Russian Invasion of Ukraine Shines Spotlight on Information War

Vladimir Putin has been the predominant figure – and subject of much study – when it comes to information warfare during the last decade. The Russian invasion into Ukraine has trained all eyes on the role of information and disinformation in global conflict. The Kremlin, with the help of its proxies in the state-funded and state-directed media, has continued to flood the infosphere with fabrications, from false reports of the widespread surrender of Ukrainian troops, to claims that Russia is not targeting civilians, to alleging that foreign owned and operated laboratories working with the U.S. Department of Defense’s Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) Program are biological weapon facilities. As IPA Board Member Dr. Juliana Geran Pilon points out in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, Putin relies heavily on long-standing myths such as that he is working to “de-Nazify” Ukraine.

The U.S. State Department’s Global Engagement Center is actively working to debunk the false narratives from the Kremlin and its supporters, publishing the Kremlin Disinformation Bulletin and other fact-based research. Perhaps more interesting and promising, though, is P.W. Singer’s recent piece in Politico Magazine, “How Ukraine Won the #LikeWar.” Singer, a strategist at New America and co-author of LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media, argues that Ukraine has beat Russia at its own information game, flooding the market with 10 essential persuasive messaging themes. Singer concludes that Ukraine’s persuasion efforts are working on the world stage, convincing other nations to provide unprecedented levels of aid and imposing further sanctions against Russia. But more work needs to be done to penetrate the state-controlled media monopoly in Russia, where citizens primarily receive Putin’s version of events.

According to Singer, the themes allowing Ukraine to dominate the information environment include:

  1. Pre-bunking: Working with Ukrainian government agencies’ and individual leaders’ social media accounts; NATO leaders’ accounts; and a multi-agency effort within the Biden administration; and a broad online coalition of democracy activists and OSINT (open-source intelligence) trackers, the coalition documented and published proof of Russia’s build-up of forces ahead of the invasion, eliminating Putin’s ability to deny his planned invasion.
  2. Highlighting heroism: Tales of Ukrainian pilots shooting down Russian jets like the “Ghost of Kyiv” created a broad message of strength and the Ukraine is worth supporting in the fight.
  3. Stacking the cards in the right way: Messaging focused on small victories by Ukraine early in the wary, shaping the narrative to show that Russia was already unsuccessful.
  4. Mythologizing martyrs: Ukraine has pushed out a constant series of online posts about invariably young soldiers who died in a heroic manner, fostering empathy and anger around the world.
  5. Showing a man of the people: Zelenskyy, need we say more? Youthful, brave, standing alongside his people in battle, Zelenskyy has become a global icon and his use of messaging accelerated additional aid for Ukraine.
  6. Amplifying civilian harm: Images and videos of Russian missiles striking residential areas, shopping malls, playgrounds, and children being killed while fleeing.
  7. Magnifying civilian resistance: Ukraine has highlighted its civilians blocking Russian tanks and poignantly spread video showing the supposedly “rescued” Ukrainians seeking to be freed from their captors.
  8. Encouraging others to jump on the bandwagon: Ukraine has invited aid, donations, and soldiers to join the fight, and at the same time called out corporate brands that continue to support/stay in Russia to shame them.
  9. Humanizing their side: Messages show authenticity and are personal in nature, sparking more empathy.
  10. Making use of mockery: Highlighting unprepared Russian soldiers and captured Russian POWs serves the purpose of mocking the enemy.

Others have also noted the Ukrainians winning information warfare strategy. The Washington Post last week published “Outmatched in military might, Ukraine has excelled in the information war.” Further aiding the fight, thousands of volunteer hackers and computer programmers have joined forces to fight Russia and its propaganda machine.