Discord in Moscow’s disinformation machine

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On 4 May, Russia’s state-owned RIA Novosti news agency published an article claiming that employees of Qatar’s government-funded TV network Al Jazeera had helped film falsified videos of chemical attacks in Syria’s Idlib province. Attributing its information to a “military-diplomatic source,” RIA Novosti claimed Al Jazeera had paid 70 local residents with children from the refugee camps to participate in the videos. The article left no doubt that the use of paid “victims” put into doubt the fact that the 4 April gas attack—which killed 80 people—had even occurred. The same day, the story also appeared on Sputnik, RIA Novosti’s English-language outlet. Sputnik story claimed the Syria gas attack was “fake and staged.” Several Russian and Western media channels picked up the story—including U.S. financial blog ZeroHedge and the Estonian ultraconservative website Objektiiv

Al Jazeera responded by threatening legal action against Sputnik and accusing it of defamation by publishing fake news alleging that the network had filmed a staged chemical attack. Defamation is punishable by law in many developed countries. Even though Sputnik later admitted that it had based its original story on unconfirmed information, the falsehoods remained unchanged on other websites, including ZeroHedge and Objektiiv

What happened next deserves a chapter in any study of disinformation. Russian propaganda outlets don’t usually react to any debunking attempts, even if the outlet is informed about false facts via email. But this time, probably due to the threat of a lawsuit, Sputnik corrected its article the next day—stating that the claims had not been confirmed—and in a highly unusual move, apologized to its readers. But the apology was only temporary. Three days later, on 8 May, Sputnik did an about-face, changing the article again. This time it said that Russia’s Ministry of Defense had confirmed the story. And since the Defense Ministry’s information sources are classified, Sputnik said it was not required to prove the credibility of its sources. 

So even though in the end Sputnik didn’t admit it was spreading disinformation, three important conclusions can be made from this incident: first, the fact that Sputnik changed its article three times, apologizing for spreading disinformation, then retracting that apology and backing its original story with a source in the Russian Ministry of Defense, shows that Russia’s propaganda network may not be as coordinated as many analysts assume.

Second, legal measures can be an efficient tool to fight disinformation. In the last few months Sputnik has faced pushback in Finland, Sweden, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Slovakia when media agencies ended contracts with one of the main Kremlin propaganda channels. Even though ending cooperation is an efficient way to stop lies from spreading, laws can be even more so. Lying may not be against the law, but defamation is. Showing that defamation can lead to lawsuits and that the West is willing to fight back using legal measures may help stem the flow of disinformation. 

And third, the fact that second-hand sites participating in the disinformation chain like ZeroHedge and Objektiiv didn’t change their articles even after Al Jazeera threatened to sue shows that disinformation, once out, is almost uncontrollable.