My country has been at war with Russia long before the events of last February. Russia’s invasion was not only challenged by Ukrainians on our battlefields, but it has also been fought online and through our airwaves. For the past decade, Ukraine has been subject to Russian disinformation campaigns crafted to legitimate the 2014 annexation of Crimea, demean Ukrainian identity, and shatter Ukrainian unity. The Kremlin’s malign influence activities have only increased in intensity since their unprovoked invasion began one year ago.
As our soldiers beat back Russia’s invasion from much of our country, Ukraine’s information warriors in civil society have done the same in the information space. These efforts did not materialize out of thin air. Past experience and careful preparation for this onslaught of disinformation underpins our successes to date.
Since Russian armed forces first occupied Crimea in 2014, numerous civil society organizations have been established in Ukraine and across Central and Eastern Europe to expose and counteract Moscow’s false narratives. As my co-authors and I detailed in an in-depth investigation by the International Forum for Democratic Studies at the National Endowment for Democracy about the successes and challenges organizations like mine faced over the past year, counter-disinformation groups have adapted to Russian tactics and new ways of responding in a wartime environment.
Organizations such as StopFake fact-check Russian fake news narratives, the Hybrid Warfare Analytical Group at the Ukraine Crisis Media Center investigates and publicizes Moscow’s disinformation tactics, and Texty.org.ua has advanced data-driven journalistic coverage of Kremlin disinformation in Ukraine. My organization, Detector Media, monitors Russian disinformation content, and shares our findings on social media and through a daily aggregator of debunked disinformation narratives for Ukrainian citizens, reaching 4.2 million readers every year.
Moscow’s information warfare leverages many messengers, channels, and narratives simultaneously in an attempt to overwhelm their targets’ ability to perceive reality and react effectively. For example, Kremlin’s propagandists constantly attack the LGBTQI+ community, which is part of their strategy to oppose liberal democratic values. Moscow’s full-scale information attacks have merited a complex, multi-layered response, often led by organizations like mine in Ukrainian civil society. Our organizations have advanced our own operations from straightforward fact-checking initiatives to the development of data-driven research methods leveraging artificial intelligence, machine learning, and multi-pronged communications campaigns.
The collaboration and information-sharing needed to combat the Kremlin’s multi-front disinformation operations have been road-tested for years. The establishment in 2019 of the National Democratic Institute’s Disinformation Coordination Hub and the Zinc Network’s Open Information Partnership provided platforms for civil society organizations to pull from others’ expertise, access, and lessons learned. Outside of civil society and in government circles, the Center for Strategic Communication within Ukraine’s Ministry of Culture and Information Policy has allowed civil society and government actors to monitor and counter Russian narratives collaboratively. When — once the full invasion began — Russian state outlets pivoted to Telegram to reach Ukrainians, our organizations worked collaboratively to analyze Russian propaganda on social platforms, including Russia’s attempts to deliver hyper-localized messaging to Ukrainians in recently occupied towns and villages.
Our capacity, collaboration, and use of advanced tools has been invaluable in preparing our civilians to recognize Russian disinformation and ensure they do not fall victim to it. In a May 2022 survey conducted by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology, 96% of Ukrainian respondents blamed the Kremlin for the destruction of Ukrainian civilian infrastructure and casualties during its invasion. In 2019, as our own societal responses were just scaling up, only 49% of the public pointed to Russia as the instigator in the long-running war on Donbas. Over the same time period between 2019 and 2022, 18% more Ukrainians accurately identified Russia as the primary instigator of hostilities in Crimea in 2014.
Poll after poll has shown the increasing ability of the Ukrainian people to resist Russian propaganda and disinformation in recent years. These results speak to the power of civil society to counter foreign propaganda and disinformation.
Currently, Russia’s military operations are squarely focused on Ukraine, but its information operations have long been deployed elsewhere. The Russian government’s investment in the information space has yielded far greater results in regions — such as Latin America and Africa — where the Kremlin’s toxic messaging goes virtually unchallenged as a result of political, economic, and historical ties to Moscow.
Leaders in a number of African countries have declined to voice support for Ukraine, backtracked on earlier critiques of Moscow’s actions, or openly sided with Russian diplomats at the UN, despite the war’s impact on the continent’s food security and world energy prices. Latin American reactions have been a mixed bag of apathy, strident neutrality, and some support for Russia’s position from autocratic regimes.
Within Ukraine, our capacity to collaborate, learn from our mistakes and successes, and deepen our knowledge has proven pivotal in our own battles in the information space. As the threat emanating from authoritarian narratives like Russia’s has become global, the rest of the world will need to take steps like these if they are to succeed.
Galyna Petrenko is a co-author of the February 2022 International Forum for Democratic Studies report “Shielding Democracy: Civil Society Adaptations to Kremlin Disinformation about Ukraine.” Based on in-depth interviews and convenings of civil society actors, the research identified three advantages — deep preparation, open networks of cooperation, and active utilization of new technology — that have allowed Ukraine and Central and Eastern Europe to ensure resilience in the face of authoritarian disinformation campaigns.