Read it in Russian/Читайте эту статью на русском: Кремлёвские зазеркальные войны
Fake news stories. Doctored photographs. Staged TV clips. Armies of paid trolls. Has Putin’s Russia developed a new kind of information warfare – fought in the ‘psychosphere’ rather than on the battlefield? Or is it all just a giant bluff
The thing that Margo Gontar found easiest to deal with were the dead children. They were all over her computer screens – on news sites and social media – next to headlines that blamed the deaths on Ukrainian fascist gangs trained by Nato. It was early 2014, Crimea had just been taken over by soldiers who seemed Russian and sounded Russian but who were wearing no national insignia, and who Vladimir Putin, with a little grin, had just told the whole world were not Russian at all. Now eastern Ukraine was being taken over by separatists. Gontar was trying to fight back.
She could usually locate the original images of the dead with a simple Google search. Some of the photographs were actually from other, older wars; some were from crime scenes that had nothing to with Ukraine; some even came from movies. Gontar posted her research on a myth-busting website called StopFake, which had been started in March by volunteers like her at the journalism school of Mohyla University in Kiev. It felt good being able to sort truth from lies, to feel some kind of certainty amid so much confusion.
But sometimes things could get more complicated. Russian state-television news began to fill up with plump, weeping women and elderly men who told tales of Ukrainian nationalists beating up Russian-speakers. These witnesses seemed genuine enough. But soon Gontar would see the same plump women and the same injured men appearing in different newscasts, identified as different people. In one report, a woman would be an “Odessa resident”, then next she would be a “soldier’s mother”, then a “Kharkiv resident” and then an “anti-Maidan activist”.