The Buzz

Drones: Russia’s Hot New Propaganda Tool

Russia is beginning to up the ante with drones, and not in the way you may think. Shortly after Syrian forces retook Palmyra aided by Russian air power, Russian television stations aired crystal clear, drone captured footage of the ruins of the Greco-Roman city. Russia has utilized these drones as an exceptional propaganda tool for its war in Syria, highlighting an often-overlooked role for drones on the information battlefields of today and tomorrow. Western media outlets and the United States would do well to consider incorporating this innovative technology into its own broader coverage of conflicts and as another tool for information operations.

Since October 2015, Russia Works, a group affiliated with the state-owned Russian television company VGTRK, has been uploading aerial footage of the conflict in Syria. Portrayed almost as a video game, the images provide a stylized look at the Russian assisted Syrian offensive. Commercially available drones with HD video cameras allow civilians to peer through the fog of war. DJI Phantoms, such as those used by Russia Works, offer unprecedented perspective on unfolding battles previously reserved for costly low-flying aircraft. The drone footage is also notable for its visceral quality. This is something more conventional footage lacks, allowing civilians to witness tanks firing in field, soldiers storming buildings, and the destruction of cities that is rapidly available online.

Moreover, these drones are relatively cheap and are rapidly proliferating among nonstate and even individual actors. Their rise draws parallels to how the spread of smartphones has transformed media. The broader use of drone videos may eventually serve a similar function to smartphone videos that have documented alleged abuses by police and have increased transparency in war. While the public has had a progressively more candid view of war since graphic photographs emerged from Vietnam, aerial-drone footage adds a degree of clarity, motion and depth to the portrayal of conflict that may dramatically alter the way wars are covered by the media.

The Russians have quickly incorporated these drones into their propaganda machine and information warfare campaigns. This footage has been used extensively by Russian broadcasters, such as Russia Today (RT) and has made regular appearances in Russian coverage of its intervention in Syria. The footage has been accompanied by coverage that characterizes Russian involvement as using clinical strikes that assist Syrian forces while minimizing civilian causalities. This coverage is part of a broader media campaign to sell the war to the Russian public. By all appearances, it looks to be successful. By early October 72 percent of Russians supported intervention, compared with 69 percent that opposed direct military assistance before Russia’s involvement and subsequent media campaign. While these figures may speak more to the peculiar nature of the Russian public, it is difficult to deny the influence of media when 90 percent of Russians receive their news through state-owned television channels.

Although drone footage, combined with traditional news coverage, provides a substantial degree of realism, it may not represent the truth. A number of private fact-checking groups, such as Bellingcat, have assessed Russian footage and found factual inaccuracies in many videos released by the Ministry of Defense.