Reviews | Putin no longer appears as a master of disinformation
In a 2016 article, Christopher Paul and Miriam Matthews, both of RAND, described the Russian digital propaganda model as a “fire hose of lies”. The operation, which Russia has been developing since at least its foray into Georgia in 2008, is “high-volume and multi-channel” – propaganda memes, videos, social media posts and other content are being produced in droves huge and distributed on all forms of media. This great outpouring of propaganda is characterized by a kind of chaos; because Russia’s messages are produced in such high volume and because they often lack any commitment to consistency or fidelity to objective reality, they seem to aim to confuse and overwhelm an audience as easily as they persuade.
This is perhaps the great limit of the model. Like, alas, much media now, the Russian fire hose can amplify conspiracy theories bubbling online and sow chaos and confusion in the pockets of society – all of which can certainly be useful to an aggressive and authoritarian state. .
But how useful? It’s very difficult to say; the effectiveness of Russia’s Internet fraud has always been murky. I read plausible theoriesbut after years of investigation, it remains seems it’s unlikely to me that Russia’s information operations made a decisive difference in the 2016 US presidential race – or even that they were more important than half a dozen other things this year – there, from the “Access Hollywood” tape to Comey’s letter to that sniffy first debate. And with the world now privy to Russia’s playbook, this race may have been the culmination of Putin’s digital interference.
The Ukraine crisis shows that the West has learned a lot about how to counter Russian propaganda in recent years. Social media companies are now skillful in spotting and removing Russian disinformation. The Biden administration has been masterful at “pre-bunking” the movements of Russia; by disseminating intelligence on Russian plans almost as quickly as it collects them, the White House succeeded in embarrassing and undermining Russian efforts to control the Ukrainian affair.
Then there is the unwavering bravery and media cunning of the Ukrainians, whom Helmus described as “a messaging adversary of the type that Russia has never seen before”. As the Russian military stalked their nation, Ukrainians began filling the internet with compelling images of their determination – the 79-year-old grandmother taking up arms against the invaders, the fearless young man kneeling in front of a Russian tankthe deputy who brags on Fox News about kicking Putin behind. In a series of inspiring dispatches from the battlefield, Volodymyr Zelensky, the President of Ukraine, projected an air of heroic machismo of the kind that Putin has long tried to cultivate.
Putin, meanwhile, looks anything but macho. In recent weeks, he’s appeared mostly in awkward, possibly scripted encounters with his advisers, often featuring comically long tables. The tables are Apparently meant as a precaution against Covid-19, but so exaggerated that it’s hard not to see the The Russian leader is paranoid and isolated.
Christopher Paul of RAND told me that it’s hard to gauge the effectiveness of Russia’s messaging strategy, mainly because it’s the domestic audience that matters most to Putin, and that’s on this public that Russia concentrates its propaganda.