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Russia’s disinformation campaign in the Middle East

It has long been known that Russia is trying to create discord in Europe with disinformation. However, it is no longer just European countries being overrun with Kremlin-subsidised fake news.

Russian media, dubious channels, and trolls on social networks are now also spreading propaganda about the Ukraine war – in Arabic.

For years, disinformation and propaganda from Russia have posed a serious threat to Europe.

Broadcasters such as RT or Sputnik are known as propaganda tools of the Russian power apparatus and were able to help shape opinion in the EU until the beginning of this year, when they were banned because of “systematic information manipulation and disinformation” regarding the war in Ukraine.

While the West is mostly cognisant of Russian disinformation campaigns, the influence of equally dangerous Arabic-language propaganda efforts aimed at distorting public perceptions of Russia’s war in Ukraine has been less of a focus to date, even though pro-Russian fake news in Arabic in the Middle East has been omnipresent and thematically diverse for fifteen years now.

These Russian outlets have made false and often preposterous claims, such as that Volodymyr Zelensky had fled his country to Poland, that Russia is, in fact, acting as a protective power for civilians in the war zone, or that the global wheat crisis was caused by the US and EU.

Unlike in Europe, Sputnik and RT Arabic are still active in the Middle East, spreading fake news and manipulation in Arabic 24 hours a day with impunity, and it is making itself felt in the Ukraine war.

Furthermore, the Russian propaganda machine can count on long expertise; the Kremlin began its program in the Arab world in May 2007 with the launch of RT Arabic.

But how influential these broadcasters are is difficult to determine, and independent data is challenging to find.

In an analysis in April for the Middle East Institute, Elene Janadze referred to a survey conducted seven months before Russia’s military intervention in Syria. This survey concluded that RT Arabic was among the top three most-watched news channels in six Arab countries (Egypt, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the UAE, and Iraq).

“Despite a lack of research, there is every reason to believe that these numbers have only increased over the past few years,” Janadze assessed in her piece.

Meanwhile, the propaganda surrounding the invasion of Ukraine keeps primarily revolving around a core idea: Russia is not responsible for the war.

For example, both RT and Sputnik Arabic continue to describe Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a “special military operation”, as the terms “war” and “invasion” remain banned by the Russian state.

Some articles from earlier this year on RT’s Arabic website quote Russian Defence Ministry officials denying that Russia bombed Mariupol maternity hospital, blaming the destruction on “Nazi provocations”.

Another article claimed that President Zelensky wants Ukraine to be thrown into chaos.

According to Twitter analytics tool TruthNest, three of the six most popular tweets by RT Arabic between 3-12 March boosted conspiracies spread by Russia’s defence ministry that Ukraine contained secret biological laboratories developed by the United States.

Russia has in the past made similar false claims about US-backed biolabs in various parts of the world.

Furthermore, the third most popular tweet on RT Arabic’s account between 25 March to 4 April was a video which claimed a Ukrainian commander had ordered the massacre of civilians in Bucha, near Kyiv, according to Janadze’s report.

The City Council in Bucha said last month that 458 bodies had been found after 33 days of occupation by Russian forces, with many shot, bludgeoned to death, or tortured.

Russia claimed that video footage from the town showed “fake dead bodies” and was “staged” after its forces left.

Russian disinformation in Syria

The war in Ukraine, however, is only the latest example.

The Arab Spring and the war in Syria, in particular, have helped the Kremlin establish dominance in the region through propaganda and fake news. The Syrian war plays a significant role in this, as it helped Russia to gain a foothold among Arab audiences.

As such, the war in Syria has been not only a testing ground for Russian weapon systems and military strategy but also a war against the truth.

One of the most notable cases is that of the White Helmets, a civil defence volunteer organisation active in opposition areas. Russian, Iranian, and Syrian propaganda has tried to destroy the group’s reputation via the continuous spread of online misinformation.

After the chemical gas attack on Ghouta in the suburbs of Damascus in 2013, in which the Syrian army killed more than 1,300 civilians, a propaganda offensive by the Russian and Syrian media began.

The rebels and the White Helmets were subsequently defamed as the masterminds behind the deadly use of poison gas, a narrative that, according to a study by The Harvard Kennedy School Misinformation Review, caused anti-White Helmet discourse to dominate Twitter postings in 2020.

The example of the White Helmets shows that it is not merely Russian TV that has made its mark, but that social media plays a critical role in the information war.

Janadze’s analysis for the Middle East Institute states that Russian social media offshoots are much more active in serving their audiences than Arabic-language media from the region, the US or Europe. The results show that RT Arabic posts twice to three times as much as Al Jazeera or the BBC.

Besides these official social media channels, Russia also employs troll farms. The principle here remains a constant: explanations of a complex issue are met with masses of divergent, sometimes contradictory theories by Russian trolls on social media who are paid to post hundreds of comments daily.

The perfidious thing about this is that the target audience is being swamped with ‘news’, which eventually leads to uncertainty about what is factually correct and what is fictitious.

‘Firehose of falsehood’ is the name of this concept, a successor of the Soviet propaganda technique during the Cold War. Steve Bannon, former Trump advisor and first-class propagandist in his own right, once fittingly labelled this approach as “flooding the zones with s***”.

What makes the media landscape for Russia in the Middle East particularly inviting is mainly due to three factors. First, only a few political forces in the region – some Syrian oppositionists – regularly complain about Russian influence in the region.

Second, large sections of the Arab public believe that the Western media is biased, with many regarding the West as prejudiced against Arabs and Islam. This, in turn, is exploited by Russia’s propaganda in the region.

Thirdly, in many Arab states press freedoms are poor, with state media dominating. With so many people distrusting of government-controlled information, many rely on news circulated via social media – a win for Russia.

Given these current circumstances and the propaganda efforts Russia has been making, it seems Moscow can currently win the information war in the Middle East.

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