Spiegel Online Moscow correspondent Benjamin Bidder reflects on the journalistic challenges presented by infowar raging over Ukraine.
Over the past eighteen months, German journalist Benjamin Bidder has found himself thrust into the maelstrom of the information war being waged over Ukraine. Since 2009, he has served as a freelance Moscow correspondent for Germany’s largest internet news site, Spiegel Online, and also regularly contributes to the print version, Der Spiegel. Mr. Bidder’s fascination with the former Soviet empire stretches back to a 2001 stint as a volunteer at a St. Petersburg orphanage for disabled children run by the charity ‘Perspektivy’, for whom he retains a deep sense of admiration.
In different circumstances, the German journalist might well have been described as a Russophile, but the polarization which has taken place as a result of the Ukraine conflict has instead led to accusations of Russophobia and seen him become a target for online abuse from Russian extremist groups. Mr. Bidder spoke to Business Ukraine magazine about the unique challenges of covering a conflict which is being fought in the information sphere as fiercely as it is on the battlefield.
Russia is accused of orchestrating an unprecedented multi-media disinformation campaign over Ukraine. How has this impacted on your journalistic work while covering the Ukraine crisis?
Every morning I drown in information. As a journalist, I try to identify interesting reports, but it is a process plagued by doubts. It is physically impossible to check every story personally. A journalist’s best friend is skepticism, and it needs to be applied to all sides of the conflict. It is true that Russia systematically uses disinformation. But you need to be cautious with other sources as well. Remember the stories claiming that Russian separatist fighter Babai was a Russian government agent? It was not true.
It is accepted international journalistic practice to present rival narratives in an objective manner – has the information war over Ukraine exposed or validated this practice?
To be honest, you won’t find too many of those ‘one side says A, the other side says B’ type of reports anymore. Why not? First of all, because it’s awfully boring for readers. Secondly, it’s often misleading. Remember what happened in Crimea. There we saw soldiers without official insignia but equipped as Russian Special Forces. They operated like Russian Special Forces, and in one place I even talked to a commander who was holding a Russian Ministry of Defence briefcase. In such circumstances, do you really have to repeat the official Russian narrative that these troops are merely local self-defense militias? I doubt it.
Russian commentators have often claimed that there is no such thing as objectivity in news coverage. Where do you think the dividing line lies between spin and deliberate disinformation?
Information can be biased. However, there is a difference between coverage which is biased due to mistakes or a lack of knowledge about Russia and Ukraine – as sometimes happens in Germany – and bias which is the result of a systematic campaign, as is the case with Russian television. Truth exists, but it is often complex and has many dimensions.
You have reported on the so-called Kremlin troll factories and interviewed alleged whistleblowers. Do you think such tactics have had any impact in shaping public opinions towards the Ukraine crisis, both inside Russia itself and among international audiences?
I recently did an interview with Ludmilla Savchuk, an activist who claims she went undercover at a St. Petersburg troll factory. However, I don’t often report on the issue of Russian trolls. In my opinion, paid trolls have a very limited impact in Germany. Many of Putin’s supporters in Germany are clearly not paid – they believe what they say. Moreover, Elder statesmen like Helmut Schmidt who call for more understanding of Putin are far more influential than any online troll armies.
Germany is regarded as one of the key battlegrounds in the infowar over Ukraine. How has coverage of the Ukraine crisis in the German media evolved over the past eighteen months?
It’s very difficult for me to say. I don’t watch German television a lot because I just don’t have the time. But in Germany we have seen some vocal criticism by activists and watchdogs over TV coverage of Ukraine. Some of the criticism was well-founded, some not. Sometimes I have the impression that as a consequence of this, some German channels have become very cautious in their coverage of the Ukraine conflict. I would even say they have become too cautious.
Which aspects of the Ukraine crisis have attracted the most German media attention, and which aspects have been neglected?
In the early days of the Euromaidan protests, every single German magazine, newspaper, and TV station was full of reports about ‘the boxer-turned-politician’ Vitali Klitschko. I have great respect for Vitali and have met him several times, but this coverage was naive and highly misleading. It took some time for most of our leading news institutions to mobilise more manpower for their Ukraine coverage. They reactivated former Eastern Europe correspondents, and this improved the quality significantly. Coverage focusing on the ‘nationalist factor’ during Euromaidan, and of the subsequent volunteer battalions, has been low-key – which has led to some criticism. I think Spiegel’s handling of this issue has been OK. We cover it more or less regularly, but I don’t see nationalist forces playing a decisive role today.
The EU is planning to counter Russian information policies with its own Russian-language initiatives. Based on your experience of existing Russian-language media and audiences, do you think such a strategy will prove effective?
We already have so many Russian-language services, from the BBC to Deutsche Welle. I don’t think that you will solve the conflict simply by providing the ‘right information’ in Russian. Most Russians have the technical possibility to access Western media. We need to be honest and confront the reality of the situation. Why is Russian disinformation so successful? Because it supplies what its audiences want to hear. If you really want to fight for the minds of modern Russians, you must understand that the battle will be a long one.