By Erica Dunham
The roots and the fruits of the Ukraine-Russia information war can be found in Mother Russia.
Since the start of the Ukrainian-Russian crisis, the content and flow of information spread by the Russian government raises crucial questions about the veracity of what’s being reported. Russia’s persistent manipulation of media coverage on the Ukrainian crisis is re-shaping the crisis, and as a result, the way Russians view it, as support for Putin and Russia’s annexation of Crimea continues to grow among the Russia population.
In recent months we have seen numerous articles focusing on Russia’s manipulation of events on the ground. On March 5, the Daily Mail reported on a woman (also known as Tatiana Samoilenko) who portrayed at least five different roles appearing in various Russian TV and print media. This woman, accused by Ukrainians of being an actress, was interviewed and photographed playing multiple roles as an ‘aggrieved housewife’, a ‘soldier’s mother’ and a ‘Russian tourist’. In each interview, she referenced pro-fascist Ukrainian politicians and a sympathetic Russian homeland.
In another example, an article reported by the New York Times on April 20, references a man thought to be a member of pro-Russian forces, seen in multiple photographs. Not only did the man appear in photographs taken in the Ukrainian cities of Kramatork and Slovyank, but he also appeared in photographs from the Georgian conflict in 2008 and in recent photographs of Russian soldiers in Crimea and Slovyansk.
These two examples shed light on what some have referred to as Russia’s disguised warfare tactics. It is not just military intervention and tactics that are shaping the crisis. Despite Russia’s insistence that its forces lack direct involvement in the crisis, Russia appears to have put seemingly little effort into covering up evidence of its involvement on the ground. Ukrainians, along with the international community, are accusing Russia of employing individuals to play roles in the escalating crisis.
In addition to the manipulation of information externally, the stymieing of information and social media commentary internally plays a direct role in the crisis. Russian media enterprises deemed critical of the government have been either blocked or shut down. Prominent blogs, websites and radio stations continue to face restrictions, while their editors and top employees are dismissed from their jobs and in some cases arrested.
In an attempt to purge Russian media of all anti-government commentary, Russia continues to crack down on its traditional and social media sources. Most recently, the founder of Russia’s version of Facebook Pavel Durov was pushed out of his position after refusing to reveal the identities of users involved in pro-European Union protests in Ukraine. Not only was he forced into unemployment, he also felt the need to flee the country indefinitely.
Sadly, censorship of anti-government commentary extends further than the media industry. Universities and their faculty, such as the state-run Moscow State Institute of International Affairs (MGIMO), have come under intense scrutiny from the government. In March, two professors who voiced opposition and criticism of the government’s actions in the conflict were promptly dismissed from their positions.
As support for Putin among Russians continues to grow, time will tell whether Mother Russia’s attempts to control the story will continue to bear fruit or if opposition and international media will lead Russians to reject Mother Russia’s version, as fruit of the poisonous tree.
– Erica Dunham, Rendon Group Media Analyst
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