Social media platforms central as EU-Russia standoff continues.

New UK intelligence report offers insights into AI and disinformation.

The FBI adds Yevgeniy Prigozhin to their Ten Most Wanted List.

Strike Shakes Status Quo: Kremlin questions US actions in Syria.

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Policy & Research News

Social media platforms central as EU-Russia standoff continues

On February 23rd, the US-headquartered social media platform Twitter announced that it has removed 100 Russian government-linked accounts for involvement in state-sanctioned information operations. Accounts were reportedly affiliated with the Internet Research Agency and allegedly propagated disinformation intended to undermine the European Union and NATO. In response, Russia’s state communications regulator, Roskomnadzordemanded an explanation from executives and Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova called Twitter a “tool of global digital diktat in the hands of the Western establishment.” On March 1, Roskomnadzor also issued an additional statement in which it accused Twitter of violating Russian law. The statement alleges that Twitter has failed to remove nearly 3000 prohibited posts since 2017.

This is the latest public confrontation between the Russian government and foreign social media companies. In December 2020, the Duma passed bills that make it possible to fine platforms that fail to remove sensitive content and limit access to US-headquartered operators who “discriminate” against Russian media sources. Tensions have become particularly potent following Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s return to Russia in January 2021. Navalny’s supporters regularly use social media platforms to organise protests and events. In February 2021 Roskomnadzor, therefore, issued a warning, asking the “management of internet platforms to refrain from disseminating calls for participation in unauthorised public events.”

Meanwhile, the EU continues to work closely with social media companies to defend the bloc against disinformation. On February 22, Vice President of the European Commission for Values and Transparency Věra Jourová engaged with TikTok, Google, Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter. The discussion addressed coordination of defensive measures against disinformation, with specific emphasis on disinformation related to COVID-19. Jourová took the opportunity to emphasise that “online platforms need to take responsibility to prevent harmful and dangerous disinformation, both domestic and foreign.” Companies that have signed the EU’s Code of Practice on Disinformation – such as Twitter – are committed to self-regulating their platforms.

New UK intelligence report offers insights into AI and disinformation

The United Kingdom’s GCHQ has released a report into the ethics of Artificial Intelligence (AI) use in British intelligence and security, titled ‘Ethics of AI: Pioneering a New National Security’. The report, published last week, also contains remarkable insights into the overlap between AI and disinformation – in particular how AI can be used to both enable and defend against subversion by hostile foreign governments.

According to the report, AI can be used by hostile actors to automate the production of false and misleading content designed to undermine public debate. This can include creating “deepfake” audio and video material as well as injecting fake personas into debates with AI chatbots. The report also observes that AI has been deployed to interfere with content curation algorithms, and can be used to target individual user profiles with tailored information to enable personalised political targeting.

While AI can be a weapon in the propagandists’ arsenal, the GCHQ report also outlines ways in which AI can be used to detect and defend against disinformation. Notably, AI can assist fact-checking through validation against reliable sources. Additionally, even as deepfakes become more widespread, the technology to detect them is also improving. Furthermore, AI can assist GCHQ in identifying the “troll factories” generating misinformation in the first place in order to counteract and hold them accountable. 

The GCHQ report is intended to precede the release of the UK government’s Integrated Review of defence, security, development, and foreign policy, expected later this Spring. While the review, announced after the December 2019 election, was initially expected in August 2020, uncertainty over post-Brexit finances has delayed its publication.

US Developments

The FBI Adds Yevgeniy Prigozhin to their Ten Most Wanted List

Yevgeniy Prigozhin has been placed on the FBI’s ten most wanted list for defrauding the United States. In addition, they have offered a $250,000 reward for any information leading to his arrest. He was one of 13 Russians added to the FBI’s wanted list “for their alleged involvement in a conspiracy the United States by impairing, obstructing, and defeating the lawful functions of the Federal Election Commission, the United States Department of Justice, and the United States Department of State.” While Prigozhin has been indicted by US Courts and a warrant was issued for his arrest in February 2018, the FBI confirmed to RFE/RL that this is the first time they’ve offered a reward for Prigozhin.

The Russian Businessman was dubbed “Putin’s Chef” by the media due to his ownership of catering businesses that have hosted dinners attended by Vladimir Putin, and which received hefty government contracts. According to an investigation by Bellingcat, the Insider and Der Spiegel, Prigozhin’s operations “are tightly integrated with Russia’s Defense Ministry and its intelligence arm, the GRU.” Previously, he and his companies were sanctioned by the US Treasury department in 201620172018 for his involvement in the conflict in Ukraine, and in 2019 for his involvement in influencing the 2018 US Midterm elections; he was the target of three separate bills introduced in the US Congress (A House and Senate Resolution proposed during the 116th Congress, and a Senate resolution proposed in the 117th Congress). Finally, he has allegedly financed the Internet Research Agency, the troll farm which attempted to influence the 2016 Presidential Elections. His latest attempt of foreign influence involved a two-day conference in Berlin, held in January 2021, targeted at economic and environmental issues affecting the Baltic countries, Poland and Germany. The event, The Baltic Sea Region Strategic Dialogue, was organized by two organizations with close ties to the Prigozhin-run Association for Free Research and International Cooperation (AFRIC).

The US is not the only country to take action against Prigozhin: in October of 2020, the EU and UK sanctioned Prigozhin over his “close links, including financially,” to the Wagner Group private military company, the Russian paramilitary group that has allegedly taken part in conflicts such as the Syrian Civil War and the War in Donbas. Prigozhin’s involvement with the Wagner Group was previously investigated by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

Kremlin’s Current Narrative

Strike Shakes Status Quo: Kremlin Questions US Actions in Syria

The US President Joe Biden has ordered and carried out the first military action under his administration. US airstrikes targeted facilities used by pro-Iranian forces in Eastern Syria, with the Pentagon press secretary, John Kirby, calling the bombing “proportionate” and “defensive.” The Kremlin and the Russian state-backed press showed immediate interest.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov commented, “we are naturally closely monitoring the situation on the ground,” stressing that Russia was in “permanent contact with Syrian colleagues.” Meanwhile, other Russian officials took a more confrontational approach to the strikes.

Konstantin Kosachev, the head of the Federation Council Committee on Foreign Affairs, accused the US of ignoring the principles of international law and said that the strike could have a negative impact on the fate of a US-Iran nuclear deal. Kosachev was joined by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov who complained about a lack of notice from the US military while questioning US intentions.

Lavrov said the Russian military was warned four or five minutes before the strike, commenting that “such warnings are of little use when the strike is basically carried out at that moment.” Military matters aside, Lavrov also argued that the US are present on Syrian territory illegally, before revealing that sources had told him that the US have made a decision to never leave Syria. Supporting these narratives, Russian state-backed media produced a great deal of negative coverage.

One RT headline read, “the war machine is back,” while another suggested a mere continuation of US policy, leading with, “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss, and the boss before that.” On the other hand, Sputnik opted to highlight those who were unhappy with US involvement in Syria. Sputnik suggested that Iraq’s Defence Ministry had denied Pentagon claims that it had collaborated with the US while quoting the Syrian Foreign Ministry, who labelled the US airstrike a “cowardly act.”

With Syria considered a foreign policy success by many in the Kremlin, it is of no surprise that a US strike in the region has drawn fire from Russian officials and press; both are keen to depict Russian influence in the region as steady and growing.

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.