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Saturday 2 December 2023 Dublin: 2°C
European Commission Representation in Ireland

Ireland “a victim of Russian disinformation”, experts on Ukraine war say

Pro-Kremlin narratives have reached both social and mainstream media.

IRELAND HAS BECOME a target of pro-Kremlin propaganda, an expert on Russian disinformation said this week.

A symposium held at the European Commission’s headquarters in Dublin on Tuesday heard that named Irish individuals are involved in spreading these narratives.

The audience also heard that some pro-Kremlin entities operating from as far away as Africa have been successful in planting viral hoax content on social media.

The event, entitled How Russian Propaganda and Disinformation Impacts Societies Worldwide, was organised by Ukrainian Action in Ireland and the Ukrainian Embassy, in partnership with the US Embassy and the European Commission in Ireland.

The audience heard experts explain that Russia has been changing its tactics in spreading propaganda about Ukraine.

While Russia had originally focused on persuading or demoralising Ukrainians, or spreading disinformation about events in the war on Ukraine itself, it had now moved on to attempts to discredit Ukraine in the eyes of its allies to reduce international support, and to do so via pro-Kremlin proxies rather than directly from Russia itself.

Speakers describe misinformation narratives spread by pro-Kremlin actors, such as claims before the war that Russia was holding routine military exercises and had no intention of invading.

Other claims described at the symposium included narratives that the West is using Ukraine to further its aims; that Ukraine is taking advantage of western aid; that Ukraine or the West had started the war with Russia; that the massacres at Bucha are a fabrication; and that weapons provided to Ukraine are being sold on to other militant groups, such as Islamic State.

Some of the more outlandish false claims mentioned included that biolabs were researching weapons that would only affect ethnic Russians or Slavs, that Ukraine had weaponised geese; as well as a AI-generated deepfake video of Zelenskyy asking Ukrainians to surrender.

“One of the ways that Russia tries to splinter our unified support is through disinformation, spreading lies to advance the Kremlin’s policy goals,” Claire Cronin, the US ambassador to Ireland told the symposium in an opening speech.

The Kremlin aims to interject chaos into the information sphere, confusing global audiences about Russia’s real actions and intentions.

Anayit Khoperiya of the Ukraine government’s Center for Countering Disinformation noted that Ireland has not been immune, naming two specific individuals, Chay Bowes and Eoin Ó Murchú, as disseminating material that aligned itself with pro-Kremlin narratives.

Chay Bowes was a whistleblower who had provided Village magazine with details pertaining to Leo Varadkar leaking a confidential GP contract agreement to his personal friend Dr Maitiú Ó Tuathail in 2020.

Bowes later acted as an editor of The Ditch website, but stepped back from the publication in summer 2022. He has since become a correspondent for the Russian State-funded broadcaster, Russia Today. He was invited by Russia to speak at the UN Security Council, where he condemned what he called the “ever hawkish Anglosphere” for their military support for Ukraine, which he characterised as a “seemingly perpetual escalation of military aid”.

Khoperiya claimed that Bowes had been spreading pro-Kremlin narratives for several years. As an example, Khoperiya included a recent article published by Bowes called: “Is the Olena Zelenska Foundation covering for sex trafficking?”

The rambling 1,600-word article manages to mention NATO, Nazis, Libyan slave markets, and Jeffery Epstein before giving its only ‘evidence’ in favour of the headline’s proposition: Hillary Clinton and her family members have appeared at the foundation’s events (The Clintons regularly feature in debunked or baseless claims involving sex trafficking).

Eoin Ó Murchú describes himself on social media as “a professional journalist” and is listed on the Irish Communist Party’s website as their interim National Chairperson.

Ó Murchú regularly tweets content that supports narratives distributed by the Kremlin, such as that Ukraine is run by Nazis, or that Russia is on the verge of winning its war. 

Khoperiya also described Russian narratives that had spread in Ireland, including a story that was debunked by The Journal’s FactCheck team that Ukrainian citizens will be extradited from Ireland to fight in the army.

The false claim was boosted online by images of a hoax letter purporting to be from the Irish Department of Justice.

Jakub Kalensky of the European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats noted that the extent of Russian propaganda has not been fully measured; there is, he said, a huge need to uncover the number of disinformation channels, how many people they reached, and how many people they convinced or swayed with false narratives.

“Imagine we would be fighting the COVID pandemic without having the slightest idea how many people got the virus, how many people ended up in hospital, how many people are vaccinated, how many died,” Kalensky said in a panel chaired by Journal Media’s Managing Editor Susan Daly. “It would be an impossible task.”

But we are in this situation when it comes to fighting disinformation: we do not have these numbers, and yet we are somehow supposed to fight this problem.

Kalensky said that the Kremlin was estimated to spend up to US$2 billion on disinformation operations – even before the invasion of Ukraine – but counter-disinformation efforts like his, are working on less than a thousandth of the same budget in total.

“If the Russians are outnumbering us this heavily, they don’t even need to be smart. They’re just beating us with the numbers,” Kalensky said.

Karl Stoltz, a senior advisor at the Global Engagement Center at the US State Department, said that Russia’s budget for disinformation campaigns may have risen to US$4-6 billion since the invasion of Ukraine, not including State-funded media like Sputnik or RT/Russia Today.

Speaking from Washington DC, Stoltz said these campaigns often had no clear connection with Russia’s interests, such as when thousands of social media users in St Petersburg wrote inflammatory comments about NFL player Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the national anthem to protest police violence.

It also emerged during the event that the hoax letter that purported to be from the Irish Department of Justice regarding alleged extraditions had originated from Nigeria; Russia, the event heard, has been investing money in parts of the world such as South America and Africa, in order to create allies there.

“What they are interested in doing is causing chaos, disrupting public institutions in other societies, causing people not to trust their own government and their own leaders, and their own media,” Stoltz said.

“Because in Russia’s (I think) distorted view of the world today, the more chaos, the less support for democracies, the more they can profit.”

Stoltz said that a survey of online influence across countries shows that 15-30% of websites and social media influencers are not from the countries they pretend to be from.

Both Stoltz and Kalensky said that, while Russia’s disinformation threat was still widely acknowledged, China’s role was still often underappreciated.

“It used to be quite controversial to call out Russians as misinformers, just a couple of years ago,” Kalensky said.

“When it comes to calling out China as a big actor in the disinformation space, it is still being considered controversial now.”

With reporting from Carl Kinsella