In a 2016 paper, Christopher Paul and Miriam Matthews, both at RAND, described Russia’s model of digital propaganda as a “fire hose of falsehoods.” The operation, which Russia has been developing since at least its 2008 incursion into Georgia, is “high-volume and multichannel” — propagandistic memes, videos, social media posts and other content is produced in huge quantities and distributed across all forms of media. This great gusher of propaganda is characterized by a kind of chaos; because Russia’s messaging is produced in such high volume and because it often lacks any commitment to consistency or fidelity to objective reality, it seems aimed at confusing and overwhelming an audience just as easily as it persuades.
This might be the model’s great limit. Like, alas, a lot of media now, Russia’s fire hose can amplify conspiracy theories bubbling online and sow chaos and confusion in pockets of society — all of which can certainly be helpful to an aggressive, authoritarian state.
But how helpful? It’s very hard to say; the effectiveness of Russia’s internet chicanery has always been murky. I have read plausible theories, but after years of investigation, it still seems unlikely to me that Russia’s information operations made a decisive difference in the 2016 American presidential race — or even that they were any more significant than a half dozen other things that year, from the “Access Hollywood” tape to the Comey letter to that sniffy first debate. And with the world now clued in to Russia’s playbook, that race may have been the high-water mark for Putin’s digital meddling.
The Ukrainian crisis shows that the West has learned a lot about countering Russian propaganda in the past few years. Social media companies are now adept at spotting and removing Russian disinformation. The Biden administration has been masterful at “prebunking” Russia’s moves; by disseminating intelligence about Russian plans almost as quickly as it collects it, the White House has managed to embarrass and undermine Russian efforts to control the Ukraine story.
Then there’s the steadfast bravery and media wiliness of the Ukrainians, whom Helmus described as “a messaging adversary of the type Russia has never seen before.” As the Russian military bore down on their nation, Ukrainians began filling the internet with irresistible footage of their determination — the 79-year-old grandmother taking up arms against the invaders, the fearless young man kneeling in front of a Russian tank, the member of parliament who boasts on Fox News about kicking Putin’s derrière. In a series of inspirational battlefield dispatches, Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s president, has projected an air of heroic machismo of the sort that Putin has long tried to cultivate.
Putin, meanwhile, looks anything but macho. Over the past few weeks he has appeared mainly in awkward, possibly scripted encounters with his advisers, often featuring comically long tables. The tables are apparently meant as a precaution against Covid-19, but one so over the top that it’s hard not to see the Russian leader as paranoid and isolated.
Christopher Paul, of RAND, told me that assessing the effectiveness of Russia’s messaging strategy is difficult mainly because it’s the domestic audience that Putin cares about most, and it’s on that audience that Russia focuses its propaganda.