There's another conflict happening between Russia & Ukraine — an information war that's been waging for years
Concerns over Russia's involvement in Ukrainian media are long-standing
As worries over a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine grow, watchdogs say Russia has been waging an information war for years.
Media in both Russia and Ukraine have been spreading messages and disinformation favourable to Moscow — and more recently, pushing against the involvement of Western governments in Ukraine — on traditional and social media.
"These channels have been quite productive and efficient in working with their target audience," said Oleksandra Tsekhanovska, head of the Hybrid Warfare Analytical Group at the Ukraine Crisis Media Center, in an interview on CBC Radio's Day 6.
Tensions flared in recent weeks between the two countries, which technically have been at war since 2014. Tens of thousands of troops are believed to be stationed at Ukraine's eastern borders near Donbas, the region at the centre of the crisis, and U.S. intelligence suggests Russia plans to invade the country — a charge the Russian government denies.
G7 officials on Sunday told Russia to de-escalate the situation in Ukraine, warning of "massive consequences" and economic sanctions should it continue.
Concerns over Russia's involvement in Ukrainian media are long-standing, and successive Ukrainian governments began efforts to reduce Russia's influence at the start of the war.
In February, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky banned eight TV and media companies from broadcasting in the country, accusing them of spreading pro-Kremlin "propaganda." Seven years earlier, 14 television channels were banned from cable networks for the same reason.
Critics have called the moves a threat to media freedom, while proponents say the spread of lies and deliberate misinformation justifies the move. A small proportion of Ukrainians still prefer Russian television and access it online or via satellite.
But with access to Russian-produced media now limited in Ukraine, experts say the Kremlin's messages have become less favourable. Still, media companies owned by wealthy Ukrainian oligarchs tied to Moscow attempt to subtly influence viewers in favour of Russia.
"The messages that are being promoted, they're not blatant," said Marta Dyczok, an associate political science professor at Western University who studies Ukraine's media landscape, noting it's typically presented as disagreement between politicians and officials.
"It's more criticizing the Ukrainian authorities, which you could explain this is just more and more political posturing."
Shift from pro-Russia to anti-West narratives
Russia has been accused of spreading propaganda and disinformation both in Ukraine and through international media in an effort to sway opinion in favour of the country.
President Vladimir Putin, quoted by a state-run news agency on Thursday, said events in Donbas "resemble genocide," for example.
"That's completely out there, and it was already the narrative used, at the time, in the days leading [up to] and then even after the invasion of Crimea in 2014," said Dominique Arel, a political studies professor and chair of Ukrainian studies at University of Ottawa.
When it was announced that COVID-19 vaccines would be delivered to Ukraine, media messages sought to discredit those developed by Western nations while promoting the Russian-made Sputnik V vaccine, said Tsekhanovska.
Two characteristics distinguish Russian disinformation, she said.
First, narratives are systematically pushed through all available channels — from television and radio, to print, social media and even messaging apps, such as Telegram. In addition to that, the messages are adapted to the political situation at hand.
Recently, disinformation actors have homed in on issues that affect Ukrainians in daily life, going so far as to blame poor road conditions on Western involvement in the country.
"It feeds into the general framework of Russian disinformation in Ukraine that has been becoming increasingly anti-Western. So they're trying to be more subtle in what they do, and they are not as much pro-Russian as they are anti-Western and, unfortunately, it works," said Tsekhanovska.
Ukrainians worried about local issues, not politics
Seven years into the deadly war with Russia, Dyczok says that Ukrainians have become politically disengaged and crave information about the problems they face at home.
"Lots of people in Ukraine are not that interested in politics," said Dyczok. "They're interested in the larger issues and the bread and butter issues."
"They want peace; they want stability."
Trust in the media has taken a hit, with a 2020 report finding confidence in all forms of national and regional media — internet, TV, radio and print — has fallen after a rise in 2018. Among the reasons was that "negative information" prevailed, respondents said.
That same report found that while the popularity of Russia-based media has fallen, those who continue to consume it do so because it offers an alternative viewpoint, is more interesting to watch, and tends to "focus more on the positives."
Dyczok notes the creation of a public broadcaster in 2014 is helping to provide more balanced, trusted journalism in Ukraine.
With Russia's influence diminished, both Dyczok and Tsekhanovska say it's unlikely the media will have much impact on the escalating crisis at the border.
"Ukraine is very well aware about Russia bringing up troops closer to our borders, and I think a majority of our Western partners have gone a long way and have gained a deeper understanding on what is actually going on," said Tsekhanovska.
"I don't think they're going to be persuaded with this."
Written by Jason Vermes. Interview with Oleksandra Tsekhanovska produced by Rachel Levy-McLaughlin.