Propaganda, confusion, and an assault on press freedom as Russia attacks Ukraine

Overnight local time, as fears of an imminent Russian invasion of his country intensified, Volodymyr Zelensky, the president of Ukraine, went on TV and addressed the people of Russia, in Russian. Wearing a black suit and a grave expression, he stood in front of a yellow-and-blue flag, with Ukraine’s national trident symbol visible across a fold, and a map of the country on an illuminated white backdrop. He appealed to ordinary Russians—“activists, journalists, musicians, actors, athletes, scientists, doctors, bloggers, stand-up comedians, TikTokers, and many others”—and stressed their common humanity with Ukrainians. “They try to convince you otherwise,” he said. “I know that Russian TV won’t show my speech. But citizens of Russia need to see it. They need to see the truth. The truth is you need to stop before it’s too late.”

What Russian TV had been showing, in recent days, was a fresh wave of propaganda asserting that Zelensky’s forces have been perpetrating a “genocide” against the residents of two Russia-backed separatist regions that Putin mulled recognizing, then did recognize, in a two-act, made-for-TV play on Monday. State TV had teed Putin up by hyping bogus claims that Ukraine was shelling critical infrastructure, as well as heart-rending reports about the women and children who had to flee; the hysteria intensified through last night, when it reached, as Arkady Ostrovsky, The Economist’s Russia editor, put it, “full military swing and frenzy.” State media published two letters, dated Tuesday, in which separatist leaders appealed to Putin for help fighting “Ukraine’s aggression.” In the early hours of this morning, Moscow time, Putin went back on TV and declared that he had ordered a “special military operation” in Ukraine, aimed ostensibly at the “demilitarization and denazification” of the country. Putin said that he does not intend to occupy Ukraine, instead casting his goal as “defending people” against the “genocide.”

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Major US news sites quickly splashed the truth of Putin’s intentions in blunt banner headlines: “RUSSIA ATTACKS UKRAINE” (the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal); “RUSSIA INVADES UKRAINE” (CNN and NPR). Truth echoed, too, through the explosions that quickly unfurled in locations across Ukraine, though it was far from easy for reporters to get a handle on precisely where the explosions were happening, or what exactly was precipitating them. “We have gotten no clarity from authorities,” NBC’s Erin McLaughlin said from Kyiv, as the Russian attack got underway. “I’m standing here in the Ukrainian capital in a flak jacket and a helmet.” Around the same time, Matthew Chance was reporting live for CNN from a hotel rooftop, also in Kyiv, when he heard a bang somewhere behind him. “I probably shouldn’t have done the live shot here,” he said, before ducking out of view to put on his own flak jacket. 

For the last several hours, reporters on the ground and covering the situation remotely have been trying together to build a clearer picture of Russia’s attack through a dense fog of war. After reports of a Russian takeover of Mariupol, a city in the Donetsk region that has been claimed by separatists but was not yet under Russian control, reporters including NBC’s Richard Engel drove around and reported that that wasn’t true (Ukraine’s army later claimed that it had “retaken” the city after “heavy fighting”); experts in open-source intelligence worked to verify and geolocate photos and video footage circulating on social media, and grew exasperated with accounts (including belonging to news outlets) reposting old photos for clicks—or more nefarious purposes. (According to the internet expert Joan Donovan, one online hoax claimed that an American journalist had been killed in Ukraine.) The emerging bigger picture, perhaps unusually, was somewhat easier to see than the detail, and cable-news pundits and commentators quickly zoomed out to take stock of it. “It is no exaggeration,” Jeremy Cliffe wrote in the New Statesman, “to say that we are probably at some form of turning point in history.” 

Back on Russian state TV, the picture was, again, very different. Rossiya-24 largely ignored goings-on outside of the separatist regions; “likely correctly,” The Guardian’s Andrew Roth wrote, “they think that many Russians don’t want to see videos of their missiles hitting cities like Kyiv, Kharkiv, Mariupol, and Kharkiv.” A top-selling tabloid took a similar tack. One channel reportedly ridiculed Western-media hysteria about an invasion even though an invasion had begun. State outlets relayed official claims that Ukrainian troops were abandoning their posts, but Ukraine denied this. “The disconnect between propaganda on Russian state media and what’s being covered on the few independent sites left is jaw dropping,” CNN’s Bianna Golodryga tweeted this morning. “It’s clear now why Putin spent the past year choking them off.”

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Golodryga was referring to a recent clampdown on press freedom in Russia (which I’ve chronicled in this newsletter), with Putin’s regime tarring numerous journalists and outlets as “foreign agents”—a designation that comes with onerous regulatory requirements, in addition to the Soviet-sounding stigma—while forcing some into exile and effectively criminalizing one news organization as “undesirable”; officials have also expelled foreign reporters, including one from the BBC. According to Meduza, an independent Russian outlet now based in Latvia, Russia’s media regulator this morning ordered news outlets to only report information about Ukraine from official sources, threatening them with fines and censorship if they spread “false information.” One news site already complied with an order to delete a story about explosions in Ukraine. Staffers at another media group were reportedly told to shut down their social-media accounts on presidential orders, with criticism of the Kremlin now grounds for termination.

The censorship hasn’t stopped some high-profile Russian journalists from speaking out against the invasion. Novaya Gazeta, an independent newspaper, said it would publish its next edition in both Russian and Ukrainian, with Dmitry Muratov, the paper’s Nobel Peace Prize-winning editor, expressing feelings of “shame as well as sorrow” in a video posted to social media while also calling on an “anti-war movement of Russians” to “save lives.” Elena Chernenko, a journalist at Kommersant, published a critical open letter signed by a hundred and seventy journalists and academics. Nataliya Gumenyuk, a Ukrainian journalist based in Kyiv, said that a “famous Russian independent journalist,” whom Gumenyuk had never met, called her for a quote after the explosions began, and begged for forgiveness for Russia. “Both of us are experienced reporters and used to covering hard stories, conflicts,” Gumenyuk wrote. “We talked, and we cried.”

This morning, Zelensky made another video, this one apparently filmed on a mobile device in front of an ornate wall, and addressed the people of Ukraine; he called on them to support the country’s armed forces, and promised that he would provide new information on an hourly basis to combat the proliferation of “fake” stories spreading online. He also addressed Russians again. “I know this is not being shown on your TV channels, and much on social media is blocked,” he said. “But this evil, to eliminate a nation, cannot be blocked. You cannot block history.”

Below, more on Russia and Ukraine:

  • Open source: As Russian troops rolled into eastern Ukraine earlier this week, researchers sharing images and intelligence from the ground on social media found that their Twitter accounts were unexpectedly suspended. “Researchers raised concerns that the account suspension could have been part of a mass reporting campaign intended to disable OSINT accounts during a Russian invasion,” Corin Faife writes for The Verge. “In a statement, Twitter spokesperson Elizabeth Busby said that action had been taken against these accounts in error and was not part of a coordinated campaign.”
  • Media tit-for-tat: Yesterday, Britain’s culture minister wrote to the country’s independent media regulator and suggested that it take action against the Russian state broadcaster RT should it spread “harmful disinformation” about the invasion of Ukraine; the regulator replied that it was closely monitoring the situation and that it would “not be acceptable for any of our licensees to broadcast one-sided propaganda.” Various British journalists warned that any ban on RT would be a mistake since the Kremlin would likely retaliate against the BBC, whose presence in Russia is urgently needed right now. Meanwhile, European officials moved to sanction Margarita Simonyan, RT’s top editor.
  • Mixed messages? The government of China, which has increasingly cozied up to Russia of late, has trodden carefully since Putin sent troops into eastern Ukraine earlier in the week, acknowledging Russia’s security concerns without endorsing its moves. As Politico’s Stuart Lau reports, the difficulties of such delicate messaging have been on display in Chinese state media, with different outlets using different language to refer to the separatist regions that Russia has recognized. According to the Washington Post, meanwhile, a state-tied news account “appeared to accidentally post instructions on Ukraine coverage”—nothing anti-Russia or pro-West—to Weibo, a social-media platform.
  • ‘Live’ from Moscow: On Monday, Russian state TV broadcast a “spontaneous” meeting between Putin and his security council; supposedly, the broadcast was live, but eagle-eyed observers noticed that the watch on the wrist of Putin’s defense minister told a different story. Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s top spokesperson, later admitted that the meeting was not only pre-taped, but also edited: “There were no ‘live’ spots because it was not shown live. Certain nuances of the Security Council did not appear on the air.” 
  • Watching: Prior to today’s attack, Jane Lytvynenko, a US-based Ukrainian journalist and researcher who has covered disinformation, wrote for The Atlantic that she can’t stop watching a livestream that Reuters set up to monitor Independence Square in Kyiv, saying that it has helped her process this moment. The livestream “is different from all the noise,” Lytvynenko writes. “Nothing’s fake here; there’s no algorithm; and once I hide the live chat, there isn’t even a conversation to parse. It’s not a green screen against which TV pundits discuss Russia’s next move. The livestream is not trying to convince me of anything; it’s just showing me things as they are.”
  • Zelensky: Ukraine’s president, a former comedian, has generally benefited from favorable Western media coverage as Russia has aggressed his country, but Olga Rudenko, the editor in chief of the Kyiv Independent, sees him differently. “Mr. Zelensky, the showman and performer, has been unmasked by reality. And it has revealed him to be dispiritingly mediocre,” Rudenko wrote for the Times this week. “After his nearly three years in office, it’s clear what the problem is: Mr. Zelensky’s tendency to treat everything like a show.” She also notes that he is “thin-skinned” and has a “tense relationship with the press.”


Other notable stories:

  • Lawyers for Sarah Palin told Jed Rakoff, the judge who threw out their libel suit against the Times before a jury reached the same verdict last week, that they plan to file a series of motions that would seek, among other things, to quiz jurors who got push notifications about Rakoff’s decision while they were still deliberating, the “factual circumstances” of Rakoff’s communications with the media while proceedings were still ongoing, and a new trial. Rakoff described the motions as “interesting” (not a compliment, apparently), and seemed annoyed by the suggestion that he talked to the press during the trial.
  • In media-jobs news, Bhaskar Sunkara, the founder of Jacobin, will be the next president of The Nation, where he’ll oversee publishing and business strategy. Elsewhere, Jonathan Abbott will step down as president and CEO of the Boston public-media outfit GBH. After a spell in interim charge, Bro Krift has been named as the executive editor of the Indianapolis Star on a permanent basis. And People tapped Liz Vaccariello, the former editor in chief of Real Simple, as its new top editor, replacing Dan Wakeford.
  • According to Puck’s Dylan Byers, Jen Psaki, who is expected to step down as White House press secretary this year, has designs on becoming a cable-news host and has already been “feverishly courted” by CNN and MSNBC. Bosses at CNN reportedly think that Psaki has “the potential to become a marquee star,” both on TV and at its new streaming service; bosses at MSNBC may see her as a successor for Rachel Maddow.
  • The AP’s Philip Marcelo has an update on The Emancipator, a revived version of America’s first abolitionist newspaper that’s expected to launch later this year. “I like to say it’s anti-racism, every day, on purpose,” Deborah Douglas, its co-editor, said. “We are targeting anyone who wants to be a part of the solution to creating an anti-racist society because we think that leads us to our true north, which is democracy.”
  • Yesterday, the Post launched “Climate Diaries,” a new weekly series “that provides an intimate look at the daily lives of people who live climate-conscious lifestyles.” Diarists “will shed light on practices including zero waste, composting, low-waste parenting, the use of toxic-free products, including makeup and beauty, among others.” The journalist and climate advocate Sophia Li is up first; you can read her diary here.
  • For the Times, Stuart A. Thompson explores how right-wing media figures and COVID conspiracy theorists fled Google for DuckDuckGo, a smaller search engine that they see as likelier to surface “links favorable to their views.” A Times analysis “matched results from two recent studies, which concluded that Bing’s algorithm”—which DuckDuckGo uses—“surfaced content more supportive of conspiracy theories than Google did.”
  • Earlier this week, a media regulator in Turkey demanded that the US-funded outlet Voice of America and the German public broadcaster Deutsche Welle apply for licenses in the country, where free media is increasingly restricted. Both organizations have since refused the order, on the grounds that it would give Turkish authorities greater powers to censor their content. Their websites could now be blocked in Turkey; Reuters has more.
  • And Jason Lee, of the pop-culture blog Hollywood Unlocked, stood by his earth-shaking scoop that the Queen is dead (even though she isn’t), telling BuzzFeed’s Brianna Sacks and Ade Onibada that he heard the news from a guest at the editor of British Vogue’s wedding, which the Queen supposedly had been due to attend. (Also no.) A source told BuzzFeed that “there may have been a misunderstanding related to the death of Queens of the Stone Age singer Mark Lanegan, who actually died unexpectedly Tuesday.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.

TOP IMAGE: Smoke rise from an air defence base in the aftermath of an apparent Russian strike in Mariupol, Ukraine, Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022. Russian troops have launched their anticipated attack on Ukraine. Big explosions were heard before dawn in Kyiv, Kharkiv and Odesa as world leaders decried the start of Russian invasion that could cause massive casualties and topple Ukraine's democratically elected government. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)