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

Topics of the Week

A new French report calls for more decisive steps by European governments against disinformation.

The Finnish private sector is concerned about hybrid threats and value cooperation with the state to improve resilience.

A watchdog group demonstrated how easy it is to purchase politically-divisive ads on Google, mimicking the tactics of the St Petersburg troll factory.

Special focus: Russia seeks to prevent the autocephaly of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.

RAND report: Pro-Kremlin influence operations are multi-channel, high-volume, and lack commitment to truth.

Good Old Soviet Joke

TASS reports: A group of Chinese tanks attacked a Soviet tractor quietly ploughing a field near the Soviet-Chinese border. The tractor returned fire and after destroying all its enemies flew back to the base.

Policy & Research News

New French report recommends decisive steps to counter disinformation

The Center for Analysis, Forecasting and Strategy (French Ministry of European and Foreign Affairs) and the Institute of Strategic Research of the École Militaire (French Ministry of the Armed Forces) published a report about disinformation, including 50 recommendations for different actors. The work of the European Values Think-Tank, including references to our recent Prague Manual, is mentioned several times.

The report consists of three parts, analysing the causes and sources of information manipulation, methods of disinformation campaigns, and possible solutions. For example, the authors appeal to European governments to undertake legislative measures or hold parliamentary inquiries, invest in European institutions (like the EEAS East StratCom Task Force), support research, analyse their own vulnerabilities, cooperate with civil society, and also sanction the culprits of serious interference into domestic affairs.

Five Eyes group plans to name and shame countries for hostile interference

The Sydney Morning Herald reported on a communiqué issued by ministers from Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Great Britain and the United States under the umbrella of the Five Eyes cooperation. According to the communiqué, the countries plan to cooperate more deeply on countering foreign interference. They also call for more cooperation from tech companies in containing and mitigating harmful material on their platforms. A key area of future cooperation should also include clearer attribution of blame to hostile countries or entities pursuing interference activities.

How does the private sector in Finland view hybrid threats?

Discussions about countering hybrid threats typically focus on protecting the state and democratic institutions; rarely do they address the private sector. Attempting to address this lacuna, the Helsinki Region Chamber of Commerce has produced a research report on how the business community in Finland views and reacts to hybrid threats.

The report states that the business community is open to cooperation with authorities in countering hybrid threats. In addition, the report found that every fifth company surveyed had been targeted by hybrid influence campaigns and that 3 out of 4 companies wish to receive training and informational material from the state about how to protect themselves from hybrid threats.

US Developments

DHS secretary unleashes digital ‘fire and fury’

In response to prevailing threats posed by foreign adversaries and cyber battlefronts, Kirstjen Nielsen, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), declared that the Trump administration is building “the toughest homeland security enterprise America has ever seen”.  Ahead of the US midterms, Nielsen stressed election security as one of the top priorities of DHS and, in a departure from President Trump’s baffling overtures, publicly called out Vladimir Putin for his role in directing a “brazen, multi-faceted influence campaign to undermine public faith in our democratic process and to distort our presidential election".

Nielsen further asserted that defensive measures must be met with punishment, delivering a stern warning that “the days of cyber surrender are over”, with the declaration that the Trump administration is working to replace “complacency with consequences” and “deniability with accountability”. To this end, Nielsen urged Congress to pass new legislation that would elevate the DHS’s cyber-security wing, the National Protection and Programs Directorate, to an operational agency that would retain its own director.

Watchdog bypasses Google’s disinformation filters

Despite Google’s reassurances that it had invested in new countermeasures to protect its users against foreign influence, watchdog group Campaign for Accountability (CfA) was able to replicate and conduct a Russian-style influence operation – and for as little as $100. When probing Google’s defenses, previously touted as “a set of strict ad policies including limits on political ad targeting”, investigators from CfA purchased Google ads using the unique company registration and geolocation details of the Internet Research Agency (better known as the St Petersburg troll factory).

Within 24 hours, CfA’s phony ads, which replicated the familiar provocative content of the IRA’s disinformation and promoted its websites, were approved and recirculated on YouTube channels and mainstream news sites, later generating over 20,000 impressions and 200 click-throughs. Though Google would later dismiss CfA as a proxy for a rival company, performing "a stunt to impersonate Russian trolls", what this small operation demonstrates is the alarming ease with which any entity, foreign or domestic, can feasibly propagate politically divisive content and heighten social tensions in the US.

Russian extradited over Wall Street hacks

Last Friday, the Department of Justice announced the extradition of a Russian national charged in connection to a string of cyber-attacks in the US, most notably the 2014 JPMorgan Chase data breach, which compromised data associated with over 80 million customers. From around 2012 to 2015, Andrei Tyurin, a Russian citizen, is alleged to have participated in a “global hacking campaign” that targeted US financial institutions, in total exposing the information of 100 million users across the affected companies.

Tyrun, who arrived in New York after being arrested in Georgia at the request of US authorities, has been charged with ten counts including wire fraud, computer hacking and conspiracy, the most damning of which carries a maximum sentence of 30 years in prison.

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Preventing autocephaly for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church at all costs

Despite the meeting on August 31st between Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church, recent events concerning prospective autocephaly for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church have backed the Kremlin into a very delicate geopolitical position. On September 7th, the Ecumenical Patriarchate announced that it has appointed two special representatives to Kiev to officially solidify the implementation of autocephaly for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.

The Russian Orthodox Church has condemned this agenda, with Vladimir Legoida, head of the Synodal Department for Church, Society, and Media Relations of the Moscow Patriarchate, noting: “The appointment by the Patriarch of Constantinople of his episcopal representatives in Ukraine…is nothing but an unprecedentedly gross incursion into the Moscow Patriarchate’s canonical territory. These actions cannot be left unanswered.” In addition, Metropolitan Hilarion—chairman of the Department of External Church Relations of the Russian Orthodox Church—has threatened to break canonical unity with the Ecumenical Patriarchate and stated that: “I think Patriarch Bartholomew will bear personal responsibility for this action before the judgement of God and the judgment of history.”

Currently, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate)—a proxy of the Russian Orthodox Church itself—is the only canonical Orthodox entity in the country. However, such polarizing approaches to the question of autocephaly for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church beg the question of what is to come. It is geopolitically unprofitable for the Kremlin to relinquish its ecclesiastical dominion over Ukraine, as such actions would set a precedent for other Orthodox Churches in communion with Moscow to seek autocephalous status, and because they would undermine both the concept of Russkiy Mir and the Kremlin’s own revanchist ambitions. Likewise, such a development would cripple the soft power of the Moscow Patriarchate, as well as its rights to claim leadership within the Orthodox world.

Moreover, it is worrisome to think how the Kremlin will respond to these recent developments. Already in 2014, it used the pretext of “defending the rights of Russian-speaking Ukrainians” to annex Crimea and to spur the ongoing insurgency within the Donbass region. Taking into consideration the great long-term implications of the autocephaly project, one can only hope that such events will not serve as a motive for a geopolitical cataclysm that may include renewed Russian aggression in Ukraine under the guise of protecting Orthodox Christians “loyal to Moscow”.

The Kremlin’s Current Narrative

New evidence, old propaganda

New details revealing the identities of the individuals responsible for the Salisbury attack – and their evident links to Russian intelligence – were a major news story last week. UK Security Minister Ben Wallace stated that Russian President Vladimir Putin is “ultimately” to blame for the Salisbury poisoning, as “it is his government that controls, funds and directs” the GRU intelligence service. Predictably, Russian officials and media immediately went on the offensive, denying all accusations and attempting to shift blame in what has now become a truly overplayed and tedious strategy.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told the media, “Once again we are calling upon the British side to drop public charges and information manipulations and to start practical interaction between law enforcement agencies. London has numerous requests from the Russian side.”

RT followed suit, publishing a very creative article titled Salisbury plot thickens, questions without answers multiply”, which is a collection of the most ridiculous explanations of why the Salisbury attack wasn’t carried out by Russians. Here’s one fantastic passage: It doesn't seem like the Russian assassins bothered about covering their tracks, right? Why pose as a gay Finnish couple on a honeymoon during a clandestine mission that would land you in jail for life if caught, when you can simply be Boris and Natasha, sorry... Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov? RT apparently delved so deeply into the world of conspiracies and alternative news that they simply got lost.

Meanwhile, Vzglyad dotted the i’s by explaining to its Russian audience why Salisbury has once again become a hot topic: obviously, to “strengthen the anti-Russian coalition in the West”. Vzglyad also notes that the Anglo-Saxon press has a centuries-long tradition of placing all blame for evil on Russia, with blatant disregard for facts. Well, we’re less sure of that than Russia having a longstanding tradition of violating international law and playing the fool when cornered for its lies.

Kremlin Watch Reading Suggestion

The Russian “Firehose of Falsehood” Propaganda Model

In 2016, the RAND Corporation published the "Russian ‘Firehose of Falsehood’ Propaganda Model" which has since garnered significant attention. The report’s title refers to the nature of the Kremlin’s propaganda - multi-channel, high-volume, and lacking commitment to truth. The report draws evidence from experimental psychology, which suggests propaganda with multiple and diverse sources is more persuasive as consumers assume it is based on different perspectives. Russian disinformation is also very responsive to current events as there is no need for fact checking or source verification. This rapid response enables propaganda to become a consumer’s first impression of a specific event, making it resilient to opinion change.

Further, Russian disinformation may contain a fraction of truth or may be wholly manufactured. Reports of fake actors portraying victims of crimes or fake on-the-scene reporting is not uncommon and these stories tend to arouse strong emotions and play on social identities. Russian propaganda further exploits the peripheral cues we use to identify reliable sources from unreliable ones; seemingly credible sources like RT and Sputnik, which visually look like reputable news programs, disseminate falsehoods. The channels do not broadcast consistent versions of events and do not shy away from changing their narratives whenever convenient. This is because people tend to overlook contradictions when a source considers a different perspective, making it seem that it has given a topic greater consideration.

The threat of Russian disinformation is not a trivial one and policymakers cannot expect to simply counter disinformation with the truth. For retractions to be effective, the report suggests to provide an alternative story that fills in the gap when facts are removed.

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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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