By Paul Goble
Lies are one thing; disinformation quite another, as the late Nathalie Grant warned decades ago. The first can muddy the waters but are typically quickly exposed by anyone who examines them. They have a far greater and long lasting influence because the lies are wrapped in facts.
Indeed, one could say that the flood of lies is nothing but a means to make disinformation more effective because those who recognize these falsehoods may deceive themselves when it comes to more carefully constructed narratives of disinformation which are accepted because so many parts of them are true.
Consequently, identifying such disinformation and carefully sifting the lies it contains that are surrounded by facts is a far more important but also far more difficult task than simply unmasking lies. The latter may make those who do it feel better; but only the former can protest us against those who deploy disinformation skillfully.
That makes a new article by US-based Russian journalist Kseniya Kirillova especially important. Indeed, in many ways, it is a model of the challenge the world faces in dealing with Russian disinformation and the care that needs to be exercised in exposing and thus countering it (ru.krymr.com/a/28334404.html).
Last week, she notes, the Ukrainian media was filled with stories that Ukrainian defense plants were selling military equipment to Russia. The reports cited the conclusions of the distinguished Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) and even appeared plausible given that Ukrainian plants had supplied Russian ones before 2014.
Such stories have two target audiences: Ukrainians who might conclude that their elites were betraying them and their country out of greed, and Europeans who might conclude that there was no reason to defend Ukraine or maintain sanctions on Russia for its invasion if the Ukrainians weren’t willing to prevent such sales.
But the stories, however plausible and apparently fact-based they appeared to be, were entirely false. Indeed, as experts at the Kyiv Center for Research on the Army, Conversion and Disarmament point out, those behind this disinformation did not report accurately even about what SIPRI did say.
Mikhail Samus, deputy head of the center, notes that “it is important to understand that SIPRI did not publish precisely the information” these stories contained. Instead, the stories were based on its own collective summaries of materials rather than on the actual evidence the Stockholm institute gathered.
For journalists who choose to rely on the summaries rather than on the report itself, the stories placed in the Ukrainian media appear accurate, whereas those who examine the SIPRI study will see that such conclusions are not only inaccurate but designed to hide what SIPRI did highlight in its latest report: Russian arms shipments to its forces in the Donbass and Crimea.
And one Ukrainian journalist, Aleksandr Demchenko, adds that the way in which SIPRI presented the data it has on Ukrainian arms sales further confused the situation. The Swedish center based its findings not on data from the last year but rather for a five-year-period, from 2012 to 2016, which includes a time when Ukrainian firms did supply Russian ones.
Moscow is only too pleased to use such “inaccuracies” to discredit Ukraine in Europe and to hide its own illegal supply of weapons to its own forces and clients in the Donbass and to Russian-occupied Crimea. By pushing the inaccurate story of Ukrainian arms sales at the same time and with the same sources, Moscow at least in part has achieved its goals.
Exposing this kind of thing, as Kirillova has done here, is far more difficult and time-consuming that simply pointing to lies, but it is also far more important. And as she notes, “this isn’t the first such case” since Russia invaded Ukraine; and it certainly won’t be the last either there or elsewhere.