How a hasty conclusion about the Russian news protestor could backfire on the West
We must acknowledge that there are multiple plausible explanations.
A Russian woman who burst onto the set of a live TV news broadcast to protest Russia's invasion of Ukraine was quickly arrested and is the subject of "a pre-investigation check," according to state-run Tass media.
The woman, Marina Ovsyannikova, is an editor at Channel One; she protested the war by walking behind a news anchor while holding a sign reading "No War" and telling viewers they were being lied to. It also said "Russians for peace."
I want to address what we know and how people can unintentionally cause harm. Privately I shared with friends that I was skeptical because of what I knew about Russian media, but if it was real, she was courageous. I've reached out to Russian contacts for their take, but it may be a long time before we know what happened.
HASTY CONCLUSIONS AND WHAT EXPLAINS THEM
We must acknowledge that there are multiple plausible explanations. Much of the "evidence" to support claims is not valid evidence but a product of motivated reasoning. "She wrote in X language so that shows..." seems like the mirroring fallacy where we assume what it would mean for us if we were that person is true for that person.
It's possible, perhaps even likely, that a Russian woman doesn't think like an American man.
A protestor who was arrested on March 6 recorded her interrogation where law enforcement beat her. That spread like wildfire. The Kremlin may want to make the situation disappear since it's getting its backside handed to it instead of drawing more attention to it or turning her into a martyr.
The Kremlin is likely trying not to inspire more protests, potentially explaining the move. The woman could also have powerful friends given her position, which may also play a role. The Kremlin may want to avoid more trouble for itself.
Critically, the Russian judicial system is corrupt. Her getting a break could be seen as very on-brand for the Kremlin—someone in a privileged position seeming to live above the law.
UNDERESTIMATION GOT RUSSIA WHERE IT IS NOW; WE SHOULD AVOID THE SAME MISTAKE
Bad actors look for opportunities in current events. This would be a prime time for them to leverage the situation to their advantage, to divide us--not to say they are, but these are all possibilities. Don't forget the Kremlin is savvy with its disinformation--no one should assume they're too witty to get drawn in because that's not really how it works.
Perhaps, they decided to give her a light discipline and make everyone suspicious. That's possible. We know they're already using fake fakes that they fact check to discredit media reporting on the war.
It's also possible it's precisely what it looks like, that she was profoundly brave and lucked out.
HOW HASTY CONCLUSIONS COULD HURT UKRAINE
Russia could use someone’s wrong conclusion either way to the Kremlin's advantage. Here are possible ways Russia could spin it:
If she is authentic and we assume she is not, they can use this to discredit groups the opinion-havers belong to. If we use me, Rosalie, as the example, the Russian state could say, "Look at this disinformation researcher who knows nothing! Disinformation isn't real!"
One can see how that could easily be spun on Russian state TV as evidence of "Russophobia" or hatred of Russians by the West.
If someone shares an incorrect hot-take who is also an ally of Ukraine, it could be misconstrued to paint Ukrainians in a bad light. Pro-Kremlin media seems keen on dampening support for Ukraine and will be looking for any opportunity.
What are the potential consequences of believing her if she's not authentic? I think the risks here are lower because we already know some Russians oppose what is happening and sanctions should cause the public in the receiving country to question their leadership.
The story could be used to draw media attention away from the atrocities Russia is commiting in Ukraine.
She could help gain influence over a Western audience by feeding our desire to see “redemption.”
We could help with misdirection from what her leaving the outlet created: a vacancy.
The Kremlin might hope to gain more control (although it does already have an extraordinary degree of control) or change some other quality about the outlet by placing a loyalist or some specific candidate within the network.
If we don’t know for certain, there is no reason we must draw a conclusion today. The best thing to say might be, "if it what it looks like, it was fearless, but I don’t know, and I don’t want to spread misinformation."
It's OK to say we don't know enough right now. We should acknowledge that we don’t have enough to assess this because otherwise, we may force ourselves to “find” the answer. It's OK not to have an opinion or to wait to conclude.
Remember, uncertainty is uncomfortable for us. We like to find ways to tie up loose ends quickly, even if we really shouldn't. Bad actors can and do leverage this vulnerability.
Example: the debate over the origin of coronavirus.