In mid-April, Prague hosted the annual StratCom Summit, one of the most important international conferences on the topics of disinformation and influence activities. The Summit gathers top experts on disinformation to speak to an audience consisting mostly of government officials and activists working on innovative solutions to an increasingly complex problem. Given the caliber of the speakers and attendees and that the conference hosts the talks, panels, and debates under Chatham House rules, the discussions are always open, frank, and enriching.
The topic of disinformation has been frequently debated since 2014. Expertise on the issue, shared by individuals and organizations in a variety of public and private industries, has grown as disinformation has ballooned in importance. However, there are still policymakers in the top echelons of national governments who underestimate the gravity of the disinformation threat.
One of this year’s StratCom debates focused on Germany. A participant argued that whereas the Kremlin’s influence operations surrounding the upcoming European Parliament elections might be a problem in Italy or France, it will not be so in Germany.
The assertion that Germany is immune to the sort of information manipulation and societal polarization that France and Italy have suffered is arguable. Articles and reports by the Digital Forensic Research Lab, EUvsDisinfo, the London School of Economics, and many others demonstrate that Kremlin media had a very high interest in Germany before and during its 2017 elections.
The Kremlin media campaign in Germany involved two main strategies. The first sought to boost parties on both extremes of the German political spectrum, including the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) and the far-left Die Linke. The second aimed to denigrate and thus weaken the position of Chancellor Angela Merkel, leader of the conservative alliance between the Christian Democratic Union and the Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU).
The election saw the AfD receive many more votes than predicted by most pre-election opinion polls. Merkel’s party tallied its worst result in almost seventy years. If the Kremlin indeed sought to upend the status quo, the organizers of the disinformation campaign succeeded.
Some, however, are disinclined to believe that a Kremlin disinformation campaign could so dramatically change the results of an election and fully account for its outcome. Such skepticism about the extent of the impact of disinformation campaigns is fairly common in discussions about influence operations. Without the ability to quantify the number of individuals whose vote changed after exposure to a particular disinformation campaign, it is difficult to gauge the impact of the campaign as a whole, and therefore challenging to determine a response of appropriate scale. This could be aptly called the “ostrich approach” to the problem of disinformation: using the unquantifiable aspects of the issue to justify undervaluing or ignoring it. If one cannot see it, the problem is not there.
Few would claim that the Kremlin’s information manipulation efforts could exclusively determine an election’s outcome. As with traditional political campaigns, even the most robust and indefatigable effort to sway voters will never guarantee a specific result in an election. There will always be innumerable other factors that shape an election’s course and its outcome: the campaigns of competitors; a sudden rise or drop in the price of fuel; the outbreak of war, domestically or abroad; or a corruption scandal of a leading politician. Such is the nature of politics.
It is thus exceptionally difficult to measure the precise impact of any individual news story, narrative, or disinformation campaign. According to Kevin McCauley’s book Russian Influence Campaigns Against the West: From the Cold War to Putin, even the KGB lacked an empirical assessment system gauging the efficacy of its propaganda. “Soviet intelligence concluded that evaluations were too subjective to accurately assess the immediate effect of an operation. The Soviets did not believe that an individual active measures operation would necessarily result in a significant or immediate impact, but rather success was dependent on the accumulation of numerous, diverse operations over time that would create the desired impact.”
Little has changed since the KGB headed Moscow’s subversion efforts. “Judging whether Russia’s operation changed the election results could only be done by reading voters’ minds or accurate polling, and trying to establish which specific piece of information tipped them one way or the other,” wrote Ben Nimmo about the Kremlin’s efforts in the 2016 US general election. Despite the inability to precisely quantify the Kremlin’s influence, however, Nimmo acknowledges that the Kremlin’s operation had at least some demonstrable impact.
Difficulties aside, researchers focusing on the extent of the impact of the Kremlin’s disinformation operations have made strides in attempting to understand and quantify the problem. Professor Kathleen Hall Jamieson’s book analyzes multiple dimensions of Kremlin interference in the 2016 US election, from the messages spread by “trolls” on social media to the effect these messages had on campaign news and debates agendas. Jamieson concludes that Kremlin influence was “very likely” decisive in the 2016 campaign. Had it not been for the Kremlin’s influence operation, the election outcome would have been different.
A review of her book in The New Yorker explains:
An airtight case, she acknowledges, may never be possible. In the introduction to her new book, she writes that any case for influence will likely be similar to that in a civil legal trial, “in which the verdict is rendered not with the certainty that e=mc2 but rather based on the preponderance of evidence.” But, she points out, “we do make most of life’s decisions based on less-than-rock-solid, incontrovertible evidence.” In Philadelphia, she noted to me that “we convict people on probabilities rather than absolute certainty, and we’ve executed people based on inferences from available evidence.” She argued that “the standard of proof being demanded” by people claiming it’s impossible to know whether Russia delivered the White House to Trump is “substantially higher than the standard of proof we ordinarily use in our lives.”
Kremlin interference in the 2016 US election garnered far greater attention in the West and around the globe than did the 2017 German election. Comprehensive analyses of the Kremlin’s German disinformation campaign, like those of that in the United States by McCauley and Jamieson, are scant. Even casual observers of US and global politics are aware of or acknowledge the reach of the Kremlin’s disinformation campaign in the United States in 2016. The aforementioned StratCom debate on Germany evidences that the comparative lack of both popular and scholarly attention to the German election in 2017 has in part prevented a consensus about the impact of Kremlin disinformation from emerging.
Despite the lack of a consensus, and even though quantifying the impact of a disinformation campaign in Germany or elsewhere is still and will likely continue to be a potentially insurmountable challenge, evidence exposing the problem does exist. Non-Russian speakers consistently repeated false narratives spread by Kremlin media in the run-up to the 2017 German election. This phenomenon suggests that Moscow’s disinformation strategy penetrated deep into German society, ensnaring German voters irrespective of their language. While this alone does not demonstrate empirically the exact reach of the Kremlin’s disinformation campaign, it should be a clear signal that disinformation reached voters; in a world where media and narratives from a multitude of platforms shape public opinion, that signal should be cause for both concern and action.
It is, of course, paramount to both identify and weigh the evidence when formulating an opinion or response to claims that disinformation operations either occurred or had a consequential impact on an election. Unfortunately, part of the efficacy of disinformation campaigns is their nebulosity, the way the actors and actions responsible are spread out over thousands of individuals, servers, and web pages. But the increasing frequency of instances in which disinformation’s usage is proven beyond a reasonable doubt should signify both that warning signs do exist and that acting quickly is vital to stemming the threat before it spreads.
For many still, however, the ostrich’s is the preferred approach. Until governments, experts, and activists formulate a way to prove empirically that disinformation changed the votes of a certain number of people or altered the outcome of an election, individuals may always opt to ignore or deny the issue. Democracies, from the United States to Germany to Ukraine, will be threatened by the pernicious influence of disinformation until these individuals finally take their heads out of the sand.