When Seeing Is Not Believing: Toxic Disinformation in Russia’s War Against Ukraine

Join internationally recognized foreign affairs journalist Douglas Herbert of France24 who brings expertise and his unique perspective on the consequences of Vladimir Putin's ambitions for Russia. 

Event Overview

“Kyiv is waging genocide against the Russian-speaking population in eastern Ukraine."
“Russia has committed no war crimes - there isn’t even a war."
“The Bucha massacre was staged by Ukrainian forces.”

You may recognize some, or all, of these lines from Vladimir Putin’s revisionist narrative of recent history. Each has been debunked by empirical evidence and plain old facts. But tens of millions of Russians, especially older ones who get their “news” from Russia’s state-controlled Pervy Kanal, or First Channel, not only believe these bald-faced lies; they embrace them.

Disinformation has long been a staple of Russia’s approach to “informing” the public, predating the Soviet censors. But the Kremlin’s spin doctors have spun into overdrive since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022. In Putin’s Russia, reality is whatever the paramount leader says it is. Suggesting otherwise is punishable by up to 15 years in prison. But what makes Russia’s propaganda so potent? How can a nation that boasts some of the world’s most educated and cultured citizens, be so “gullible” - at least from a Western perspective?

The West has retaliated by removing Russian purveyors of the Kremlin line - such as RT or Sputnik - from the airwaves in the US and Europe. But is censorship the answer? Will Russia’s propagandists simply find new - and more creative - ways of polluting the information ecosystem? It’s a question that has taken on added urgency as major elections loom in Europe and the US in the year ahead, and new technologies threaten to chip away at the firewalls of reliable information.

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Douglas Herbert

As a Foreign Affairs Editor at France 24, a Paris-based international news channel, Douglas Herbert has spent more than a decade fighting disinformation, “false equivalency” and “bothsidesism” in his daily commentaries on geopolitics - with a heavy emphasis these days on Russia and its war against Ukraine. It’s a task made harder by the advent and rapid spread of bots, trolls, psy-ops, cyber-hackers and AI tools bent on sowing confusion and division. Douglas began his journalism career in Moscow, in the chaotic wake of the Soviet collapse. As a freelancer in The New York Times Moscow Bureau in the mid-1990s, he reported on a catastrophic oil spill near the Arctic Circle in Russia’s far north that the Russian authorities had tried to cover up. Over a quarter-century roving career, Douglas has lived in and reported from the Baltic States, the US, the UK and, for the last 19 years, France.

At France 24, Douglas has covered nearly a dozen G7 and G20 summits, four US presidential elections, and the recent Arab League summit in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. He reported from Kyiv, the Donbas, and Crimea in 2014, during the first phase of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In recent years, he has taught a graduate seminar on fact-checking and sourcing at Sciences Po Journalism School in Paris, and at IJBA, in Bordeaux. Douglas, a native New Yorker, received his Masters Degree in Russian Studies from Harvard University. He studied at the Moscow Energy Institute in 1989. The scariest moment of Douglas’s reporting career came at a press conference, when he was asked, “What is your name?” - by Vladimir Putin.