Ingo Mannteufel, DW

The Russian propaganda machine has been targeting Germany for some time now. The aim of this disinformation is to unnerve society. But we can defend ourselves against it, Ingo Mannteufel wrote for Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

Do you belong to those Germans who want to move to Crimea because the situation in Germany has become so difficult? No? But I am sure you know someone among your friends who is planning to do so right now. Neither? That is strange. At the end of January, the official Russian government paper “Rossijskaja gazeta” published a report on its website under the headline “German Politician: More and more German citizens think about emigrating to Crimea” which is about the allegedly widespread desire to emigrate.

You could either laugh about this nonsense or consider it simply bad journalism. This, however, would be wrong. Those who are dealing with Russian media come to another conclusion: Through the media it controls the Kremlin uses information as an instrument of an aggressive foreign policy. This is called “hybrid warfare”. At first, these methods of targeted disinformation and manipulation of public opinion were used in Russia to secure President Vladimir Putin’s power. In the conflict in Ukraine, Russian propaganda reached a new level: By means of distortions, half-truths, and outright cock-and-bull stories the Ukrainians are all denigrated as fascists.

For some time now, Germany has been in the focus of disinformation; this might be due to the fact that Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel managed to keep the EU united with respect to European sanctions against Moscow. The likely calculation is: If Merkel topples because of the refugee crisis and Germany and Europe are weakened, the alliance in favor of sanctions against Russia will disintegrate.

Concepts for the manipulation of public opinion or psychological warfare have existed for decades. Nevertheless, in the 1990s, Russian military and secret service analysts looked intensively into information war. It is about the targeted use of information to distort the perception of reality and to provoke a desired reaction with the recipient of the disinformation: In Russian text books, these kinds of techniques are called “reflexive control.”

In Russia, “poli-technocrats,” which is what political advisors and “spin doctors” there are called, do exactly that. A whole set of methods and techniques has emerged which shows the impact in the Russian information space controlled by the Kremlin: The deliberate distortion of the perception of reality has caused a climate of fear and of menace in large parts of the Russian society. The media image of a hostile West is always compared with the paternalistic President Putin to whom there is no alternative. The high approval rates for Putin in Russia have to be seen in light of this neo-imperialistic fortress mentality. They are proof of the propaganda success and are much less expression of the real support for the Russian president and his policy.

Outside of Russia, the propaganda is aimed at increasing fears and destabilizing societies. A first step on the path towards influencing public opinion is the maximum elevation of news so that the recipient is no longer able to cope with the large number of mostly unconfirmed, frightening, and contradictory information: Loss of orientation and coherence are a consequence of this information noise.

Besides the official media – in Russia it is the TV stations controlled by the Kremlin, abroad there are Russia Today and Sputnik – the Russian propaganda machine makes apt use of the Internet. A relatively unknown information website or a blog publishes news which is then circulated by further dubious websites. Then, a bigger and more widely known Russian medium takes it up and publishes a report on the news referring to the alleged source on the Internet which now becomes acceptable and circulates among the media. The truth, empirically verifiable data, is of no interest.

The hoax about a girl allegedly abducted and raped by migrants in January in Berlin came from just such a dubious website. Russian state television then took up the story. Russian Germans watched this; through concerted calls via facebook and SMS, they were incited to take to the streets. Moreover, the German affiliates of the Russian media abroad spread the hoax in Germany where it resonated with right-wing websites and in social media. It is obvious that Russian media abroad and German right-wing populist or extreme right-wing media publish information hand in hand. Through deliberate quotes they use each other as allegedly plausible sources.

Another method to compensate for possible deficits in the credibility of news is emotional and gripping storytelling. The cinematic realization reminds you of music videos or action movies. In a nutshell: The Russian propaganda output is thrilling and easy to digest because they do not have to strive for a journalistic differentiation and correctness.

The official media and the “grey pro-Kremlin media” cooperating with them are only a part of the Russian propaganda machine. The third level which is working in secrecy comprises the production of hoax news and Internet memes – mainly funny images or videos that go viral in social media. To give credibility to a hoax, even pseudo news websites or Wikipedia entries are being created – much effort was put into, for example, the September 2014 story about an alleged explosion at a chemical plant in Centerville, Louisiana.

Collectively, social media play a significant role in the spread of propaganda. With the help of social bots, controlled robot profiles in social media, hoaxes, and Internet memes are being spread. The flooding of reader forums on international media websites with pro-Kremlin statements is also a part of it. The company “Internet Research Agency” located in a St. Petersburg district became globally known under the term “Trolls from Olgino.” From there alone, thousands of fake profiles in networks and forums are managed. Also outside of Russia, they create an atmosphere on the Internet in favor of the Kremlin policy. Independent Russian media have published reports on links between the company and the Russian presidential administration.

The Ukrainian website “Stopfake.org”, the Russian project “Noodleremover.news” and the “Disinformation Review” of the EU Foreign Service have successfully taken on the task of unmasking hoaxes and the mechanisms of Russian propaganda, giving concrete examples.

The threat for Europe due to Russian propaganda should be neither overestimated nor underestimated. In the end, the hoax of the allegedly raped girl in Berlin was a failure. The truth came to light relatively quickly. Nevertheless, the political challenges – the Euro and the refugee crisis – continue to provide fertile ground for disinformation campaigns. It is quite clear that propaganda structures controlled by the Kremlin try to systematically increase polarization in the public debate in Europe and to stir it up by a constant stream of distorting information.

What is to be done? To counter disinformation in an open society, media competence, i.e., the critical use of information and sources, needs to be strengthened. Furthermore, in the digital age, media and journalists are called upon to reflect reality reliably and faithfully and based on facts.

By Ingo Mannteufel, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung