The other day BBC Radio carried a programme on academics who had tweeted or retweeted posts that cast doubt on atrocities carried out by Russian soldiers during the Ukraine war. (There is at the time of writing access to both the programme, ‘File on Four: Ukraine: The disinformation war’, and transcript of the broadcast at https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m0017thr)
The focus was on the discovery of over 1,000 corpses in the village of Bucha just East of Ukraine, many of the bodies were found with their hands tied behind their backs. The evidence seems clear: they were killed by Russian soldiers and indeed satellite images show corpses lying in the street days before the Russian occupiers left the city. But the Kremlin said that not a single civilian was injured and instead the Russians are the victims of a hoax. This was a deliberate attempt to mislead – as the programme makers have it to disinform or, in simple language, lie – about the killings. However, some saw support in the Russian position in that the Mayor of Bucha did not mention the bodies when celebrating the liberation of the village.
The Mayor’s comments (or lack of comment) were tweeted or retweeted by various people including it seems a London based academic who was concerned that we gave space to both sides of the story even if he was, in his own words, very much anti Putin and against the invasion of Ukraine. However, by giving space to the Russian claims he was accused of sending out misinformation (the accidental sharing of false narratives).
The second case was similar and concerned the Russian claim that they had not shelled a maternity hospital in Mariupol in the south of the country. This shelling made headlines around the world, not least as there was something shocking about the juxtaposition of bombs and rubble and of all things a maternity hospital. The claim by the Russians was that Ukrainian forces were being hosted in the hospital and again an academic in Scotland shared this claim in a tweet. However, it seemed later that in making their case the Russians were referring to hospital number 1 some miles away and not hospital number 3, the maternity hospital. Again the academic explained that he was not a supporter of Putin or the invasion but claimed that it was important to hear both sides, not just to rely on Western reports.
I think in both cases discussed in the programme the academics were treated harshly – the examples might have made a small item on a current affairs programme rather than merit a full ‘File on Four’. You might also get the impression from the programme that universities and university staff are neutral when it comes to the war when in fact like the rest of the country they are firmly behind the Ukrainians in this conflict. However, there is a real problem in my mind in the way the academics talked about the cases. Yes it is important to hear both sides but it is not right to suggest that there is an equivalence in the reliability of the reporting from in this case western media and Russian lies.
Of course we never know 100 percent what really happened if we were not there and no reporting can ever completely capture the entire truth. However, I have, when it comes to the reporting of the Ukraine war, an overwhelming sense that the reporters from western news organisation such as BBC, Deutsche Welle, NBC are trustworthy and have no professional interest in misleading us. Of course, they have their own biases but they do report critically on the actions of their own governments and in the case of Ukraine there is no clear reason why they would want to misinform. Intuitively these reports seem highly likely. Invading armies from every nation end up committing atrocities and who would not expect a hospital to be bombed either by accident or design? In contrast, Russian officials have habitually lied and in many cases seem completely blasé about lying. To repeat these lies and question what people have suffered without strong grounds for doing so seems particularly cruel.
What I take away from this episode is that when academics engage with wider society (and they are rightly being encouraged to do so) we do not get a free pass – our motives are going to be questioned. I also learn from this that Tweets and retweets are not the way to put out nuanced arguments – it is too easy to give credence to a viewpoint through a Tweet and without taking responsibility for the view expressed.
For more on this
The stories are well covered in a various of news items, see for example
‘Life under Russian forces in Ukraine’ BBC 6 April
Ukraine accuses Russia of bombing children’s hospital in Mariupol Al Jeezera 9 March 2022