Pushing Back Against Putin’s Disinformation Wars
It’s said that truth is the first casualty in war, and so too is memory. Truth and memory have never been as fragile as they are now in the digital age.
When Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine in February 2022, he and his government made many mistakes, including some world-class miscalculations. His bungling generals made a host of errors, some of which were based on false assumptions about Ukraine’s resilience and how the West would respond.
Yet, in one key domain of warfare, Russian actions were far more successful, at least in the short term. Russian disinformation tactics and strategies achieved numerous desired impacts. Preparations for an outright assault on the info-environment were a long time in the making, with investments dating back many years. For evidence, look to the revelations about Kremlin meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Now there are new tools to help researchers, activists, and others understand the rapid-fire disinformation flows emanating from Russia and pro-Russian sources.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine prompted the non-profit Internet Archive, to ask a simple question: “What role is there for the library and the Internet Archive during wartime?” In response, the team running the San Francisco-based Internet Archive has initiated and supported several high-impact projects to preserve and make accessible diverse news, social, and other media related to the war.
For more than 25 years, the Internet Archive has been preserving digital information, with a sharp focus on making it accessible. It has also been digitizing analog material, preserving it, and making those resources accessible. The Internet Archive works with a range of media and sources, including books, academic journals, radio, and television. All told billions of items have been captured, taking up nearly 100 petabytes of storage – safely stored in at least two physical locations and available to researchers, journalists, students, policymakers, activists, and the general public. Moreover, it is all without charge or the kinds of advertising-driven surveillance common to commercial services.
The Internet Archive has become the world’s premier public digital memory institution. According to Mark Graham, who directs the Wayback Machine: “[Internet Archive] leaders are driven, day after day, by one question: how to be of maximum service as a library. Since March 2022, the [Internet Archive] has been at the center of more than a dozen discrete projects. Each is leveraging their existing capabilities and, at the same time, developing new ones – as the needs have been identified.”
Archiving Russian television
Television, especially state-run TV in authoritarian states like Russia is a key medium from which populations develop an understanding of what is “true” and important. It helps define their core beliefs and culture. It underpins popular support for the actions of those authoritarian leaders, including the most consequential of actions like decisions to go to war.
For the most part, Russian television channels are not easily available to the West. Because of the inherently ephemeral nature of the medium, and the fact that much of it is in Russian, it is not easily searchable.
Graham says that “one core goal of the Russian TV archiving project is to help make Russian TV less opaque to the West: To help Western researchers, journalists, policymakers and the general populations better understand what Russians are learning and thinking.”
For some years, the Internet Archive’s larger TV news project has helped to make what is communicated on Russian TV more accessible. Its video archiving project makes video material more easily accessible, searchable, citable, and useful. This can include videos from conferences and various government and other civic gatherings.
Consider one example. For 12 years, the independent TV Rain television channel broadcasted from Moscow. In March of last year, it was shut down and the only archive was in Russia. Internet Archive staff worked to transfer the library to San Francisco and are now in the process of making it available online. More than 59,000 TV Rain shows can now be viewed online and hundreds of archived shows are being added every day. The programming is in Russian and lacks English subtitles.
Graham provides a peek into the not-so-distant future: “In the coming months the [Internet] Archive will be using automatic speech recognition and related technologies to transcribe the audio to text, translate that text to English and other languages, and index it to support full-text search.”
Since March 2022, Internet Archive staff have archived, and made accessible, nearly all broadcasts from four Russian networks, one Ukrainian, and one Belarusian.
In collaboration with the Saving Russian Independent Media project (sponsored by BARD College and PEN America), the Internet Archive has been archiving key Russian media websites. Those web archives are updated on a continuous basis and available via the Wayback Machine.
Telegram is one of the most popular social media apps in Ukraine and Russia. People use it to share private and public messages. In April, the Internet Archive began working with Archive Team to archive selected Telegram groups at scale, including more than 1 billion Telegram posts, from more than 100,000 public Telegram channels.
VK is a major social media platform based in St. Petersburg and is mostly used by Russian speakers. The Internet Archive has been archiving selected posts from about 3,000 regional public groups. These groups have been manually picked by volunteers and cover all Russian regions as well as Crimea.
The Internet Archive has worked to capture all posts on selected official VK pages since February 20, 2022. They only capture posts with certain keywords. These keywords are related to war, the economy, education, and other topics that may be of interest.
The Internet Archive is especially interested in pages related to occupied Ukrainian territories as well as popular Russian groups which they may have missed.
Helping with the war effort
Graham reflects on the time when, “shortly after the war started, more than a thousand volunteers came together to help identify and archive Ukrainian web resources of significance from a cultural perspective.”
The Internet Archive has provided archiving capabilities and support to a variety of institutions and collaborative projects documenting the conflict: Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute (HURI), the Center for Urban History of East Central Europe, Oxford New College, SUCHO (Saving Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Online), and La contemporaine, based near Paris.
Claims made on Wikipedia are qualified by citations from noted sources. The Turn All References Blue (TARB) project, of the Internet Archive, works to add links to those citations. To date, the Internet Archive has added nearly a million links to digital versions of books, that are cited in more than 50 Wikipedia language editions.
To help accelerate that effort, for the Ukrainian Wikipedia site, the Internet Archive added 17,000 book links and identified 25,000 cited books that needed links. To help acquire those books, they collaborated with the online bookstore Better World Book. Their plan is to continue focusing on improving the quality and quantity of linked citations in the Ukrainian Wikipedia language edition.
Many libraries and other cultural centers in Ukraine have been damaged and access to books and related educational resources has been significantly disrupted. To help address this need, especially for material in Ukrainian, the Internet Archive recently launched a Ukrainian book drive. The Internet Archive is actively prioritizing the acquisition, digitization, and availability of these books, and is exploring other ways to help support the Ukrainian library community.
Lessons from the past
During the Cold War, a slow and steady approach to disinformation worked well. But in 2023, and in the Russian war on Ukraine, the strategies that have helped RFR/RL succeed over the past decades, will not serve the West’s aims as it pushes back against Kremlin disinformation. In the new world – where memes and trolls move the news – the speed and savvy that characterize the Internet Archive is not a nice-to-have; it’s a must-have.
This moment requires an approach that captures and stores for later analysis as much as possible of Russia’s cacophony of different voices: dissenters, genuine journalists, average citizens, propagandists, fellow travelers, useful idiots, and government employees. A whole spectrum approach is needed, and that is clearly what the Internet Archive is working to deliver.
This article was originally posted in Kyiv Post.