Can the Oscars Amplify What the World No Longer Hears?
Facts about Russia’s war in Ukraine have been buried in a deluge of Kremlin sponsored disinformation. Can the Academy Awards bring witness testimony of war crimes to a larger audience?
“It’s very easy to manipulate meaning when you see short clips, one or two minute news pieces, or you hear something on the radio and move on,” says Mstyslav Chernov, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and the director of the Academy Award-nominated 20 Days in Mariupol. “That’s where documentaries and long form stories shine… When you are exposed to a story that is incredibly important, 90 minutes or longer… it gives you enough context and perspective for you to make better judgments.”
In the 90 minutes of 20 Days of Mariupol, we witness families torn apart as their children die in hospitals that no longer have power, water, or antibiotics. These are Russian-speaking Ukrainians, injured and killed by Russian soldiers fighting a war Vladimir Putin claims necessary to save Russian-speaking Ukrainians. But those sorts of communications are a misdirection, one that Chernov works hard to counter.
“Showing the human toll… was the sole purpose in making this film,” he says during our talkback after screening at the Ukrainian Institute in New York City. “I really wanted to show it’s not just about headlines, these are real people… to focus on how it affects Ukrainians, simple people, civilians. That’s the most horrifying thing of war, because they don’t know why this is happening to them, there’s nothing they can do about it.”
In the safety of the West, the messaging we see in our media drives our perceptions of conflict, and we are unprepared to handle the sort of information war the Kremlin has undertaken. “The West doesn’t understand countries like Russia are already at war with them,” Chernov says to me afterwards. His voice has the urgency of someone who’s seen the horrors that result.
“I had just started conflict journalism,” Chernov tells the audience, thinking back to his coverage of the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17. “When Russia shot down MH17 over Donbas – I can say Russia shot it down now because the core team has proven that – but back then, I knew what had happened and everyone around knew that they did it… I arrived at the scene half an hour after the plane was shot down and hundreds of bodies are scattered across the fields, children, horrible. And I think, okay, the war is going to stop tomorrow. People are going to sit around the table and agree that this is unacceptable because there are so many different countries involved now… Nine years later, here we are.”
In November, 2022, the District Court of The Hague found three pro-Russian fighters guilty of shooting down the civilian aircraft including Igor Girkin, the highest ranking military leader in operational terms of the so called DPR. The court found indisputable evidence that the aircraft was shot down by a Russian BUK missile. But in the past nine years, Russian disinformation, now debunked by the Joint Investigation Team (JIT) established by the Netherlands Public Prosecution Service, flooded the media space, including: a Ukrainian Air Force jet shot the MH17 down (JIT concluded there were no military aircraft in the area); Russia’s Ministry of Defense claimed a Ukrainian BUK missile shot the plane down using a simulation as evidence (JIT found the simulation did not match damage to the aircraft); a claim that the CIA filled the plane with corpses and shot it down to blame Russia (MH17 victims were listed by name on the manifest); and Russian media speculated it was a botched attempt to assassinate Putin who was flying back from Brazil at the time. All of these were disprovable lies that entered public discourse.
In Peter Pomerantzev’s book This is not Propaganda, he says, “We have access to more information and evidence than ever before, but facts seem to have lost their power. There is nothing new about politicians lying, but what seems novel is their acting like they don’t care whether what they say is true or false.”
The goal isn’t to create the more convincing narrative, it’s to sow confusion and with it plausible deniability. In the decade since the downing of that plane, we’ve seen an exponential increase in the penetration of disinformation, moving beyond social media to US television networks and even sitting Congresspeople. The richest man in the world more than once has shared disinformation on the social network he purchased, a statement that almost makes us sound like an oligarchy.
Propagandists design their communications to challenge conventional thinking, create a sense of outrage, or even to entertain with humor, all of which create the opportunity to sell ad space, drive poll numbers, or even something as vacuous as increase your likes in social media. But why are none of these useful idiots considering the repercussions of spreading destabilizing and divisive, let’s just say it, lies to their millions of followers and why we are we hearing so little outrage when these things happen?
One of the major strategies of disinformation is to generate enough confusion that it’s hard to believe anything anymore, and the majority of the US population doesn’t have the tools to understand it’s happening. Fifty-four percent of Americans read below a sixth-grade level, which in this context means they have inadequate media literacy to judge what is propaganda and what is not. Combine that with these figures¹ – 50% overall get their news from social media, 76% percent age 18-29 get their news through social media or search, and 72% who achieved high school or less get their news from television – and you have a toxic scenario optimized to create a misinformed audience. Facts presented with hard evidence become something impossible for people to believe.
Another critical factor is that we’ve been so safe for so long we feel no urgency. “Some modern democratic societies are so comfortable…” says Chernov, “They are losing this feeling that they can change stuff, because they think they don’t need to. And that creates this indifference which I think in the modern world is extremely dangerous.”
What does provoke a reaction is calculated misdirection or flat out rage baiting. For two years now we’ve heard repeated warnings against escalation because we’ll provoke Putin into using nuclear weapons – a threat he’s made at least three dozen times and acted on none. It’s a distraction tactic. Get people wringing their hands about nukes and they won’t notice that the Kremlin has turned communications into a weapon of mass destruction and launched it in our direction.
“There is a general tendency in the most democratic countries to be hostile to press, that’s quite disturbing trend. In my 10 years of conflict journalism, I see more and more of that,” says Chernov. “That being said, most of the people we met in Mariupol asked to be filmed and expressed their hope that the world will see. At that moment I knew the value of journalism. We see how society collapses without it, without the exchanging of information. A few days without news, without information, not knowing whether your country even exists, where your friends are, just devastates people and throws them into a panic. People who panic don’t resist. So that is a deliberate tactic, to deprive people of information.”
Information is the war, but also the asset and the vulnerability, and if we mean to win this war we need to do a better job of protecting it.