“The Spectacular Collapse of Putin’s Disinformation Machinery”
WIRED, March 10, 2022
By Tom Southern
“A few critical errors have brought down Russia’s complex and objectively brilliant war of influence in the West.”
For decades now, Vladimir Putin has slowly, carefully, and stealthily curated online and offline networks of influence. These efforts have borne lucrative fruit, helping Russia become far more influential than a country so corrupt and institutionally fragile had any right to be. The Kremlin and its proxies had economic holdings across Europe and Africa that would shame some of the smaller 18th-century empires. It had a vast network of useful idiots that it helped get elected and could count on for support, and it controlled much of the day-to-day narrative in multiple countries through online disinformation. And many people had no idea.
While a few big events like the US’ 2016 election and the UK’s Brexit helped bring this meddling to light, many remained unaware or unwilling to accept that Putin’s disinformation machine was influencing them on a wide range of issues. Small groups of determined activists tried to convince the world that the Kremlin had infiltrated and manipulated the economies, politics, and psychology of much of the globe; these warnings were mostly met with silence or even ridicule.
All that changed the moment Russian boots touched Ukrainian soil. Almost overnight, the Western world became overwhelmingly aware of the Kremlin’s activities in these fields, shattering the illusions that allowed Putin’s alternative, Kremlin-controlled information ecosystem to exist outside its borders. As a result, the sophisticated disinformation machinery Putin spent decades cultivating collapsed within days.
Russia’s network of influence was as complex as it was sprawling. The Kremlin has spent millions in terms of dollars and hours in Europe alone, nurturing and fostering the populist right (Italy, Hungary, Slovenia), the far right (Austria, France, Slovakia), and even the far left (Cyprus, Greece, Germany). For years, elected politicians in these and other countries have been standing up for Russia’s interests and defending Russia’s transgressions, often peddling Putin’s narratives in the process. Meanwhile, on televisions, computers, and mobile screens across the globe, Kremlin-run media such as RT, Sputnik, and a host of aligned blogs and “news” websites helped spread an alternative view of the real world. Though often marginal in terms of reach in and of themselves (with some notable exceptions, such as Sputnik Mundo), they performed a key role in spreading disinformation to audiences in and outside of Russia.
What the Kremlin failed to anticipate, however, is that the invasion of Ukraine would be the equivalent of Putin screaming at our face in the street— a brief but violent jolt in our collective online consciousness. It’s not just that what he claims about Ukraine is outlandish—after all, the Kremlin has been pushing many of these narratives for a long time and many in the West believed them until now—but that the reality of Putin’s actions have broken through the unreality of online life.
Nothing can make up for the senseless loss of life and homes, but if there is anything to celebrate alongside the dogged determination of the Ukrainians in holding the Russian army back, it is this; Putin has himself put to rest the idea that he is some kind of infallible genius. After many decades spent building up his influence, he has entirely destroyed his credibility with politicians, business, and the broader public. In the end, Putin has achieved what no one thought possible: a Ukraine defiant, a West united, and a Russia humbled.
About the Author:
Tom Southern is Director of Special Projects at the Centre for Information Resilience and specializes in counter-influence operations and counter-extremism across Europe, Africa, and the Americas.