Weekly monitor of pro-Kremlin disinformation effort in Europe. We follow best European analysts, best counter-measures and trends.
Topics of the Week
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According to reports, cyber-hackers with links to the Kremlin are expanding their political target base (espionage operations or more subversive attacks, including assaults on critical infrastructure). Importantly, their approaches are growing more sophisticated, for example involving forgeries, document and credential phishing, and ‘faketivist’ leaks of sensitive material.
Stefan Loefven, the Swedish Prime Minister, appears to be actively preparing for any attempts to meddle in the electoral process coming up in 8 months. He said that he is aware that there are “operations underway at the moment”, mentioning that Sweden counts on attacks from Russia, but also other actors.
We suggest you take a look at the position paper published by the European People’s Party group, which lays out a realistic and responsible strategy for the EU’s relations with Russia.
Czech young developers looked into countering fake news while undertaking a fake news challenge during the Fakehacks ideathon. Mindbrella, a Chrome app that allows you to verify news, was awarded first prize. Feel free to use it.
Good Old Soviet Joke
A Frenchman, a Brit, and a Russian are admiring a painting of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. The Frenchman says, “they must be French, they’re naked and they’re eating fruit.” The Englishman says, “clearly, they’re English; observe how politely the man is offering the woman the fruit.” The Russian notes, “they are Russian, of course. They have nothing to wear, nothing to eat, and they think they are in paradise.”
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT THE CZECH ELECTIONS
At the end of January, incumbent president Miloš Zeman is facing a tight run-off in the second round of the Czech presidential elections. He is standing against Jiří Drahoš, a former Chief of the Academy of Sciences. Their views on the geopolitical direction of the Czech Republic are diametrically opposite.
Who is Miloš Zeman?
Miloš Zeman is a Kremlin Trojan horse in the Czech Republic. He spreads the Kremlin’s narratives internationally and domestically, appears in the Russian information space as a supporter of Vladimir Putin’s regime, supports confederates, extremists and pro-Kremlin disinformers, and seeks to sabotage Czech government policy towards the Russian Federation. He continually denies Russian military presence in the separatist regions of Ukraine, considers the annexation of Crimea to be a ‘done deal’, and has troubling disrespect for serious journalism.
What is the connection between Miloš Zeman and Russia?
Zeman surrounds himself with advisers who have ties to Russian business, using their positions to obtain sensitive information (even without security clearances) and lobbyfor strategic contracts for Russian firms, for example in the energy sector. The Russian company Lukoil paid off a fine for Zeman’s economic aid, Mr. Nejedlý, when he illicitly sold jet fuel from strategic reserves. Nejedlý now works as the middleman between the President and Russian interests.
What is the nature of Miloš Zeman’s campaign?
According to his words, it is a “non-campaign”. Yet according to his transparent account, this “non-campaign” has received around 9 million CZK from the club Friends of Miloš Zeman, without full disclosure of how the money was collected. Between the first and second election rounds, the Czech Republic has been flooded with billboards promoting the message that ‘only Zeman can save the Czech Republic from the flood of refugees’.
What is Miloš Zeman’s relationship with the disinformation community?
Miloš Zeman is an ardent sympathizer with the disinformation websites that he considers trustworthy. His support goes hand in hand with his vocal criticism of the Czech public broadcaster Czech Television (as well as other mainstream media) which he regularly accuses of being biased. He is also notorious for his negative attitude towards journalists and media outlets that criticise him. Consequently, something like a symbiosis between the president and the disinformation community has developed in the last few years. The former serves as a source of legitimacy for the members of that community, while the latter works in support of Mr. Zeman and his re-election.
What are the topics of the disinformation campaigns before the elections?
The main subject of the disinformation campaign is the presidential candidate Jiří Drahoš who has been accused of being a collaborator of the Soviet-era State Security of Czechoslovakia, even though he has a lustration certificate, of favouring Muslim migration into the Czech Republic, and being the chosen candidate of the evil “globalized elites” and Brussels. Some disinformation websites also claim that Prof. Drahoš is coupled with Angela Merkel against the interests of the Czech nation and that if he is elected, Drahoš will push Czechs to adopt the euro and to place US troops on Czech soil.
Who is Jiří Drahoš?
Jiří Drahoš is a scientist who accepts and promotes the fact that the Czech Republic belongs to Europe and that it should be a reliable partner for NATO. He is also a candidate who seems to be dividing society the least – according to the polls from November 2018, only 15 % considered him unacceptable (unlike 45% of respondents considering Zeman unacceptable). However, he has also been widely attacked by the disinformation websites.
What is Zeman doing prior to the second round of the elections?
Most recently, for example, he met with pro-Kremlin U.S. Congressman Dana Rohrabacher. Mr. Rohrabacher has been investigated for his close connections to the Kremlin, allegedly obtaining compromising materials on Hillary Clinton from Russian oligarch Vladimir Jakunin, who is also a good friend of Miloš Zeman.
Russian cyberattacks show no signs of abating
While US lawmakers grapple with how to approach and counter the Kremlin’s influence operations, signs indicate that Russian cyberattacks are on the uptick. According to reports, cyber-hackers with links to the Kremlin are expanding their political target base (including the US Senate, as we reported last week). According to cybersecurity experts, Fancy Bear (the group responsible for the DNC hack that is now eyeing the Senate) is just one of several cyber groups with different agendas sponsored by the Russian government; while some conduct espionage operations, others undertake more subversive attacks, including assaults on critical infrastructure. Importantly, their approaches are growing more sophisticated, for example regarding forgeries, document and credential phishing, and ‘faketivist’ leaks of sensitive material.
The reported plans of attack against the Senate have provoked serious concerns on the Hill. Senator Ben Sasse (R-NE) has requested a briefing from Attorney General Jeff Sessions about the steps taken and planned by the Trump administration to counter Russian cyberattacks.
“We’re not here to be the thought police”:
New FBI task force aims to expose Russian social media manipulation
Bloomberg reports that the FBI is instituting a new task force “to alert U.S. companies and the public about efforts by Russia or other nations to use disinformation and social media manipulation to interfere in upcoming elections, while being careful not to upset free speech and constitutional rights.” According to a top FBI official, who has been the first to reveal any concrete plans about the task force’s mandate, “the intention […] is to shine a light on election interference efforts while leaving it up to companies and the public to make their own decisions about what to do with disinformation, fake news or contaminated online content.”
Facebook isn’t good for democracy
After saying, post 2016-election, that it was “crazy” to suggest that Facebook influenced the outcome, Mark Zuckerberg has changed his tune amidst mounting scrutiny and criticism. The company’s founder and CEO has promised that 2018 is the year he’ll “fix” Facebook; a statement read,
“We are taking many steps to protect and improve people’s experience on the platform. In the past year, we’ve worked to destroy the business model for false news and reduce its spread, stop bad actors from meddling in elections, and bring a new level of transparency to advertising. Last week, we started prioritizing meaningful posts from friends and family in News Feed to help bring people closer together. We have more work to do and we’re heads down on getting it done.”
But critics say that Facebook is merely paying lip service to the problem, and failing to take substantive steps to learn from past mistakes and prevent similar exploitation of the platform in upcoming elections. Facebook insider Tristan Harris, who is also a former design ethicist for Google, says that “what people don’t know about […] Facebook is that polarization is built in to the business model. Polarization is profitable.”
One of Zuckerberg’s early advisers and investors, Roger McNamee, says that Facebook’s business model is good for the company’s profits, but bad for democracy: “Making you angry, making you afraid, is really good for Facebook’s business. It is not good for America. It’s not good for the users of Facebook.”
McNamee also says that Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg “treated it like a public relations problem, rather than a substantive issue for the business”, after he informed them during the 2016 Democratic primaries that Facebook content was being exploited to manipulate users’ political preferences.
Harris and McNamee, together with other critics, believe that Facebook’s newfound self-regulation efforts are insufficient to address the problem of fake news and disinformation. Instead, they are calling on Facebook to make its data available to external researchers who can identify and investigate suspicious activity before it spreads.
The Kremlin’s Current Narrative
Let’s blame the victim
It was wholly unsurprising that Moscow would be the first to comment on a recently adopted law on the “re-integration of Donbas”. The main provisions of this law include: labelling the self-proclaimed and Russia-backed DNR and LNR as “temporarily occupied territories,” while qualifying the actions of Russia as “aggression against Ukraine”; granting President Petro Poroshenko the right to use military force inside Ukraine without consent from the Rada, including for reclaiming Donbass; creating a joint operative staff of the Ukraine Armed Forces to take command of all the military, police, and volunteer units in the conflict area. Most importantly, the law labels Russia as an aggressor and responsible for the temporary occupation of Donbas. Russia’s reaction? “Kyiv is preparing for a war” and “Kyiv has switched from sabotage of the Minsk agreements to their burial” (says the senator of the country responsible for provoking the war and arming the terrorists who constantly violate the cease-fire required by the Minsk agreement). It’s typical Kremlin style to shift the blame: calling the victim an aggressor and blaming others for its own wrongdoings.
Top of the top
As we know, RT loves to make lists. Typically, these involves the quotes by President Putin, but this time, RT decided to devote its attention to US President Donald Trump. In RT’s selection of Trump’s quotes we predictably find several that align perfectly with the Kremlin’s narratives.
“He reserved his ire for BuzzFeed and CNN, however, at his January 11, 2017 press conference, shortly after CNN promoted and BuzzFeed published the notorious “Steele dossier” making all sorts of salacious allegations about his “Russian” connections”.
“Trump continued to hammer the media outlets hostile to him, singling out the New York Times, NBC News, ABC, CBS and CNN in a February 17 tweet: “The FAKE NEWS media…is not my enemy, it is the enemy of American people”
“As the ‘Russian collusion’ investigations in Congress failed to reveal any actual evidence, the president’s critics seized upon his firing of FBI Director James Comey as proof he was somehow obstructing justice: “I am being investigated for firing the FBI Director by the man who told me to fire the FBI Director. Witch Hunt!”
“When will all the haters and fools out there realize that having good relationship with Russia is a good thing, not a bad thing”.
Policy & Research News
The European debate on disinformation
During recent talks, several EU politicians and representatives expressed wariness about the disinformation campaigns deriving from the Russian Federation and its proxies. For example, Julian King, the Commission’s security chief, stated that the disinformation campaigns “orchestrated” by the Russian government have been “extremely successful”, and presented the disinformation cases collected by the EEAS East Stratcom Team as evidence. According to King, it is clear that these disinformation campaigns are an “orchestrated strategy”.
Several MEPs, including Denmark’s Jeppe Kofod, also warned against possible attempts to meddle in the elections of the new European Parliament next year, since these efforts are becoming a new norm in Europe. Spain’s centre-right Esteban Gonzales Pons highlighted the fact that the stratcom unit is comprised of 22 people and works with a budget of €1.1 million, while Russia spends at least €1 billion a year on its state media. Several others called for more funding and personnel.
Swedish Prime Minister expects the worst
Stefan Loefven, the Swedish Prime Minister, appears to be actively preparing for any attempts to meddle in Sweden’s electoral process, coming up in 8 months. He said that he is aware that there are “operations underway at the moment”, mentioning that Sweden counts on attacks from Russia, but also other actors. As a result, Sweden has decided to establish a new agency responsible for “identifying, analysing and responding to external influence”. The budgets for Swedish intelligence and cyber-defence services will be increased and the Prime Minister plans to hold meetings with political parties in order to discuss the increase of their protection and resilience.
What is the Finnish Hybrid Threats Center doing?
That is what Reid Standish focuses on in his piece for Foreign Policy. He points out that even though the Centre for Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats has received a lot of political attention, nobody is exactly sure how the Centre will fulfil its mission. “The nature of its activities remains ambiguous, raising questions about what it brings to the table.” He concludes that, so far, the Centre functions more as an “in-house think tank”, contributing research mostly on the analytical level, and is searching for its identity beyond that. At this point, it is still too early to say whether it will be make a meaningful dent in the public debate.
Kremlin Watch Reading Suggestion
EPP Group’s Position Paper on Russia
This week’s reading suggestion is a position paper published by the European People’s Party group, which lays out a realistic and responsible strategy for the EU’s relations with Russia. It is based on five guiding principles with which we very much agree:
First, the EU must demand the implementation of the Minsk agreements as the key condition for any substantial change in its stance towards Russia. This is the only way that peace in Ukraine can be achieved. Unfortunately, there is currently no progress in Russia’s implementation of the Minsk agreements, rather the opposite.
Second, the EU should strengthen its relations with the Eastern Partnership countries and other neighbours. Specifically, there is a need to create a mechanism for information exchange between the EU and its Eastern Partners in the field of cyber-security, to balance Russia’s increasing influence in the Western Balkans and to increase aid to Ukraine.
Third, the EU must strengthen its resilience from within, be it against disinformation and propaganda, election interference, or dependence on Russian energy supplies. Initiatives such as the EEAS East StratCom Task Force can be very helpful in this regard, however, it is crucial that they receive enough funding to do their work effectively, which is currently a serious problem for the Task Force.
Fourth, it is important to find ways to de-escalate current tensions and engage in constructive dialogue with Russia. Nevertheless, the EU must stand firm on key issues.
Fifth, the pursuit of people-to-people-contacts and support of Russian civil society should not be omitted.
Take a look at the paper for more details!