By Kseniya Kirillova, for CBAP
When speaking of Russian propaganda, it is important to keep in mind its main difference from Western counterparts. Along with creating a positive image of the country, highlighting its beneficial cultural features, values , or any competitive advantages, Russian propaganda and soft power include so-called “information operations”, or, speaking in the language of Soviet and later Russian security services, “active measures”. The main goal of such “measures” is either the demoralization and destabilization of the enemy or attempts to influence its policy for its purposes.
The main methods of such operations are lies, slander, the creation of conspiracy theories, playing on existing contradictions, as well as discrediting the basic values and institutions of Western democracies. At the same time, “positive propaganda”, that is, the promotion of seemingly innocent images and concepts of a cultural and historical nature, is also often used by Russia for subsequent destructive actions.
Types of “active measures”
Information operations can be conditionally divided into three types depending on the tasks they achieve:
- “Information noise“, that is propaganda aimed at discrediting the concept of truth as such, designed to confuse and, in principle, negates the ability to think critically. This type of propaganda is not aimed at creating a specific version of events among consumers of disinformation, or shaping their beliefs, worldview or attitudes towards any phenomenon. Its purpose is to create a feeling that objective truth does not exist as such, and any information may turn out to be fabricated. As a result, information about any crime by the Kremlin should also be perceived as a fake, “the enemies’ activities”, another tremendous lie, and so on.
To create such a worldview, various versions of reality are thrown in, any authoritative opinion is questioned, all sources of information are discredited and every, often the most innocent thesis is refuted. As a result, the disoriented consumer of information should stop trusting anyone, and first of all actual truthful information.
This type of disinformation can be considered the most common weapon of the information war waged by Russia, widely used primarily by the famous armies of virtual “trolls”. Back in December of 2014, «The New York Times» published an op-ed entitled «Russia’s Ideology: There Is No Truth». The author of the story, Peter Pomerantsev, points out that when Soviet-minded people accustomed to “doublethink and dual faith” came to power, they created a society in which pretense triumphed, with fake elections, a fake free press, fake free markets, and fake justice.
Pomerantsev described how on the one hand, Putin advisor Vladislav Surkov supported human rights organizations comprised of former dissidents, while on the other hand, he organized pro-Kremlin youth movements like “Nashi.” “Everything is P.R.,” Pomerantsev is told by his “Moscow peers”. “This cynicism is useful to the state: When people stopped trusting any institutions or having any values, they could easily be spun into a conspiratorial vision of the world,” the author of the article points out.
According to Pomerantsev, while the Kremlin is playing a game with the West, it is spreading its tactics to international relations. The journalist believes that the Kremlin’s goal is to sow discord and “disorient” the enemy through information warfare. “At the core of this strategy is the idea that there is no such thing as objective truth. This notion allows the Kremlin to replace facts with disinformation,” the author says.
Another effective method of disinformation of a similar type is speculation on facts that can no longer be hidden, controlled by individual “Kremlin towers”, with the aim of either completely discrediting the leaked truth or using it as an element in further “information operations.” As a result, drivel, and speculation, combining truth and lies, bring the real facts to the point of absurdity and thus allow them to be hidden among the streams of disinformation.
- Playing on the contradictions existing in society, aggravation of conflicts between various social groups. In this case, the Kremlin is not trying to create a coherent picture of the world for the victims of its propaganda but only seeks to split and destabilize other countries for its own purposes. Sometimes Russia acts in this field openly, for example, revealing old wounds and historical contradictions or “pointing out” to certain social groups the alleged negative actions of other groups in relation to them. More often than not, however, the Kremlin prefers to conduct such operations under a false flag, pretending to act on behalf of citizens of other countries.
An excellent illustration of this is the indictment by US Special Counsel Robert Mueller against 13 Russians accused of meddling in the US elections. According to the document, the accused conducted campaigns to undermine the image of Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton on social networks and beyond, using the stolen personal data of American citizens to create accounts and profiles on Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook. This work was carried out by the “Internet Research Agency”, known as “a troll factory,” based in St. Petersburg. As of September 2016, the monthly budget of the “troll factory” was about 73 million rubles (more than $1.25 million). Concord, a Russian company that partially financed this project, among other things, acted as a contractor in several government contracts. Then it was transformed into a new project called “Lakhta.”
As noted in Mueller’s indictment, the employees of the “troll factory” worked day and night in two shifts for many months and created hundreds of social media profiles using the names of the Americans. Since 2014, they have created the web pages of organizations fighting for immigration, the importance of the lives of African Americans (“Blacktivists”), Muslim and Christian groups, etc., which then pitted Americans against one another. In 2015, Lakhta employees started buying advertising on social networks and became more active on Twitter. Their work and the main topics of agitation in the meantime were carefully supervised from Moscow.
Lakhta also acquired servers in the United States and created virtual private networks, trying to disguise themselves as a domestic American network. E-mail addresses for non-existent Americans were also created. With their help, they communicated with other activists and circulated appeals to local media for the purpose of promoting their events.
In 2016, Lakhta employees began using real social security numbers and genuine birth dates of actual Americans without their knowledge. With the help of this information, “wallets” were created in the PayPal payment system, driver’s licenses were obtained, and then pages of organizations controlled by Lakhta were created under the names of the victims of theft, and advertising on social networks was purchased.
Another example of interference in the affairs of Western countries in the information field is a campaign dubbed Secondary Infektion among experts. According to a study by the Graphika portal, Russian operatives used online forgeries, fake blog posts, and more than 300 social media platforms, and the main goal of the campaign was to discredit people and organizations disliked by the Kremlin, as well as an attempt to drive a wedge within the alliances of Western countries.
In 2020, experts say, the Kremlin has improved its tactics. In particular, this time the already mentioned Internet Research Agency used artificial intelligence to create photos of non-existent people, then built social media personas with those images to push news articles to left-minded online groups. Secondly, propaganda has often become two-step in nature. Often, the accounts created by Russians initially distributed content not related to elections, and only then, having gained a solid number of followers, they began to inspire them with certain electoral preferences.
Third, the “hybrid” nature of Russian propaganda has intensified both in terms of technologies for the dissemination of fake information and its content. Russians increasingly began to hire real Western freelance journalists who both publish their materials on sites affiliated with Russia and try to break into independent platforms. One goal of such actions remains the same: to put pressure on the sore spots of Western societies and deepen their division, speaking on behalf of one or another side of this split.
- “Ideologies for export”. In this case, we refer to the formation of a coherent picture of the world for the victim, which is achieved by creating special mini-ideologies – individual worldview systems aimed at specific social groups, most often adherents of radical views. Many of them are inherently contradictory, and almost all of them do contradict each other and the true realities of life in Russia. However, all of them are based on the same basic principle: to create a certain picture of the world that maximally impresses a particular social group, and which the members of this group really want to believe in.
Each of these ideologies presents an image of an enemy. Moreover, this “enemy” is in the category that to which the specific target group is already hostile and which excites their greatest phobias. For the American extreme left, the state has declared the source of all ills; for nationalists, the “Jewish conspiracy”; for religious fanatics, it’s the image of the “liberal Antichrist”; and so on. The key moment of constructing “ideology for export” is the connection the Kremlin makes between phenomena and processes that it dislikes (objects of discrediting) and the above-mentioned enemies and phobias.
On the example of Russia itself, we see that it is the minorities who don’t enjoy widespread support among the bulk of the population (Muslims, Crimean Tatars, oppositionists, etc.) who are accused of terrorism; Ukrainians of committing “sabotage” in occupied Crimea; Americans, in particular the CIA, of paying people to take part in protest rallies, etc. As a result, a false logical connection between the object of discrediting and the things most hated and frightening is clearly built in the minds of the victim of propaganda, which makes them demonize any phenomena that are not pleasing to the Kremlin.
The creation and distribution of fake news are some of the most common tactics in all three of these types of information operations. Usually, the development of a specific fake and a strategy for its publication occurs at the first stage of the operation. At the second stage, a network is organized to be used to disseminate the information on media and social networks. At the third stage, the fake is disseminated, often coordinated from a single center. The coordinators can advise what to accentuate in various publications, and “reactions” to it distributed under false flags. This greatly complicates tracking and proving the fact of coordination, especially if it’s not carried out in public accounts on social networks, but in closed message groups.
Based on this, the main methods of countering Russian propaganda in the West at the moment are mainly reduced to refuting “fakes” and developing the skills of fact-checking among information consumers. For example, the Ukrainian project “StopFake“, designed to expose false information about Ukraine, is based on this very principle.
In the spring of 2017, the University of Michigan in the United States developed a short special course on “fake news”, fact-checking, and “alternative facts.” One of the lecturers of the course, professor at the University’s Center for Political Studies, Professor Brian Weeks identifies the following types of incorrect (false) information:
– satire or parody is mistakenly used as a real source of information. The professor emphasizes that the author of the content, in this case, did not set any destructive goals, however, the incorrect use of his information can lead to negative consequences;
– false connection, for example, between the text and the headline or visual, which does not reflect the true essence of the material and distorts its content;
– misleading content which means the use of truthful information to frame an issue or individual in a distorted manner, forming a false conclusion;
– false context when genuine content is shared with false contextual information;
– impostors content created by distortion of the source of information, for example, the creation of sites resembling real respected information resources;
– manipulative content, that is the deliberate fabrication of false information created by mixing truth and lies in order to deceive people;
– 100% fabricated content designed to deceive and do harm.
The authors of the course emphasize that not all of the above-mentioned types of deformation are about the conscious desire of the content author to cause harm. Sometimes false information is used to attract readers, increase the click-through rate of news, or is the result of journalistic or editorial non-professionalism and sensationalism. Researchers from the University of Michigan suggest that consumers of information carefully check the news source, author, and publication, the information to which the article refers, its confirmation by other authoritative sources, and so on.
However, in the case of Russian propaganda, the difficulty is presented in the fact that the Kremlin’s political strategists were able to effectively use the fight against fakes to their benefit, “intercepting” this type of activity both from the Russian opposition and from their opponents in the West. In this way, propagandists present true news “unwanted” by the Kremlin as a fake, mixing truth and lies. For example, the former editor-in-chief of the American website the USA Really, a subsidiary of the Federal News Agency created by Yevgeny Prigozhin, and now the chairman of the media commission of the Public Chamber of Russia, Alexander Malkevich, in 2020, began a wide media campaign to “battle fakes,” mirroring the methods of his opponents.
He began with the launch of a site “to combat fakes about the coronavirus,” actually copying the idea of the Ukrainian StopFake anti-disinformation project. In addition to much-needed information during the pandemic debunking a conspiracy theory about “microchipping,” these “social activists” also claimed that information on real disease outbreaks or hospital closures was fake. In the next step, Malkevich took the initiative to expose “fake information about the constitutional amendments,” denying that there was any voter fraud.
At the same time, the fake “unmaskers” were not too concerned about providing evidence of their conclusions, rightly believing that the average reader would not meticulously check the information. Such efforts, as already noted, leave the impression that objective truth does not exist, and that the information field is a “Wilderness of Mirrors” saturated with fiction. According to the same principle, officials initiated criminal proceedings against the Fund to Fight Corruption, headed by Aleksei Navalny, intended to discredit the very idea that there could be such a fight.
The results of such a strategy are effectively traced in the data of the Levada Center survey on the poisoning of Navalny. According to it, 30% of Russians consider the poisoning of the oppositionist to have been staged, and about 20% – a provocation of the Western special services. Only 15% of respondents believe in the attempt of the Russian authorities to eliminate their political rival.
Methods of countering disinformation
Another difficulty in combating false information is, as already noted, it’s linking to things that members of certain social groups want to believe. If the information coincides with their beliefs and aspirations, motivation to check facts or seek alternative information is sharply reduced. Brian Weeks also points out this weakness in his lectures, noting that listeners and readers have “confirmatory attitudes” that are triggered when they receive the information they would like to hear. This feature of the human psyche is especially actively used in creating “ideologies for export”.
However, this algorithm for constructing destructive mini-ideologies allows, on the other hand, to highlight their weak point – the logical chains and connecting links between the image of the enemy, the phobias generated by it, and the relatively new object of discredit. These links most often represent conspiracy theories, the refutation of which is most effective when it does not affect the basic values of the group but reveals only false bindings of these values to erroneously selected objects.
Thus, initially, it is necessary to determine the target audience to which this or that disinformation is directed and to understand its worldview and main phobias. At the same time, it is important to set realistic goals for yourself and not try to completely refute the worldview of this or that group. The choice of values and beliefs by a specific person is a complex process that can be influenced by many personal irrational factors related to both the psyche and experience. However, it is entirely possible to reduce the degree of manipulation of these beliefs by unscrupulous outside actors.
Here the following methods of refutation of “ideologies for export” can be identified:
- Identification and refutation of the main false connections that connect the image of the enemy, phobias, and the object of discrediting.
- In cases where Russian propaganda operates under a false flag and the target group does not have a positive attitude towards Russia, it is important to provide evidence that a particular information product has Russian roots. This, for example, includes memes or whole conspiracy theories, originally created in Russian and then translated into English.
- If the group does not hide its direct relationship with Russia, as is often found among the extreme right-wing Americans, it’s possible to identify contradictions between a particular ideology and other ones created by Moscow, as well as between this ideology and the realities of life in Russia itself.
“We understand that the Russian people and Southerners are natural allies in blood, culture, and religion… As inheritors of the European cultural tradition, we share similar values, customs, and ways of life,” League President Michael Hill wrote in an essay headlined “To Our Russian Friends.”
However, it’s very important to emphasize that the American radical right is infatuated with the image that Russia carefully tries to create in their eyes. That is why it is important to point out the differences between this propaganda image and reality.
First, Russia is not at all a “Christian state” as it tries to assure its foreign followers. The percentage of true believers in Russia itself is relatively small, and the ideology pursued by the Russian Orthodox Church is perceived by the majority in the way the Communist Party was perceived in the late Soviet era – as something that is necessary and “irreplaceable”, but not something that evokes fanatical faith.
Second, the Russian political structure also differs significantly from the ideal of the right-wing extremists. American radicals consider the American government as repressive and advocate greater freedom and the right to freely bear arms. But Russia is a repressive state, where the government doesn’t tolerate the slightest dissent and brings criminal charges even for posts on social networks and participation in solo protests, not to mention mass ones. It is unthinkable that people would be allowed to carry weapons openly in Russia. Handguns are mostly outlawed and hunting shotguns and rifles are strictly controlled, leaving less than 10 percent of the populace as legal gun owners. And Russian President Vladimir Putin has even suggested he might start a campaign using his national guard to confiscate guns from unlicensed Russian owners.
Third, American right-wing radicals advocate the extension of the powers of local self-government and the accountability of government institutions to people. But in Russia, any calls for separatism are punishable by imprisonment. Fourth, American right-wing radicals vehemently oppose communism, but modern Russia actively propagates the Soviet past, its symbolism, and the cult of the KGB and Stalin.
After you have managed to debunk the basic conspiracy theories, the next step is to proceed to the refutation of specific false facts and even, if successful, to shaking the basic beliefs of the radical group. The proposed methods perhaps will not be sufficient to completely debunk Russian propaganda constructs, but they can set at least a basic direction for countering the Kremlin’s destructive information operations.
By Kseniya Kirillova, for CBAP
Find out more about the author here: https://jamestown.org/analyst/kseniya-kirillova/?fbclid=IwAR1j_E692nngvBQSEgb0hSNPS3LIraXbnhFgr0JsStrr4lUIFtldVpfAeXY
Picture Source: Ruvic, Dado (2015, May 22). “Countering Russian Information Operations in the Age of Social Media”. Retrieved from: https://www.cfr.org/report/countering-russian-information-operations-age-social-media