Descent into the Mariupol disinformation maelström

Ukrainian Soldier in Mariupol. Photo: Roberto Travan  

Hybrid War

Article by: Michael Gentile, Eugenia Kuznetsova
Source: VoxUkraine

Editor’s Note

Ukrainian forces liberated the maritime city of Mariupol, Donetsk Oblast from the unfolding Russian occupation in May 2014. In January 2015, the Russian hybrid forces attempted to regain this key Azov Sea port and conducted a massive rocket attack on the city’s northeastern neighborhood Vostochnyi, killing 30 civilians and wounding 108. Over the subsequent years, Russia illegally built the Kerch bridge to connect its territory with the occupied Crimean peninsula and effectively block the only passage from the Black Sea to the Sea of Azov, significantly limiting sea traffic to Ukrainian ports of Mariupol and Berdyansk.

Up to this day, however, many Mariupol locals believe in various narratives of Russian propaganda, including the Russian disinformation that it was Ukraine who attacked Vostochnyi, not the real culprit – Russia.

Here we publish a summary of a study by Vox Ukraine on the impact of Russian propaganda in Mariupol

Many Mariupolitans not only identify themselves as Soviet but also believe in many myths distributed by Russian propaganda.

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While the Western world is busy overcoming a wave of coronavirus-related false stories, Mariupol has descended into a maelström of anti-Western disinformation and conspiracy theories. The challenge posed by anti-Western views in a city located near the frontline of the Russo-Ukrainian war is complicated – and likely defined – by the incessant flow of disinformation which has flooded the city’s information space for decades.

Conspiracy theories and Russian narratives find fertile ground in Mariupol. The demonization of George Soros in the Russian media has penetrated Ukrainian public discourse with the support of Russia-leaning media outlets controlled by Viktor Medvedchuk. While the anti-Soros agitation and conspiracy theories have been debunked by numerous media outlets and organizations in Ukraine, this seems to have had little impact on the general audience in Mariupol.

Graph 1: Agreement with false statements.

Graph 1 illustrates the extent to which the city’s residents agree with certain centerpiece claims of the Russian disinformation effort in Mariupol and nationwide.

Graph 2. Agreement with false statements by age

As shown in Graph 2, elderly respondents are considerably less likely to disagree with this statement, yet even among the younger and better-educated cohorts only a minority rejects the notion that Ukraine would be ruled by a “shadow government.” Clearly, the Sorosiata (“Soros’ little ones.” – Ed.) discourse enjoys significant support in Mariupol.

Ulyana Suprun, the former acting Minister of Health of Ukraine, an American of Ukrainian origin, survived numerous information attacks during her time in office. Suprun’s necessary but unpopular health reform was an easy target for disinformation, and her American background was the obvious anchor point for such efforts. 74% of the respondents agree that she “was placed in the government because the Americans wanted it.

“Thank you, dear Rinat Leonidovich”

Steel oligarch Rinat Akhmetov remains the key influencer in the region in terms of local politics and (dis)information. His approach delivers: Vadim Boychenko, a Metinvest candidate, emerged as the absolute leader in the recent local elections, having gained two-thirds of the votes.

Such overwhelming support for the Akhmetov candidate is not surprising considering that almost two-thirds believe that the budget of the metallurgical plants (Azovstal and Ilich steelworks) funds most of the city’s infrastructure. This was certainly true during Soviet times, but it has not been the case for many years.

Russo-Ukrainian war disinformation

On 11 May 2014, the “Donetsk People’s Republic” (“DNR”), which more or less controlled Mariupol at the time, organized a referendum on the region’s independence. The result was “overwhelming support” for independence, but the referendum attracted widespread condemnation, both nationally and internationally.

In the immediate aftermath of the artillery attack on the Vostochnyi district in Mariupol in January 2015, the OSCE concluded that the shelling was conducted from an area controlled by the “DNR” (OSCE 2015). Subsequently, evidence pointed towards the involvement of Russian military personnel in the attack (Bellingcat 2018). Even so, blame attribution is treated rather sotto voce among locally dominant Akhmetov-controlled media outlets, and it is completely absent wherever Rinat Akhmetov’s charity fund is mentioned as if the deadly rocket attack had been a random act of God.

The survey results show that this approach was immensely successful. While 30% feel unable to attribute the blame to one or the other side, it is striking that a mere 12.8% disagree (and only 6.1% “completely”) with the claim that Vostochnyi was shelled by the Ukrainian armed forces.

Corona disinformation

The ongoing covid-19 pandemic has led to a global “infodemic.” The city’s population seems susceptible to false stories that have had the time to ripen: almost half (48.3%) agree with the claim that “American labs on Ukrainian soil conduct medical experiments on the population of Ukraine,” whereas less than one in four disagree (24.6%).

Conclusion

Anti-Western and, to a significant extent anti-Ukrainian, disinformation narratives and conspiracy theories enjoy alarming acceptance in Mariupol. While this situation certainly has multiple causes, the fact that Mariupol is bogged down in a local mediatic Akhmetovshchina, and that it is exposed to the Russian media and to the highly dubious Medvedchuk-controlled nationwide media, certainly does not help. In practice, the Akhmetov media perilously overlook Russian disinformation in Mariupol, and they have largely failed to contribute to the city’s critical informational security situation, despite efforts by certain strongly motivated journalists. Diversification of the local population’s media diet would appear to be the most urgently needed change, coupled with decisive efforts by the local government to counter local disinformation such as that surrounding the shelling of Vostochnyi. However, the outcome of the local elections on 25 October 2020 makes such urgently needed changes unlikely.

Michael Gentile is Professor of human geography, Department of Sociology and Human Geography, University of Oslo, Norway

 

 

Eugenia Kuznetsova is a Research associate at KSE

 

 

 


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Source: VoxUkraine

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