Three years ago, on 27 February 2015, one the most popular Russian opposition leaders – former Governor of Russia’s fifth-largest city, Nizhny Novgorod, former Russian Deputy Prime Minister and favourite of President Yeltsin, Boris Nemtsov – was gunned down with four shots in his back as he was crossing a bridge a mere few hundred meters from the Kremlin.

So far, the investigation of the crime has identified the gunman, a former Russian security forces officer, and his closest associates; the killers have ties to Chechen leader and Russian politician Ramzan Kadyrov, a declared enemy of Nemtsov.

Trolls told to blame the Russian opposition

Different attempts have been made to distract audiences’ attention from the Chechen trace. And different methods have been in use, including trolling and fabricated media stories. We have also seen disinformation campaigns promoting alternative explanations, pointing in different directions.

Ludmila Savchuk, a Russian investigative journalist who went under cover in the troll factory in St. Petersburg, told New York Times that after Nemtsov was murdered, “she and her entire team were moved to the department that left comments on the websites of Russian news outlets and ordered to suggest that the opposition itself had set up the murder”.

Employees at the “Troll Factory” in St. Petersburg, Russia, were told to spread disinformation suggesting that the Russian opposition was itself guilty of killing opposition leader Boris Nemtsov.

Media told to blame Ukraine

At the time of the assassination, Boris Nemtsov was preparing a report about the Kremlin’s active involvement in the Ukrainian conflict, which was later published. Since then, Ukraine has become the dominating target in a disinformation campaign with the blame for Nemtsov’s murder being put on Ukrainian oligarchs and authorities in publications by e.g. the state-owned international propaganda outlet Sputnik and by Komsomolskaya Pravda, Russia’s largest daily newspaper.

The fact that propaganda narratives in Kremlin-loyal media are subject to central coordination from the side of the authorities, the so-called ‘temnik’ system, has been confirmed by whistle blowers who have emerged from inside Russian media organisations.

The aim is to confuse

Sometimes, disinformation is used tactically: the aim is then to mislead an audience into believing that something, which true, is not true, or vice versa. However, disinformation is more often a strategic exercise whose final aim is not to give credibility to one particular “truth”; this kind of operation will make sure to spread different narratives, which will contradict each other, in order to put public opinion in a state of fundamental confusion. The ultimate success is when audiences begin believing that they will never learn the truth about a given event.

If, for example, the pro-Kremlin disinformation campaign can make us believe there will never be clarity about who shot down Flight MH17 over Eastern Ukraine in July 2014, it will serve the aim of protecting the perpetrators and make audiences lose faith in truth as something that is attainable.

The same thing can be said about the way the pro-Kremlin disinformation campaign has handled the murder of Boris Nemtsov: First Nemtsov is assassinated; after that, the hope that the truth about his death will be found is killed with trolling and disinformation in media outlets. And finally, authorities do their best to kill the very memory of Boris Nemtsov; for example by systematically removing the flowers and destroying the decorations Russian citizens still, until this day, place on the crime scene in front of the Kremlin.

Click on the video to watch flowers and decorations being forcefully removed on the bridge where Boris Nemtsov was killed, a mere few hundred meters from the Kremlin

Further reading:

State TV in Russia as a weapon against the opposition

COMMENTARY: Means, goals and consequences of the pro-Kremlin disinformation campaign

Top image: Wikimedia Commons