Topics of the Week

FB spotted and took down accounts linked to influence ops based in Russia, Iran, Georgia, US, Mauritania and Myanmar

Russia sides with China over American COVID-19 allegations

Kremlin’s Current Narrative: Revisionism of WWII history

Good Old Soviet Joke

Moscow Olympic Village now serves as a hotel for foreign tourists. On the walls of the rooms, you can find a price list, information about the services, the city plan and in the bottom corner:


Policy & Research News

FB spotted and took down accounts linked to influence ops

Facebook announced on 5 May that in April it has taken down hundreds of social media accounts used to spread disinformation and wage influence operations.

The accounts, including Instagram and FB profiles, groups and pages, were part of 8 different networks, based in Russia, Iran, Georgia, US, Mauritania and Myanmar, working to “manipulate public debate” through the exploitation of “coordinated inauthentic behaviour in the context of domestic, non-state campaigns (CIB) and “coordinated inauthentic behaviour on behalf of a foreign or government actor (FGI).”

Those accounts were created before the pandemic but took advantage of the crisis to attract a broader audience to their content.

Of the 8 networks, two were targeting an international audience, and 6 were targeting domestic audiences.

In particular, the two targeting international audiences were respectively linked to Russia and Iran, posting in a number of languages, and operated by individuals based in Russia, in Donbas and Crimea, and by the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting Corporation.

The other networks were intended for a domestic audience and included structures based in Myanmar and Mauritania, two in Georgia, and two in the US. The latter was linked to the conspiracy theorist group QAnon and the anti-immigrant VDARE and Unz Review.

Of the 2 Georgian network targeting domestic audience, one was linked to the media company Espersona, that was already under the spotlight last year, due to the independent investigation of Georgian watchdog Myth Detector, and deeply analyzed by Georgian Atlantic Council’s DFRlab concluding it was linked to Georgian Dream party. The other network was linked to individuals associated with the United National Movement, a political party.

In Georgia, these kinds of operations further polarize public opinion and are particularly dangerous because they alter political perception and cause the formation of a pro-Kremlin élite, Andro Gotsiridze, cyber-security expert, explains.

The Global Engagement Center on effectiveness of debunking

The US State-Defense Global Engagement Center (GEC) recently released its fourth dispatch, this time focusing on debunking techniques and scope.

Debunking can be effective to a varying degree, depending on the target audience and the method used.

The science-based tips provided in the dispatch, explain that effective debunking is not equal to simple denying but have to encompass a tailored and clear argument. In fact, lies and truth are not inherently less or more effective in their spreading, but depending on the way the true, or false, message is conveyed, because, for instance, “a simple myth can be more cognitively attractive than an over-complicated correction”. Thus, debunking as a form of communication has its own style and rules: leave plenty of white space on the page; use boldface to emphasize key points; include vivid, memorable examples, comparisons, and metaphors when appropriate; write as you talk, and with proper grammar; use visuals when possible; if possible, tell a story, with drama. In addition to the debunking of a disinfo piece, it is crucial to expose its outlet as malign, so to discredit the malicious source preventing it to be perceived as credible further in the future.

US Developments

Russia sides with China over American COVID-19 allegations

Putin’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskov claimed that the United States is wrong for placing responsibility for the COVID-19 outbreak on China “without proof.” This follows several American statements, including those from U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and President Donald Trump, suggesting that the virus was accidentally released from a lab in Wuhan. No evidence of this has been presented, Trump stated that materials supporting this claim would be released in the near future. The Kremlin’s support of China highlights ever-improving Russia-China relations. Peskov described the blossoming relationship as one of “mutual understanding and mutual cooperation,” and emphasized the importance of China to Russia’s geopolitical interests. Russia’s ongoing pivot towards China, even in direct contradiction to American interests and rhetoric, should be of great concern to the United States.

Joint statement targeting Kremlin whitewashing of WWII history

The United States and several of her European allies issued a statement that directly contradicts the Kremlin’s World War II narratives just before Russia’s national “Victory Day” celebrations. According to an article published by the Atlantic Council, Putin prefers to portray the Soviet occupation of Central and Eastern Europe as systematic “liberation from Hitler.” The Kremlin also unequivocally denies Soviet cooperation with Nazis while simultaneously painting countries such as Poland and Ukraine as Nazi collaborators as a propaganda measure. The joint statement contradicts this by referring to “liberation” as communist occupation and by highlighting the Soviet mistreatment of countries stuck behind the Iron Curtain. This statement has been accompanied by Eastern and Central European efforts to rid themselves of their communist legacy and to recognize the import role Soviets played in instigating the war by collaborating with Hitler. This is enraging to the Kremlin, which has placed the USSR’s World War II victories at the heart of efforts to build a Russian national identity. This statement has sent a clear message that Putin’s convoluted representation of European history will not be tolerated by the United States and her allies.

Kremlin’s Current Narrative

The Kremlin’s revisionism of WWII history

In 2010, the Polish foreign ministry welcomed the Duma’s resolution that acknowledged that the Katyn massacre of some 22,000 Polish officers had been planned and ordered by the Soviets, commenting: “This gesture proves that there is no way back from the truth-based dialogue between Poland and Russia”. Ten years on, the Kremlin is showing that turning back from those initiatives is possible indeed. Last week, in the Russian city of Tver, two plaques commemorating the Stalinist executions of thousands of Polish prisoners of war were removed, following orders from local authorities who claimed that there was no evidence of the crimes reported in those inscriptions.

Amidst deteriorating relations between Russia and the West, the Kremlin has been periodically dedicated to obscuring or reinterpreting those historical events liable to cast a shadow on the Soviet past, in what has become an increasingly systematic effort involving all agencies of the state, including news outlets. In the lead up to May 9, that marked the 75th anniversary in Russia of Victory Day, the examples of manipulation of WWII history have multiplied on the Kremlin’s channels.

Resorting to the well-established practice of redirecting all accusations to the sender, the Kremlin’s propagandists invoke the need to oppose Western attempts to distort the events of WWII, of which Poland, the Baltic States and Ukraine would be the main advocates – it is argued. The most recurring Kremlin’s narratives condemn Europe’s desire to belittle Moscow’s contribution to the victory, dismiss as “outrageous” the claims that the USSR played a role in unleashing the war by invading Poland under the auspices of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, and point to the fact that the European states are only trying to cover their own complicity in the rise of Nazi Germany.

Some narratives stretch even farther, suggesting that Russia should categorically distance itself from the “confessions of repentance” made by Gorbachev and Yeltsin when for the first time the Kremlin denounced the secret protocol of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. The same outlets suggest that the West is reassessing the role of Moscow in WWII with the ultimate goal of depriving Russia of the status of victorious power and by extension strip it of its permanent seat at the UN Security Council. Finally, Izvestia reports that some in the West view the USSR as responsible for the Holocaust, and goes on to make a revolting prediction, arguing that by the 100th anniversary of WWII, the process of historical revisionism underway in the West will preserve the memory of the sole victims of Stalinism, while “the victims of Nazism will be systematically deleted from the political discourse as an inconvenient truth for the ideological heirs of the Munich agreement”.

Kremlin Watch Reading Suggestion

Dangerous Synergies: Countering Chinese and Russian Digital Influence OperationsBy Daniel Kliman, Andrea Kendall-Taylor, Kristine Lee, Joshua Fitt, and Carisa NietscheThis report published by the Center for a New American Security highlights the common objectives shared by Russia and China in the realm of digital interference. The digital information campaigns of both countries work in tandem to undermine liberal democratic norms and institutions, weaken cohesion among democratic allies, to reduce U.S. global influence, and to advance Russian and Chinese positions. Although there is no proof of explicit coordination between Moscow and China, these shared goals have led to a convergence of digital influence efforts.Russia and China magnify digital influence efforts through complementary approaches: Russian narratives are designed to undermine trust in institutions and elected governments, while Chinese narratives highlight the superiority of authoritarian systems. Both countries aim to legitimize norm change concerning the free flow of information, as they employ high-tech illiberalism at home but exploit the openness of other democracies’ digital environment. The coordination and synergy between Russia and China in the informational domain is likely to grow; the report outlines how the two are expected to deepen coordination, divide and conquer their spheres of influence, and leverage each other’s platforms to broaden reach.

In response, the U.S. and democratic allies must adopt a holistic approach to countering these digital information campaigns. They must bolster resilience to these campaigns through targeted open-source research, expanded digital literacy education for adults and a regulated social media landscape. Coordination between democracies must be expanded by stress-testing coordination structures such as the G7 Rapid Response Mechanism. Further, democracies must support independent diaspora media, subsidize fact-based content in developing markets and support innovative technological solutions such as a Defense Advanced Research Project Agency-organized hackathon to develop products aimed at protecting social media platforms from foreign influence.

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.