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

Topics of the Week

Atlantic Council DFRLab published a new report on developing Russian disinformation techniques identifying blogs and forums as new disinformation environments.

United States Agency for International Development is finally taking meaningful steps in order to help partner nations in their fight against Kremlin coercion.

New report by the Centre for Strategic & International Studies: How the Kremlin uses disinformation campaigns to undermine the U.S. justice system?

Good Old Soviet Joke

A Soviet worker standing in a liquor line says, “I have had enough, save my place, I am going to shoot Gorbachev.”

Two hours later he returns to claim his place in line.

His friend asks, “Did you get him?”

“No, the line there was even longer than the line here.”

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Policy & Research News

Russian disinformation techniques are changing in order to avoid large social networks´ countermeasures

Russian disinformation actors are testing new techniques to avoid scrutiny from large social networks, a new report by Atlantic Council’s DFRLab indicates. Instead of building a following on social media for a better reach, the new tactics focused on the laundering of disinformation before promoting it on big social networks. This was done by utilizing numerous “burner” accounts which were immediately abandoned after posting a single story. Medium, Reddit, and many other forums and blogs used in the operation (approximately 30 in all) have turned out to be quite permissive towards disinformation. After the story was published, it was “picked up” by other forums, translated into other languages, and eventually surfaced on Facebook. In turn, Facebook and Twitter were mostly employed for amplification of the previously created fake stories.

The purpose of the operation was typical of Russian disinformation; i.e. to undermine the cohesion of the EU and NATO by sowing discord amongst the countries and retranslate Russian foreign policy messages. Particularly, in the UK, the operation harnessed the Brexit uncertainties, while in Germany it fanned the anti-immigration sentiments. The operation relied extensively on forged documents and fake social media posts. For instance, a doctored tweet that the disinformation actors attributed to Gavin Williamson, the British Defence Secretary at the time, claimed that the Real Irish Republican Army had assisted in the Skripal poisoning. Conspiracy theories appeal to emotions, and memes were heavily used as well.

Altogether the DFRLab researchers note the very limited impact the operation has had due to its increased attention to operation security (OPSEC). Specifically, relying on “burner” accounts hampered follower building. Still, they emphasize that action is required to make sure that blog platforms and forums are more vigilant when it comes to disinformation since this is the environment where it is likely to shift.

NYU report reveals lack of action on disinformation by social media giants

Paul M. Barret’s report for NYU, “Tackling Domestic Disinformation: What the Social Media Companies Need to Do” warns that unless social media platforms adopt extensive and transparent methods to remove provably false content, trends of popular cynicism and exacerbated political polarization will expand across the internet. Referencing an Oxford Internet Institute survey that revealed a five-percentage point increase in “junk news” from 2016 to 2018 American elections, Barret emphasizes the prevalence of disinformation across social media platforms. 

Barret cites a diversity of studies that describe trends and the reach of disinformation on social media to reveal the complexity and nature of this issue. Using this information, he argues that patterns of “junk news” travelling from peripheral to mainstream social media are reaching billions of users. This proves a mandate and duty of these platforms to become more active in removing and reducing harmful, inflammatory content. This “hybrid role” requires action on multiple fronts, as made evident by Barnett’s eleven recommendations that range from removing false content, establishing transparent processes and principles for doing so, and sponsoring news verification and digital literacy measures using manpower and technology.

US Developments

USAID presents a framework to help American partner nations counter Russian influence

After years of bureaucratic red tape and lack of cohesive action, the United States has taken a meaningful step in the face of Russian influence. Upon remarks by director Mark Green of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the agency posted its framework for helping partner nations in their fight against Kremlin coercion. The title of the strategic plan is “Countering Malign Kremlin Influence” (CMKI) and it boasts four primary objectives: protect democratic institutions and the rule of law, build resiliency to misinformation campaigns, reduce economic and energy dependency. Green shared that the U.S. is prepared to achieve these four objectives by financially supporting nations who are vulnerable to Kremlin influence.

In his Fourth of July remarks regarding the CMKI, Green shared several Post-Soviet success stories before addressing the reality of today’s Russian threat. He affirms the value of democracy and freedom but acknowledges that Russia’s pseudo-democracy is an authoritarian regime seeking to export its ideologies beyond its borders. The administrator even went as far as likening Russia to a “cunning predator… employing a range of tactics and tools.” After explaining each of the framework’s objectives and their respective role in combating Russian influence, Green closed out his presentation by reiterating the States’ intentions to push back on authoritarianism in the pursuit of liberty and freedom for citizens all over the globe, to include the Russian people.

It is not yet known which countries will be on the receiving end of CMKI-dedicated funds, though the publication on the USAID website references previous successful engagements with Ukraine, Moldova and multiple Balkan nations to name a few.

New study shows that Russian e-propaganda may have helped Trump win presidency after all

According to an extensive study conducted by University of Tennessee researchers, it is possible that Russian propaganda may have indeed helped Donald Trump win the U.S. presidency. In a summary report by Ken Dilanian for NBC News, the study focused on the Twitter behaviour of the infamous St. Petersburg-based Russian troll farm, the Internet Research Agency (IRA). Although there are many indicators that the IRA’s Twitter disinformation tactics largely swayed American public opinion in Donald Trump’s favour, the study does not outright show an absolute correlation to IRA activity and a Trump win. Despite alarmingly narrow margins of victory (as few as 75,000 votes in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania) and controlling for Trump’s own Twitter behaviour, the study illustrates that the IRA’s voluminous production of misinformative tweets had a stronger influence on the American people.

In a not so ironic finding, Damian Ruck, the lead researcher of the Tennessee study, shared that IRA troll activity turned out to be a better indicator of Trump’s polling figures than his own. In conclusion, the NBC piece highlights the importance of social media user awareness as there are already indicators of renewed interference in the 2020 U.S. election.

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Kremlin Watch Reading Suggestion

Beyond the Ballot: How the Kremlin Works to Undermine the U.S. Justice System

The Centre for Strategic & International Studies published a report detailing Russian disinformation operations against the U.S. Justice System. Borrowing from the idea of a distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack, the authors accuse the Russian government of attacking Western democracies through a Distributed Denial of Truth. Both RT and Sputnik have entire programs devoted to criticizing the U.S. justice system. RT hosts America’s Lawyer, while Sputnik publishes a podcast called Criminal Injustice.

The authors found that most disinformation against the U.S. justice system fell under four broad frameworks. (1) The justice system tolerates, protects, and covers up crimes committed by immigrants. Russian disinformation seized on high-profile cases (especially cases involving rape, paedophilia, or murder) and used the inability of the police and courts to comment on investigations to spread and amplify false information. (2) The justice system operationalizes the institutionally racist and corrupt police state. The Russians used ongoing discussions about police shootings of black men to help cement a narrative about the institutionalized racism inherent in law enforcement.  (3) The justice system directly supports and enables corporate corruption. These stories pushed the narrative of two different justice systems, one for the rich and another for the poor. Additionally, complicated and often confidential nature of corporate law allows misinformation to flourish. (4) The justice system is a tool of the political elite and is used as a tool of the deep state to advance political goals. Narratives attacked the Mueller investigation and promoted Russiagate in particular.

The authors recommend a whole-of-nation strategy to combatting disinformation. For the justice system specifically, the authors recommended raising awareness and investing in impact-oriented research amongst practitioners within the justice system, establishing lines of communication with social media platforms and improving rapid response capabilities to quickly counter false information, and promoting civics and media literacy within the public as a national security imperative.

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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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