The war in Ukraine has exposed more than the weakness of Russia’s military. Its vaunted disinformation apparatus has collapsed with respect to the war — and done so in a spectacular way that should both encourage and instruct us going forward. Relentless transparency has trumped Russian propaganda. It can in the future as well.
To say transparency is winning does not mean the suffering is over. Far from it: The magnitude of the human toll in Ukraine is all but unfathomable. But when, as the free world hopes, Ukraine prevails, the decision to prioritize communications as a battlefield strategy will have been an important reason why. The upshot is that Russian disinformation should still concern us, but it need not frighten us.
One of the most important and perhaps riskiest decisions the Biden administration made on this issue occurred before the war began, when the White House declassified intelligence showing Russia’s plans to stage a provocation as a pretense for invading Ukraine. That one act inoculated the rest of the world against the disinformation campaign Russia was planning.
Weeks into the war, our research showed that an immense and bipartisan margin of Americans — who disagree with each other on just about everything else — continue to reject Vladimir Putin’s preposterous claim that the invasion was justified. So did respondents in Japan, France, Germany, Britain, and Canada. Putin has unified more than NATO. In an age of polarization, he has unified something every bit as powerful: public opinion.
On the ground in Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelensky has flooded every possible communications channel — from Twitter to the Grammys to a joint session of Congress — with authenticity and truth. That suggests a striking fact: Just as Ukraine is surviving against all odds, transparency is prevailing too.
That Zelensky has controlled the story with authenticity does not mean communication has suddenly become simple. He has waged a thoughtful and sophisticated information campaign — his own version of shock and awe — including masterful use of social media as well as customizing communications to foreign governments by invoking each of their own visceral memories.
The very fact that Russia felt the need to plan a false flag operation to create a pretext for invasion shows the power of communication and public perception. Russia never felt its brute power was sufficient rationale for trying to conquer a neighbor: Putin knew he had to attempt to justify it. His failure shows that, if we are willing to trust it, transparency has an intrinsic step on falsehood.
It is true that Putin has rallied his own people to support him, through disinformation campaigns but also through censorship and social media bans that have cut them off from reality. But here, too, the fact that he felt a need to bring down a new Iron Curtain made of ones and zeroes rather than brick and mortar shows how grave a threat transparency is to him.
To be sure, disinformation remains a threat. But in several ways, the Ukraine experience does suggest how transparency can be used to protect against propaganda.
First, the Ukraine experience demonstrates that transparency is worth the risks that attend it. Transparency entails exposing one’s flaws along with one’s virtues, and in the case of intelligence, it can involve disclosing information there are good reasons for keeping secret. Biden’s decision to disclose Russian plans is a substantial reason those plans failed.
That disclosure illustrated a second point: the paramount importance of framing a debate. It’s an old lesson for politicians: The one who sets the terms of the debate wins the argument. Going on the offensive with transparency makes it possible to converse on grounds of one’s choosing rather than answering someone else’s question.
Third, presence matters. Putin largely abandoned the communications battlefield and left Zelensky to roam it freely. That was possible because the Ukrainian leader understood the tangible and meaningful power of global opinion.
Finally, an embrace of transparency means the golden age of the spin doctor — if it was actually golden — is fading. The best communications strategy cannot save a bad message, and still less a false one. Zelensky’s authenticity, not his spin, is carrying the day.
Putin is perhaps the world’s highest-ranking spy. But truth and transparency are overcoming cloak and dagger. Ukraine may not fully control its airspace. But it has complete command of the airwaves. That may prove to be every bit as important.
Jack Leslie is senior adviser at Weber Shandwick. Micho Spring is chief reputation officer at Weber Shandwick.