Russian information warfare is not only surviving Western efforts to counter it, but it is growing and evolving.
May 23, 2019
Russia: Divide and divide some more
The New York Times last week published a striking piece about how the Russian news network RT has been airing story after story about the dangers of 5G cell phones as part of a disinformation effort to undermine the United States’ comfort with — and advances in — the technology (which scientists say isn’t actually harmful).
We say striking because one of the most notable aspects of the Times’ story, at least to us, was not the disinformation itself, but the open nature of the campaign — it was out there for the whole world to see, delivered on RT America. The YouTube version has been viewed more than 1.6 million times.
A Washington Post piece about Russian efforts to influence the outcome of the European Union parliamentary elections this week noted similarly open efforts to advance divisive content.
“The Sputnik news agency has offered wall-to-wall coverage of the ‘yellow vest’ protests that have shaken France,” The Post’s Michael Birnbaum wrote. “The German-language homepage of RT, formerly Russia Today, recently featured a banner debunking ‘myths’ that the former West Germany was superior to communist East Germany.”
This isn’t exactly the kind of anonymous, troll-driven dezinformatsiya often attributed to the Kremlin’s online propaganda machines, like the infamous Internet Research Agency.
The RT and Sputnik cases show how countries with state-run media, like Russia, can make video broadcasts that pick up on existing disinformation campaigns in an attempt to divide the populace. In campaigns like this, Russia may not be the original creator of false content — it might hand-pick certain sentiments with the hope of getting them to “seep into mainstream political conversations,” said Benjamin Decker, a disinformation specialist who runs the investigations firm Memetica, in an email interview.
“They will heighten and amplify disinformation campaigns that tap into partisan politics, the globalist vs. nationalist narrative, and the concept of tech censorship/assault on free speech,” Decker said. “In practice, they are less likely to be the patient zero, the origin of a disinformation campaign, yet they may seek to increase the perception of popularity of certain concepts or sentiments in the hope that they will further seep into mainstream political conversations.”
This is consistent with what other experts are seeing — the notion that people who identify with one side or another can pick from a wide variety of false or misleading content that already exists in an effort to divide voters.
This theme was echoed this week by experts testifying before a U.S. House Foreign Affairs subcommittee hearing on Russian efforts to influence citizens in Europe and the United States.
“I think we are increasingly going to see U.S. voices and U.S. organizations that will be the key disseminators of Russian malign disinformation, with messages targeting vulnerable and divided U.S. communities,” said Heather Conley, director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic & International Studies, a foreign policy think tank in Washington, D.C.
The whole point of the Russians’ disinformation efforts, Conley said, is to stoke disagreement among Americans, to get them fighting with one another.
And for those hoping to spread false narratives, the important thing is the sharing. Decker noted that the growth of the Yellow Vest movement organizing outside of France on Facebook swelled in January 2019 as it was adopted by numerous conspiracy groups. A lot of the content shared on their Facebook pages was RT-produced news coverage of the Yellow Vests in France.
With Europeans voting this week and the U.S. preparing for the 2020 elections, the temptation is to see disinformation efforts merely as isolated, state-sponsored attempts to sway voters. That would be a mistake, said the experts who testified on Capitol Hill this week.
“We can’t see election interference as a discrete thing in and of itself,” said Laura Rosenberger, a senior fellow and director of The German Marshall Fund’s Alliance for Securing Democracy. “These are ongoing operations.”