kiev, a seven-hour drive west of Chuhuiv.