Being believable is no longer the priority — creating confusion and news fatigue is.
By Marisa Endicott | Contributor Jan. 31, 2017, at 11:52 a.m.
If pro-Kremlin media stories are to be believed, Ukraine is at risk of being taken over by Nazis, Germany has criminalized the criticism of immigration laws and Austrian courts are acquitting refugees of child rape.
Propaganda’s new mission is not necessarily to be believable, but to sow doubt.
“If you blip out enough false stories, then people just switch off ultimately. They end up not knowing what’s true, and they end up not believing anything,” says Ben Nimmo, an international security analyst and former NATO press officer dealing with Russia and Ukraine.
Most Russian disinformation goes far beyond its own borders but escapes the Western eye. It targets different communities using different languages in countries all over the world with messages and methods uniquely tailored to each audience.
In Estonia, the goal is to deepen a rift between the Estonians and the Russian-speaking minority, per an August report from the Center for European Policy Analysis, which launched an initiative to monitor, archive and rebut Russian disinformation.
There is a division between native Estonians and the country’s Russian population, which gets its information from Russian media outlets, explains Kaja Kallas, an Estonian member of the EU’s European Parliament. “They live in a sort of a different information society than the overall Estonian population, and that creates a lot of problems.”
In 2007, the “Bronze Night” riot started with the Estonian government’s decision to relocate the “Bronze Soldier,” a Soviet war memorial that had become a symbol of ethnic Russian unity. Russian TV media, the primary news source for Russians in Estonia, portrayed the decision as a sinister assault on Russian culture.
What followed was the country’s worst civil unrest since the Soviet era, and fake-news reports only fomented the chaos. While the Russian propaganda machine aired fake footage of the riots and spread rumors of police brutality and torture, Russian cyberattacks on Estonia’s government networks hindered authorities’ ability to manage the crisis. As the CEPA report notes, this foreshadowed tactics used to cause confusion and stall a Western response to the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.
The Kremlin is not alone in pushing disinformation campaigns. Propaganda from the Islamic State group (also known as ISIS), Israel and China abounds, as does fake news spread by fringe groups on both the political left and right fringes through U.S. social media networks. But Russia’s propaganda efforts are well-established, dating back through the Cold War and Soviet era all the way to the Russian Revolution in 1917.
Systematic centralized messaging, disruptive measures to weaken others’ institutions and political systems and a focus on provoking an enemy’s self-destruction rather than launching outside attacks are all continuations of past strategies, according to the CEPA report.
But it is how Russia has adapted these historical strengths to a new information battlefield that defines its modern propaganda and reveals the real threat facing the West.
“What’s changed is that they’re much more willing to make stuff up. They’re taking advantage of the whole post-modernism idea that there’s no such thing as absolute truth,” said Edward Lucas, a vice president at CEPA who authored the report and is a senior editor at the Economist with a long history covering Russia and the Baltic States.
“We’re in a kind of friction-free media environment now,” he explained. “In the old days, Russian propaganda was up against massive media empires like the BBC, or in America, ABC, CBS, NBC, and getting your voice heard against the mainstream was very difficult…We now have this highly fragmented media environment where there isn’t a central narrative.”
The democratization and shareability of media has allowed almost anyone to get their message out and at exponentially increasing speeds. Only a small initial audience is necessary to start a story rippling outward. And the waves of populism breaking over Europe and the U.S. provide fertile ground for planting seeds of institutional distrust.
“When we last saw Russian major subversion campaigns, there was not this social attitude that authority is automatically to be distrusted, so in that respect, they are operating in a different environment and they’ve adjusted accordingly,” said Keir Giles, a Eurasian security expert who spent years working in the former Soviet Union and Russia. “Some of the long-running campaigns that they might have put in place back in Soviet times to undermine and discredit forms of authority in the West have now borne fruit and provide the unexpected benefit for them that they no longer need to work at it.”
Despite different packaging, some of the most common tropes are tried-and-true American imperialism, the imminent threat of NATO aggression and the European Union as a U.S. puppet. While they may seem tired or secondary to the many physical confrontations going on around the world, experts warn these campaigns shouldn’t be ignored.
“Disinformation is an integrated part of the strategic approach which Russia is now using. It always has been…What we saw particularly in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine was in parallel to military deployments and military action,” Nimmo said. “There’s the perception that ethnic Russians in the Baltic states are a target, but also, there are all kinds of social weaknesses and divisions in our own countries.”
Ukrainian journalist and media expert Yevhen Fedchenko is all too familiar with the consequences of unchecked propaganda. He founded the fact-checking website Stopfake.org in 2014 to verify and refute the disinformation about Ukraine in the media. But Fedchenko is quick to point out that the problem transcends his country.
“It’s pretty much the same tools which can be used anywhere, so we also want to show that this is not a Ukrainian story. This is a global story,” Fedchenko said. “They are very successful in finding the small cracks within each country and then splitting them wide.”
Fedchenko noted that not all the disinformation is Kremlin-sponsored, but that once the movement starts, it takes on a life of its own, developing in different ways all over the world.
Myriad tools and platforms are leveraged to accomplish this, from mainstream broadcasts and online news to Facebook and the now famous troll factories where legions of ordinary people are employed to flood message boards, comments sections and social media. Content can be blatant or subtle, like sponsored profiles planted in otherwise trusted news organizations hard up for funding, according to CEPA’s Edward Lucas.
Different messages are sent out to different segments of a country’s population as well. Native speakers in countries like Estonia, Latvia and Germany may be drawn to anti-American tropes but won’t be compelled by Soviet and World War II-themed propaganda in the way many Russian migrants there will be. “There are things that will work with ethnic Russians that won’t really work with other people. And so they’re playing, if you like, whistles on different frequencies,” he said.
Despite the steady fake news proliferation over the past few years, the response has been slow. There is at least a 10-year time lag between the Western response and the Kremlin’s efforts to build up and modernize its disinformation campaigns, which are grounded in “a huge soviet propaganda machine which was basically left intact,” Fedchenko asserted.
Countries closer to Russia have been sounding the alarm for a while, but those in Western Europe and North America have only recently started to take note, and that is problematic in itself.
“Europeans, like others not from the former Soviet Union countries, they don’t really see such a big threat in Russia’s information war,” said Kallas, the Estonian Member of European Parliament. “So it’s much more fertile ground for letting those lies flourish.”
Blindness isn’t the only thing impeding action, though. The strength of Western democracy lies in its protection of unfettered expression and public debate, but it’s also an Achilles heel. Any attempt to shut down Russian media or curtail disinformation is seen or spun as an infringement on First Amendment rights, so the West’s own democratic principles can be used against it to propagandists’ advantage.
Taking a different path, then, is understandably tempting, as when Ukraine decided to ban more than a dozen Russian TV channels. And the subsequent Western discomfort and disapproval can be frustrating to those on the ground like Fedchenko.
“It’s a Russian war here in Ukraine, so we cannot just have them around because they instigate the war,” he said.
Still, there is an understandable resistance to sacrificing freedom of speech, for both moral and strategic reasons.
“Even attempting to assist the media with filtering out what is fact from what is fiction is really, really complicated, because anything that even comes close to looking like an attempt to direct the media in Western liberal societies is immediately counter-productive,” Keir Giles said. “Russia has all the advantages in that respect.”
That is not to say that nothing can or is being done. In 2015, the European Union launched a task force within the European External Action Service that deals directly with Russian disinformation. The small team has garnered increasing support for its concerted efforts to support independent media in at-risk countries and monitor and rebuff propaganda through websites like the Disinformation Review, and Twitter accounts like EU Mythbusters.
In late November, the E.U. Parliament passed a resolution stressing the need to address Russian propaganda by investing in raising awareness, information literacy and region-specific communication campaigns as well as further cooperating with NATO and reinforcing their own taskforce. In mid-January, reports surfaced that the EU External Action Service is reallocating resources to further support the group over the next several months.
Media outlets, from big new outfits to late-night comedy programs, are increasingly calling out the Russian propaganda phenomenon, especially following accusations of interference in U.S. elections. And several non-governmental organizations and grassroots campaigns, like StopFake and CEPA’s initiative, have been at the forefront of counter efforts.
With Stopfake.org, Fedchenko’s mission is two-fold. First is to set the record straight by dissecting and countering false news spread in and about Ukraine. Second is to show just how prolific the system is and demonstrate how messages are connected to actions on the ground, the founder explained, by keeping an archive of the disinformation.
The “Tools” section of the website also introduces news consumers to the fact-checking culture and teaches them to identify hoaxes on their own. This could mean learning to spot a fake news website, verifying the veracity of YouTube videos, or offering guidance for non-Russian speakers wanting to research the Russian internet, to name a few.
“The other thing that has really changed is the speed at which disinformation can spread,” Nimmo said. “When things go that fast, in a sense if you wait for the disinformation to come out then think about how to disprove it, you’re too late. So the thing to do is to educate people so that when the disinformation comes along they don’t believe it to start with, so it doesn’t spread the same way.”
Of course, tracking disinformation and measuring the impact of both efforts and counter-efforts is an essential but daunting piece of the puzzle. StopFake can monitor readership and look into users’ geography to see that their Russian audience is growing, for example. They can also see how their work is spread through social media.
But there are logistic and capacity limitations where governments’ resources, information access and regulatory capabilities could be enormously helpful, Fedchecko explained, especially when it comes to the monitoring of financing and licensing.
Just starting with acknowledging the problem, however, goes a long way. Countries like the Czech Republic and Lithuania where leadership – whether in government, civil society or the media – has publicly recognized the spread of propaganda have made the most headway by making it easier for institutions to accept and then challenge, according to Giles.
“Simply making people aware that this is a coordinated campaign and reminding them of it regularly is probably the biggest single thing that can be done to counter it,” he said. “Just making people think critically about the information that they’re being provided.