Putin No Longer Seems Like a Master of Disinformation

Late last week, as it started to become clear that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine had united much of the world in condemnation of Vladimir Putin, I turned on my favorite international propagandist network, Russia Today, to see how the horror was being justified.

And thus I discovered the real instigator of Europe’s worst conflict in decades: Karens.

“We have these people called ‘Karens,’ and they’re able to become angry at the drop of a hat,” said Lionel, an American conspiracist and right-wing pundit who has frequently contributed to Russia Today. In an interview with an RT anchor, Lionel — who, like Madonna, goes by one name — suggested that the collective denunciation of Russia’s actions in Ukraine was as unhinged as demanding to speak to the manager about some minor customer-service flap: “We are being conditioned to overreact to everything — and this Ukraine situation is no different,” he said.

Honestly, it was kind of sad. One does not expect much sophistication from Russia Today, the Russian government-funded television and internet outlet that has long been a haven for conspiracy theories and populist, anti-Western propaganda. Yet I was not prepared for the ineffectual clownishness of some of the arguments that RT has lately floated in defense of the invasion. And that was when RT mentioned the attack at all — many times in the past week I found the network mostly ignoring the present crisis and instead showing reruns of a grievance-laden documentary about Ukraine’s history originally aired in November.

The overall impression has been one of surprising flat-footedness. Although Putin has been obsessed with Ukraine for decades and, according to U.S. intelligence, has been amassing forces for this invasion for months, Russia’s premier international mouthpiece appeared to be caught off guard by the incursion. It’s as if its programmers had actually believed Russian officials’ recent denials of any plans to invade.

Ever since the 2016 election, when Russian operatives hacked and leaked the Democratic National Committee’s email and ginned up fake Facebook and Twitter posts to aid Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, Putin has enjoyed a reputation in the West as a wizard of the digital dark arts. With its “troll factories,” its fluency with divisive meme culture and its military’s apparent facility with politically valuable hacking plots, Russia’s “information operations” have been called a grave new threat to global democracy. During the Trump presidency, Putin became an all-purpose boogeyman for some on the American left — everywhere you looked, people were turning up supposedly scary evidence of a hidden Russian hand in media and politics.

In the Ukraine invasion, though, we are seeing that Russian influence has significant limits — and perhaps the unraveling of the myth of Putin’s mastery over global discourse. Whatever the military and geopolitical outcome in Ukraine, it’s already clear that Russia has suffered a public-relations catastrophe. Repudiation of the invasion has been swift, forceful and widespread — spanning adversaries and even a few Russian allies and acolytes, and crossing from the world of foreign affairs into culture, sports and business. Even Putin admirers like Tucker Carlson and Trump himself have been forced to walk back early praise for Putin’s designs on Ukraine.

“They’re just reading the room,” said Todd Helmus, a behavioral scientist at the RAND Corporation who analyzes Russian propaganda. “Anyone who’s been watching this can see that Russia has been struggling to build any kind of narrative to support what it’s doing.”

There are many theories for why Russian propaganda about Ukraine has fallen so flat. Perhaps the most obvious is that the invasion is just too ugly a pig to pretty up — an act so baldly unjustified that no amount of propaganda could set it right.

But we’re seeing something else, too: that our fear of Russian domination over digital discourse may have always been a little overblown.

In a 2016 paper, Christopher Paul and Miriam Matthews, both at RAND, described Russia’s model of digital propaganda as a “fire hose of falsehoods.” The operation, which Russia has been developing since at least its 2008 incursion into Georgia, is “high-volume and multichannel” — propagandistic memes, videos, social media posts and other content is produced in huge quantities and distributed across all forms of media. This great gusher of propaganda is characterized by a kind of chaos; because Russia’s messaging is produced in such high volume and because it often lacks any commitment to consistency or fidelity to objective reality, it seems aimed at confusing and overwhelming an audience just as easily as it persuades.

This might be the model’s great limit. Like, alas, a lot of media now, Russia’s fire hose can amplify conspiracy theories bubbling online and sow chaos and confusion in pockets of society — all of which can certainly be helpful to an aggressive, authoritarian state.

But how helpful? It’s very hard to say; the effectiveness of Russia’s internet chicanery has always been murky. I have read plausible theories, but after years of investigation, it still seems unlikely to me that Russia’s information operations made a decisive difference in the 2016 American presidential race — or even that they were any more significant than a half dozen other things that year, from the “Access Hollywood” tape to the Comey letter to that sniffy first debate. And with the world now clued in to Russia’s playbook, that race may have been the high-water mark for Putin’s digital meddling.

The Ukrainian crisis shows that the West has learned a lot about countering Russian propaganda in the past few years. Social media companies are now adept at spotting and removing Russian disinformation. The Biden administration has been masterful at “prebunking” Russia’s moves; by disseminating intelligence about Russian plans almost as quickly as it collects it, the White House has managed to embarrass and undermine Russian efforts to control the Ukraine story.

Then there’s the steadfast bravery and media wiliness of the Ukrainians, whom Helmus described as “a messaging adversary of the type Russia has never seen before.” As the Russian military bore down on their nation, Ukrainians began filling the internet with irresistible footage of their determination — the 79-year-old grandmother taking up arms against the invaders, the fearless young man kneeling in front of a Russian tank, the member of parliament who boasts on Fox News about kicking Putin’s derrière. In a series of inspirational battlefield dispatches, Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s president, has projected an air of heroic machismo of the sort that Putin has long tried to cultivate.

Putin, meanwhile, looks anything but macho. Over the past few weeks he has appeared mainly 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 one so over the top that it’s hard not to see the Russian leader as paranoid and isolated.

Christopher Paul, of RAND, told me that assessing the effectiveness of Russia’s messaging strategy is difficult mainly because it’s the domestic audience that Putin cares about most, and it’s on that audience that Russia focuses its propaganda.

“In the U.S., we’re kind of in the fourth ring of B.S.,” Paul told me. Not to mention: Crafty memes are the least of our problems with Russia right now.

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