2021 Through the Prism of Kremlin Disinformation
The end of 2021 is approaching, but it seems that the pro-Kremlin disinformation will not end. This year, EUvsDisinfo added 2,700 new examples of pro-Kremlin disinformation to its database. This is what they wrote
Ukraine remains a major target of pro-Kremlin disinformation
About a third of all examples of pro-Kremlin disinformation in 2021 collected by EUvsDisinfo were aimed at Ukraine.
Amid escalating, more specifically, the grouping of the Russian military along Ukraine’s borders, the pro-Kremlin media continue to portray Ukraine as one of the latest aggressors (going so far as to accuse Ukraine of genocide against Russian-speaking people in Donbas) and as a helplessly hysterical a victim who cries out for Russian aggression or claims that the US and NATO will push Ukraine into war.
We have seen this kind of disinformation before, last time in March and April this year, during the grouping of the Russian army 1.0. Then, as now, the pro-Kremlin media tried to portray Ukraine as aggressive, abandoned by its partners and a country violating international agreements.
None of this is true, but such messages, made for a specific audience and then distributed in many languages, help the Kremlin achieve specific goals: at home – to paint a picture of Ukraine as an enemy and to mobilize support for the Kremlin’s foreign policy; in Ukraine – to divide and destabilize society, and internationally – to legitimize the Kremlin’s actions.
Supporters of the regime – radicalization of the state-controlled Belarusian media
Systematic brutal suffocation of civil society and independent media continues in Belarus. According to the Belarus Journalists’ Association, more than 260 journalists have been detained, searched, arrested or faced with administrative or criminal charges this year. Currently, 31 media workers are behind bars. Unfortunately, the total number of political prisoners in Belarus since 21 December remains 942.
According to Barys Haretski, vice-president of the Association of Journalists of Belarus, media organizations and journalists are under severe repression, and public discourse is almost completely suppressed.
With the destruction of the independent media, media personalities who remained in state-controlled media channels became even more ruthless in labelling anyone who dared to oppose Lukashenko’s regime.
Through hate speech, with implicit calls for violence against opposition activists, and the use of forced confessions of political prisoners as paid Youtube ads, this year the state-controlled Belarusian media proved that they are not just loyal servants of the regime, but his followers.
Not surprisingly, most state-controlled Belarusian “specialists”, along with their Russian counterparts, were prepared to take part in the Lukashenko regime’s efforts to instrumentalize migrants.
The narrative with pro-Lukashenko and pro-Kremlin disinformation continues to accuse the EU of the migration crisis and of trying to “destabilize” Belarus, trying to divert attention from the horrific record of human rights abuses by Lukashenko’s regime.
A positive thing in this situation is public opinion polls, which show that only a small minority of the population trusts the state-controlled media in Belarus. Meanwhile, trust in independent online media continues to grow, reaching 49.5% in January 2021.
Opportunistic convergence continues
In 2021, amid a global pandemic, we saw the pro-Kremlin and Chinese disinformation networks fused into conspiracy theories of “secret labs” as part of broader disinformation and manipulation of Covid-19 information.
There have been other cases of pro-Kremlin and Chinese common interests this year.
In particular, the pro-Kremlin media tended to reproduce and reinforce the Beijing narrative that denies human rights abuses against the Xinjiang Uyghur population.
State-controlled Russian and Chinese media have taken advantage of the crisis in Afghanistan to try to portray the United States as an “untrustworthy partner” and project their messages on key foreign and domestic policy issues: Ukraine and Taiwan.
The harmonization of state-controlled media messages does not necessarily mean the systematic coordination of (dis)information efforts. There are signs that the pro-Kremlin and Chinese disinformation actors are learning from each other.
In the midst of repression – a message of hope
2021 brought many disturbing events. In Russia, before the Russian Duma elections, there was unprecedented repression of independent media, with the media and journalists subject to routine detentions, raids, prosecutions, and arrests.
Disinformation about vaccines and Covid-19 continues, with pro-Kremlin efforts to bolster scepticism about Western-produced vaccines.
Alexei Navalny, who survived an assassination attempt last year, returned to Russia and was arbitrarily detained this year. The pro-Kremlin media has since tried hard to slander and underestimate his supporters.
However, 2021 is not a year of despair. There are always things that give hope. According to Pavel Andreev, co-owner of one of the few independent media outlets left in Russia, 7 × 7, there are signs of positive change every day.
The year that began with the politically motivated arrest of Alexei Navalny ended with a reception by Navalny’s daughter, on his behalf, at the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought in the European Parliament.
However, 2021 is not a year of despair. There are always things that give hope. According to Pavel Andreev, co-owner of one of the few independent media outlets left in Russia – 7 × 7, there are signs of positive change every day.
The year that began with the politically motivated arrest of Alexei Navalny ended with a reception by Navalny’s daughter, on his behalf, the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought in the European Parliament.
One of the founders and editors of the independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, Dmitry Muratov, won the Nobel Prize this year, along with journalist Maria Resa from the Philippines. This is a powerful message that “Journalism that is free, independent and fact-based serves to defend against the abuse of power, lies and military propaganda.” This is a message we can take with us next year.
On 18 December, Europe marked the 10th anniversary of the death of Czech statesman Vaclav Havel. At the end of 2021, EUvsDisinfo recalls one of his memorable sayings: “Truth and love must prevail over lies and hatred.”