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Sensemaker: Through the looking glass

Sensemaker: Through the looking glass

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Zelensky prepared to accuse Russia of genocide at a UN Security Council meeting called initially by Moscow. 
  • France and Germany said they would expel 75 diplomats between them in response to the murder of civilians in Bucha and elsewhere.
  • Republican Senators Mitt Romney and Lisa Murkowski said they would join Susan Collins and Democrats in voting to confirm Ketanji Brown Jackson to the US Supreme Court later this week.

Through the looking glass

The murder of civilians by Russian troops in occupied Ukraine would be troubling enough even if Moscow acknowledged and condemned it. Instead, lies about the dead are being added to lies about the invasion and previous atrocities, and if Putin’s approval rates are any guide they are falling on fertile ground. This is a moral disaster but also an urgent practical problem: the more Russians believe the propaganda, the less chance there is that they will remove Putin from power and the longer Ukrainian civilians will have to suffer while their army fights his on the battlefield.

The filter. State-controlled Russian TV virtually ignored the story of apparent war crimes in Bucha as it broke on Sunday evening, and hit back on Monday with familiar claims that it was a provocation staged by Ukraine.

Day one. Channel 1, the Kremlin’s most powerful mouthpiece, quoted foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova as saying the killings were staged to derail peace talks and escalate the violence. A detailed story in the ostensibly serious business paper Kommersant claimed inaccurately that Russian troops had withdrawn from Bucha three days before bodies were first filmed on its streets. BBC Monitoring’s Russia watchlist for April 4 shows how the piece established a narrative picked up by other state-backed media and outlets in China, Venezuela and Iran. 

The reality. Contrary to Russia’s claims that its troops withdrew from Bucha on 30 March, its own channels were still reporting military operations there on 1 April, the same day images of bodies on the streets first appeared on social media. Later yesterday the NYT established with satellite imagery that many of the civilians were killed more than three weeks ago.  

Double down. Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, and foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, said without evidence the killings were “fakes” as Channel 1 and other approved networks rounded out their prime-time bulletins with stories about

  • a humanitarian corridor to evacuate civilians and foreign nationals from Mariupol (Rossiya 24);
  • searches of homes in “liberated” (Russian-held) areas by Russian soldiers showing “utmost courtesy” to homeowners (Rossiya 24); and
  • motor rallies in Athens and Berlin supposedly to protest against Russophobia and show solidarity with Russia (Rossiya 1). 

Day two. Without compelling answers to the NYT’s satellite image analysis, the main Russian networks have sought today to change the subject to

  • unsubstantiated claims that Russia’s UN representative, Vasily Nebenzya, has “proof” Russian troops were not involved in the Bucha killings;
  • claims the UK sought to veto Russia’s request for an emergency UN Security Council meeting, which will in fact happen today;
  • claims that western countries are ignoring evidence of Russian prisoners being tortured by their Ukrainian captors.

Today’s Russian papers don’t ignore the Bucha killings but they blame them squarely on Ukraine – a “PR tragedy” (Moskovsky Komsomolets); an “information spectacle” (Rossiskaya Gazeta). Komsomolskaya Pravda goes a step further. The massacre, it says, is a carefully prepared false flag operation to turn the world decisively against Russia – just like the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines MH-17 eight years ago.

Know more

Who controls telegram?

Barney Macintyre

Use of Telegram, the instant messaging app, has surged since the invasion. For Ukrainians it has become an indispensable source of local information and a conduit for military leaders’ messages of resistance. In Russia, it is one of the last apps standing; a vehicle for samizdat as well as state propaganda.

But several run-ins over content moderation have exposed the myth that Telegram is a passive platform. Its approach to misinformation and violent content is unclear, ad-hoc and appears to be largely subject to the whims of the app’s elusive founder, Pavel Durov.

In light of this growing popularity, it’s worth asking: what do we really know about the platform?


Baristas first
Howard Schulz, the founder of Starbucks, has returned as interim CEO and won applause at a company meeting by saying he plans to suspend share buybacks and concentrate on staff and cafes instead of his share price. Not unlike that other Seattle start-up that conquered the world, Starbucks has been worrying about staff efforts to unionise. Rather than welcome the idea, Schulz said he was going to focus on redesigning his coffee shops and opening thousands more of them all over the world. Where? Antarctica? Starbucks’ stock price fell 3.7 per cent on news of the new strategy.


Why sell Channel 4?
The UK government has decided to sell off Channel 4 even though the channel is against it, taxpayers don’t pay for it and “significant public interest concerns” have been raised among 60,000 submissions to a public consultation on the plan. Nadine Dorries, the culture secretary, says the channel will keep its public service broadcasting (PSB) remit but needs more freedom to raise funds to compete with streamers like Netflix. Defenders of the status quo say the channel ain’t broke, so there’s nothing to fix. In particular, it performs the unique role of providing competition for the BBC in ways that purely commercial channels without a PSB requirement couldn’t. The sale could raise £1 billion, which Dorries says she’ll use for cultural levelling up. Ruth Davidson, the former Scottish Conservative leader, said ending the channel’s current status as publicly owned but not publicly funded would be the opposite of levelling up. We discussed Channel 4’s fate at a recent ThinkIn


Musk and Twitter
Elon Musk has spent $2.9 billion on a 9.2 per cent stake in Twitter, becoming its biggest shareholder and prompting two questions: how did he raise the money and does he plan to mess with Twitter? The two are linked, because his investment was technically a “passive” one that allows him not to disclose how he paid for it. But before and since revealing the size of his stake he has been using his own Twitter account to drop broad hints that he’d like to change how the platform operates. As mentioned here last week, he’s asked his 80-odd million followers if they think Twitter (which has banned Trump for life) adheres to the principles of free speech, and since then he’s asked if they’d like an “edit” button that would let users fix typos – and worse – after posting. His stake in the company, probably paid for from sales of Tesla stock or by borrowing against it, is more than four times as big as that of Jack Dorsey, its founder. Twitter’s stock price jumped by more than a quarter when it was announced. 

The 100-year life health, education AND GOVERNMENT

Freefall again
The strength of the russkiy narod – the Russian people – is core to Vladimir Putin’s vision of the Russian state. But the people are suffering. The FT has crunched the data and it shows 1) an exodus of well-educated and professional Russians to Europe and beyond, especially in the tech sector; 2) a falling birth rate exacerbated by economic downturn, familiar to Putin’s generation from the aftermath of the Soviet collapse; and 3) excess deaths linked to Covid that are among the highest anywhere in the world. See also this story from TechCrunch on tech workers trying to leave being interrogated at the Russian border. One IT specialist whose equipment was taken away was told by a border agent to “leave the motherland’s secrets in the motherland”. It’s estimated between 50,000 and 70,000 workers in the sector have already left. 

world by numbers

340,000  people the UK’s Health and Social Care Committee say could miss out on early cancer diagnosis if lack of progress to address disruption from the pandemic isn’t addressed by NHS England. 

Our planet CLIMATE AND geopolitics

Extreme rain
“Compound extreme” events in which wildfires are followed by extreme rainfall are going to become seven times more frequent in the Pacific Northwest of the US over the next century. They’re going to become twice as frequent in California, according to new research in Science Advances, and, separately, extreme rain in China caused its second-worst floods ever in human and financial terms last year. What gives? The Science Advances paper does not posit a causal link between wildfires and extreme rain. It just notes the growing frequency of both. What is clear – and what links the US and Chinese stories – is that warm air holds more water than cold. Climate change means droughts, but also devastating downpours.

Thanks for reading. Please share this around and tell us what we’ve missed. News tips and story ideas are welcome. Email them to sensemaker@tortoisemedia.com.

Giles Whittell

With additional reporting by Phoebe Davis.

Photographs by Getty Images

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