Topics of the Week

The Swedish government has produced a pamphlet instructing the nation’s 4.8 million households on actions to take in crisis situations, including military conflict

Report: France arrests two former intelligence officers on charges of allegedly spying for China

Facebook and Twitter have announced changes to their political advertisement policies in an effort to increase transparency

Study: During the 10 weeks before the Italian elections, disinformation operations were primarily spread by individuals directly linked to domestic political forces

Good Old Soviet Joke

Stalin loses his favourite pipe. In a few days, Lavrenti calls Stalin: “Have you found your pipe?”

“Yes,” replies Stalin. “I found it under the sofa.”

“This is impossible!” exclaims Beria. “Three people have already confessed to this crime!”

Policy & Research News

Swedish authorities issue war precautions pamphlet

The Swedish government has decided to instruct the country’s 4.8 million households on what to do in crisis situations, including military conflict. The 20-page pamphlet, illustrated with pictures of soldiers, military jets, and people fleeing their homes, was released by the Civil Contingencies Agency (MSB), almost thirty years after the last such instructions were handed out by Swedish authorities. “Although Sweden is safer than many other countries, there are still threats to our security and independence. Peace, freedom and democracy are the values that we must protect and reinforce on a daily basis,” the pamphlet reads.

The brochure provides information on a range of scenarios from extreme weather conditions and IT attacks to terrorist acts and military conflict, and informs the public on how to manage food, water, heat supplies, and communications if public services fail to function as normal. Being watchful of false information, which “may be used” to reduce public resilience, is one of the brochure’s key recommendations. Searching for information yourself, double-checking, and avoiding spreading unverified information are the three most effective measures for countering war-time propaganda and disinformation, according to the Swedish government.

Source: MSB

France arrests former intelligence officers on charges of spying for China

French authorities are probing into treason allegations by two former French intelligence officers who were reportedly spying for China. The two retired operatives, along with the wife of one of the suspects, were arrested in December, but the news was first circulated by French media last week. France’s Defense Ministry confirmed these reports in a statement on May 25, saying the two men were arrested on charges of treason for delivering sensitive information to an unidentified foreign power. The two operatives are accused of compromising secrets while still in service for France’s external intelligence agency – the DGSE – French Defense Minister Florence Parly was quoted as saying by Paris-based France 24. The Minister, however, did not specify whether the foreign power in question was China. The French government has also declined to give additional details on the scope and focus of their activities, but some sources have suggested the alleged spying took place two decades ago.

Czech Republic joins Hybrid CoE

The Czech Republic became the 16th member state to join the European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats (Hybrid CoE), a joint initiative of the European Union and NATO dedicated to better understanding and countering hybrid threats. The memorandum signing was held on May 21 in Helsinki, during the meeting of the Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš with his Finnish counterpart Juha Sipilä. “Through our membership in Hybrid CoE, besides the best practice exchange and common research, we would like to express our support to the idea of closer cooperation between EU and NATO countries and institutions,” said the Czech Ambassador to Finland, Ivan Jukl, who signed the document on behalf of the country. The other Hybrid CoE members are Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Italy, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Spain, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States.

US Developments

Facebook and Twitter announce changes to their political ad policies

Facebook and Twitter are introducing major changes to their political advertisement policies in an effort to increase transparency and thwart future attempts at electoral interference. Effective immediately, Facebook will be launching an advertising archive that will allow users to browse all political advertisements on the network and view statistics about who bought the ads and how much they paid. Similarly, Twitter recently launched its Political Campaigning Policy aimed at verifying the identity and location of any user interested in acquiring a political ad.

This is a welcome development ahead of the US midterm elections, which are expected to be a Russian target. US Senator Mike Warner (D-VA) praised the move as a “big step in the right direction”, but emphasized the need for Congress to pass the Honest Ads Act. Indeed, the midterms will be a litmus test for the efficacy of these new measures.

Mark Zuckerberg blasted by EU Parliament for evasive answers

Last Tuesday, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was questioned by members of the European Parliament regarding Facebook’s responsibility for information security and the privacy of its European users. While Zuckerberg again struck an apologetic tone, repeating many of the same lines he fed Congress in April, European lawmakers were distinctly unsatisfied with his performance at the meeting, and in particular ripped him for his vague and evasive answers to their questions.

Zuckerberg also faced criticism for refusing to attend a full committee meeting, like he did before the US Senate, which would have put him under a stronger spotlight. Under the current meeting format, Zuckerberg was able to pick his responses to questions without addressing every issue brought up. Although he promised that Facebook would compile a full write-up of answers within a few days, several Parliamentarians accused him of picking the format intentionally in order to “avoid our questions.”

The session covered topics from Facebook’s monopoly, to its data use plans, to its current internal investigation into the practices of thousands of third-party app developers. Zuckerberg acknowledged that Facebook would be ready for Europe’s new data policy reforms, which went into effect last Friday.

Former US ambassador to Russia releases new memoir

Michael McFaul, the US ambassador to Russia from 2012 to 2014, has released a new bookFrom Cold War to Hot Peace: An American Ambassador in Putin’s Russia – in which he recounts his trials in trying to implement the ‘Russia Reset’ strategy under President Obama. In the book, McFaul describes at length the intimidation tactics of the Russian security services against him and his family during his two-year stint as ambassador. He also discusses the failures of the Reset strategy and the downward spiral of US-Russia relations, as well as Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election, the similarities between Trump and Putin, and the threats that Russia poses to American democracy. Read a review of McFaul’s book here.

Predictably, the book was met with sardonic criticism from pro-Kremlin media such as RT, which published a hit piece titled “Yesterday’s man rages against the dying of the light” that accuses McFaul of a slew of sins including “selective idealism” and “a romanticized version of the American order”. “McFaul isn’t interested in just any form of democracy: he only considers those which mimic the American ‘liberal’ system legitimate. Thus, […] our hero can’t envisage a planet where the United States is not calling the shots everywhere.”

FBI: Russians hacked hundreds of thousands of routers in 50+ countries

The FBI has announced that Russian hackers have compromised hundreds of thousands of home and office routers in more than 50 countries, through which they could collect user information or shut down network traffic. The announcement followed a court order permitting the FBI to seize a website that the hackers planned to use to provide instructions to the routers. Although the seizure successfully interrupted malicious communications, the routers remain infected.

The hackers belong to the group called Fancy Bear (aka Sofacy or APT28) that answers to the Russian government, and which has been blamed for numerous high profile Russian hacks, including that of the DNC during the 2016 presidential campaign. The FBI is urging the owners of many brands of routers to turn them off and on again and download updates from the manufacturer to protect themselves.

The Kremlin’s Current Narrative

MH17. Certainly yes

It was clear from the very beginning that Russia was behind the downing of MH17. One of the strongest arguments proving Russia’s guilt was the launch of a denial campaign, one of the most massive disinformation initiatives ever to have taken place. Fake reports, numerous documentary movies and books, and disinformation material available in dozens of languages are just some of the attempts to create “alternative versions” according to which Russia is itself a victim of “global russophobia”.

Russia is so used to lying about MH17 that even faced by real evidence and results of the investigation, they just can’t accept that their crime was revealed. Russia “absolutely rejects” the Dutch and Australian accusations it’s responsible for the MH17 downing.

“Unless there is a comprehensive investigation, it will be very difficult for us to accept the conclusions of the commission that is working without us,” Putin said.

“Are you saying that was not a Russian army missile?” the moderator, Bloomberg Editor-in-Chief John Micklethwait, asked.

“Of course [it was not a Russian missile]. Certainly not,” Putin replied.

“Moscow neither accepts nor trusts the results of an international investigation into the MH17 crash as it was not allowed to take part in it, according to the Russian president’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov”.

“If our partners have decided to speculate on this case, when it comes to the most serious human tragedy, the death of hundreds of people, to achieve their political goals, I leave it on their conscience,” Lavrov said.

RT keeps reminding viewers of the report by Almaz-Antei, the Buk manufacturer, as if it were Russia’s strongest argument proving its innocence. The experiment, which involved shooting a Boeing with a Buk missile, was criticized and ridiculed by every respectful expert or journalist. But in the sad reality of disinformation, the only thing that matters is the number of times the lie is repeated. It is our moral obligation to make sure Russia does not evade punishment using this technique. 298 innocent victims ask us for that.

Kremlin Watch Reading Suggestion

Developing a disinformation detection system and sourcing it live:

The case study of the 2018 Italian elections

A recent study by the EU DisinfoLab analyses disinformation in the 10 weeks leading up to the 2018 Italian elections by utilising a monitoring system for detection of disinformation. 171 news stories were caught by the monitoring system, but only 54 were found to be false, misleading, or manipulated to project a specific message, primarily relating to Eurosceptic, anti-European, or anti-migrant messages. The 54 cases are divided into four subcategories: misleading content, false connection, manipulated content, and false content. The narratives projected by the misleading articles primarily concerned the Italian elections, the Italian economy, and alleged acts of violence committed by migrants. The false connections narratives concerned the Italian elections and the economy. The manipulated content cases principally had anti-EU and anti-migrant narratives, and the false content also regarded an anti-EU narrative. Across the 10 weeks, the content shifted from initial anti-European sentiments towards issues relating to illegal immigration, which continued and intensified throughout February and March. The study finds that the primary means of spreading disinformation in Italy is through presenting content such that the audience is led to interpret it in a specific, predefined way.

It also finds that during the period leading up to the 2018 Italian elections, disinformation operations were primarily spread by individuals who were directly linked to political forces involved in the elections. It is therefore hard to provide evidence of a foreign actor meddling on behalf of any actor in the elections. Regarding social media, the preferred platform for disinformation and misinformation in Italy is Facebook, which is viewed as a trustworthy source of information by the public. However, due to the lack of access to Facebook’s data, the authors were not able to track how disinformation spread or which communities were involved.

Source: EUDisinfoLab

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.