Disinformation Campaigns

By Lewis Ogden – Fake News Website – Social Media / Flickr

The West is planning to split the Russian society and divide the Russian territories; France’s President Emmanuel Macron is a mouthpiece of the Rothschilds; The European Union is on the verge of collapse. These are only a few examples for false news and conspiracy theories spread by actors of the pro-Kremlin disinformation campaigns which are published in weekly disinformation reviews by EUvsDisinfo, the flagship project of the European External Action Service’s East StratCom Task Force. The European Parliamentary Research Service regards disinformation as an increasingly visible tool aiming to undermine Western democracies. Russia has been suspected to be behind multiple disinformation campaigns which the Kremlin denies.

An example for the Kremlin’s use of false information is the conspiracy theory claiming in the 1990s that the U.S. military created HIV as a biological weapon illustrates that this is not a recent phenomenon.  However, social media and personalization tools have accelerated the dissemination of verifiably false or misleading information which non-state and state actors can use to intentionally deceive the public and cause public harm, what the European Parliamentary Research Service officially defines as “disinformation”. 

Pro-Kremlin disinformation campaigns aim to polarize and create political and social conflicts and shift policies in target countries to weaken the Trans-Atlantic alliance and the European project. These campaigns explicitly manipulate human emotions and target confusion and/or fear, trigger disgust, or aim to create cynicism and apathy based on collected information about existing divisions and societal weaknesses. 

Since the beginning of the hybrid war against Ukraine, the Kremlin has been targeting more or less successfully Western elections. Both the Centre for American Progress  and European Parliament’s Policy Department for Citizens’ Rights and Constitutional Affairs offer a detailed analysis of the Kremlin’s interference into the Brexit referendum, the United States presidential election campaign in 2016, German national elections and the French presidential elections in 2017, last year’s Swedish general elections, and this year’s European Parliament elections

Plenary session – Opening of the sitting

By European Parliament – Constitution of the 9th legislature of the European Parliament / Flickr

Let us take a closer look at Russia’s interference into this year’s European parliamentary elections. Despite the absence of a full-scale attack, the European Union has registered a significant amount of disinformation campaigns trying to weaken the EU’s credibility and reduce the voter turnout. According to the New York Times, a network of websites and social media accounts associated with Russia or far right groups spread disinformation and conspiracy theories. Conspiracy theories, such as that the Notre-Dame fire was the work of Islamic terrorists, a spy agency or a secret elite illustrate the difficulty of distinguishing the interference of the Kremlin from copy cats in the far-right or real political debate. Furthermore, there exists no precise estimates on the proportion of disinformation circulating in the European Union originating either from foreign actors or created on European territory by actors such as political parties, independent trolls or conspiracy theorists. However, the Kremlin’s tactics have been most researched.

Although Germany’s Alternative for Germany (AfD) benefits from the support of official and unofficial Russian media channels, Russia also supported their opponents, the left-wing fascists. This shows Russia’s main intention, which is to widen political divisions. Their main tactics are the propagation of disinformation narratives, siding with and supporting a particular candidate or party, as well as creating chaos and confusion by promoting contradictory narratives. In total, disinformation during the European elections may have reached 241 million Europeans and originated from 6,700 Russian-associated automated bots and individuals posting content. Moreover, Russian propaganda is regarded as the main source of disinformation in Europe, with cases having doubled from 434 cases in 2018 to 998 cases since January 2019, according to the European Parliament. It is important to add that The European Parliament’s Policy Department for Citizens’ Rights and Constitutional Affairs states “that an exact causal correlation between disinformation and the political opinion and voting behavior of individuals is not yet scientifically proven”. 

Who exactly is behind Russia’s advanced network of web bots and trolls? Also called the Saint Petersburg Troll factory, the Internet Research Agency (IRA) has been a central part of the Kremlin’s disinformation campaigns since 2013. According to EUvsDisinfo, the IRA focuses on complex election influence operations, and has not only been expanding internally, but has also created a network of popular Russian-language media outlets reaching millions of readers every month. 

Another important player in the Russian media ecosystem is News Front, a Russian company which produces its own disinformation in several languages, and neither do they shy away from spreading Antisemitic and Nazi conspiracy theories. Most of their English content originates from other pro-Kremlin sites such as South Front. In an interview with the TIME in 2015, Margarita Simonyan, the chief editor of RT said that “No one shows objective reality”. In consequence, Russia’s media seem to dismiss objective reporting and to rather present multiple alternative perspectives of the world. 

Vladimir Putin – Visit to Russia Today television channel / Wikimedia Commons

How is the European Union responding to this (in)visible threat to debate culture? In a recent press release, the European Parliament announced the establishment of the East StratCom Task Force as a permanent structure, initially set up in 2015 in the European External Action Service (EEAS), and a higher budget. Furthermore, Facebook, Google, Twitter, Mozilla and Firefox signed the European Code of Conduct, “Tackling online disinformation: a European approach”, as part of the voluntary agreement on self-regulatory standards. Lastly, the European Commission released an action plan against disinformation in 2018. This shows the crucial role of social media and media corporations in the active fight against disinformation and in the political debate. Facebook, for example, works together with organizations like CORRECTIV, a Berlin-based investigative journalism startup, which  fact-checks and screens material originating from Facebook. 

By Jason Howie – Social Media apps / Flickr 

The Kremlin is dismissing any accusations and using tactics of distraction, moral relativism and whataboutism, meaning they’re attempting to discredit the opponent’s position by accusing them of hypocrisy, usually without any evidence. This fits perfectly into the Kremlin’s worldview: Russia is innocent, the enemy is the West, and the five strategies of a disinformation war: to dismiss, distort, distract, dismay and divide. 

While the European Union is taking further steps in order to limit the impact of disinformation campaigns, Russian tactics are “evolving as quickly as the measures adopted by states and online platforms”. Protecting the Western debate culture thus becomes a long-term challenge. Future democratic processes such as the 2020 U.S. elections will show if those efforts manage to successfully tackle the threat of disinformation.

Anastasia Quindt