U.S. officials are bracing for Russian President Vladimir Putin to double down on his robust disinformation campaign in America.
Kremlin-linked accounts have stepped up propaganda campaigns worldwide on Facebook and Instagram, according to a report by the platforms’ parent company, Meta. Social media have been flooded with amplified disinformation about the Russia-Ukraine war and pro-Moscow conspiracy theories.
The Kremlin cultivated a worldwide network of proxy outlets and social media bots to spread its message, stir internal discord in the West and undermine democratic institutions, U.S. authorities and cybersecurity professionals said.
“They’re really good at this,” said Howard Stoffer, a scholar of national security and international affairs at the University of New Haven. “They’ve developed a very skilled way of getting false information into the narrative, and that then becomes mixed in with the real information, and people don’t know how to sort it out.”
Since the invasion in late February, Russia’s ambassador to the U.S., Anatoly Antonov, has approached news outlets with paid advertisements that resemble op-eds accusing Ukraine of “genocide of the Russian-speaking population” and NATO of using Ukraine to “establish a foothold in the struggle against Russia.”
The Washington Times rejected the advertisement and was not able to find another news outlet that accepted the ad.
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Newsweek ran a story last week with the headline “Russia’s Ambassador to the U.S. Reveals Why Ukraine War Began, How It Could End,” in which Mr. Antonov conveys the talking points nearly verbatim.
In the article, the news magazine clarified that Mr. Antonov’s arguments run “contrary to that of Ukraine and its foreign backers, including the U.S.”
Newsweek did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Russia has also woven its message throughout social media. Disinformation about the war has been posted on user accounts both overtly and covertly linked to Russian government officials.
In a post last week on the official Twitter account for the Russian mission to the United Nations, it said a deadly missile strike on a civilian train station in eastern Ukraine was carried out by Ukrainians to “disrupt the mass exit of residents from the city in order to use them as a ‘human shield.’”
Last month, the Russian Embassy in Britain used Twitter posts to accuse Ukrainian forces of staging the March 9 airstrike on a maternity hospital in Mariupol. The messages ignited a flurry of spiraling online conspiracy theories despite verification by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe that it was a Russian attack.
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In the Meta report released last week, the company detailed efforts by Ghostwriter, a hacker group linked to Russian ally Belarus, to take over the social media profiles of Ukrainian military leaders to post disinformation from their accounts.
The report outlined other Russian efforts to spread online disinformation, including the creation of fake accounts to stoke anti-Ukrainian sentiment.
The Kremlin has been engaged in a simmering information battle with the U.S. since the Cold War. Soviet and later Russian propagandists have seized on opportunities to stoke internal social and political divides in America and engaged in campaigns to discredit the U.S. while bolstering Russia’s image on the world stage.
According to a 2020 report from the State Department’s Global Engagement Center, the Russian disinformation apparatus has evolved into a full-fledged ecosystem expanding well beyond official government and state-funded messaging to achieve their goals.
U.S. officials accused Russia of posting attention-grabbing headlines on social media and sowing online discord to interfere in the 2016 and 2020 elections to help Donald Trump.
Rather than appealing to logic, experts say, Russian propagandists seize on emotions to make their targets question the truth.
Among the most blatant Kremlin apparatus to influence Americans’ perceptions and opinions is the Russian state-controlled television news network RT America, formerly Russia Today. Until last month, it operated out of a Washington headquarters serving as, according to the Global Engagement Center, a direct conduit for “the Kremlin’s talking points.”
Before it was dropped by major U.S. distributors at the beginning of March, RT and its sister radio news outlet Sputnik operated under the supervision of the Russian government while blending in with major independent and fact-based news outlets. It even had a correspondent at the White House.
As Russia’s military massed on the Ukraine border, RT toed the line by peddling Kremlin claims that the buildup was part of a “routine” military exercise, that NATO expansionism was to blame for the rising tensions, that Nazis overran Ukraine, and that the army was protecting the Russian-speaking population in eastern Ukraine.
Just days before the invasion, RT America ran stories about Russian-speaking “refugees” being relocated from the Donbas region to Russia because of reports that “the Ukrainian army was planning ’a breakthrough’ into the Donbas territory.”
Nathalie Vogel, an information warfare specialist and senior fellow at the Prague-based European Values Center’s Kremlin Watch, said the talking points were nothing new for those experienced in spotting Russian propaganda. Many of the bullet points were recycled line for line from the 2014 annexation of Ukraine, she said.
To dismantle the Kremlin’s propaganda, the Biden administration showed operational intelligence scrubbed of details that would reveal sources and methods.
Weeks before the attack, administration officials from the White House, State Department and Pentagon called Mr. Putin’s bluff from the podium. On Feb. 24, their predictions were proved to be true.
“We did that for several reasons,” a national security official told The Times. “One reason was the importance of countering Russian disinformation and denying them some type of false pretext or justification for launching the attack. And two, because we recognize the united and the closely coordinated response was going to be critical in order to hold Russia accountable for its action and to raise the pressure on Putin.”
The approach helped dismantle Russia’s claims and bolstered U.S. credibility on the world stage, potentially repairing some of the damage from Mr. Biden’s bungled withdrawal from Afghanistan.
As Russia’s information war escalates in tandem with its assault on Ukraine, experts and lawmakers recommend a back-to-basics approach of using U.S. transparency to rebuff Kremlin talking points.
“Putin spent months spinning false narratives he hoped would paralyze Ukraine’s Western allies once he invaded. Now, in danger of losing the war, Putin will no doubt double down on his disinformation efforts,” said Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, the top Republican on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. “Transparency is key to ensuring Putin does not succeed in fracturing international opposition to his war.”
Since the invasion, Russia has accused the U.S. of operating chemical and biological weapons development facilities in Ukraine and accused Ukraine of using “crisis actors” and fake atrocities to influence the West.
“The lies are just getting bigger,” said Mr. Stoffer, the national security scholar. “You have to think about the fact that now they’re trying to challenge these outright human rights violations, these outright war crimes, which are only going to get worse.”
He said the most effective anecdote is transparent, objective accounts from media and trusted governments to expose Russia’s actions.
Since the Russian retreat from Kyiv, Ukraine has disputed Russian claims of detente by broadcasting evidence of repositioned forces on its eastern front.
U.S. intelligence capabilities are aimed at collecting evidence of Russian war crimes in Ukraine. A National Security Council official said the evidence could be shared with partner nations and potentially with the public.
Still, the transparency strategy has risks. It requires extensive review to filter out any details that could reveal intelligence tradecraft.
Each release undergoes “a rigorous review process by the National Security Council and the intelligence community to validate the quality of the information and protect sources and methods,” the official said. “We only approve the release of intelligence if we are confident those two requirements are met.”
Ms. Vogel of Kremlin Watch said the goal should be to develop resilience against Russian disinformation.
She said it is not realistic to seal off the West from the Kremlin’s talking points or remove every pro-Russian account on social media. Instead, she said, Americans need to be able to spot Russian disinformation and have access to objective facts that counter the Kremlin’s narrative.
“The people who are behind the accounts are entitled to their opinion, even if it’s nonsense,” Ms. Vogel said. “But you have to have people on the other hand that can identify nonsense. It boils down to exactly that. … Ask yourself: Why these stories are being told?”
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.