Weekly monitor of pro-Kremlin disinformation effort in Europe. We follow best European analysts, best counter-measures and trends.
We have published a Kremlin Watch Reader that brings you the most interesting analyses we read in the year 2017. The reader serves as a tool for acquiring a broader view on the subject of disinformation.
Topics of the Week
It is crucial to expose the Kremlin’s network of political influence in the West as Moscow famously cultivates relationships with ideologically-friendly individuals, movements and parties – from both sides of the political spectrum. They must be held accountable for their regular appearances on Russia’s propaganda networks and consequent legitimization of the Kremlin’s narrative.
We support continued public calls for Republicans to put pressure on the White House a) to implement sanctions and b) demand a consistent, vocal line condemning the Kremlin’s influence operations.
Learn from your Allies; there is no need to reinvent the wheel! Communication is imperative. The Baltic countries have extensive historical experience with countering Russian influence operations and accurately identified the threat way before the rest of Europe.
Good Old Soviet Joke
A competition for the best anecdote has been announced. First prize: twenty-five years; second prize: twenty years; and two condolence prizes: fifteen years each.
Continuing denialism and obstructionism from the White House
White House obstructionism concerning congressional attempts to investigate and counter Russian active measures is once again in the spotlight. Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Ben Cardin (D-MD) sent a letter to President Trump in September expressing their concern that the administration failed to adhere to the Oct. 1st deadline for stipulating which entities within the Russian defense and intelligence sectors would be sanctioned. In a joint statement, McCain and Cardin commented that “the delay calls into question the Trump administration’s commitment to the sanctions bill”. For example, Reuters has reported that despite sanctions, targeted Russian organizations in Russia and Crimea have acquired Microsoft software, including Almaz-Antey, the manufacturer of the surface-to-air BUK missile that brought down MH17.
Trump famously called the sanctions bill (which also targets Iran and North Korea) “seriously flawed” and later blamed Congress for the poor existing state of relations with Russia. Despite calls to mitigate the Russian threat, the White House continues to express denialism about the facts of Russian interference, calling such reports ‘fake news’.
More revelations about the exploitation of social media platforms
A Russian-linked campaign called ‘Don’t Shoot Us’ that was run by the St Petersburg troll factory (aka the Internet Research Agency) allegedly used Pokémon Go along with other social media platforms (notably Facebook and Twitter) to pose as members of the Black Lives Matter movement in an effort “to raise racial tensions by bringing up incidents of police brutality”. The trolls used Tumblr to advertise a contest “[encouraging] users to find Pokémon in places where police brutality had happened and then to rename their Pokémon after the victims”. Another report revealed that Pinterest was also used by Russia-linked actors to spread political posts during the 2016 election.
Facebook’s public reckoning continues
Last week, leaders of the House Intelligence Committee announced that they would release thousands of the Russian-purchased ads to the public. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg announced that the company would assist with the release in an interview with Axios, stating, “We know we have a responsibility to prevent everything we can from this happening on our platforms”. However, Sandberg and other Facebook executives are under fire by many for being vague and failing to provide substantive information about Russia’s activities on the platform.
Meanwhile, new reports have come to light that Facebook actually sought to conceal the reach of Russian disinformation by removing thousands of posts and data. Social media analyst Jonathan Albright has published research indicating that the reach of the Kremlin’s disinformation campaign on Facebook was almost certainly greater than the company had disclosed. The Washington Post reports that while Facebook had said 10 million people read the Russian-bought ads, Albright’s data suggests the audience was at least twice that, and possibly more, “if ordinary free Facebook posts were measured as well”.
The Kremlin’s Current Narrative
Russia, Hungary, Hysteria
Russian media enthusiastically backed a Hungarian rally titled “Self-determination for Zakarpattia,” which was held near the Ukrainian Embassy in Budapest on October 13. The rally prompted renewed hysteria regarding a Ukrainian language law that Russian deputies in PACE described as “an act of ethnocide against the Russian people”. Ruptly, the Russian news agency based in Berlin that is a subsidiary of RT, covered the protests. While the Russian reports implied that the protests were huge, in fact only dozens of protesters actually took part. The Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs sent a letter of condemnation and demanded the banning of such provocation, and rightly so, as Hungary should support Ukraine’s territorial integrity. Moreover, Ukraine seeks to placate Hungary and others in this row. Click here to learn more about the Ukrainian law absent misleading hysteria.
Information blockade and inhumanity in the US
The Rukban refugee camp, located on the Syrian-Jordanian border in the so-called “deconfliction zone”, is facing humanitarian disaster, according to Maria Zakharova, a spokesperson of the Russian Foreign Ministry, in her regular briefing. The Americans are accused of using aviation, rocket, and artillery systems to prevent Syrian government forces from entering this zone and humanitarian convoys from entering the camp. Humanitarian agencies also allegedly cannot obtain access to people who are under de facto siege from Jordanian territory and residents are being almost openly recruited for illegal armed formations. Zakharova called on US channels to be brave and cover the situation honestly, at one point personally addressing Christiane Amanpour. However, Zakharova claims that Russia will once again not be heard because the US is carrying out an information blockade at home against this information. Obviously.
No handshakes with RT
The Times published an article entitled “Helping Putin”, on October 11th. The article criticised British politicians for appearing and participating in talk shows, programmes and discussions on the Russian TV channel RT for “assisting Kremlin propaganda.” Predictably, Moscow rejected this accusation as “nebulous logic” and immediately turned it into a manipulative question – when a Russian representative is interviewed today, what propaganda will s/he be assisting? Do we still need to explain ourselves then? We do not think so. This is once again an illustration of the way Russia understanding and practises manipulation. No, RT is not “handshake-worthy.”
Policy & Research News
How to get yourself oriented in our studies
In recent years, we have published many studies, papers, and commentaries that not only describe the Kremlin’s hostile influence operations in the Czech Republic, Central and Eastern Europe, and the EU at large, but also provide recommendations about how to tackle the threat. In order to make our products better organised and accessible for our readers, we prepared a Guide that summarises the most important results and conclusions of our studies. The Guide serves both as a summary of our work as well as a primer for anyone seeking to understand the broad scope of the situation in Europe.
How to expose fake Twitter accounts
Now more than ever, Twitter can transform into a battlefield. Indeed, it is now altogether common to encounter fake and bot accounts that amplify dis- and misinformation of all sorts. It is crucial to actively identify and expose these faux accounts, which is why the Institute for Strategic Dialogue and the Arena Program at the London School of Economics has produced a series of videos explaining how to “bust fake tweeters”. You can find the full guide with a commentary at Ponyter.
The Baltic experience
Deutsche Welle reports on the situation of the Baltic countries, from the Kremlin’s influence operations on their territories to the countermeasures they have enacted. This region is one of the most experienced in Europe with respect to the Russian disinformation and subversion threat and was warning about the Kremlin’s intentions many months before the rest of Europe realized what was happening. The Baltic states’ longstanding historical experiences with Russia have rendered their citizens more resilient towards such influence operations. As we pointed out in our study summarizing the countermeasures adopted by the EU28, these countries qualify as full-scale defenders against the threat, and the rest of Europe has a lot to learn from them.
Methods of the Kremlin’s disinformation operations in the V4
In an interview for Vsquare.org, Kamil Basaj from the Safe Cyberspace Foundation describes the influence techniques and narratives the Kremlin uses in Visegrad countries with a special focus on Poland. He also explains why people in this region can be particularly vulnerable to these campaigns. Basaj touches upon the role of journalists and how they are susceptible to influence operations; he also identifies an especially effective strategy: “Readers are manipulated into believing that they have reached certain conclusions by themselves, while in fact they were subject to reflexive model of informational influencing.”
Kremlin Watch Reading Suggestion
The Kremlin Watch Team monitors scientific publications on the topic of disinformation and hostile Russian influence on a weekly basis. The following reader compiles the most interesting analyses from the field that we have so far encountered in 2017. The reader is useful for providing a broader understanding of the subject, although it is of course not an exhaustive resource.
The Western Balkans remain by many measures a relatively volatile region, due to factors primarily including the civil wars of the 1990s and the subsequent disengagement of the United States and Western Europe from the 2000s onward. This disengagement by the Western powers left the Western Balkans with challenges that they were unequipped to resolve on their own and rendered them significantly vulnerable to other forms of external influence – namely from Russia.
Russia has been consistently seeking to fill the power vacuum resulting from US and European withdrawal from the region. The Kremlin’s goal in the Balkans is to discredit the West and its institutions through various means of influence, including disinformation, exploitation of nationalist sentiment, support for historical narratives about Western malfeasance, and the use of other influence mechanisms within the political, economic, and cultural spheres. Russian intelligence agencies are active throughout the region as well.
Of course, Russian influence is far from the Balkans’ only problem; many domestic vulnerabilities, international terrorism, and transnational crime also require attention. However, if the West does not want the region to become even more unstable and deeply rooted in Russia’s sphere of influence, it must support further research and analysis and aid the development of a comprehensive strategy for strengthening democracy in those countries. More information about the problems facing the Western Balkans and their possible solutions can be found in this paper published by the CNA.