WATCH: Breaking down Russia’s disinformation tactics
A primer on how Russia exploits crises like the Hawaii fires to push its own agenda.
As I recently reported, Russian state media amplified a coordinated campaign in the aftermath of the Hawaii wildfires, exploiting the disaster to push an anti-Ukraine narrative aimed at undermining support for sending continued aid to Ukraine. In a recent appearance on Spectrum 1 News SoCal, I explained how this disinformation campaign took genuine grievances about the government’s response to the wildfires and spun them into a deceptive narrative that falsely linked the inadequate disaster response in Hawaii to the provision of aid to Ukraine.
Blaming Ukraine for the inadequacy of the response to the Hawaii wildfires is a purely political move — one that, while not grounded in factual evidence, happens to align perfectly with Russia’s longstanding anti-Ukraine disinformation campaign. The intent is clear: By pitting Ukraine against Hawaii, Russia is hoping to turn Americans against Ukraine, or at least reduce public support for continuing military aid. But by encouraging people to view the problem through a political lens, this narrative ignores a critical reality at home: what happened in the aftermath of the Hawaii wildfires was entirely predictable, and will happen again if we keep blaming others for our own failures.
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In recent years, numerous reports have documented how the US government has struggled to help those affected by natural disasters, resulting in what some have described as a “catastrophic” situation marked by repeated, deadly, preventable failures. For as long as researchers have tracked the state of disaster preparedness in the US, we’ve failed to achieve any of the goals for household and community preparedness, and it seems that nothing short of a record-breaking disaster will convince lawmakers to do anything about this. In fact, we’ve been warned of this very situation numerous times, yet we haven’t bolstered our disaster preparedness or response capabilities, despite knowing what the consequences look like. In a 2018 FEMA report looking at the agency’s failures in Puerto Rico, even FEMA said FEMA is unprepared specifically for disasters like the one that just happened in Hawaii.
The report “underscores how ill-prepared the agency is to manage a crisis outside the continental US,” The New York Times reported.
In 2019, with the height of hurricane and wildfire seasons approaching, FEMA was faced with a major staffing shortage, and nearly 3/4 of its existing disaster workforce was already tied up, either assigned to a disaster or on break. These shortcomings have been documented at least as far back as Hurricane Andrew in the 1990s, when the Government Accountability Office acknowledged that “the Federal Response Plan is not adequate for dealing with disasters.”
As I said in the clip, the grievances here are real. Hawaii residents are suffering, and many haven’t received adequate help. It’s understandable that people feel betrayed and angry. But blaming that failure on our support for Ukraine is not only deceptive — it may very well be deadly, if it prevents us from addressing the real problems that have plagued US disaster preparedness and response for decades.