Emil Filtenborg and Stefan Weichert are independent journalists based in Ukraine. In a weekly series for IranWire, they examine the landscape of disinformation in Russia and some of the false information that has emanated from the country since the outbreak of coronavirus.
Wednesday, July 1 concluded days of voting in Russia for a new constitution – one which, in principle, would allow Vladimir Putin to run for president again and stay seated until 2036. The vote showed staunch support for the new constitution, with almost 80 per cent of voters backing the resolution. While Putin has said he is still undecided about running again, most experts expect him to do so.
Pavel Havlíček, a research fellow at the Prague-based NGO Association of International Affairs, asserts that ever since the date of the vote was fixed, the Kremlin has been pushing a disinformation campaign to point voters in the “right” direction.
“When it comes to the domestic level of disinformation,” Havlíček tells IranWire, “all the means have been spent on the vote that has been taking place since the military parade. The regime has deployed different techniques to mobilize the people, and this has increased over the past two weeks, but it has been going on for the last couple of months to get the right result (for the Kremlin).”
Just as with the military parade, the disinformation campaign has aimed to promote traditional Russian conservative values such as protecting Russian as a language, a culture, and a country as a whole. Havlíček has selected three examples of videos that clearly show this.
Vote Yes or Perish
According to Havlíček, a variety of themes have been promoted by pro-Kremlin outlets. First of all, a mainstay of propaganda and disinformation: pointing out the flaws of your adversaries or enemies. In this case, Russian media has been at pains to portray the West as corrupt and decadent. The video linked to here also claimed that the West was trying to meddle with the vote.
Pro-state media has secondly promoted a definition of patriotism, aligned with the ideas of the government and linking it to a vote of assent for the new constitution. A vote in favour of the constitution is, in this figuration, a vote for the protection of Russian language and culture. Havlíček points out that famous artists and poets have featured in the coverage to further this idea.
A third element that has been strongly pushed is that the constitution will not allow same-sex marriages. In this video, a boy is picked up from daycare by two men, one of them wearing make-up and presenting the boy with a dress. As that happens, a voiceover says: “Is this the Russia you choose? Decide the future of the country. Vote for the Constitutional Amendments.”
“This is closely connected to the two other videos,” says Havlíček. “It is playing on conservative values that state same-sex marriage is unnatural to Russia and a decadent thing coming from the West. Therefore, it must be prohibited by the constitution. This is outrageous.”
According to Havlíček, the main purpose of all of this has been to rally nationalists and conservatives around the flag and “save Russia,” while diverting attention away from the article that will allow Putin to run for President again in 2024.
A key topic in the limited televised discussions on the constitutional vote has been Russia’s self-determination in international law. A new article is making it possible for all courts of law in Russia to protest decisions made by the European Court of Human Rights. As a professor put it on RT English on the last day of the election: “The Russian constitution is taking supremacy over international law.”
While that was portrayed as a critical and sensible decision in the program, Havlíček thinks this is a concerning prospect. “They are further removing themselves from the international legal system and imposing legal sovereignty. It’s a very important article.”
Latvia Bans RT Channels and Other News
According to Radio Liberty, Latvia’s media monitor the National Electronic Media Council (NEPLP) has banned all of Russia’s state-owned RT channels broadcasting in the country. The stated reason was the international sanctions against Dmitry Kiselyov, the head of the TV network.
“These TV stations have been banned because they are controlled and managed by Dmitry Kiselyov, who is under European Union sanctions for repeated calls to violate Ukraine’s democracy and territorial integrity,” NEPLP chairman Ivars Abolins said on Tuesday.
This is not the first time the NEPLP has taken action against Russian TV channels. Just last year 10 Russian outlets were banned, writes Radio Liberty. Kiselyov denies being in charge of RT and has demanded an apology to the network from the NEPLP.
Latvia is not the only state to have clamped down on RT’s often misleading broadcasting. Last summer, the UK Foreign Office refused to give both Sputnik and RT accreditation to a significant conference on media freedom for playing an “active role in spreading disinformation.” The decision was not well received by either the two media outlets or the Russian embassy in the UK, which called it “direct politically motivated discrimination.”
As IranWire has previously reported, channels of Russian disinformation are a widespread problem in the Baltic states.
Online Activists Link British MP to the Kremlin
The conservative British politician and MP, Jacob Rees-Mogg, who has been a long-standing supporter of a hard Brexit, has been linked to Russian bots by Coda Story. At the very least, it notes, Rees-Mogg has been explicit about policies that align with the policies of the Kremlin.
In recent weeks, Rees-Mogg has also publicly supported the far-right group, Turning Point UK: a spin-out from the US branch that itself has ties to Infowars, the American disinformation channel run by Alex Jones. Jones is a conspiracy theorist who, among other things, claimed that the Sandy Hook massacre was a hoax.
While Rees-Mogg might be tenuously linked to Russia in some areas, in 2018 he voiced support for tougher sanctions on Russia in an interview with the BBC.
Also in this series: