Last week's events concerning the pro-Kremlin disinformation campaign

Topics of the Week

New EU Action Plan on disinformation: Will it fulfil expectations?

Foreign interference in France’s “yellow vests” protests? Automated Twitter activity spotted, but no direct link to Russia so far.

Senator Mark Warner (D-VA): The US has lost its competitive edge in cyberspace, needs a new cyber doctrine.

Report: Facebook's rules enforcement is inefficient and inadequate.

Good Old Soviet Joke

Ronald Reagan met with Gustav Husák, then the President of Czechoslovakia. Presidential elections were coming up in both countries.

“I know that about 15 million voters will be against me,” Reagan says. “But they will elect me anyway.”

“Just like in Czechoslovakia!” Husák exclaimed.

Policy & Research News

EU takes its first substantial step to countering Russian disinformation

Last week, the European Union published its second Action Plan on countering disinformation in Europe and beyond. This follows the first Action Plan from 2015, when EU member states tasked the EU with stepping up efforts to counter Russian disinformation, leading to the creation of the EEAS East StratCom Task Force, a specialized unit dedicated to addressing Russian disinformation activities. However, from its inception, the East StratCom Task Force was plagued by funding problems and staffing shortages, due largely to internal resistance within the EU to tackling Russian disinformation. Consequently, in 2017, over 120 lawmakers and experts signed an open letter urging High Representative Federica Mogherini to increase the budget for the East StratCom Task Force to allow it to fulfil its mandate. Following failure to do so, another public appeal was made in November 2018, led by the European Values Think-Tank, which called upon the EU to name Russia as the main source of hostile disinformation against Europe, raise the Task Force’s budget to 5 million euros, and increase its staffing.

The Action Plan published last week is the first substantive step the EU has taken to meaningfully counter Russian disinformation. Under the new plan, the EU will increase the Strategic Communications budget by 3.1 million euros to 5 million in total. Additionally, the plan foresees the addition of over 50 new specialists in stratcom units, including the East StratCom Task Force, and EU delegations. Finally, for the first time, it also explicitly identifies Russia as the main source of hostile disinformation against Europe.

While the Action Plan is undoubtedly a step in the right direction, prior concerns still remain: namely, that High Representative Mogherini will ignore the need to strengthen the East StratCom Task Force, and that the bulk of new resources will not be used to counter Russian disinformation and will instead be directed towards the stratcom units concentrating on the Western Balkans and extremist narratives.

Read our full evaluation of the Action Plan here.

Are the Yellow Vests being manipulated?

With the protests in France gathering steam and becoming more violent, many are questioning the role of possible foreign interference.  Le Parisien reports that the General Secretariat for Defence and National Security has already started an investigation into influence activities on social media, focusing on automated accounts.  Meanwhile, The Times is reporting that around 200 fake accounts linked to Russia have already been found trying to amplify the protests. 

This coincides with the leaking of confidential documents from the French Department of Security. Documents detailing the police strategy for dealing with the crowds of protestors were posted on 4chan. As yet there is no evidence that Russia was responsible for the leak, but it does follow the Russian pattern of hacking and leaking sensitive material to disrupt political activity.

NATO exercises targeted

The ANAKONDA-18 NATO exercises that were held in the first part of November provided a window into Russia’s multidimensional disinformation campaign. Stanislaw Zaryn examines what that meant for Poland. The NATO exercises were heavily criticized and exaggerated in Russian media, with claims including that 100,000 soldiers took part (in reality, participation was less than 18,000) and that the exercises could easily spark military conflict.

In Poland, Russia’s disinformation campaign targeted soldiers, the public, and even decision-makers, trying to weaken support for NATO. Common themes included that Poland is too weak to fight Russia, NATO is not a reliable ally, and Poland is a training ground for US and Russian conflict. 

755,000 Tweets fired at Ukraine

In a new report for Vox Ukraine, Oleksandr Nadelnyuk analyses the roughly 755,000 tweets that Russia’s troll factory, the Internet Research Agency, has created about Ukraine. The report is based on data released by Twitter in 2016 about the activity of 3,667 accounts linked to the IRA. Of those account, 1,369 tweeted about Ukraine. 

The report also highlights the connection between the IRA and the downing of Flight MH17.  While the accounts’ Twitter activity had been relatively low up until that point, on July 18, 2014 – the day after the crash – activity jumped to 44,000 tweets in one day, compared to a previous high of 263 tweets on May 23, 2014, the day before Ukraine’s presidential election.

US Developments

Russia: a ‘peer power’ in disinformation

Addressing the Center for New American Security, Senator Mark Warner (D-VA), ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, argued that the US has lost its competitive edge in cyberspace, and urged policymakers to adopt a new five-point cyber doctrine in response to Moscow’s aggressive hybrid warfare strategy. "When it comes to cyber, misinformation and disinformation, Russia is already our peer and in the areas of misinformation or disinformation, I believe is ahead of us," cautioned Warner, adding that major social media ‘behemoths’ “aren’t doing nearly enough to prevent their platforms from becoming petri dishes for Russian disinformation and propaganda”.

Noting Russia’s deeper investment into tools of asymmetric warfare, despite spending a mere tenth of the US defense budget, Warner drew attention to the emergence of a “new era in nation-state conflict”, where lesser adversarial powers can project greater strength through cyberspace than with conventional military force. Among the five recommendations, the new cyber doctrine advocates for a whole-of-society strategy to counter disinformation, mandating deeper engagement with the private sector and realigning US defense spending priorities to address technological threats of the 21st century.

How trolls are targeting US veterans

Following a 15-month investigation, Kristofer Goldsmith, a deputy director for Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA), details how online trolls are targeting former and active US military personnel by impersonating reputable veteran-affiliated Facebook pages. Pointing to a 2017 Oxford study, which established how public faith in military personnel may turn the group into targets for foreign influence, online trolls were found using these fake pages not only to push typically divisive content (e.g., the NFL boycott controversy, Blue Lives Matter, etc.), but to also “provoke outrage” by cleverly publishing legitimate military-related content with altered dates, in order to make objectionable events appear recent.

Moreover, fake pages in some instances also appear to be extracting low-level intelligence, appealing to audiences “who often respond to posts asking for them to divulge information, such as what unit they served with and when they were deployed”. While stopping short of outwardly naming usual suspects, VVA determined that the content shared by fake pages was consistent with known Russian information warfare tactics and emanated (though not exclusively) from regions that have “struggled to control online trolls who work to promote pro-Russian disinformation”.

Russia given 60 days to preserve treaty

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has given Moscow a 60-day deadline to verifiably revise its compliance with the INF treaty, or the US will cease to uphold its obligations. The ultimatum, delivered after European diplomats scrambled to buy Russia more time, was accompanied with a statement from NATO’s top diplomats made in rare solidarity with Washington’s decision: “Allies have concluded that Russia has developed and fielded a missile system, the 9M729, which violates the INF Treaty and poses significant risks to Euro-Atlantic security. We strongly support the finding of the United States that Russia is in material breach of its obligations under the INF Treaty”.

Between fears of a dystopian arms race to visions of a more optimistic end to years of acrimony, the act of brinkmanship marks a significant step in projecting Euro-Atlantic unity in confronting Moscow’s transgressions, which has been notably absent in recent years.

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Kremlin Watch Reading Suggestion

Facebook’s Failure to Enforce Its Own Rules

Medium has recently published a report by Jonathan Albright which analyses Facebook’s page removal activity prior to the US midterm elections. Upon first glance it seems that the platform’s efforts to remove ‘fake news’ is mildly successful; Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has publicized the removal of over 800 US-based Facebook pages for violations of the company’s terms and conditions in October. When the pages were taken down, Facebook did not provide a clear justification, and many right-wing pages claimed that Facebook was engaging in censorship against conservative views. However, data on the removed pages suggests that they were not taken down due to their false content but rather because they exploited Facebook’s engagement measurements by inflating the number of likes and video shares.

Many pages have been exploiting Facebook’s metrics for the past five years. One of the first pages Albright analysed was Right Wing News, a small news platform run by a blogger. Some of the posts have views in the tens of millions, in line with what the Fox News page has only accomplished on its most successful posts. InfoWars, a prominent conspiracy platform run by Alex Jones, was previously removed by Facebook, yet much of its content has been rebranded and put back on the platform under the moniker as ‘NewsWars’. This suggests that the Facebook ban is inadequate, as rules are either ineffective or inconsistently applied.

Source: Medium

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Kremlin Watch is a strategic program of the European Values Think-Tank, which aims to expose and confront instruments of Russian influence and disinformation operations focused against liberal-democratic system.

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