Ukraine and the fog of war
Some recommendations on how to recognize misinformation.
If you’ve noticed that I haven’t written very much so far on the war in Ukraine, there’s a reason: it’s hard to say much more than I’ve already said about what’s going on. You wouldn’t know this from the way our media talks about it, but an extraordinary amount of information in circulation about this war is still thinly sourced, or credibly contested, or fundamentally speculative. We still can’t talk with any certainty on all kinds of basic things, like “what is the Kremlin’s endgame” or “will Western forces that prefer a decisive victory prevail over those who want a protracted war”; often we don’t even know crucial questions of fact like “who fired that missle” or “how many people died”. A lot of pundits, of course, seem perfectly fine with indulging in blind speculation about these questions — but personally, I’m not going to throw around guesses when war crimes are on the table.
That said, while there isn’t a magic trick for finding reliable information about Ukraine, there are a lot of ways to avoid misinformation. So here, I’m going to lay out some recommendations. Some of this comes from years of following the conflict and living in the region, but a lot of it is just common sense — something our discourse on the war in Ukraine badly needs.
RULE 1: EVERYONE DOES WAR PROPAGANDA — EVEN “THE GOOD GUYS.”
A lot of folks in the discourse have plainly decided that it’s an either tactically or morally necessary gesture of solidarity to pretend that “the good guys” in this war are always telling the truth. I disagree, but even if you buy into that, I assume that you at least would like to know for yourself what’s happening. And if you do, then you need to begin with the understanding that basically all the major actors in this war — Russia, Ukraine, the US, mainstream media, and alternative media — has been lying on a regular basis.
It’s easy to understand why. Sometimes Ukraine will tell the truth about what is happening because military invasions always involve civilian casualties, especially ones this big; but sometimes it will do things like exaggerate casualty counts or deny the crimes of its own military simply to maintain and increase support from the west. Sometimes the US will tell the truth about what is happening, not out of decency or nobility, but simply when the truth is embarrassing for Russia and good for our arms industry; similarly, sometimes it will deny its own meddling in Ukraine and the country’s own crimes for the same reason.1 Sometimes Russia will tell the truth about what is happening, particularly when it wins morale-raising military victories or finds footage of Ukrainian soldiers and civilians attacking alleged traitors; but it also has every reason to lie sometimes, particularly when it murders civilians en masse or when it wants to downplay its own defeats.
As far as I can tell people are only really denying these obvious points for ideological reasons. No one who’s reading this needs me to explain why some folks will just reflexively defer to mainstream media coverage and NATO propaganda. Yasha Levine, meanwhile, wrote a good post earlier this week on people who have been predictably repeating the Russian line on everything. To that, I’ll just add a simple point for my anti-imperialist comrades: for decades, the standard defense of North Vietnam’s mistreatment of prisoners of war during the Vietnam War has been to insist that this was understandable and even justified — not to pretend that it didn’t happen.
RULE 2: UNDERSTAND HOW EVERYONE IS GETTING THEIR INFORMATION.
There are really only just a handful of primary sources for information about this war: the Russian, Ukrainian, and de facto Luhansk and Donetsk governments and their militaries; state intelligence operations around the world; on-the-ground journalists, NGOs, and corporations; and Ukrainian civilians.
This is obvious when you think about it, but a lot of our discourse seems to be proceeding as if it’s independent from all the known incentives and biases of the above sources. Western COSINT groups, for example, generally are not running their own operations in Ukraine; they’re just piggybacking on the above sources. Are our “heterodox anti-imperialists” reporting on the ground? Well, one of them tried, though it didn’t go well. But for the most part, when you rule out the sources that they say are always unreliable — Ukraine and NATO, NGOs, and corporations — this leaves only a handful of places they can be getting their information.
By the way - you may have noticed that a lot of our COSINT and “independent media” analysis is being sourced from social media, particularly from Telegram. This may seem credible and authentic at a glance — random civilian witnesses who aren’t even writing or speaking in English! — but just consider how you would react to a journalist who got all of his information about the US from Twitter.2 Social media may occasionally have some good information, but it’s also absolutely overrun with third-party bullshitters and, yes, actual government operatives. Unfortunately, a lot of our journalists know this perfectly well but have decided that they’re okay with laundering these dubious sources and citing them in their reporting; when you see this happen, it’s worth asking what their agenda is.
RULE 3: DON’T EXPECT TIMELY INFORMATION.
At the end of March, Chinese state media posted a revealing video about the destruction of a theater in Mariupol weeks before — an incident that we still know very little about. The video wasn’t revealing because it gave us new details about the theater, however: what it revealed is why we know so little. The clip begins with a small group of soldiers and journalists racing for cover amid ongoing crossfire in the area and huddling in a stairwell about 500 meters away. They attempt to move closer but are unable to; they try to fly a drone in for closer footage, but at some point the drone itself takes damage and they have to give up.
Sometimes war zones get so hot that you just aren’t going to get any reliable information out of them any time soon. Modern news consumers are so used to instant coverage of everything on the planet that we have a hard time wrapping our heads around this, and unfortunately some pundits have decided to pander to that demand by indulging in all kinds of irresponsible speculation before they have any real information. I’ve also seen some folks in the media suggest that it’s significant or suspicious when we don’t get quick information — which tells me that either they don’t know what they’re talking about, or they have an agenda. Regardless, resist the temptation to accept bad information out of impatience.
RULE 4: DON’T CONFUSE CORRECT GUESSES WITH KNOWLEDGE.
As Russian forces gathered at the borders of Ukraine and the world began to speculate whether or not they’d actually invade, it was inevitable that a lot of pundits would be running victory laps. Either those who were predicting an invasion would end up getting it right or the skeptics would, but obviously someone was going to say that their thorough, rigorous knowledge of the conflict and of the Kremlin’s geopolitical strategy had been proven by history.
If we’re being realistic about this, though, it’s pretty clear that almost no one had any real knowledge about what was happening. We now know that even those who got it right and predicted an invasion were relying on dubious intelligence released by the White House in a propaganda campaign — not on anything solid or credible. More to the point: most Americans can’t speak Russian or Ukrainian, can’t name ten cities in Ukraine, don’t have contacts in any of the governments involved, and certainly cannot explain what the threshold was that distinguished Russia’s pre-invasion military buildup from the military presence it’s kept along the border since 2014. What really happened here is that some people predicted an invasion because they are inclined to believe the US government, the mainstream media, and the worst about Russia, while other people are inclined to believe that the US government and the mainstream media are always lying.
This same dynamic has played out repeatedly since the war began, particularly among media personalities who are struggling for credibility on a topic that they really don’t know very much about. When Russian missiles took out the Retroville mall in northwest Kyiv, 99.9% of Americans had no idea that the mall even existed, and 0% knew that the Ukrainian military had parked some of its vehicles by the loading dock; but when this came to light, American pundits who have been sympathetic towards the invasion proceeded as if we had actual reasons to suspect that the strike was justified.
Sometimes, in fact, correct guesses can prove a lack of understanding about this war. Before the invasion, even US intelligence waffled on the prediction that Russia would invade from the north and try to sack Kyiv, and even regional scholars and military analysts who thought an invasion was likely hesitated to commit to this. And they were right to do so: if you were certain that Russia would immediately target Kyiv, then you just don’t get how irrational, outrageous, and out-of-character its decision to do so actually was.
Beware of pundits who try to build credibility from lucky guesses. This can only mean one of two things: either they don’t value actual knowledge of what’s going on, or they are grossly overestimating their own expertise.
RULE 5: MARTYRDOM ISN’T EVIDENCE.
A little over a week ago, Twitter banned pundit Scott Ritter over one of his tweets about the war in Ukraine. This was ridiculous and unfair, and along with many of his critics (like yours truly), Ritter’s media allies loudly condemned the decision.
But that isn’t all they did, of course. Repeatedly, allies of Ritter insisted that his tweet merely “questioned” US narratives on Ukraine; and soon enough, this line shifted to the affirmative claim that he had been banned for “speaking truth”.
This is of course an entirely plausible narrative when we talk about it in the abstract; people are banned for speaking the truth all the time. But in this case, what Ritter specifically claimed was that “The Ukrainian National Police committed numerous crimes against humanity in Bucha.” This is not something he should have been banned for, but it also happens to be demonstrably incorrect. In an article, Ritter builds his case for this around the claim that “Russian troops evacuated Bucha on March 30”; but satellite imagery released since then proves that Russians had already begun to murder Ukrainian civilians weeks before.
This kind of reasoning has plagued our discourse for quite some time now, but it’s been particularly pernicious during the war in Ukraine. One of the best arguments against social media censorship, it turns out, is that when this happens a whole lot of people will just take for granted that the target was telling the truth.
This point should not be overstated, however. Consider the US’s stance towards Ukraine’s hard right: the US has a long history of ignoring or even supporting radicals in other countries when convenient, but it also has a history of turning on them when it becomes inconvenient. Our country’s stance towards them is mostly determined by self-interest, and people in the beltway decide that it would be diplomatically convenient to adopt a “critical support” or even a “principled criticism” line of Ukraine’s nationalists, they will.
I shouldn’t put that so hypothetically: think about how you do react to all of the journalists who do get all of their information about the US from Twitter.