January 7, 2020  |  Updated January 8, 2020

Russian Disinformation in 2019: Review

By Jakub Kalenský

The problems posed by the Kremlin’s information aggression yet again increased in 2019. The disinformation machine got additional resources; other actors are increasingly picking up the Kremlin’s tactics and mimicking the Russian operations and a growing proportion of Russian disinformation is laundered and presented as a “domestic” problem. Meanwhile, the West’s responses has not been proportionate, widening the gap between the capabilities of the Kremlin and its victims.

At the same time as the Russian state has slashed budgets for healthcare and education, the leading propagandists and Russian pseudo-media have received increased funding. The Kremlin’s primary disinformation outlets, such as Russia Today (RT), will receive 30 percent more in 2020. Despite the fact these outlets themselves might not have the greatest reach or readership, these outlets are merely a beginning of a long chain of tools spreading pro-Kremlin disinformation, a chain that includes many offline links, too.

But the pro-Kremlin disinformation campaign grows in the online space, too. “The quality of Russia’s work has been honed over several years and millions of social media posts. They have appeared on Instagram, Stitcher, Reddit, Google+, Tumblr, Medium, Vine, Meetup, and even Pokémon Go,” wrote Darren Linvill and Patrick Warren for Rolling Stone in an article showing that the activity of the Russian trolls rather increased after the 2016 elections rather than winding down. A massive and previously unknown social media operation run by Russians with millions of subscribers and billions of views has been uncovered last year, too.

As the intelligence committee of the US Senate warned us, the Russian disinformation war is only getting started.

Apart from increased resources, pro-Kremlin disinformation activity penetrating into new territories. In 2019, many researchers and journalists pointed out especially the operations in Africa both as a part of a wider Kremlin influence campaign as well as targeted election interference in countries such as Madagascar. The EU’s counter-disinformation unit also highlighted disinformation operations targeting the audiences in the Middle East.

The increase in disinformation operations is confirmed worldwide. Researchers from University of Oxford have found social media (social media constituting just a part of disinformation ecosystem) manipulations in 70 countries in 2019 – up from 48 countries in 2018 and 28 countries in 2017.

However, the Kremlin still remains the vanguard of disinformation operations. According to researchers from Princeton University, Russia is responsible for 72 percent foreign influence efforts between 2013 and April 2019. That makes Russia three times as aggressive as the rest of the world combined.

An increase in information laundering

New resources and new territories have not meant that the Kremlin has abandoned its old objectives and old narratives. On a daily basis, the pro-Kremlin disinformation universe continued to promote lies and deceptions about the Mueller report, about who shot down the flight MH17 with almost 300 civilians, or about the Yellow vests protests; or disinformation stories about the devastating effects of the migration crisis. Official Russian sources continued to spread lies about World War II.

And the export of disinformation has not meant that the Kremlin has forgotten to tighten the screws at home and protect its own information space. The Russian leadership continued its efforts to create a “sovereign internet” that could be switched off from the world wide web. Putin also signed a law that would make Russian apps mandatory for all smartphones and computers sold in Russia, and advocated for replacing Wikipedia with a “reliable” Russian version.

Another worrying trend in 2019 has been the increasing effort to blur the Russian origin of disinformation – a trend that has been confirmed also by the EU observations, when Commissioner Julian King described the “increasingly locally focused” Russian campaign. The EU election campaign itself was a brilliant example. Viktor Orban’s election campaign, which the EU itself called out as disinformation, was full of narratives that Russian sources had previously promoted and spread. Similarly, the Czech President Miloš Zeman played a key role in spreading Kremlin-originated disinformation in his own country. Russia cultivated target audiences that would help the spread of their disinformation operations to very specific sectors of society, one example being US military personnel.

And finally, other actors began to adopt Russian tactics. Unsurprisingly, the weak reaction of the West against Russian influence efforts showed that such a type of aggression remains close to unopposed and almost always unpunished. Logically, this environment encourages other state and non-state actors to adopt similar techniques and behaviors.

Thus, there have been reports about Russia and China cooperating on information operations, including exchange programs between the state media. Similarly, propagandists from Russia Today were teaching journalists in the Philippines “a different way of reporting”. The Kremlin-inspired disinformation efforts have been observed in Iran, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Venezuela. A huge operation run from India, that was designed to influence EU and UN decision-makers, also used Russian content. The Russian tactics have been mimicked by a former Fox News executive in operations targeting Americans. American Neo-Confederates reused for their own Instagram posts the content of Kremlin-backed trolls promoted three years ago. And Russian “freelancers” are offering disinformation services for anyone to hire.

When the Russian know-how in information manipulation gets joined by Chinese resources and AI-capabilities, the problems the Western world faces will become astronomically larger.

Security experts and even those from the top of politics warn about the scope and the danger of Russian disinformation. Pentagon has warned that Russia is beating the US in the global influence race; a former senior CIA officer published that Russian interference in the 2016 elections was as serious threat as the challenge post 9/11; the EU has highlighted that there have been more disinformation cases in 2019 than in the year before, and that “more needs to be done” against disinformation; five Nordic and Baltic security services have warned about the threat of pro-Kremlin disinformation; the Czechs called out the activities of pro-Russian activists as the biggest threat to the constitutionality of the country. Also leading American experts have warned that the US is not ready for the Russian attack on the elections in 2020.

The reaction is still weak

The reaction of the West might be going in the right direction, but compared to the activities of the Kremlin, it is still extremely slow, and not systematic enough. The EU has presented its Action Plan against disinformation more than a year ago, but there has not been any visible progress since then. The questions that were unanswered in December 2018 remain unanswered today, and the eagerly awaited Rapid Alert System does not seem to be satisfactory.

Instead of rapidly increasing its own counter-disinformation efforts, as the European Parliament has been demanding for years, the EU seems to be focusing on pressing the social media to solve the problem – but even a year after the Code of Conduct for social media has been signed, the European Commissioners were not satisfied with the progress and threatened regulatory action; and as the NATO StratCom Centre of Excellence has shown, it is still extremely easy and cheap to purchase social media manipulation services.

However, at least the fact that the EU has an Action Plan on disinformation and a Code of Conduct seems to be ahead of the efforts in the US. “The United States has fallen behind the EU, both in terms of conceptual framing and calls for concrete actions to meet the disinformation challenge,” wrote Daniel Fried and Alina Polyakova in their second edition of Democratic Defense Against Disinformation that provides many useful recommendations that do not need to be repeated here.

Russian resources and Russian aggression are growing faster than the reaction to it. The Kremlin knows that it is worth it to keep throwing the spaghetti on the wall and see what sticks since the reaction of the West still remains disproportionate and inadequate. As Christopher Steele said: “on our current trajectory these problems are likely to get worse, not better,” especially because the West has failed to punish those involved in information manipulation.

Instead of robust reaction and deterrence, decision-makers are seen to even reward those responsible for information aggression and worldwide manipulation. Despite the fact that Putin’s information army interfered in the French elections and tried to help Marine Le Pen, Emanuel Macron has profiled himself as the leading voice of appeasement with Russia – although the Kremlin has not only not stopped its aggressive activities, but continues lying about them and denying them.

The pattern is wearingly familiar – whereas the Kremlin (and China, for example) understand themselves as being in conflict with the West, behave accordingly and try as many ways as possible to do harm, too many Westerners prefer a triumph of hope over experience in relations with Russia.

All of the tools needed to win this fight are already here—but it is vital to accept the existence of the threat and create the political will to finally start using the tools in a systematic fashion.

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