Disinformation campaigns that worked in Syria have failed so far in Ukraine.
Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders staff help evacuate pensioners from villages near the front lines of Russia's invasion of Ukraine in Pokrovsk, Donetsk region, on July 18.
In April, I was volunteering with World Central Kitchen along Poland’s border with Ukraine. A barbeque chef from North Carolina stood next to me in the warehouse as we unpacked bread for sandwiches. “I heard the International Red Cross is kidnapping Ukrainians and taking them into Russia,” he said confidently.
The chef said that earlier, at a nearby cafe, a man went from table to table telling diners the humanitarian organization was forcibly deporting Ukrainians to Russia. Social media users shared and posted tweets about the purported kidnappings, with mentions of the Red Cross peaking over a three-day period at the end of March. In May, a video circulated on Telegram claiming to show that the Red Cross had collected thousands of Ukrainian children’s medical records and may be involved in organ trafficking. Pro-Russian media outlets broadcast the video, and the Russian government said it would investigate. The claims, of course, were nonsense. The International Committee of the Red Cross says such rumors stem from a massive online campaign of targeted attacks using disinformation to discredit its work.
It’s a dynamic that started back in Syria, where Russian intelligence targeted the White Helmets, a rescue group, and the Red Cross. Humanitarian organizations shine a light on the human toll of war and raise global awareness and understanding of communities’ needs. In doing so, they provide an unvarnished, firsthand look at facts on the ground in conflict zones and are intrinsically threatening to the narratives of autocratic regimes.
When I first spoke to James Le Mesurier, the founder of the White Helmets, in 2018, he told me his biggest challenge was Russian disinformation targeting his work. He had trained his teams of volunteers in urban search and rescue and medical evacuation during the Syrian war. Le Mesurier also provided them with video cameras affixed to helmets so he could watch and provide further instruction on their operations. Through filming their rescue efforts in Syria, the White Helmets became potential witnesses to war crimes, spurring Russia’s efforts to discredit their work through online disinformation.
In Ukraine, humanitarian organizations are struggling to reach vulnerable communities in the east, where the fighting is worst, while simultaneously battling narratives that are spreading widely online and particularly prevalent among the Russian-speaking Ukrainians they are attempting to help.