Laura Edelson, co-founder of NYU Tandon’s Cybersecurity for Democracy, unpacks the Russian disinformation campaign in the Ukrainian War

mobile phone with map of ukraine and backdrop of fact news

Amidst the war in Ukraine, the U.S. Department of State has discovered that several Russian military and intelligence entities are engaged in a campaign of malicious disinformation to paint Ukraine as an aggressor, influence Western countries into believing Ukraine’s behavior has provoked the current conflict, and convince Russian citizens that military action was unavoidable. From claiming that victims of an attack on a Ukrainian hospital were paid actors in a false-flag operation to asserting that the U.S. is providing Ukraine with biological weapons, disinformation is being spread throughout the Russian media and beyond. 

On April 7, Laura Edelson — Ph.D. candidate, co-founder of Cybersecurity for Democracy and the Facebook Ad Observatory with Assistant Professor Damon McCoy, and member of the NYU Tandon Center for Cybersecurity — was joined by Joshua Tucker, co-director of the NYU Center for Social Media and Politics and NYC Media Lab associate director and discussion moderator Iryna Lambrianides for the NYU Tandon NYC Media Lab’s: A Conversation on Ukraine War Disinfo

In a wide-ranging conversation that touched upon several aspects of Russia’s disinformation and propaganda campaign, Edelson pointed out something a little surprising: it’s not really working. While truth is generally the first casualty of war, as the aphorism goes, dedicated journalists, social media activists, and efforts on the part of Western governments have worked hard to ensure that the Russian government’s barrage of disinformation is not successful. Social media platforms disseminating accurate information and quickly distributing time-stamped videos have made it increasingly difficult for President Putin to deny that his military is committing war crimes, and his government is now having to work hard to maintain an iron grip on its information ecosystem. 

Other major takeaways from Edelson:

  • In more good news, the Russians have not been able to create a believable deep fake video of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, despite having ample footage of the former actor and the motivation and money to do so — revealing a major deficiency in Russia's technical prowess.
  • The Russians seem to have no set, effective information strategy: they initially made blanket statements about Ukraine being ruled by Nazis, pivoted to a false bioweapons narrative, and are now on the defensive, forced to respond reactively to U.S. “prebunking,” the process of debunking lies, tactics, or sources before they are even deployed.
  • Such prebunking requires the U.S. to reveal intel to the public that it might otherwise have kept confidential to protect sources, and while that may have ramifications in the future (if, for example, sources become reluctant to come forward), right now it is paying dividends.
  • In addition to prebunking specific potential false claims, better general communication about what is known can help prevent “information vacuums” that make it easier for misinformation to spread.
  • The Kremlin has misread the conflict because of a classic “autocracy trap”: for a leader, particularly one who has been as isolated as Putin during the pandemic, it’s difficult to get honest information from advisors.
  • There’s a strong connection between what is happening online and the ground war. In Bucha and Mauripol, for instance, soldiers feel justified in committing atrocities because of the lies generated by the Russian propaganda machine. The information war, in effect, feeds the ground war, and when accurate information about the military’s actions is repressed, the cycle continues. 

The lively and timely discussion was hosted by the NYC Media Lab, which offers many events that advance the conversation around NYU Tandon's areas of research excellence, including but not limited to emerging media, cybersecurity, AI, and more.