Kremlin Watch Briefing: Russian bots and promises

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Weekly monitor of pro-Kremlin disinformation effort in Europe. We follow best European analysts, best counter-measures and trends.

Topics of the Week

According to the NATO StratCom CoE quarterly reports on “Robotrolling”, 70% of Twitter messages about NATO in the Baltic States and Poland were created by bots in the Russian-language sphere. Overall, 60% of active Russian-language accounts seem to be automated, in comparison with 39% of English-language accounts. The last three-month period offers a snapshot of what “normal” levels of automation look like, with the highest levels of activity witnessed in Poland.

During her speech at the Lord Mayor’s Banquet, Theresa May described Russian activities as a “sustained campaign of cyber-espionage and disruption”, sowing “discord in the West.” She warned the Kremlin that it will not succeed, because it underestimates the resilience of Western democracies.

According to NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg, Canadian troops in Latvia are being smeared by Russian-backed digital propaganda and disinformationintended to undermine the Alliance. Russia-linked social media accounts have allegedly been circulating false or misrepresentative stories about Canadian soldiers stationed in the country in order to undercut popular support in Latvia for NATO presence.

Increasing public and governmental pressure on tech companies is beginning to bear fruit, as they face growing demand for accountability and for regulations to catch up to the technology. Amidst the investigations, both Facebook and Twitter are hiring lobbying help to address issues related to Russian use of social media platforms for electoral interference.

Good Old Soviet Joke

In Soviet Russia, Waldo finds you.

US Developments

Curbing political advertising on social media

Pressure on tech companies continues to increase following recent congressional hearings that highlighted their (unintentional) complicity with Russian disinformation efforts during the 2016 election. For example, Roger Mcnamee, an early investor in Google and Facebook, has called on Facebook to contact everyone who was exposed to fake news on the platform during the election. He is also pushing for Congress to ask that tech CEOs issue public statements about Russian interference efforts in order to raise civic awareness and hopefully depoliticize the issue.

The Alliance for Securing Democracy is also calling for tech companies to “work with national security experts to better understand the potential vulnerabilities of their platforms […] Social media companies must understand that having an honest public conversation and taking smart steps now to regulate these technologies will help head off government overreach in response as the problem gets worse. This should include ensuring that online political advertising is subject to the same rules as advertising on other mediums.”

The pressure – both public and governmental – is beginning to bear fruit, as these companies face growing demand for accountability and for regulations to catch up to the technologyFacebook has recently announced plans to double its staff dedicated to delicate security and community issues to 20,000 by the end of 2018. Amidst the investigations, both Facebook and Twitter are hiring lobbying help to address issues related to Russian use of social media platforms for electoral interference.

Government email spoofing by foreign entities

A recent report by Proofpoint reveals that spoofing of government emails by foreign actors is worryingly common, raising concerns about increases in scope if the problem goes unaddressed. According to the report12.4% of messages professing to be US government emails were in fact spoofs. 80% of these spoofs were linked to Russian IP addresses (according to data from August 2017). Since January 2016, Russia is considered responsible for 27% of spoofed government emails. In a positive step, the Department of Homeland Security issued a binding operational directive (BOD 18-01) last month mandating that all agencies upgrade and bolster their email and online cybersecurity.

Meanwhile, in Canada…

According to NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg, Canadian troops in Latvia are being smeared by Russian-backed digital propaganda and disinformationintended to undermine the Alliance. Russia-linked social media accounts have allegedly been circulating false or misrepresentative stories about Canadian soldiers stationed in the country in order to undercut popular support in Latvia for NATO presence. Canadian Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan stated that the response is to lead by example: “The best way to diffuse any type of fake news is to actually go reach out to the community. Canadians are always going to do what they do best: go out and build relationships.”

While support for NATO in Latvia remains high, Canadians are growing increasingly aware that they and their elections are not going to remain untouched by Russian interference efforts.

The Kremlin’s Current Narrative

“Unbalanced” UN and “balanced” RT

Last week, Russia vetoed a UN resolution on Syrian chemical weapons. The resolution aimed to establish how the Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) should proceed with investigating alleged chemical weapons attacks in Syria, including the April incident in Khan Shaykhun. Traditionally, RT was among the first ones to defend the Russian position, calling the proposed resolution “unbalanced” and claiming that its main goal was to “question the role of Russia in the process of Syrian political settlement.” RT carries on with criticising JIM’s mission that put the blame on the Assad regime to be politicized. At the same time, RT suggests that the chemical attack was the result…of an explosion at the warehouse and has nothing to do with the actions of governmental forces. Well, crimes against humanity aren’t an easy thing to lie about, but Russia isn’t giving up!

When Zakharova speaks from her heart…

Obviously, Maria Zakharova couldn’t have bypassed the topic of Syria in her briefing. After a very predictable speech on how Russia is fighting ISIS while Western countries provide cover for extremists, Zakharova decided to speak from her heart. Zakharova decided to reach out to ordinary Europeans and urged them to think a bit about their future. According to her logic, Western countries are responsible for the terrorist attacks in Europe. Yes, you read that correctly. Zakharova claims that while Russia is fighting international terrorism, the US-led coalition shields and emboldens extremists. She also suggests that after another terrorist attack, along with “changing profile pictures to support their friends”, people should think “about the helpers of terrorist groups who are doing their best to preserve terrorist elements and militants in Syria in order to promote their selfish political interests in the reconfiguration of the structure of that region”. Hm, that sounds very much like a description of Russia to us…

Russia is a victim, Ukraine a perpetrator

Whenever Vzglyad tries to write about Ukraine, it’s always golden. This time, the Russian newspaper blames Kyiv with starting a new phase of informational war against Russia. The outrage was sparked by the announcement of Ukraine’s General Staff about the visit of American, Canadian and Danish military experts tasked with analysing the military and political situation in Donbas and Crimea. In the original communique, there is no mention that observers are going to visit Crimea – but has Russia ever cared about facts? Vzglyad twisted the news to give an opportunity to various political figures to address the idea that “Crimea is Russia”. Responses were beautiful: Ukraine should better send an inspection to the moon instead of Crimea; this is a new attempt of Ukraine to encroach on Russian territorial integrity; Ukraine has created a virtual Crimea with virtual institutions that run it and this virtual Crimea will be inspected. And the last one is by Aksionov: Russia is a victim of the informational war. Curtain falls.

PUTIN’S CHAMPION AWARD

Our Expert Jury consisting of Jessikka Aro, Peter Kreko, Nerijus Maliukevičius, Anton Shekhovtsov and John Schindler, regularly votes on the dangerousness of several candidates you can nominate via e-mail or Twitter.

 

22th Putin’s Champion Award Recipient Is:

Scottish secessionist politician Alex Salmond

source: Scottish Government

for becoming Kremlin’s useful idiot as he is joining the RT as a host of a new political show.

 

The Expert Jury ranked his Putin-supportive job with

4,3

(of out 5) mark.

Policy & Research News

Is European leadership stepping up?

As we know, the European response to the Kremlin’s disinformation and influence operations has thus far been limited. The status quo has prevailed despite several political calls for improvement, including our recent Prague DeclarationThe European Commission has now set up a High-Level Expert Group to develop a strategythat would deal with disinformation. The new strategy will be published in spring next year, after receiving feedback from the public, academia, media outlets and civil society.

Despite being in the process of leaving the EU, British Prime Minister Theresa Mayhas not lagged behind with her latest statements. During her speech at the Lord Mayor’s Banquet, she described Russian activities as a “sustained campaign of cyber-espionage and disruption”, sowing “discord in the West.” She warned the Kremlin that it will not succeed, because it underestimates the resilience of Western democracies. Certainly, we should not be complacent on this front: bolstering our resilience, at all levels of society, must be a priority for every country seeking to mitigate the Kremlin’s hostile influence.

Spain wants to join the fight

The Catalan Constitutional Court has repeatedly affirmed that the rejection of the referendum on the independence of Catalonia has not violated the rights of the citizens in the Catalan region. On the contrary, holding a referendum violated the 1978 Constitution, which was adopted in a referendum by more than 90% of Catalans, and which guarantees the unity of Spain.

The EU anti-propaganda unit has seen an increasing amount of disinformation and counterfeit reports on the political crisis in Spain. Russian and pro-Russian media both falsely reported that the EU actively supported violence against protesters. Some reports have compared Spain to Ukraine and the Catalan region to Ukraine’s Donbas, in the sense that the civil war currently taking place in Ukraine is now emerging in Spain. Spain itself has responded to the increased concentration of disinformation and false reports by raising the issue at a recent meeting of EU foreign and defence ministers in Brussels. This pro-Russian propaganda aims to delegitimize democratic governments, undermine citizens’ thinking, and twist their opinions. “If your aim is to divide and weaken (the West), you simply wait for these opportunities (of political crisis),” the EU source said.

Irrefutable proof of the Kremlin’s audacity

The Russian Ministry of Defence attempted to spread alleged “proof” of cooperation between the United States and ISIS in the Middle East. Unfortunately for them, they didn’t manage to find any real evidence, and therefore published screenshots from a videogame (!) on their Twitter and Facebook pages to evince their desired point.

SCREENGRAB/YOUTUBE/BYTE CONVEYOR STUDIOS

As the EEAS East Stratcom Task Force suggests on its website, we should brace ourselves for even more audacious efforts by the Kremlin in the future:

EEAS East Stratcom Task Force/Lentach Twitter account

“Proud Texan” commenting on European politics

You might remember that this photo taken by photographer Jamie Lorriman during the aftermath of the Westminster attack in March.

Jamie Lorriman

It is now being shared on social media as an alleged example of a Muslim woman ignoring the victims around her and focusing on her phone, even though we think that she actually looks seriously distraught by the situation. Twitter has now revealed that this claim was originally shared by a fake account created by a pro-Kremlin bot. The account, which has been shut down, described itself as a “proud Texan and American patriot”, and also spread messages supporting Brexit and indulged in European politics from time to time.

Kremlin Watch Reading Suggestion

Robotrolling 2

The NATO StratCom CoE published its second issue of Robotrolling, a quarterly publication dedicated to the activities of automated bots on social media. As in the first issue, the report focuses specifically on messages about NATO in the Baltic States and Poland on Twitter, of which 70% were created by bots in the Russian-language sphere. Overall, 60% of active Russian-language accounts seem to be automated, by comparison to 39% of English-language accounts. According to the CoE’s data, Twitter is less effective at removing automatically generated Russian content than it is English material. Even though there has been some positive development, pressure should continue in order to ensure further improvements.

Compared with the previous period, this quarter was relatively free of large-scale, politically motivated robotic interventions. As such, it may offer a snapshot of what “normal” levels of automation might look like going forward. From the four countries, Poland by far saw the highest levels of activity. As for the themes of the messages, it is striking how little mention there was of the Zapad 2017 military exercise in the Russian-language space, considering the attention it received in traditional Western media. Nevertheless, Russian sources did not ignore it completely, they just targeted external audiences only.

There is a trove of interesting data in the report. The next issue plans to focus on other social networks as well.

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