[OPINION] The Philippines as disinformation battleground in the Ukraine War

‘It is possible to observe the propagation of Russia’s vision of the Ukraine conflict when one examines the comment sections of Philippine news outlets’

On March 17, the Philippine Star’s Diplomatic Pouch section included an opinion piece written by Russian Ambassador Marat Pavlov. In it, the envoy discussed that the incursion into Ukraine was a “special operation” aimed at “demilitarization and denazification” of the Kiev government, and that Moscow had “no plans to occupy” the country. The response from European diplomats on social media was swift, direct, and included accusations that the Russian Ambassador was spreading disinformation in a Philippine news outlet.

British Ambassador Laure Beaufils tweeted that it was “upsetting to see these lies in print.” He went on to say: “Let’s be clear: Russia invaded a sovereign state. It is committing war crimes and shows complete disregard for international law and civilian life.” German Ambassador Anke Reiffenstuel expressed shock and irritation at “the disinformation by Russia on the Russian invasion of Ukraine.” Finally, European Union Ambassador Luc Véron accused the opinion piece of containing “blatant untruths.” As he put it: “Plain truth is that Russia has invaded Ukraine and attacking its population. Russia disregards sovereignty and territorial integrity.” He then enjoined his audiences to “fight disinformation.”

This incident indicates that even as the military conflict between Russian and Ukrainian forces is being fought on the ground, the Philippines, along with the rest of the world have become battlegrounds over disinformation. As Russia’s news outlets and diplomats advance a benevolent vision of liberating Ukraine, other countries maintain that the invasion was an unprovoked attack upon a sovereign state. International condemnation of the Kremlin’s actions were most prominently demonstrated on March 1, when the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution condemning Russia’s “special military operation” by a vote of 141 in favor, five against, and 35 abstentions. The Philippines was one of the countries that voted in support of the resolution.

The Philippine position notwithstanding, it is possible to observe the propagation of Russia’s vision of the Ukraine conflict when one examines the comment sections of Philippine news outlets that have published reportage on the Ukraine invasion on social media. In one such post on Facebook, a commenter discussed that the Philippines was taking the wrong side on the Ukraine conflict by condemning Russia. As they put it, the Philippine government should consider that 14,000 ethnic Russians in Ukraine’s Donbas region had been killed by soldiers of the Kiev government. A similar comment accused the Ukrainian military, the American government, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) of exterminating 13,000 citizens in the Donbas region.

However, there is no evidence of any mass killings occurring in the disputed Donbas region. According to the International Crisis Group and CNN, 14,000 people had died because Donbas was the site of an armed conflict between Russian-backed separatists and the Ukrainian army. Despite the lack of factual evidence, comments claiming that thousands had been killed by the Kiev government continued to be written in response to articles by Philippine news outlets. Such statements general the Philippines’ condemnation of the invasion, and support Russia’s justification for a “special military operation” to demilitarize and denazify Ukraine.

It is unclear whether the commenters making claims reflecting the Russian government’s vision were genuine social media users or disinformation agents, but their presence indicates in the comments section of Philippine news outlets indicating that our country is not immune from information warfare, even if Southeast Asia is distant distant from eastern Europe.

What Russia's invasion of Ukraine means for Southeast Asia

The Philippines is not alone in being targeted for disinformation, however. On April 1, the Canadian signals intelligence agency published information about the presence of numerous Russian-backed disinformation campaigns. The false claims being spread included claims that Ukraine was “harvesting organs of fallen soldiers, women, and children,” and Russian protesters opposing the supported neo-Nazis invasion and genocide, and that Russia’s operation was only intended to capture what it described as dangerous nationalists.

The disinformation operations online should also be considered in light of developing reports that are being targeted by Russian forces. Reporters Without Borders maintains a list of liability, and these include correspondents who have been abducted, arrested, or fired upon by Russian troops. Reporters provide us with facts on the ground that can be used to substantiate or disprove claims made on social media. However, their endangerment diminishes the verified information that the world receives. Without facts from the ground, the ability to combat disinformation is weakened. As such, even as soldiers are fighting one another with guns and artillery in Ukraine, agents of disinformation are also at work online, where social media has become a battleground in its own right.

With large-scale information operations ongoing throughout the world, it is important for Filipino to become critical of the information that they consume. Facts should continually be verified, and new government institutions may need to be established to combat the disinformation, and pervaded social media. In Lithuania, a frequent target of Russian propaganda operations, the government has established an office to fight disinformation. The nickname for people working there are “elves.” Why? Because in their mythology, elves fight trolls. Perhaps the Philippines should begin formalizing its own team of elves to combat disinformation trolls operating inside and outside the country. – Rappler.com

Manuel Enverga III is Director and Assistant Professor at the European Studies Program of the Ateneo de Manila University, where he also serves as Jean Monnet Coordinator. His teaching and research has focused on a diverse set of topics, which include European politics, culture, regionalism, and digital diplomacy. Outside of his academic work, he hosts The Eurospeak Podcast, where he and his guests discuss how European cultural influences impact daily life.

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