Firehose of Falsehoods: Russian propaganda is increasingly looking like an existential problem for the West that it is not yet able to effectively address

The dissemination of Russian propaganda is becoming an increasingly serious problem for the West, that it cannot effectively deal with. The narratives disseminated by the Kremlin are helping Moscow gain favour not only in the Global South, but also in Western countries themselves. Even the sanctions imposed by the EU after Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine has been unable to deter the spread of propaganda: the leading propaganda resources are finding new ways to circumvent the restrictions and get their message across. Extreme left and right-wing politicians in Western countries also play a role in propaganda campaigns, and their rhetoric increases the effectiveness of propaganda. In a global and open information network, blocking and banning ‘brands’ does not work well and leads only to the ‘mimicry of disinformation’. The West lacks the resources to counter the power of Russian propaganda and the understanding of how to fight it. For both Moscow and its opponents, however, the struggle is essentially existential: defeat would be an extremely serious blow to the population's way of life and shared values. The West and democratic forces need to find their own mobilising narratives that will be able to reach not only those who are already ‘on the side of good’, but also those who have a variety of grievances against certain aspects of the Western way of life.

The Global Kremlin in the Global South and Global West

As the European Parliament elections and the US presidential election approach, the influence of Russian propaganda is an increasingly worrying matter for Western politicians. However, attempts to counteract it so far appear to have been rather feeble. And the problem is not at the executive level.

The effectiveness of Russian propaganda is particularly noticeable in the Global South, the Royal United Services Institute for Defence Studies (RUSI) noted in a recent commentary. Its influence is attributed to the fact that 26 African countries refused to support a UN resolution condemning Russian aggression in Ukraine, and that the populations of a number of countries across the continent have called for the deployment of Russian troops and the expansion of partnerships with Russia

Another region where Russia has strengthened its ideological influence has been the Middle East. For several years, Moscow has been developing platforms targeting Arabic-speaking audiences. The Arabic-language RT Arabish TV channel has become one of the most popular news sites in the region (after and, publishing content two to three times more frequently than Al-Jazeera or the BBC. This enables Moscow to effectively spread propaganda messages to millions of people in the region. A 2022 Arab Youth Survey conducted of young people in 53 cities in 18 Arab states showed that most of them blame the US and NATO, not Russia, for the war in Ukraine.

In Latin America, the US State Department has assessed that the Russian government is conducting a ‘well-funded disinformation campaign’ to manipulate the information environment and public opinion. Media outlets such as RT en Español, Sputnik Mundo and Sputnik Brasil serve as the main tools of this campaign. RT en Español, for example, has more than 17 million subscribers and is actively opening new offices across the continent. Moscow is successfully using these platforms to turn the local audience against the US and the West more generally, according to RUSI. CEPA notes that the influence of Russian propaganda is also evident in the Balkans, where its main tools are the Sputnik Serbia agency and the Belgrade-based RT Balkan TV channel, which provide local news outlets with pro-Kremlin content. According to a recent opinion poll, 49% of Serbians, 31% of Montenegrins and 27% of citizens in Bosnia and Herzegovina believe that Russia's invasion of Ukraine is ‘justified’.

However, some politicians and experts believe that pro-Russian narratives are finding fertile ground in Western countries themselves. In April, against the backdrop of the ongoing blocking by the US Congress of an American aid package for Ukraine, the head of the House Intelligence Committee, Republican Mike Turner, told The Washington Post that some of his fellow congressmen were rebroadcasting Russian propaganda about the invasion of Ukraine. The chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Republican Michael McCaul, said in an interview with Puck News, that Russian propaganda has ‘infected a significant portion’ of his party members. Russian propaganda is also very successful in Germany, the German Centre for Liberal Modernity (ZLM) has noted in a report. Here, it comes from a network of Moscow-controlled information resources that spread disinformation designed to intimidate and alarm the German public. The stories portray the German government as incompetent and unable to deal with issues such as the influx of refugees, energy prices and inflation. 

According to a study by the German Centre for Monitoring, Analysis, and Strategy (CeMAS), in 2022, nearly one in five German respondents agreed with the statement that the Russian invasion of Ukraine was provoked by NATO, while another 21% partially agreed. Pro-Kremlin narratives are often repeated in speeches by left-wing German politician Sarah Wagenknecht. In her January 2023 ‘Manifesto for Peace’, and supported by the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, she called for the suspension of military aid to Ukraine. In February 2024, VIGINUM, the French state agency responsible for defence against foreign digital interference, reported that it had discovered a ‘structured and coordinated’ network of websites that disseminate Russian propaganda in Western countries to portray the Russia-Ukraine conflict in a positive light for Moscow. 

Bans, blockades and the ‘mimicry of disinformation’

In March 2022, the European Union banned Russia Today (RT) and a number of other propaganda resources from broadcasting on its territory, but this has not changed the situation dramatically, ZLM notes. Between 2021 and 2022, global traffic to the sanctioned sites fell by 18%, visits to them via search engines fell by 100%, visits via social networks dropped by 70%, and overall web traffic from the EU to these resources declined by 74%, according to a report by the German Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD). To circumvent these restrictions, propaganda resources use a number of variations of state media domain names, mirror sites, and sites that copy propaganda content and redirect requests to propaganda sites. 

For example, although YouTube blocked Russian state media worldwide in March 2022, a month later a new channel called Dig Deep Documentary appeared on the platform, distributing RT content without its logo, and RT's official social media accounts advertised this resource. Many large Russian-language YouTube channels that were not sanctioned have also continued to post content from state media. Another way of spreading propaganda in Germany has been the Bloß mit Biss account network, which distributes materials produced by the German Sputnik editorial board on TikTok and YouTube. In December 2023, ISD uncovered a coordinated pro-Kremlin campaign in which at least 64 accounts on the X network sought to undermine support for Alexei Navalny and the Anti-Corruption Foundation in the West. Content from the banned RT DE TV channel was available on six different Internet platforms in February 2023.

In the second half of 2023, propaganda resources became more active in creating fake online personas, producing a kind of public bot that spreads disinformation by playing the role of ‘whistleblowers’, doctors, activists or journalists. For example, in August 2023, a video appeared on YouTube in which someone called Mohammed Al-Alawi claimed to have proof that the mother-in-law of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky had bought a $5 million villa in El Gouna, Egypt with funds donated to Kyiv. Although this video was the only clip posted on Mohammed al-Alawi's account, it was actively disseminated by numerous international sources of disinformation on social networks. 

Another technique to effectively evade sanctioned propaganda is the imitation of large and credible media outlets: to create a sense of credibility, the domain name of a website differs from the original one by only 1-2 characters. ISD found 28 domains imitating the domain names of popular news outlets in Germany, the UK, France, Ukraine and Italy, including The Guardian, RBC Ukraine, Le Monde, Le Parisien, Der Spiegel, BILD, WELT, t-online among others. The researchers also found 29 Facebook adverts promoting these sites.

Propagandists are increasingly using artificial intelligence: in May 2024, an investigation in France found more than 90 online articles published by the CopyCop network of websites that had been edited by AI to include criticism of President Macron along with anti-American narratives. By the end of March 2024, CopyCop had published more than 19,000 articles on 11 websites, many of which were likely created automatically. One such article claimed that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky had bought King Charles' house in Gloucestershire. This material was viewed about 250,000 times in 24 hours.

In a global and open information network, blocking and banning ‘brands’ does not work well and leads only to the ‘mimicry of disinformation’.

A propaganda war of attrition

Ann Applebaum, a publicist and author of books on the history of communism and civil society in Central and Eastern Europe, has written in a recently-released article ‘The New Propaganda War’ that authoritarian regimes are waging propaganda campaigns that are far more inventive and cynical than they were during the Cold War. As an example, she cites the story of the Malaysian plane shot down by pro-Russian militias in 2014, to which despite a plethora of evidence cited by the West, the Russian government responded not only with denial, but also with its own deliberately false versions of events. This ‘firehose of falsehoods’ tactic, Applebaum writes, ultimately leads the average person to turn to nihilism: as there are so many versions, how can one know for sure what really happened?

The fight against propaganda in the US is also complicated by the fact that a portion of the American political spectrum is not only interested in the appearance of pro-Kremlin content, but also actively disseminates it itself, she notes. For example, far-right Republicans want Americans to believe that democracy in the US has degenerated, elections are no longer fair, and civilisation is dying. Tucker Carlson, who recently interviewed Putin and Dugin, spoke of the threat of a colour revolution in America when he was a Fox News host, literally regurgitating the slogan of Russian propaganda. The far-right's evidently untrue statements against Biden are actively used by both Russian and Chinese propaganda platforms.

The West does not have enough resources to combat the threat from the Kremlin's propaganda. US government-supported foreign broadcasters, including Voice of America, Radio Liberty, Radio Farda, and Radio Marti, receive no additional funding. The key government agency countering anti-democratic propaganda is the Centre for Global Engagement, established at the State Department in 2016, which has an annual budget of only about $61 million, and is also regularly criticised by the Republican Party. One of the largest social networks in the world X, after it was bought by Elon Musk, effectively stopped fighting propaganda activities on its platform.

The German government has started to fight disinformation more intensively since the start of the war in Ukraine, ZLM writes. In particular, the German Interior Ministry posts links with parsing (fact checking) of propaganda narratives with links to materials on the federal government's website, and also holds regular press briefings on these topics. In February 2024, the head of the ministry presented a strategy for combating right-wing extremism, which, among other things, involves the creation of a unit for the early detection of foreign disinformation campaigns. Germany, Poland and France agreed in February 2024 on a joint early warning mechanism for Russian troll attacks. French Defence Minister Sebastien Lecornu has said that he expects further information ‘manipulation’ by Russia.

Anne Applebaum believes that authoritarian regimes will not reduce the intensity of their propaganda machines because their own survival depends on it: propaganda helps dictators prove to their citizens the flaws in the concepts of human rights, freedoms and democratic development, so that the existence of the dictatorial regime seems like a reasonable political alternative to Western values. The growing activity of pro-Kremlin propagandists raises an existential question for Western countries as well. Moscow's manipulations in the information space are poisoning the existing channels of communication between the authorities and society, which is one of the foundations for the existence of democratic states. The West has no clear answer to this threat not only because Moscow and Beijing invest more in their propaganda but because the spread of pro-Kremlin narratives is aided by its large potential audience in Western countries themselves. This includes far-right and far-left politicians interested in swaying mainstream parties, as well as supporters of various conspiracy theories and residents of the former Soviet Union whose native language is most often Russian, according to the report by ISD. The researchers estimate the total number of these groups in Germany alone at several million people.

It is obvious that the methods currently used to resist the propaganda of the ‘post-truth’ era and ‘whataboutism’ are insufficient and ineffective. The West and democratic forces need to find their own mobilising narratives that will be able to reach not only those who are already ‘on the side of good’, but also those who have various grievances against certain aspects of the Western way of life.