Last week, the Russian Defense Ministry released video footage proving that American forces in Syria have been allowing Islamic State fighters to escape from besieged cities.
Or that, at least, is what the Russians claimed. It took a few days for fact-checkers at Conflict Intelligence Team and Bellingcat, private organizations devoted to debunking disinformation, to figure out that the alleged evidence was completely fake. Among their findings: Some of the images had been lifted from a two-year-old video game trailer. Others came from 2015 footage issued by the Iraqi Defense Ministry.
Caught in the act, the Russian ministry has since admitted that it used fake evidence — and then repeated the allegations using new video material.
This story is but one example of how Moscow’s state-sponsored lie machine keeps cruising along even as its operations are being unveiled around the world. You might have thought, given all the attention to Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election, that the Kremlin would try to tone things down. Or at least be a little more subtle about it.
But you’d be wrong. Just take Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, one of the Putin regime’s most brazen apologists. During her appearance on a nationally televised talk show at the end of October, she made a throwaway remark: “Recall these fantastic, mind-boggling photographs of how Bin Laden was hosted in the White House,” she said.
She was referring to a notorious fake photo that started circulating on the Internet in 2015. The anonymous creators photoshopped Osama bin Laden onto an image of Hillary Clinton greeting an Indian musician in 2004. Debunkers have repeatedly exposed the forgery, and one can assume that Zakharova was perfectly aware of that fact. But that didn’t stop her from disseminating it to millions of Russian TV viewers.
(This is the same Zakharova, by the way, who made the following comment to another TV audience last year: “If you want to know what will happen in America, who do you have to talk to? You have to talk to the Jews, naturally.”)
There’s nothing covert about the stories I’ve mentioned. All of this is happening in plain sight, courtesy of senior officials, not marginal wingnuts. Indeed, it was Vladimir Putin himself who recently touted the idea that the United States has been collecting tissue samples from Russian citizens in order to perfect a bio-weapon targeting them as a group. “Why are they going to different ethnic groups and to people living in different geographical locations across Russia?” the president asked. “Why are they doing this?” Predictably, a whole host of other officials immediately took up the idea, spinning ever more elaborate conspiracy theories. (To their credit, some Russian biologists pointed out that the story was scientifically nonsensical.)
One can only imagine what effect all this has on Russians themselves, who have little access to information that isn’t government-approved. But the impact of these nefarious fantasies isn’t limited to the domestic audience. Once they’re injected into the global information ecosystem, it’s almost impossible to kill them off entirely. Members of the Iranian media, for example, were perfectly happy to pick up Putin’s tale of American bio-war, which, of course, they happily repeated at face value.
The reality is that spreading disinformation continues to earn dividends for the Russians. They can go right on spreading confusion and chaos at minimal cost. They increase their influence over the politics of other countries without having to confront them directly. And they have yet to pay a political price. The United States has never really retaliated against Moscow for its 2016 cyberattacks. Nor, despite mounting evidence of Russian involvement in the Brexit vote and the domestic politics of other European countries, is there any sign that London or Brussels is prepared to push back in any serious way.
Perhaps we’ll never be able to get them to stop. It’s hard to escape the sense that Moscow is now so caught up in its own mischief-making that it doesn’t know how to put on the brakes. When a Russian TV show claims, as one did this month, that the West supported the Chechen terrorists who staged attacks on a Moscow theater in 2002 and on a school in Beslan in 2004, who inside the country is going to stand up and challenge that version of reality? (In fact, the West had nothing to do with the attacks, and the NATO-Russia Council roundly condemned them.)
And how is the rest of the world supposed to cope when the lies just keep coming? Are we supposed to debunk every fake story – like the one last month, when Russian state TV announced that a New York restaurant had created a special hamburger in honor of President Putin?
By now, experts have come up with some useful countermeasures – including greater attention to media literacy (to help audiences get better at telling fact from fiction) and real-time analysis of Russian information operations (so that we know precisely what they’re up to). All good suggestions. But the Russians are a long way from giving up. When are we finally going to do something?
By Christian Caryl.