TOPICS OF THIS WEEK
France to establish a new agency to combat disinformation.
PR agency Fazze offered money to French and German influencers to spread disinformation about the Pfizer vaccine.
Biden-Putin Summit in Geneva: Human rights violations and mounting cyberattacks.
Russian state channels claim the West is so charmed by Putin post-Summit that they want to see him “as the next US President.”
Good Old Soviet Joke
This is Armenian Radio; our listeners asked us: “Why did butter disappear from the stores’ shelves?”
We’re answering: “It all has melted under the sun of the Soviet Constitution.”
Policy & Research News
France to establish a new agency to combat disinformation
On Wednesday, June 2nd, the General Secretariat for Defense and National Security (SGDSN) announced that it would set up a new internal agency with the aim of tackling disinformation from hostile state actors. Stéphane Bouillon, the Secretary-General of SGDSN, stated during a hearing before the Defense Committee at the French National Assembly, that the new agency is a response to attempts by foreign states to undermine and destabilise France politically.
The National Agency for the Fight Against Manipulations of Information will commence its mission from September 2021 with an initial staffing size of 60. The agency will utilize open-source intelligence to “unearth bots and trolls seeking to shape the political debate in France”. Stéphane Bouillon declared during the hearing that “it is not a question of correcting or restoring the truth, but of being able to detect attacks when they come from abroad, to be able to characterize them and in a certain way”.
The agency will focus its attention on the political debate surrounding upcoming elections, starting with the German general election in September, from which the agency hopes to “learn from”, according to Mr Bouillon. However, the key focus will be on next year’s French Presidential elections, in which Macron is expecting a fierce challenge from Marine Le Pen. During the 2017 Presidential elections, there was a coordinated campaign to undermine Macron in favour of Marine Le Pen. An army of fake social media accounts, many of which originated in Russia and Russian state TV such as Sputnik and RT, were the key players in disseminating rumours and fake news surrounding Macron and his campaign. Given that recent government publications have noted “strategic intimidation developed by Russia” including the “manipulation of information” as well as Russian “instruments of disinformation and propaganda” which aim to “increase internal tensions in the targeted society, to influence it and to foster political paralysis”, it comes as no surprise that the Macron administration is taking such actions.
Black PR to destroy Pfizer reputation
PR agency Fazze offered money to several French and German bloggers and Youtubers to spread disinformation about the vaccine Pfizer/BioNTech. For example, Léo Grasset and Mirko Drotschmann got an offer for the colossal amount of money in exchange for them spreading doubts about the western vaccine. Bloggers had been offered up to €2,050 to publish the post or video. Influencers received clear instructions. They were supposed to claim that media ignore Pfizer being linked to a high death tool and talk about the allegedly leaked report containing data supporting these accusations. Based on the received brief, they were asked to act as the topic is their passion, that it is their independent view and avoid mentioning that it is sponsored by the third party.
Black PR is a practice that emerged in the 1990s in Russia and its aim is to ruin reputations through dishonest public relations tactics and court battles. Political operators act on behalf of state actors to achieve the country´s goals. Although it is not proven yet, well-supported suspicions exist that it is Kremlin´s work. First, it is Russian style dated to the Soviet era to use disinformation to sow division among people. According to Facebook´s report from May 2021, Russia is the biggest disinformation source with campaigns detected in more than 50 countries. Besides, according to the French security official, Moscow is one of the main suspects in the case because incriminated e-mails were similar to those from campaigns run by IRA which is a Russian firm responsible for Kremlin´s interference in the 2016 US election. Third, French media highlighted similarities, e.g. resembling data, between Fazze´s messages and the Twitter account of Sputnik V which spread misinformation about Western-made vaccines.
Most importantly, Agency Fazze claimed on its website to be based in London but provided address is to a beauty salon. Le Monde found out that the agency is not registered in the UK and its mailbox leads to the Virgin Islands. Furthermore, received e-mails from the Head of Sales from Fazze were traced to Moscow. According to LinkedIn, the management of Fazze is from Moscow and worked for an agency founded by a Russian entrepreneur. Finally, according to RFE/RL investigation, the whole network of Russian marketing companies is behind this disinformation campaign leading to Yulia Serebryanskaya, political campaigner and event planner for the United Russia party.
Meanwhile, the French counterintelligence service has started the investigation.
President Biden and President Putin hold first summit in Geneva
For the first time since taking office in January, US President Joe Biden met with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, in Geneva, Switzerland on June 16.
In one of the only tangible agreements reached at the meeting, the leaders decided to reinstate their ambassadors. The two diplomats were recalled after bilateral tensions escalated in mid-April with the Biden administration’s decision to leverage a new round of sanctions against Russia for cyber-attacks and election interference.
Critics of the talks found fault with the optics of holding a summit at all, arguing that Biden’s meeting could serve to elevate Putin’s image. However, the Biden administration took steps to avoid this misconception, in particular by insisting on separate press conferences for each leader. Analysts claim this allowed Biden to avoid the risk, present in a joint press conference, of elevating his authoritarian counterpart.
Human rights violations and mounting cyberattacks emerged as foci in yesterday’s discussion
At the summit, Biden criticized Putin’s recent human rights violations, including the poisoning and unlawful imprisonment of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, the jailing of 2 US marines, and the crackdown on Russia’s political opposition––issues which Putin didn’t budge on.
Additionally, cybersecurity emerged as a central focus of discussion, with Putin vehemently denying Russia’s central role in many of the recent cyberattacks against the US. Russian-based cybercriminals have ramped up their activities in the US, including attacks targeting critical infrastructure. Most recently, a cyber attack shut down the largest meat processor in the US on June 2.
While few bilateral agreements were reached at the summit, Putin and Biden did decide to create a task force to combat cybercrime. In Biden’s words, this would entail appointing cybersecurity experts who would work towards “specific understandings about what’s off-limits and follow up on specific [cyber incidents]” originating in either country.
Other topics of discussion included Ukraine, with Biden reiterating his commitment to support Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty. In regards to nuclear arms reduction, Biden and Putin also agreed to hold talks on the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which was recently extended in February.
Kremlin’s Current Narrative
Russian state channels claim the West is so charmed by Putin post-Summit that they want to see him “as the next US President”
The U.S.-Russia summit which took place in Geneva this week was the first one since 2018 and it lasted 4.5 hours. Overall, Russian state channels have provided quite optimistic yet divisive coverage of the Summit. While TASS described the Summit as “promising”, RIA labelled it as a “Summit of deceived American hopes”.
Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Ryabkov gave an interview to Kommersant saying that in recent years Russia has experienced “growing doubts about Washington’s readiness, doctrinally and conceptually, to adhere to the principle of avoiding a nuclear war” and considers the reaffirmation of this approach as a result of the summit “a significant achievement”.
RT has published an op-ed by a Serbian-American journalist Nebojsa Malic who claims that “Parsing Biden’s words [from the solo press conference following the summit] is a thankless task because whatever he actually says, his White House handlers and the compliant media will quickly ‘clarify’ if it clashes with their narrative.” The article also touches upon one of the most popular narratives these days on Russian state media and Twitter claiming that Putin had more time and interaction with journalists than Biden. Interestingly enough, this has been exploited against Biden, particularly on social media, both in the US and Russia.
Another widely circulating narrative was that Biden “wouldn’t be able to handle a dual press conference”. In his op-ed, Malic says, “He also revealed that he watched Putin’s presser at least in part, indirectly confirming that scheduling was not why he declined a customary joint appearance.” Overall, Russian state channels have put quite an emphasis on the “success” of Putin’s interview to NBC. RIA even did a whole compilation of angry American internet users who liked it so much they wanted to see Putin as “the next US President”.
In his televised comments, President Putin also shut the Russian state channels’ long-term claims about President Biden having dementia. Putin defended President Biden’s use of note cards during the Summit, saying that “We all do that”. He added, “Biden’s a professional, you have to be very attentive with him so as not to miss anything. He doesn’t let anything get by, I assure you”.
Kremlin Watch is a strategic program of the European Values Center for Security Policy, which aims to expose and confront instruments of Russian influence and disinformation operations focused against the liberal-democratic system.