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A look at Russia's information war on Ukraine

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

There are two battlefields in Russia's war on Ukraine. The first is on the ground and in the skies. The second conflict is playing out online, where Russia is using social media, traditional media and sympathetic allies to push false narratives, like the claim that Ukraine is run by Nazis with support from the U.S, as heard in this documentary from Russian state broadcaster RT.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: How is it possible that in the 21st century's third decade, Nazism has become the ideology of an entire state? And who's been assisting this process for decades?

SHAPIRO: NPR's Shannon Bond is following the information war and is here to explain. Hey, Shannon.

SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.

SHAPIRO: What are Russia's weapons in this information war?

BOND: Well, it's propaganda from state-backed media outlets, like that RT clip we just heard, fake accounts on Facebook and Twitter. It's forged documents, manipulated videos and images. And the broad aim here is to justify Russia's actions, to cast Ukraine as the aggressor and, ultimately, to undercut support for Ukraine. You know, and it's interesting, Ari, the Kremlin actually has been making these claims since long before the invasion, actually back to 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.

SHAPIRO: Some of the claims seem so outlandish. What is Russia's goal in propagating them? Do they actually expect people to believe that the Ukrainian government is run by Nazis when Zelenskyy is Jewish?

BOND: I mean, there are so many of these false narratives, right? There's also the denial of documented civilian atrocities. But the point here is more to create confusion and sow doubt, so it doesn't matter as much if people, you know, believe in all of these different claims. The strategy seems to be more throwing a lot at the wall and see what breaks through, and sometimes things do break through, right? There have been conspiracies that Ukraine is secretly developing bioweapons funded by the U.S. government, and that got traction on right-wing media here in the U.S., including on Fox News.

And then when you look to other parts of the world, like Latin America and Africa, you can see how Russia is really tailoring these messages for specific audiences. In many places in the global south, Russian-backed media has a lot of reach and influence, and they successfully tap the sort of anti-colonialist sentiment to encourage distrust of Western governments.

SHAPIRO: Is this entirely one-directional, or is Ukraine fighting back with disinformation of its own?

BOND: Well, there certainly is an effort in the Ukrainian government to counter Russia's disinformation, and there's this strong civil society in Ukraine that's really been built up fact-checking and, you know, pushing their own narratives. But the researchers I've spoken to say, you know, there is not the same level as what we see coming from Russia.

SHAPIRO: So how is this all working out for Russia?

BOND: We do see some countries, you know, that have been targeted sitting on the sidelines. Here's how Kyle Walter put it. He's head of research at Logically, a company that tracks online narratives.

KYLE WALTER: You've seen a lot of that manifest in different U.N. resolutions, for example. So particularly in Africa and Southeast Asia, you'll get - like, 15 of the 20 regional countries will abstain from the vote and maybe two or three actually condemn the invasion.

BOND: We're also seeing Russia relying on proxies, including far-right figures in Europe and the U.S., even figures in the Chinese government, Chinese media, who we've seen launder some of these claims into public conversation. Because, in some places, Russia's information operations have hit roadblocks, right? The big social media platforms like Facebook, they've restricted the reach of Russian state media. You know, they've cracked down on these networks of fake accounts that are trying to influence perceptions of the war.

SHAPIRO: When Russia invaded Ukraine, U.S. tech companies acted with kind of unprecedented speed. A year on, what impact have those actions had?

BOND: Yeah. Well, I mean, we've seen, as a result, Russia has had to adapt its tactics. So in some cases, they're turning to other online platforms, like TikTok and then particularly to the messaging app Telegram. That's been a really key battleground, especially for reports right from the ground. And at the same time, you know, we've seen Russia crack down at home. It's blocked its own citizens from accessing many big U.S. platforms, including Facebook and Instagram and Twitter. And this all underscores the way that communications and the global internet are fragmenting. Increasingly, this is not a single battlefield that Russia is competing on. It's having this fight across multiple fronts.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Shannon Bond, thanks a lot.

BOND: Thanks, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Shannon Bond is a business correspondent at NPR, covering technology and how Silicon Valley's biggest companies are transforming how we live, work and communicate.