In his book on lying in international politics, John Mearsheimer observes that “lying to opponents, albeit loathsome, is usually widely accepted as a strategic weapon in foreign policy.” This observation certainly applies to the Ukrainian crisis, which has been simmering for months and entered a more complex phase after Moscow announced a military intervention in Ukraine on 24 February 2022. Russia’s move has been coupled with opposition campaigns by parties to the conflict using false and misleading information that have enjoyed massive circulation across traditional and non-traditional media. These campaigns are designed to achieve many objectives, perhaps most importantly the ability to promote a narrative of the conflict and its justifications from the perspective of each side, as well as to weaken the military position of the other side by publishing fake videos and photographs showing the opponent’s losses. Disinformation is also a key tool of mutual finger-pointing, which may explain the mutual accusations of lying, deception, and disinformation between Russian and Ukrainian officials, as well as between officials of Russia and Western nations.
Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine has witnessed a remarkably heavy use of the terms “lying,” “deception,” and “disinformation” by the leaders involved in the conflict as a tool to tarnish the opponent. For example, Russian President Vladimir Putin coined the term “Empire of Lies” to describe the behavior of Western nations and their media in the Ukrainian crisis. This official Russian rhetoric is met by Ukrainian and Western descriptions of Moscow and Russian leaders as twisting and falsifying the facts to justify their military intervention in Ukraine. It is noteworthy that this moral disparagement quickly moved from the official leadership level to the traditional and non-traditional media level through the formulation of polarizing analyses blaming the opposing party and accusing it of deception and falsification. The media also contains many photographs, reports, and videos of questionable accuracy. In this context, the deceptive and false information operations associated with the Ukrainian conflict reveal several key dimensions, as follows:
1. Expanded use of recontextualized media: Rapidly-changing events in times of war, especially given the ubiquity of social media, usually prompt an expanded use of recontextualized media, which involves taking an image or video or audio clip out of its original context, recontextualizing it for a completely different purpose or narrative framework, and attempting to link it to different events. Recontextualized media can be intentionally introduced into the news cycle via the internet by groups that want to impose a particular agenda, increase participation by others in this agenda, or even harm the interests of other parties. This material can also be shared by those who believe the images are accurate reflections of the current crisis and want to share the information with their social media networks.
This pattern may be prevalent in the Ukrainian conflict as each side attempts to promote its narrative vis-à-vis the conflict. For example, on 27 February 2022, a photo was shared on social media, especially Twitter, of a girl confronting a soldier, with the caption, “Ukrainian girl screams at Russian soldier.” However, it turns out that this picture was taken from another context: according to the Snopes website, it dates back to 2012 and shows a Palestinian girl, Ahed Tamimi, confronting an Israeli soldier in the West Bank.
Likewise, a short video was shared on Tik Tok, on 24 February 2022, depicting paratroopers in the sky and stating that it was Russian forces landing in Ukraine. Although the video attracted great interest and interaction, gaining more than one million reactions on Tik Tok and shared on Twitter and Instagram, it was not related to the Ukrainian conflict. According to Reuters, the video is from a 2015 post on Instagram.
Relatedly, in early March, many media platforms circulated a video recording of the explosion of a bomb, followed by a cloud of dust and debris, stating that the explosion resulted from Russia’s use of a vacuum bomb against a Ukrainian army base in the northeastern town of Okhtyrka. Despite accusations linking Russia with the use of this type of bomb, Reuters confirmed that the video that circulated on social media was not related to the Ukrainian conflict, but was previously posted on YouTube in December 2019 and was related to an explosion in Syria.
2. Disinformation via the use of video simulation games: Other forms of deception and falsification that have spread in the post-Russian invasion of Ukraine phase reflect a massive decline in the ability to verify the authenticity and accuracy of material published on social media sites. Some platforms have tried to use and promote video clips taken from video and simulation games as part of the current military operations in Ukraine. Perhaps the most prominent example is the video published on social media on 25 February, which referred to a Ukrainian fighter pilot called the “Ghost of Kyiv” shooting down a Russian Su-35. However, it was later shown that the video was taken from Digital Combat Simulator, a simulation game first released in 2008.
This expanded use of video simulation games in the Ukrainian conflict prompted Eagle Dynamics, the developer of Digital Combat Simulator, to issue a statement on 1 March 2022 asking players to “avoid generating images that could be misconstrued and potentially put lives in danger.”
3. Attempts to attribute false information to reliable sources: This method has great importance because falsely attributing misinformation to reliable and popular sources can legitimize this misinformation and help it spread more widely. For example, last February, some social media platforms circulated an alleged cover of Time magazine with an image of Russian President Vladimir Putin superimposed with Adolf Hitler. It turned out that the cover was not the magazine’s but a creation of graphic designer Patrick Mulder, who stated on his Twitter account, on 28 February 2022, that he designed the image because he believed that the actual official cover of the magazine was “uninspired and lacked conviction.” In comments to Snopes, he also indicated that he did not intend people to believe the cover was real, but it was “reposted without mentioning the fact that it was art, not a legitimate cover.”
4. Potential use of deepfakes: This form of disinformation involves the use of artificial intelligence technology to generate fake and deceptive images and video clips. Some examples of this pattern have been evident in the Ukrainian conflict, especially with recent reports that US intelligence services conducted an investigation into the use of deepfakes in the Ukrainian conflict through modified videos of the Russian and Ukrainian presidents and a number of other officials.
In this context, NBC news reporter Ben Collins tweeted on 28 February 2022, in reference to a fake account on social media for someone named Vladimir Bondarenko, a purported blogger from Kyiv who hates the Ukrainian government. Collins added that the fake account is from a Russian troll farm, and the image of the person had been fabricated by artificial intelligence applications.
5. Dilemma of illogical correlation: This dilemma increases during times of crisis and amid the prevalence of conspiracy rhetoric in international relations. It is not far removed from the dynamics of the Ukrainian crisis, as it appears in the Russian official discourse and the arguments that Moscow formulated to justify its military operation in Ukraine. For example, Moscow and its media have extensively used the descriptor of “neo-Nazis” to refer to the political leadership in Ukraine. However, this description is problematic and may reveal a degree of contradiction, especially since Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is Jewish and reportedly lost three family members in the Holocaust. This obviously undermines his description as a Nazi because it is illogical to combine Judaism and Nazism.
Disinformation and fake news operations are part of the equation of mutual pressure between the parties to the Ukrainian conflict. The conflict on the ground naturally needs media and propaganda support, even if it is misleading. In such a context, it can be said that disinformation is associated with several main drivers:
1. Promotion of conflict narratives: The parties to the conflict in Ukraine have used disinformation to support their own narratives and legitimize their position. Russian media platforms have promoted unverified theories about neo-Nazi control over the Ukrainian government and the subjection of Donbas citizens to ethnic cleansing and genocide at the hands of Ukrainian forces. These theories are used to justify Russian military intervention in Ukraine.
In contrast to this rhetoric, media platforms affiliated with Ukraine and Western nations have relied on a set of messages aimed at weakening the Russian version of events, for example, emphasizing Russia’s use of excessive force against Ukraine and using videos, such as the one alleging Moscow’s use of a vacuum bomb against a Ukrainian army base in the town of Okhtyrka, which later turned out to be a video of prior events dating back to 2019 and having nothing to do with the current conflict in Ukraine.
Notably, each side’s promotion of its narratives has been accompanied by censoring of media platforms that adopt different narratives. Western media institutions have censored Russian media content across traditional and non-traditional media, and Moscow has taken the same position. According to numerous reports, on 26 February 2022, Russia’s state media-monitoring agency, Roskomnadzor, accused several independent Russian media outlets of spreading “false information” about the war in Ukraine. Likewise, the Russian Defense Ministry criticized the Novaya Gazeta newspaper, accusing it of promoting fake information “prepared by Ukraine on templates approved by US propaganda and NATO to discredit Russia.”
2. “Just lying” and defense of self-interests: Disinformation in the context of the Ukrainian conflict reflects attempts by each side to defend its self-interest, which is consistent with the dictates of the current world order and the effects of utilitarianism on international relations, an approach that deals more freely with the issue of lying. This approach justifies political lying and deception through consequentialism, which holds that sound, prudent calculations are not only rational but also moral because the morals appropriate for political life are not based on abstract ideals but on utilitarian ethics that involve an assessment of the consequences of an act and its place in the system of cause and effect, according to Ludwig von Mises.
In this framework, the disinformation campaigns in the Ukrainian war seem to be consistent with the concept of “just lying,” which was developed in the political literature to lend a degree of moral acceptability to political lying between countries. According to this proposition, lying and deception must be justified, which primarily involves defending just causes or certain vital goals and national interests of the state. For these considerations, political realism assumes that raising national interests above moral ideals and virtues is an ethical issue in its own right. In turn, this legitimizes the concept of international lying as a mechanism to protect and secure national interests.
3. Weakening opponents’ morale: The deception and disinformation campaigns associated with the war in Ukraine are inseparable from opponents’ demoralization policies. Many videos of battles spread on social media networks are highly exaggerated and override the facts on the ground. This type of policy may aim to negatively impact the opponent’s morale while at the same time boost the morale of the side responsible for the deceptive propaganda, such as the video of the “Ghost of Kyiv,” which was shown to have been taken from the video simulation game, Digital Combat Simulator. Moreover, the number of victims on both sides is the subject of major debate, especially in the absence of an effective mechanism for verifying the truth and accuracy of such numbers.
4. Tarnishing the image of the other side: Perhaps one of the main goals of disinformation campaigns is to tarnish the image of the other side and pin the moral blame on them. In using the term, Western “Empire of Lies,” the Russian president was trying to put pressure on the moral image of the Western nations and, thus, to dismantle Western propaganda against the Russian war in Ukraine and cast doubt on its credibility. The same applies to Western propaganda against Moscow and its heavy reliance on terms such as Russian “lying” and “disinformation.”
Furthermore, media platforms affiliated with the two sides have formulated analyses and reports that morally weaken the image of the other. For example, on 2 March, an article was published on the Moscow-affiliated News Front website entitled, “The Provocative US Policy of Disinformation,” written by Valery Kulikov, who sharply criticized what he calls US disinformation policies, which he believes have a long history. Kulikov also noted that “[t]he problem with fakes and disinformation spread by the United States in the media today is reaching such proportions that, for some audiences, the real picture is being replaced by false information,” adding that “[t]oday, disinformation, lies and slander are becoming constant attributes of the foreign policy of Washington and many of its allies.”
In short, disinformation and fake news will remain one of the main tools used in the Ukrainian crisis for various considerations, most importantly, because the parties to the conflict have vast expertise in this field. Furthermore, the increased reliance on social media in covering the events of the war and the overlap between traditional and non-traditional media have enabled the rising influence of fake news and disinformation and the expanded space for its dissemination, particularly given the chaotic nature dominating cyberspace and the difficulty of verifying the truth and accuracy of media content.
The Associated Press may have articulated this problem in a report published on 24 February 2022, entitled, “Propaganda, fake videos of Ukraine invasion bombard users.” The article noted: “The invasion of Ukraine is shaping up to be Europe’s first major armed conflict of the social media age, when the small screen of the smartphone is the dominant tool of communication, carrying with it the peril of an instantaneous spread of dangerous, even deadly, disinformation.”