A trio of speakers came together recently to discuss the crisis in Ukraine, Russian disinformation, and how disinformation campaigns are enabled by U.S. tech companies. WATCH THE VIDEO HERE
Turner Talk on Ukraine: Facts, Geopolitical Implications & Disinfo featured Kristina Wilfore, a global democracy activist and disinformation specialist; Julie Mullican, Vice President of Media Matters for America; and Joel Rubin, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State under President Obama.
Kristina Wilfore builds democracies.
Specifically, through the years, she has worked in 25 countries, including a nearly four-year stint in Ukraine. She works to build civil society and strengthen democratic institutions. Lately Kristina’s work has become more challenging as she battles disinformation – particularly Russian disinformation. She cites a recent E.U. report that found 13,500 examples of Russian disinformation campaigns since 2015 – 5,200 of which were aimed at Ukraine alone. “Ukraine has been the petri dish of this kind of disinformation,” she says.
It would have been easy, one supposes, for Kristina to blast Russian disinformation and leave it at that. After all, we’ve all heard the lies, dating back for most of us to at least 2016, when the Russians launched into overdrive with their efforts to elect Donald Trump president.
But things are not always so simple.
“What I want to focus on is not how bad and evil Putin is, but how bad and complicit the big tech platforms are and digital platforms themselves,” Kristina told a zoom audience. “Essentially, what we now have going on in this world is conflict profiteering – it’s not too strong to use that language when you have, in essence, audiences that were built by U.S. companies using the tools to not only (help) Putin but other authoritarians around the world who are also about to vie for election.”
Kristina singles out Facebook and Google as companies particularly complicit in “undermining U.S. security and global interests abroad. End of story.”
Kristina pushes back against arguments that more aggressive regulation of big tech in the U.S. would pose a threat to First Amendment freedom of speech. “But I just really, really want to challenge our thinking about that…I mean, if we look to the right of freedom of speech, it is not as important as the right to life and the right to safety and the right to dignity. This is a matter of tools that we have built that we have very little control of, that are algorithmically promoted to accentuate extremism for profit – for profit – and we’re seeing the consequences of that play out.”
Kristina offers this analogy: “If we look at the period of the Cold War, the U.S. would not have allowed Pravda to print Russian propaganda in English and distribute in the U.S. This is the same thing that is happening, however, because of this ecosystem in which disinformation is thriving.”
Julie Mullican, the Media Matters Vice President, said her group is monitoring right-wing and far-right responses to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and indiscriminate bombing of civilians. “From the right-wing media perspective, this has been a really tricky issue for them,” Julie said.
She said at first, before the invasion, right-wingers “were really skeptical about the Biden administration’s warnings about what Putin was intending. They attempted to advance more pro-Russian, pro-Putin talking points. This is an extension of a decades-long love affair that they have with Putin and other right-wing strong men internationally, and that was really solidified during the Trump administration when Trump also fully embraced Putin and Russia, often over our own interests in the U.S.”
After the invasion, Julie said, right-wing media “almost went into whiplash, trying to pretend they have been the real crusaders and supporters of Ukraine and they’re very critical and take a hard stance against Putin.“
But not everyone.
“In the far-right communities, there has been more of a pivot back, advancing pro-Russian talking points, advancing pro-Russian conspiracy theories – in particular, one of the ones that got embraced with QAnon communities is this idea that there is a bioweapons facility in Ukraine (and) that was Putin’s true motivation to go in, to stop some secret U.S.-Ukrainian bioweapons production,” Julie says. “We’ve seen this really, really pick up and we’ve seen this embraced, now by more mainstream, right-wing news, like Fox News.”
(On Friday, in what could almost be a scene from Wag the Dog, the U.N. Security Council met – at Russia’s request – to discuss the allegation that Washington is carrying out “military biological activities” in Ukrainian territory. The White House has strongly denied the allegations and accused Russia of planning a false-flag biological or chemical attack on Ukrainian citizens.)
Julie said bias also is showing up in some mainstream news outlets.
“We had noticed that the mainstream media, in particular a lot of people on CNN, are really aggressively questioning the lack of a no-fly zone and why the U.S. will not engage in protecting the air space around Ukraine,” Julie said. “We’re starting to see more and more that kind of pro-war positioning creeping into the mainstream coverage, often without the contextualization of what that that escalation would actually mean.”
We also heard from Joel Rubin, the former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State. Joel used the Biden administration’s response to the Ukrainian crisis – both before the invasion and after – to draw a sharp contrast between Biden’s foreign policy and his predecessor’s.
“Frankly, the United States is back as a global leader, through diplomacy, through mobilizing our allies, unifying our allies on behalf of democracy and as a voice to stand up to a military aggression, an imperialist expansion by Vladimir Putin to invade and occupy a new democracy to his west, in Ukraine” Joel said.
On a sadder note and a reminder of what is at stake, Joel said the war already has created 2.5 million refugees and will potentially displace a total of 6 million Ukrainians. In addition, he said 18 million Ukrainians will desperately need humanitarian assistance within the next three months.
“It’s a lightning-speed refugee crisis, the likes of which we have not seen in recent years,” Joel said. “You have many refugee crises, horrible crises, but at this speed, you have not seen.”