The Russian propaganda war is relentless. I have discovered a number of bizarre websites that purport to be the personal websites of various Ukrainian politicians, with email addresses and other contact details, but of course they are no such thing. They are just full of daily articles with relentless attacks upon the individuals’ personality, character, financial dealings, political arrangements and other such things that nobody would actually post about themselves. It’s very difficult to get these things taken down, because anyone can buy a website in the name of another person. Then you use various complex SEO optimisation techniques that I don’t really understand but that I think involve creating lots of other fictitious websites all of which link to your attack website, to make sure that when you Google the person’s name, the fictitious attack website comes up top. Then you use all these fake news articles you have created about the person to link to Wikipedia articles, which are also very well SEO optimised. It’s all so crazy. Moreover in my experience it is extremely difficult to get these things taken down. Wikipedia has proven slow and stubborn in deleting thing sort of thing, and internet service providers are liable to say “well, someone else bought this domain and they can do whatever they like with it”. The net result is a comprehensive network of Internet disinformation and defamation about an individual and it is a constant fight to get rid of it and undermine it.
Propaganda is as old as war itself. One aspect of propaganda has been the communication of misleading military messages - in other words, sending false military communications with the intention that they be intercepted by one’s enemy and therefore the enemy moves their troops or resources, for example, to the wrong place and you initiate your attack in a different place. The D-Day Landings in 1944, in which German-occupied France was invaded by the Allies from the southern English coast, used such methods for example. These sorts of trick are timeless and they are used in modern warfare just as they always have been. But propaganda more broadly is an attempt to demoralise the civilian population by discrediting their political leaders or other people of importance and respect within the community; to undermine individuals’ status so that they are incapable of leadership or commanding the admiration of others; and feeding false narratives to civilians both in the country with whom one is at war and amongst the wider international community that the war is going badly and/or this cause is not one worth fighting for.
Therefore the Russian intelligence services have engaged vast resources in trying to discredit Ukraine’s political leaders and other people in the West - including me - who are vocal advocates for Ukraine’s cause in embracing liberty, freedom, rule of law and resistance to Russian imperialism. They want to leave the impression amongst the civilian population that the people running Ukraine are corrupt and incompetent and that the country is a shambles and that the foreigners who support Ukraine are guilty of hyperbole. Some of this propaganda is intended for Ukrainian and international audiences and some of it is directed at domestic Russian audiences.
I myself have watched hours of mindless pro-Russian propaganda on institutions such as GazpromTV, a most unlovely Russian government television station that used to be popular in southern Ukraine until 2014 and remains popular in Pridnestrovia (the breakaway region of Moldova also known as “Transnistria”). This involves long detailed documentaries about the care that Russian soldiers are taking in the occupied territories to look after the elderly, the infirm and children, and the benign peacekeeping activities of the Russian Armed Forces, and all this total rot. The Russians are really very good at ploughing out relentless torrents of this garbage, and because in the former Soviet Union most people absorb their news by watching the television, it is very effective at inculcating wholly false beliefs on the part of the Russian population about the justice of the invasion of Ukraine and the behaviour of the Russian Armed Forces which has as we all know in truth been barbaric.
As the report of Robert Mueller, an American attorney and former Director of the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation, accurately pointed out, the Russian intelligence services have been highly adept in taking advantage of the lack of content control in the open source social media and other internet news and information outlets that the West has created. Facebook, Twitter, Wikipedia and a variety of other household names have become relied upon as reliable sources of information whereas in fact they are not. If anyone can write or edit a Tweet, article or webpage, than that anyone can include an employee or an agent of the Russian intelligence services. And the Russians employ these people in bucketloads, and they are busy taking advantage of all these various social media and internet outlets to propagate wholly false messages, including setting up fake websites about people and all sort of other things.
The legal system simply hasn’t got to grips with this sort of thing, and neither have the internal compliance departments of the various social media and other internet organisations such as Wikipedia and Twitter in responding to complaints that disinformation, defamation and propaganda is being spread which has an explicit or implicit pro-Russian propaganda agenda. With all respect to Mr Elon Musk, the owner of Twitter (now strangely renamed “X”), who has described himself as a “free speech absolutist” - and I have great respect for the principle of free speech - in touting this line he is affording free licence to those versed in the art of Russian propaganda and infiltrating western social media platforms and taking advantage of our principles of freedom of speech to ruin people’s reputations and to demoralise legitimate causes such as the defence of Ukraine. Because voters may acquire their news from social media, and because the attitudes of voters are relevant to issues such as Congressional approval for further funding for US support for Ukraine, we are finding the Russians investing massive resources in trying to undermine the pro-Ukrainian narrative that ought to dominate in the West amongst all right-thinking people.
The Mueller Report was universally lauded as an insightful account of the way the Russian intelligence services have used western social media and other internet products to undermine US democracy. The problem is that while everyone agreed with what Mr Mueller said, nobody seems to have acted upon it. Western legal systems are currently insufficient to grant adequate recourse to those who suffer as a result of Russian propaganda, and the compliance departments of these social media giants are too slow to react. Fundamental law reform in the West is therefore surely needed.