Putin’s disinformation machine is unrelenting

by Jim Warren

No sooner had President Joe Biden arrived in Ukraine last Monday than the Russian state news agency Tass berated the surprise visit to “his ward Zelenskyy” and warned that Ukraine leader Volodymyr Zelenskyy will meet the same fate as others “who have sold their souls to the Americans.”

“Damned by their own people, needed by no one, forced to spend lavishly the money earned in America from betraying their countries on American lawyers,” Tass quoted Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova as saying.

The Russian news site Sputnik badmouthed Biden’s “business trip,” and wondered whether son Hunter’s “consulting contracts are expiring?” The Russian site Ukraina.ru underscored how Biden “promised a lot of weapons and swore allegiance to the neo-Nazi regime.”

The Vladimir Putin misinformation machine is as regimented as a 24-hour McDonald’s, especially with Ukraine war, an exhausting topic toward which our attention wavers. Yet, his daily deceit should not be forgotten, even as sexier misinformation topics briefly grab us.

Leading the pack now is Microsoft’s reconfigured Bing search engine, which incorporates the much-publicized artificial intelligence chatbot ChatGPT. The chatbot’s willingness to generate misleading and inaccurate information, and even unintentionally insult the consumer, has elicited global attention and criticism. Those miscues initially overshadow dazzling elements that will likely make us smarter and more efficient.

The tech giant, a partner of ours at NewsGuard, is clearly stung by the early bumbles, acknowledges them and has billion-dollar incentives to make fixes since rivals such as Google are racing down the same AI path.

Such contrition, and self-interest to remedy misinformation, is not exhibited by Putin, an unabashedly diabolical promoter of falsehoods.

While Microsoft is the media’s tech pinata of the moment, Putin’s Ukraine handiwork tends to get a pass amid the conflict’s wearying essence. His unceasing lies are not as alluring as an Associated Press reporter’s long conversation with the Bing chatbot and watching it grow “increasingly hostile when asked to explain itself, eventually comparing the reporter to dictators Hitler, Pol Pot and Stalin and claiming to have evidence tying the reporter to a 1990s murder.”

But, on the war’s melancholy anniversary, NewsGuard cataloged what is often Russian-spewed misinformation. It has kept us busy detailing more than 100 false narratives and identifying 358 Russia-Ukraine disinformation sites.

In addition, NewsGuard has found 50 Russian propaganda films on the war that have made their way onto YouTube, despite the platform’s ban on Russian state-funded media.

As the NewsGuard website states: “While most myths disavow Russia’s alleged atrocities and other abuses in Ukraine or demonize Ukrainians, NewsGuard has also debunked some pro-Ukrainian and anti-Russian myths, ranging from manipulated images of the mythical Ghost of Kyiv to misleading footage of alleged Russian attacks.”

And, notably, we find, “almost one-third of the websites that NewsGuard has identified as spreading disinformation about the war — 112 — continue to earn programmatic advertising revenue, many placed on behalf of blue-chip brands without their knowledge or intention.”

For example, Google delivers ads to Pravda, a pro-Kremlin website that operates in multiple languages and is owned by a Putin ally. The narratives include: The U.S. is developing bioweapons to be used against ethnic Russians; Ukrainian officials have purchased multimillion-dollar properties in Switzerland; and the Ukrainian military sold French-made artillery systems to Russia.

The big-time brands appearing on Pravda of late, and thus financially supporting disinformation, include Hertz, Sotheby’s, Petco, Lending Tree, Cars.com, AAA, Norton, Toshiba and, yes, Google.

As NewsGuard co-founder Gordon Crovitz puts it, “The Putin government took full advantage of the failure of Silicon Valley’s leading digital platforms to take responsibility for the ‘news’ brands they promote in their products.”

The pro-Putin disinformation myths are unrelenting: The massacre of civilians in Bucha, Ukraine, was staged; Russian-speaking residents in the Donbas region have been subjected to genocide; Russia was not stealing grain from Ukraine or blocking shipments; and Nazism is rampant in Ukrainian politics and society, supported by the authorities in Kyiv.

While misinformation takes a back seat to the deadly realities of the battlefield, “it indirectly affects a country’s willingness to resist or fight by demoralizing the population and the armed forces,” said Alexander Motyl, a historian-artist and Ukraine expert at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

“In creating the impression of an invincible opponent and inevitable defeat, misinformation encourages people to throw down their weapons and settle or, if they are not party to the war, to shrug and turn the other way,” Motyl said.

Many Ukrainians bought into Russian propaganda in past years. As Motyl reminds, some Ukrainians, mostly in the southeast, considered Kyiv responsible for tensions in the Donbas. And misinformation took its toll, even if Russian deception may have failed often in 2022, with the patent obviousness of the invasion, and the magnitude of war crimes, crystal clear.

It affects some audiences in Europe and North America, perhaps mostly on the far left and the far right, including in Latin America, Africa and Asia, Motyl said. “Former colonies should support Ukraine’s anti-colonial struggle,” he said. “Instead, they are either indifferent, or inclined to believe the Russian narrative.”

Jim Warren, a former managing editor of the Chicago Tribune, is executive editor of NewsGuard.