Editor’s Note: James Ball is an award-winning journalist and author who has worked for WikiLeaks, The Guardian, The Washington Post and BuzzFeed. The opinions in this article belong to the author.
At first glance, RT’s interview with the two men accused of poisoning former Russian spy Sergei Skripal, his daughter and two other British citizens almost looks like a joke.
The two men, claiming to be civilians, say they made their 48-hour trip to the UK to see Salisbury cathedral – with its famous “123 meter spire” – and Stonehenge, but couldn’t due to bad weather.
The interview comes just a day after Russian President Vladimir Putin said that the Russian authorities found the men, and “hoped” they would come forward for an interview. Helpfully, the men agreed with Putin, and thus they appeared on RT, the Kremlin-backed network that pushes Moscow’s line around the world.
To anyone sensible, this story is laughably thin and deeply unconvincing, especially when contrasted with the unusual volume of evidence that the UK is providing to support its case against the two men. The account is farfetched at best, the men’s story left almost entirely unchallenged by RT’s editor-in-chief. Aspects of it appear to be directly contradicted by their known movements and released CCTV images.
Why, then, would Russia even bother to attempt such a crude attempt at misinformation? The answer is that Moscow is playing a more subtle game than most people realize.
The chances of the men accused of attempting to murder the Skripals facing UK justice are approximately zero. The men suspected of poisoning Alexander Litvenenko, a Russian defector poisoned and killed with polonium on UK soil, similarly protested their innocence safely from overseas. Russia is not worried about having to try to convince UK courts – or a UK jury – of these men’s innocence.
Instead, it is merely trying to sow enough doubt and division to convince those in the UK already sympathetic to Russia – or those already suspicious of their own government – that the official story of the Skripal poisoning is not true.
There was already a burgeoning conspiracy theory movement around the Skripal case, with people pointing to the nearby Porton Down chemical lab as evidence of British “false-flag” involvement, or doubting whether Russia would have a motive, or questioning CCTV evidence as doctored.
This new interview gives them more questions to ask and more mud to throw: some, including former ambassador Craig Murray, are triumphantly noting that there were some road closures due to bad weather during the suspects’ visit, or that Salisbury Cathedral is, as cathedrals go, really quite famous – as if either proves anything.
The effect of this kind of messaging works well on multiple audiences. To savvy national-security audiences – whether governments, experts or journalists – it serves as a nudge and a wink that Russia really did it. To defectors and domestic opponents of the Russian regime, it sends the same signal in a far darker way.
And to supporters and useful idiots, it gives a new selection of endless arguments with which to bury anyone pointing the finger of blame exactly where it should be pointed.
Russia’s unconvincing lies, then, work far better than better ones ever could: even the unlikely story itself can become an argument (“who’d make it up?”). It even helps the message spread: outlets and journalists spread Russia’s propaganda to debunk it, or even to laugh at it. Much of their audience will laugh along – but a few will buy Russia’s line now that it’s been spread to them.
This is a long-running playbook for Russia, and one they’ve deployed in relation to its invasion of Crimea and eastern Ukraine, its work disrupting the US election and in numerous other fields.
It’s a playbook NATO is so aware of that it’s produced a handbook setting out the Russian model – “dismiss, distort, distract, dismay” – in detail.
It’s a playbook that prospers by using the tools of a democracy – open disagreement, tolerance of fringe groups and crucially mainstream and social media – against us. And there is so far no sign that its efficacy is diminishing.
Simply put, Russia is better at misinformation than its opponents. It understands better how information – good or bad – is spread. Everyone else needs to get better at dealing with it.