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Russia’s gaslighting has put the global internet in jeopardy


By Amanda Cassidy
12th Mar 2022
Russia’s gaslighting has put the global internet in jeopardy

Many of the rules of global exchanges have been torn up following the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Will the internet be next, asks Amanda Cassidy?

The comparisons between WW2 and the Ukraine war are spine-tinglingly accurate. A megalomaniac forcing his will, propaganda and aggression that has seen the world’s food supplies under threat.

But we live in the age of the Internet – of Meta and Twitter and instant messaging.  It may not seem it as we view the pictures of entire blocks of apartments destroyed or civilians being shot as they flee, but this is a communications war first and foremost.

Distortion

Propaganda has always distorted the reasons a country goes to war, but in this case misinformation is spread much further and faster than leaflets blowing in the breeze.

It was no surprise then that Russia immediately denied it had bombed a children’s hospital in Mariupol last week, saying such claims were “fake news”. The Kremlin memo claimed that the building was formerly a maternity hospital that was taken over by troops.

“That’s how fake news is born,” tweeted Dmitry Polyanskiy, Russia’s first deputy permanent representative to the United Nations.

In this new world of communications distortion – the enemy can bomb first, and lie later. It’s gaslighting of the highest and most sickening order.

A convenient mistruth

What’s even more disconcerting is that so-called ‘fact-checking’ websites are also being used to spread false claims made by Ukrainian outlets to disseminate Russian propaganda. A website called “War on Fakes” uses a sophisticated process to cause the most damaging effect.  The authors debunk false claims, including those from the Ukrainian side that appear on this site as well. However, Russian propaganda is then used to provide background for the fact check. In other words, it’s the wolves-dressed-in-lamb’s-clothing strategy.

Inside Russia, the party-line is consistent; Moscow did not attack Ukraine. In fact, the fake news is so prolific that even US President Biden has had people reach out to TikTokers to battle the Kremlin propaganda machine in the hope the message might finally get through to those who support the war.

Splinternet

The world, both physical and digital, finds itself in unprecedented times as the conflict in Ukraine rages. But unlike the 1940s, the internet is playing an increasingly important part.

Internet giants such as Meta, Google and Apple have been quick to frame themselves as neutral tech firms. With such powerful platforms, this was something that brought relief to many. However, the moment civilians began getting targeted in this war, many began pinning their political colours to the mast. They started banning products in Russia in response to the Ukrainan invasion.

It’s brought how the internet is being used into sharp focus. Within Russia, there are reports that police are stoping people on the streets to look at what they are viewing on their phones. Certain websites are also being banned. Analysis are starting to talk about the slippery slope towards what is known as the Splinternet – where different countries have different versions of the internet.

Alternate facts

This exists already of course, the so-called Great Firewall of China is perhaps the most obvious example of how a country can create its own web. In this case content is policed. External information is limited. Political power is manipulated and squeezed to fit a rhetoric it designs.

While the authority that precedes over internet governance denied calls to cut Russia off from the global network, Russia itself has already been experimenting with it’s own internet (known as Runet) for years. This system has been retested recently sparking concern that it was preparing to cut itself off.

James Griffiths, author of The Great Firewall of China, thinks the plug could be pulled at any time: “Cutting off the internet, making sure Russians are only consuming the content that the Kremlin approves of, that kind of thing makes sense strategically, so you can see the path we’re headed down,” he told the BBC.

Satellites vying for power in the skies above is a new kind of race for power – one that may pose a greater threat to life as we know it than nuclear war.

This conflict may not just alter the world’s geography, but fundamentally change the nature of the global internet. With deep fakes, video manipulation and propaganda in a click, it’s fair to say that a cyberwar is already underway.