Topics of the Week
The European Commission frustrated at Facebook for not sharing enough data.
U.S. Cyber Command Disrupted Internet Access of Russian Troll Factory for a Day During the 2018 Midterms.
Kremlin’s Current Narrative: Russian media are victims of the West!
Canada’s Standing Committee on National Defence recommends further sanctions against Russia and to support resistance to hybrid attacks in Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia.
Good Old Soviet Joke
At an international symposium, the FBI, the CIA and the KGB are arguing who is better at finding criminals. They decide that everyone will undergo a test. They must find a rabbit in the forest.
First, the CIA places informers in the forest. They are tapping all the animals and interrogating the plants. After three months of strenuous investigation they conclude that the rabbit does not exist.
FBI comes second. After two weeks of unsuccessful investigation, they burn the forest down. Everything in the forest is dead, including the rabbit. The rabbit resisted, so he had it coming anyway.
Finally, it is KGB’s turn. They go out into the woods and after two hours, they return with a beaten-up bear that says resignedly: “I am a rabbit. My mother and father were rabbits.”
Policy & Research News
The European Commission frustrated at Facebook for not sharing data
According to a second monthly review released by the European Commission (EC), Facebook has been withholding data about its anti-disinformation efforts. Along with Twitter and Google, Facebook had signed up to a voluntary code of conduct in an effort to improve its track record on containing disinformation ahead of the upcoming European elections. The code of conduct would include mitigating disinformation through disrupting revenue for accounts spreading misinformation, aggressively working against fake accounts and bots, elevating prominent and reliable news sources, and increasing transparency regarding the funding of political ads. However, despite promises, the new EC report shows frustration at Facebook’s inability to provide hard numbers that would support them. Even worse, it has been revealed that Facebook has fact-checking partners in only 8 states, covering 7 languages. This sort of lack of appropriate resources provides clues as to why Facebook might not be able or willing to reveal how much of the voluntary code of conduct it has implemented so far.
Similarities and differences between Russian and Chinese influence
The Center for American Progress published a recent brief titled “Understanding and Combating Russian and Chinese Influence Operations”. The paper begins by outlining the three main factors that have given foreign influence operations a “comeback” – the return of the great power struggles between the U.S., Russia and China; the rise of nationalism and authoritarianism which gives an ideological basis for this competition; and the advent of digital media which has made spreading wrongful information much easier.
The core conclusion is that unlike China (which seeks to compete with the U.S. on a basis of perceived peer-to-peer legitimacy), Russia seeks to assert its position by disrupting the international order and creating chaos that will allow it to improve its relative position. The existence of strong democracies is seen as a threat to the Putin regime – regime survival is identified as the main motivation for these operations. The report also identifies four main tools that Russia uses in its foreign influence operations: online disinformation campaigns, economic dominance through Kremlin-affiliated oligarchs; financially supporting fringe political movements; and extrajudicial killings and attacks. Russia’s approach is described as more insecure, short term, risky and cost-conscious compared to China’s, whose rising international position is more stable.
How fringe alternatives become big-business in the Czech Republic
Ondrej Gersl is in the center of an article published by .coda last week. A by now infamous figure in the Czech political space, Gersl is the founder of AC24. This alternative news site often republishes Sputnik and RT articles, translated into Czech. The European Values Think-tank has tracked AC24 before, since it is one of the most popular disinformative platforms, calling its tactics into question and warning of its negative effects on the European wide political situation.
Filip Brokeš, the author of “How to build a disinformation business,” argues that this budding business can be considered instrumental in the lead up to the 2019 European elections. In an interview with Gersl, Brokeš found a relatively apolitical man with an eye for profits and sensation, rather than clear political views or goals. Frighteningly, Gersl admits his news agency isn’t the most trustworthy or factual but maintains that it does offer a voice to underrepresented groups and alternative stories.
Originally, after its founding in 2011, AC24 was listening to student movements and the cries of the protestors partaking in the Arab Springs. But, more recently, as European Values has noted, this has changed to explicitly partisan messaging influenced by the narratives of the Kremlin. From anti-vaccination stories to conspiracy theories surrounding Western NGOs and politicians, the quality and quantity have gone down in favour of soundbites. Sadly, this has brought growing profits to AC24, clearly solidifying the business man’s resolve to continue growing his media industry presence.
Just Security: The seven-step program to fighting disinformation
In a landmark strategy release by the US online forum Just Security, a seven-step program is laid out to proactively defend against the next wave of “social media and internet-based psychological operations.” The steps do not claim to solve the problem but hope to lay out clear guidelines for moving towards effective action. A big focus is on the cessation of infighting because of partisan divides within the Western context. The steps are as follows:
- Move past blame, and look ahead to solutions
- Define disinformation as a cybersecurity issue, not a content problem
- Specify protections for the rights to free expression and privacy
- Create multi-stakeholder mechanisms for sharing threat information effectively
- Establish a fiduciary framework to promote platform ethics and user well-being
- Establish an oversight body (or bodies) to identify disinformation problems and strategic solutions
- Backstop all this with civil and criminal deterrence strategies
The program is more thoroughly described in the article published this week, showing the flow and build from one step to the next.
U.S. Cyber Command disrupted internet access of Russian troll factory
U.S. cyber command blocked internet access to the Russian Internet Research Agency, and an individual interviewed on the condition of anonymity described them as basically shutting down the Internet Research Agency for a day. This operation marks the second known major action undertaken by Cyber Command. The disruption occurred on a day right after Americans went to the polls, to prevent Russians from mounting a disinformation campaign that cast doubt on the election results. Prior to this, operation Cyber Command, starting in last October, messaged Russian hackers, letting them know that not only their online handles but also their real names were known and that they should stop interfering in US affairs. This previous operation caused such a panic that the Internet Research Agency launched an international investigation to discover what they thought were insiders leaking personal information. These two operations mark the first major tests of Cybercoms strategy of persistent engagement—continually confronting the adversary and sharing information with partners.
The 2020 Democratic candidates and the new information battleground
A significant disinformation campaign targeting the Democratic presidential candidates for the 2020 election is underway, and signs indicate that a broad spectrum of the activity is driven by state actors such as Russia and Iran. A POLITICO review of data extracted from Twitter as well as research by data scientists and campaign strategists has indicated that the primary goal of the campaign is to undermine candidates through the dissemination of memes, hashtags, and misinformation. However, a closer look at the posts indicates a broader effort to sow discord within the Democratic party and further American political polarization. Recent posts that have received widespread dissemination have contained racially motivated and polarization driven memes and messaging pertaining to the four Democratic candidates: Beto O’Rourke, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Kamala Harris.
While it is difficult to pinpoint the information to one specific source, there are clear signs that the activity is a coordinated effort that bears similarities to the computational propaganda launched by Russian trolls designed to elevate Donald Trump in 2016. An analysis conducted by Guardians.ai found out that a cluster of around 200 accounts has been driving the conversation over the candidates on Twitter for a recent 30 day period. A separate Guardians.ai study found that the 200 suspicious accounts either generated or were mentioned in over 140 million tweets over the past year. Many of these 200 accounts are believed to be sophisticated accounts operated by individuals trying to influence the course of political conversations on issues. In addition to the 200 accounts, tens of thousands of affiliated “bot” accounts then amplify the content of the core 200 accounts through mentions and retweets. Alex Kellner, manager of a top digital firm for Hillary Clintons 2016 campaign, has said that the disinformation infrastructure Americans saw in 2016 remains in full force and will only continue to get worse.
Representative Stefanik introduces the Vladimir Putin Transparency Act
Representatives Elise Stefanik and Val Denning’s, recently introduced the Vladimir Putin Transparency Act to the House of Representatives, which will require U.S. intelligence to collect and submit a report to Congress detailing Putin’s and his allies financial assets and secretive networks. Congresswoman Stefanik said, “ “Putin and his political allies seek to weaken democracies worldwide by consolidating their political control through unethical means… I am proud to cosponsor this bill which aims to identify Putin and his allies for who they are: nefarious political actors undermining democracies.” Stefanik and Denning’s are notable for having previously introduced the bipartisan Defend Against Russian Disinformation Act, which strengthened the American response to Russian interference in their elections.
The Kremlin’s Current Narrative
Russia’s Media: “Don’t Look at Us, We Are the Victims Here.”
As geopolitical relations between the U.S. and the Russian Federation continue to deteriorate, the media serving the Putin regime has stepped to an all-new low, accusing all of the western world of engaging in a propaganda war against Russia in a further effort to “demonize Russia.” Recently, Russia’s media accused the United States of operating a “trojan horse” strategy to influence a “fifth column” allegedly existing in Russia and working for “the enemy.” In addition, Russian media outlets have gone on to accuse western press sources of publishing a “parade of fakes” to commemorate the one year mark since the Skripal poisonings.
To assume that the Russian media could be a source of any objective truth is ludicrous; rather, the goal of Putin’s informational henchmen is to further pervert reality, distorting the public’s opinion of Western governance and making it extremely difficult for any foreign entities to operate in Russia. The same tactics are being utilized further abroad; indeed, Russian media outlets continue to paint the humanitarian efforts to alleviate the Venezuelan crisis as mere propaganda to “dehumanize the oppressor.” Likewise, further U.S. sanctions against Russia have been labelled a “Hollywood show” by Russian media, once again proving that the Putin regime wishes to internationally project itself as the infallible victim of alleged Western hegemony. It is important to remember that such tactics merely fall into the FSB playbook of promoting a multi-polar world order that venerates such forces as Russia and destroys global public confidence in democracy and genuine freedoms.
Kremlin Watch Reading Suggestion
Responding to Russian aggression against Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia in the Black Sea region
In December 2018, Canada’s House of Commons Standing Committee on National Defence presented a report based on its studies of regional geopolitical and military interests in the context of Russian hostility and aggression. With a focus on Russia’s destabilising actions in Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia, the Committee presented its findings from meetings with Ambassadors from each of these countries as well as officials from the Parliament of Ukraine (Verkhovna Rada) and experts from the Atlantic Council. It described the complex and brutal nature of Russia’s ongoing military conflict against Ukraine, providing a comprehensive account of atrocities surrounding Russia’s involvement in eastern Ukraine since 2014, as well as the illegal annexation of Crimea, illegal occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 2008, and continued military activities along NATO’s eastern flank. The Committee emphasised that Russia has been an aggressive and revisionist military power for over a decade, stressing that the matter is of great concern not only to Canada but to the international community.
The Committee provided a list of 13 recommendations for the Government of Canada, centred around the continuation of Canada’s support for Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova. Most notably, it encouraged the Government of Canada to strengthen parliamentary dialogue with the three states, support them in resistance to potential hybrid warfare attacks, continue to provide military training to Ukrainian Armed Forces, consider further sanctions against Russia in the financial and energy sectors, and support the aspirations of Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia to join the NATO alliance in due course.
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.