In their latest post for the Media@LSE blog, Professor Vera Tolz and Professor Stephen Hutchings reflect on the history of the term ‘disinformation’. They discuss what initiatives to counter disinformation today can learn from the term’s usage and implications over the years.
By Vera Tolz and Vitaly Kazakov with contributions from Stephen Hutchings
In many ways, Russian media coverage of the US 2020 presidential elections seemed predictable. The unfolding events presented Russia’s political and media elites with a perfect opportunity to hone a familiar narrative of dysfunctionality and chaos in Western democracies and disseminate it across domestic and international information networks. Elections are the most important institution within democracies and their integrity is central to sustaining a functional democratic system. For this reason, over the past half-a-decade at least, Russia has striven to undermine democratic elections in various ways. However, the manner in which the Russian media’s diverse US 2020 election coverage blended into the wider media ecology points to the need for a better appreciation of how misinformation has become so prominent in global information flows.
In this report we discuss how the gruelling sequence of ballot counting, protests, and media scandals sweeping across America in early November was grist to the mill of Kremlin-backed media machineries, aiding their promotion of favourable domestic and international narratives. At the same time, we argue that the current proliferation of misleading allegations about mass voter fraud in the current US elections by American and other Western right-wing hyper-partisan media, politicians, and activists has highlighted how counter-productive it was to view Trump’s victory in 2016 primarily as an example of the threat to democracy posed by external authoritarian actors. Likewise, problematic election coverage by Russian international broadcasters such as the state-backed network RT had comparatively marginal reach to Western audiences. We focus here mainly on RT’s output, but compare and contrast it with that of state-backed domestic Russian broadcaster, Channel One.
RT’s Cross-Platform Elections Coverage
From the election day of 3 November 2020, across RT’s different services, as well as its different planforms, pro-Trump bias has been on display and poor reporting practices, including the airing of claims by notorious misinformation providers, have abounded. Also unsurprisingly, Russia’s main state-funded international broadcaster has been using the uncertainties, anxieties, and chaos surrounding the elections to highlight the failings of the liberal democratic order and promote narratives of Western hypocrisy and the biases of Western mainstream media. The fact that RT has been reporting and interpreting the problems facing US democracy very differently from leading mainstream international broadcasters is again unremarkable. RT’s coverage foregrounds its self-image as a ‘producer of alternative news’, marked by hyper-partisanship and uncritical use of conspiracy theories and unverified assertions.
As is usually the case, there has been some variance in the approaches of RT’s different language services. RT International, whose broadcast output is subject to the UK’s OFCOM impartiality regulations, has been making an attempt to ‘perform balance’. But even though, on the whole, RT International reporting is usually more circumspect than that of most other RT services, its version of ‘balance’ combined trivial updates on statements by EU leaders and politicians on the projected election outcomes and their consequences for international politics with open mockery of the ‘shambolic election outcome’ voiced by international adversaries of the US.
RT America and RT Russia, on the other hand, have made no attempt to conceal their strong pro-Trump bias. This included persistently drawing spurious equivalences between Biden’s and Trump’s comments on the results as they were coming in on 4 to 7 November. RT America presented Biden’s victories in a matter-of-fact style, while the Trump campaign and its challenges to the unfolding of the events were covered extensively. RT America explicitly targeted Trump supporters as they were turning away from conservative media outlets such as Fox News to far right, conspiracy theory, and other ‘alternative’ websites and social media platforms for their news endorsing narratives claiming the theft of people’s democratic rights.
RT America’s reporting since Biden’s victory has endorsed left-progressive critiques of the President-Elect, and promoted the idea of a neo-liberal ideology crisis across Western countries. Popular leftist politicians and activists including Bernie Sanders, Greta Thunberg, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez all continued to be covered in a way that emphasised their controversial status among RT’s audiences.
RT’s output on social media platforms—Facebook and Instagram—foregrounded the narrative portraying a US democracy in disarray. RT Facebook disseminates op-eds produced for RT’s English-language services. Commenting on the election results as they came in, these suggested that irrespective of who would be the next occupant of the White House, many US citizens would continue leading lives full of challenges and nothing would change in a country completely racked by social, economic, and political problems. RT Instagram’s main approach has been to mock the US electoral process. The activities of Trump’s campaign have not been spared RT’s sarcasm. RT’s Instagram account ridiculed demands by Trump supporters to stop counting the votes where, at that point, Trump was in the lead and to continue counting, where Trump was trailing Biden.
On RT America, however, the self-contradicting demands have been treated seriously, and alleged election fraud has been to the fore in this service’s coverage throughout. Reports claiming voter fraud have also dominated the election coverage on RT’s mobile app which is an increasingly significant platform for the network’s news dissemination alongside RT’s website and TV broadcasts. For this app’s ‘News’ tab, most election-related reports have been selected from RT America, with a particularly large number of them focusing on fraud allegations. Between 4 and 7 November, a dozen articles reporting these allegations uncritically were featured on RT’s app. Thus, on RT America and even more so through RT’s app news feed, the impression has been given that fraud is a major issue, meaning that the election results cannot be trusted.
RT’s coverage of fraud claims differs markedly from that of the mainstream media. The absence of any credible evidence of deliberate fraud has not been adequately acknowledged in many RT reports. Instead, RT has devoted entire reports to claims regarding ‘evidence’ made by widely discredited far-right disinformation providers, such as InfoWars and Project Veritas. Since these outlets have been established in the past twenty years, Trump himself has also been quoting them in support of his outlandish assertions and praising their ‘amazing’ journalistic reputation.
Russian Language Media on the Elections in (Dis)United States: Promoting National Unity in The Time of International Troubles
RT Russia, the Russophone branch of the international broadcaster RT sharing news to transnational Russian audiences, took a similar approach. One of the themes it centred on was the exposition of free speech ‘hypocrisy’ by mainstream Western media and liberal politicians. Such narratives were promoted through the publication of a long translated interview by Trump’s lawyer Giuliani with RT, and Trump’s own controversial press-conference, which was aired and translated by RT Russia in full. Neither RT Russia, nor those of RT’s English services that covered the press conference, acknowledged that the US President’s allegations about ‘stolen elections’ might be untrue.
Airing without questioning the widely dispelled claims of electoral impropriety voiced by Trump and his aides helped RT to promote the idea of the dysfunctional nature of the Western democracy in a literal sense: that the voting was neither free, fair, nor transparent, a narrative mirroring frequent Western accusations concerning Russia’s own elections. The story of democratic dysfunctionality also acquired a contextual interpretation suggesting that public trust in democratic process and the democratic consensus itself were breaking down. Raw footage and detailed reports by Russian outlets of the various clashes between protesters on the streets in the US served to demonstrate this.
RT Russia regularly reported official Russian government interpretations of developments in the US, foregrounding discussions of corruption among US politicians, reassuring Russian-speaking users familiar with the theme in a domestic context that political corruption is rife in democracies, too. Significantly, the main example of corruption—in terms of shady financial deals—among the US political elites, according to RT Russia, is Joe Biden’s family. Another narrative equated Trump supporters following his loss in the election with Russians around the world experiencing a ‘loss of political rights, expulsion from economic life, persistent humiliation, and complete, total, hopeless dehumanisation’ at the hands of political and economic elites in Western states. This narrative targeted both members of Russian diaspora and Russia’s domestic population via an op-ed shared by Russian international network Sputnik in Latvia, Lithuania, and Kyrgyzstan, and Russia’s major domestic news agency RIA Novosti. Like many pieces appearing on RT, this op-ed openly questioned the legitimacy of the US election outcome.
The domestic political convenience of the disarray following the closing of the polls in the US was further reinforced through its fortuitous yet opportune coincidence with the Day of National Unity in Russia. This national holiday introduced during the Putin Presidency to commemorate the end of a period of domestic turmoil and foreign intervention in the seventeenth century known as the Time of Troubles overlapped with the spectacle of the US elections. The leading domestic broadcaster Channel One presented an idyllic image of ordinary Russians celebrating this relatively new national holiday on November 4, conveying a sense of unity around a history shared harmoniously by the diverse peoples, languages, and cultures making up contemporary Russia.
This coverage was contrasted within the same news bulletin with the chaotic, disputed, and uncertain outcomes of the US elections. Highlighting disturbing times in the US and the West helped to promote Russia’s own relative political stability on the very day Russia recalled how it overcame its own Time of Troubles – a collective memory also projected in Putin’s political discourse on the turmoil of the 1990s in Russia. Russian state media frequently deploy such comparisons as regime legitimation techniques.
In the days since November 4, Channel One reporting of the elections pointed to flaws in both American presidential candidates and in their supporters, presenting Trump’s and Biden’s statements and personalities as equally controversial and divisive, and questioning the transparency of the electoral process. The initial reports persistently warned of the looming dangers of unrest resulting from the election fall out. The eventual public celebrations in Washington in the wake of Biden’s projected victory—referred to in one news report as enjoyed mostly by ‘members of various minorities and BLM activists’—were likened to the outcomes of Ukraine’s EuroMaidan, thus questioning its legitimacy.
Additionally, there is strong evidence of the strategic alignment and amplification of coverage of the US 2020 presidential elections by various branches of Russian state broadcasting. RT’s interview with Giuliani, for example, was conducted by one of its UK-based presenters, Afshin Rattansi, and aired via RT Russia to its transnational Russophone audiences. Only select episodes of Rattansi’s show, Going Underground, on which Giuliani appeared, are translated and shared by RT Russia, pointing to the particular significance of this English-language story to RT’s Russophone audiences.
Misinformation and the Political Significance of Russian Reporting of the US Elections
That Russian state-sponsored broadcasters would seek to instrumentalise the US election for political gains was obvious and predictable. They used the occasion to target domestic viewers for regime legitimation purposes and appealed to Russian compatriots living outside Russia’s borders, Trump supporters in the US, and global audiences interested in counter-hegemonic narratives. In different political contexts, coverage centred on the theme of dysfunctionality and chaos in Western democracies and showed evidence of cross-platform and cross-network coordination as well as a keen awareness of specific political factors and environments.
Such reporting needs to be understood in the wider context of its political significance and outcomes. One critical issue here is the way RT, and other Russian state-sponsored media outlets, fit within the ecology of actors responsible for producing and circulating misinformation. Studies of misinformation which attempt to assess broader threats it poses to democratic processes are only meaningful if they acknowledge the pathologies of the entire global media ecology, rather than focusing on and assigning exclusive blame to individual actors, such as authoritarian states using misinformation for their own political purposes.
Alongside long-established mainstream media, this system features proliferating hyper-partisan outlets of right and left, tech giants whose algorithms drive misinformation to the fore, audiences who disseminate misinformation because they mistrust mainstream sources, and authoritarian states, as well as certain politicians within democracies, who attempt to exploit these phenomena. In this global system actors of multiple provenances can easily collaborate, whether knowingly or unwittingly, in circulating, reinforcing and amplifying misinformation.
RT’s coverage of the election fraud allegations has undoubtedly inserted itself into multi-faceted transnational misinformation networks. These networks have been multiplying, expanding and becoming more elaborate thanks to the affordances of new media technologies since the end of the previous century. What distinguishes the activities of Russia and other authoritarian governments, such as China and Iran, is the level of involvement by government and state institutions, including state-funded international broadcasters, in the use of misinformation networks to achieve political goals. It is not, however, as is often claimed, the case that Russia pioneered current misinformation techniques themselves.
The second major context in which we should understand Russian state-sponsored coverage of the US elections is its reach and potential for impact. The coverage of Rudy Giuliani’s presentation of the election fraud case on behalf of the Trump campaign by one of the US’ best-established extreme right-wing providers of hyper-partisan information, Newsmax, had 1.6 million views within hours of being posted on YouTube on 10 November. It has now been viewed more than 2 million times. In comparison, RT America’s report of a similar nature airing voter fraud claims by Giuliani and other members of Trump’s team achieved 9.1 thousand views on its YouTube platform on November 11. It has now been viewed just under 18 thousand times. Such a disparity is in general representative of the fact that across its international branches, RT reaches smaller audiences when compared with both established and controversial Western outlets. In Western democracies, RT’s audiences are particularly small.
It is important to acknowledge the poor practices of RT and other Russian information networks and their role in circulating misinformation which damages democracies. What is more troubling, however, is that the multi-million hits on YouTube videos produced by the West’s own right-wing election misinformation machine easily dwarf the viewings, running only into the tens of thousands, of programmes made by leading mainstream broadcasters such as CNN and ABC which are meticulous in debunking unsubstantiated claims of electoral fraud. The way Russian state-sponsored actors will continue to operate within this dangerous misinformation ecology, while adhering to the interests of Russia’s political and media elites, needs to be explored further.
 Another RT service that often adopts a somewhat more careful approach to reporting is RT France.
 RT’s app News tab in English included this report in its news selection on 8 November 2020.
 The 2013-14 EuroMaidan uprising continues to be portrayed in Russian state media as an illegitimate coup against Ukraine’s legally elected, pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovich.
Vera Tolz is Sir William Mather Professor of Russian Studies at The University of Manchester.
Vitaly Kazakov is a Research Associate for “Reframing Russia”.
As our project has formally wrapped up this summer, we would like to share the details of recent and forthcoming publications. Vera Tolz, Stephen Hutchings, Precious Chatterje-Doody and Rhys Crilley have co-authored and published an article, “Mediatization and Journalistic Agency: Russian Television Coverage of the Skripal Poisoning.” Investigating the case of Russian media coverage of the Skripal affair, the authors argue that even non-democracies must cope with the shaping of global communications by certain pervasive media logics and related market imperatives. In conditions where a range of media actors responded to unfolding events and to each other on multiple digital platforms, no state could assert narrative control over the Skripal incident. The article appears in the special issue of Journalism on Russian newsmaking, edited by Elisabeth Schimpfossl, Marielle Wijermars and Ilya Yablokov.
Additionally, a recently published article by our former Research Associate, Rhys Crilley, provides a new research agenda for studies of popular culture and world politics. You can access the article, published in International Studies Review, here.
Over the coming months, our project team will work on a co-authored manuscript, which will bring together and distil the key findings and arguments of the research the Reframing Russia project conducted since its inception. We hope it will be published in 2022. In addition to the book, a set of academic articles and chapters in edited volumes will be published in the coming months, following the formal conclusion of the project. These publications will include:
- Precious Chatterje-Doody and Lucy Birge’s co-authored chapter, “Russian Public Diplomacy: Questioning Certainties in Uncertain Times”. It will appear in a forthcoming Palgrave Macmillan book Public Diplomacy and the Politics of Uncertainty (2021), edited by Paweł Surowiec and Ilan Manor. Watch the recording of an online panel entitled “Media, politics and influence of Russia and Eurasian states”, where Precious and Lucy discuss the research underpinning their new chapter.
- Rhys Crilley and Precious Chatterje-Doody’s chapter, “Government mis/disinformation in war and conflict”, will appear in the forthcoming volume Routledge Companion to Media Misinformation and Populism. This book, edited by Howard Tumber and Silvio Waisbord, is due to be published in 2021.
- Ilya Yablokov and Precious Chatterje-Doody are co-authoring a book called Russia Today and Conspiracy Theories: Politics, People, Power. It will be published later in 2020 as part of the “Conspiracy Theories” Routledge series. Watch a recent talk where Ilya and Precious discuss their research and forthcoming book.
Several articles based on extensive empirical research by the Open University audience and social media research team have been submitted to academic journals and will be published in the coming months. Collaborative research on RT’s Twitter followers bringing into dialogue computational and social scientific methods by Rhys Crilley, Marie Gillespie, Bertie Vidgen and Alistair Willis provides important new insights into their demographic features and argues that exposure to RT does not mean either engagement with or endorsement of its content. Rhys Crilley, Marie Gillespie, Vitaly Kazakov and Alistair Willis co-authored a further article on Russian public diplomacy based on a case study of RT’s coverage of the 2018 World Cup and its international audience reception. The Open University team is currently compiling and analysing a significant corpus of diverse datasets gathered over the last three years (from big data to in-depth qualitative interviews) on RT’s audiences and social media users across different platforms. Additionally, Carolijn van Noort and Precious Chatterje-Doody have also co-authored a paper on Russian-Chinese media collaboration around the Belt and Road initiative. These papers will be published soon.
A Big ‘Thank You!’ from our Team
As our project comes to a formal conclusion, we want to take this opportunity to thank you for following our work over the past years. We are grateful to the long list of research participants and administrative staff at the Manchester and Open Universities, as well as the Arts and Humanities Research Council, who helped to facilitate our work. We are also grateful for the important contributions to and feedback on our research from many academic, media, policymaking and other colleagues, who helped to shape our thinking and outputs over the past three years. Many fruitful collaborations between our team members and external colleagues have resulted in a range of academic and public-facing outputs, as well as conference and media appearances.
We hope you will stay in touch with the members of our team and seek to access the announced publications. Our project website will remain online. Although we will no longer actively update it, you can still access the details of our completed works and past events, as well as a database of resources we compiled over the project’s duration. This catalogue of sources, also available in the Excel format via the link below, features: RT’s own reporting of key ‘media events’; a variety of government and think tank reports on ‘information war’ and ‘hybrid warfare’; academic journal articles; newspaper coverage of RT’s operations; web resources and video recordings. We wish the three PhD students affiliated with our project a successful completion of their dissertations in the coming months, and best of luck with ongoing research and new projects to all our collaborators and past members of our team.
By Maria Zhukova
Electronic microscopes allow us to see SARS-CoV-2 only in black and white. In principle, the colour of this virion (or virus particle) can’t be seen with the human eye. The proteins, ribonucleic acids, and phospholipids that make up the virus particle absorb light almost exclusively from the ultraviolet spectrum, invisible to us. Nonetheless, it didn’t take long before people’s creative imaginations had painted this new enemy of civilisation in all colours of the rainbow. This kaleidoscope of colour can be seen on the pages of online news networks around the world, where the new sections about COVID-19 that appeared in the spring of 2020 were often accompanied by coloured icons depicting a virus particle. For example, RT Deutsch sported a new heading — “Aktuelles zu COVID-19″/”COVID-19 news” — accompanied by a red icon.
The German-language news portal RT Deutsch was launched in 2014. This service of the Russian state-funded international broadcaster RT (formerly Russia Today) explicitly positions itself as an alt-media outlet within the German media system. The content produced by RT Deutsch tends to be particularly hyper-partisan. Its output actively and overtly attempts to manipulate people’s emotions. This blog looks at how the service uses specific colour codes for this purpose.
Despite the growing interest in digital information culture, the vast majority of recent publications on the effect of colour don’t pay particular attention to online news resources. Research on visual perception in human–computer interaction (HCI) tends to be addressed to web designers, and doesn’t investigate the relationship between the content of a digital resource and its colour effect — the features of colour perception depending on nationality have provoked greater interest. Amid the wide-ranging responses to the coronavirus pandemic by academics, few publications have addressed the issue of visualisation in pandemic-related content.
Attempts to influence readers via the anticipated emotional effect of certain colours and colour combinations can be seen in a significant proportion of the “Aktuelles zu COVID-19” output. This large body of material requires further research. The focus of this blog is one of the first reports featured in that section, entitled “Over One Thousand Corona Cases in Germany Already: DAX Drops”.
The article contains updates on the impact of the virus on events in Germany and around the world, such as upcoming Bundesliga matches to be held behind closed doors and Saudi Arabia’s suspension of air travel with nine countries. Besides its basic informative function, this material undoubtedly also has other, underlying aims. One of these is to attract new audiences, since, in comparison to other German-language news outlets, RT Deutsch’s reach is relatively small. Another aim is to convey and underline the danger that coronavirus poses to Germany. The text is dated 9 March, when the WHO had not yet declared a pandemic (11 March) and Germany had not yet introduced social distancing measures, which followed only on 17 March. However, this early article already shows how the precise and well-thought-out interconnection of themes, linguistic techniques, and visual features — especially colour choices — contribute to exacerbating the impression of fear and danger. Let us look in detail at how the relationships between the colour, graphic, and textual elements of this material work.
During the course of the pandemic, almost all German online publications introduced a specific section dedicated to the spread of the new virus, but not all of them came up with a corresponding icon. In the case of RT Deutsch, the graphic design and colour of the icon are obviously particularly significant.
The new “Aktuelles zu COVID-19” section heading has a strong presence on the RT Deutsch page precisely because of its colour: the red icon contrasts with the green of the RT logo. According to the experiments of a research group led by Russian avant-garde artist Mikhail Matyushin, as discussed in his Guide to Colour (1932), pairs of contrasting or complementary colours are not perceived equally quickly. The recognition of red as the corresponding colour to green is second only to violet and pale yellow, in terms of how quickly the viewer perceives the colour contrast (see pages 22–23). That is to say, the green of RT’s logo is associated with red in the reader’s mind. In other words, the page (green) begins to be naturally associated with the virus (red), compelling an audience craving information on the topic to return to this section again and again.
The graphic design of the icon also lays the foundation for convincing the audience of the extreme danger of the virus. The RT Deutsch icon, which was also used on RT’s English service, mimics the virus’s spherical shape but considerably exaggerates its structural features. The so-called S-proteins, which help the virus attach itself to the surface of the cell, are often called “spikes” by scientists but are nonetheless more likely to be depicted visually as something that looks more like a mushroom (see the model developed by the Thomas Böttcher research group, University of Konstanz) or plant forms (such as the model designed by Markus Hoffman, of the Leibniz-Institut for Primate Research, Göttingen) (top row, respectively, left to right, in the illustration below). In the RT icon, the repeated rows of identical spikes or teeth, both around the outside of the circle and within it, suggest the motion of a circular saw and give the image an aggressive character. For comparison, see alternative images of the coronavirus in the equivalent section of the website of major German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, a parody of the logo for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics (now postponed to 2021), the image used by Russian news outlet Meduza, and the icons used by RT’s Spanish and Russian-language services, which all depict the S-proteins in a way much closer to the scientific models (bottom row, respectively, left to right).
The headline, placed immediately underneath the section heading, begins instilling the idea of the extreme danger that the virus poses for Germany in particular, by referring to economic factors that will be directly relevant to the German reader. The construction of the sentence implies that the second part, after the colon, is a direct consequence of the first. That is, that the drop in the German stock exchange (Deutscher Aktienindex, usually abbreviated as DAX) is due to the number of coronavirus-related deaths, a connection that is not mentioned at all in the text of the article. The headline’s emphasis on the unstable financial situation is intentional: according to surveys conducted in January 2020, this is considered an important issue by 30% of German citizens.
The photograph that follows the headline intensifies the effect of its first part, exaggerating in visual form the idea of illness and disease. The red circle with an arrow (directing coronavirus patients to an outpatients reception) resembles the virus icon in its colour and shape, but is much larger in size, while below, in a separate image but placed in relation to the photo of the sign, depicts the yellow triangle containing three circles which since 1966 has been the recognised standard symbol for biohazards.
The exponential increase in SARS-CoV-2 cases, which was already being discussed in the media in March, is even embodied in the specific visual forms used to represent this topic: the red dot of the icon has turned into a giant red circle in the first photograph (the effect of which is enhanced by the burgundy tones of the background). The “spheres” also increase in number, as depicted in the yellow biohazard symbol, where there are already four, if not five, of them — according to Matyushin’s observations on colour and form, the “warm range of the spectrum, from yellow to red, gravitates towards wide, round shapes”, “so, swollen, a yellow pyramid loses some of the sharpness of its corners.”
The threat that the virus poses to Germany is thus established on a textual and a visual level. The photograph of the yellow biohazard sign is attached to an article discussing the New York stock exchange. However, this American content isn’t illustrated with the famous Charging Bull sculpture of Wall Street, by Atrturo Di Modica, but animals more familiar to a German reader: bull and bear figurines, based on large sculptures designed by German Rainer Dachlauer for the 400-year anniversary of the Frankfurt stock exchange in 1988. It’s not especially important whether the average reader is familiar with the financial jargon in which Bullеnmarkt/bull market and Bärenmarkt/bear market mean, respectively, an increase and decrease in stock prices. It is more important that the biohazard sign between the two figurines is associated with recognisable features of the Frankfurt urban environment, familiar from television coverage, and consequently with the situation in Germany as a whole.
In this way, the idea of the virus as a threat is located on German soil, as implied by the figurative and symbolic associations of the typically “German” animals, the bull and the bear. A third animal joins the bull and the bear in this row of zoological allusions: the badger, which is referenced in the headline. The Deutsche Aktienindex (DAX) was introduced in 1988, the same year the bull and bear sculptures were installed. The acronym DAX sounds similar to the German word for badger — der Dachs — making it easy to remember (more so than the equally plausible but unused acronym DAI). This example of linguistic homophony — words that happen to sound similar despite different spellings — is commonly utilised in journalism, including taking advantage of its humorous implications (see also another example related to animals: the acronym PIIGS introduced in 2010 to refer to five economically-disadvantaged EU countries, Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece, and Spain). In summary, we can state that the animals indicated here, both visually and phonetically, not only create subsidiary meanings but also infantilise the audience, diminishing their analytical faculties and stimulating an emotional response.
If we return to Matyushin’s colour experiments, which showed that yellow and violet are instantly perceptible as contrasting colours, it is not difficult to see how the following photograph, depicting brown coronavirus particles on a light-violet background (which links to an article entitled “Two Months Before Outbreak Coronavirus Simulation Predicts 65 Million Deaths”) rhymes perfectly with the yellow biohazard sign.
The eye is guided by colour indicators, adequate for ordinary perception, to glide towards the bottom of the page. The video report embedded at the end of the main text — “Coronavirus: Opinions on Worldwide Stockpiling” (lit. “hamster buying”) — replicates the same aesthetic techniques (animal imagery, red–yellow–violet colour scheme), reinforcing these already-formed blocks of meaning in the different and more easily comprehensible format of video. Thus, colour choices in the visual design of news material are far from accidental. Skilful use of colour, synthesising the graphic and textual layers of meaning, acts as a powerful factor in shaping the reader’s response.
 I refer here to data in the “2020 Security Report”/”Sicherheitsreport 2020”, a survey conducted by the Institut für Demoskopie Allensbach on behalf of the Zentrum für Strategie und Höhere Führung. 33% of respondents over the age of 16 said they fear poverty in old age, 27% fear loss of earnings, and 26% inflation. Only senile dementia and climate change were cited as greater causes of concern (42% and 40%, respectively). According to the 2020 Security Report’s special investigation into coronavirus (Sicherheitsreport 2020 Spezial Corona), conducted in mid-May 2020, 76% of respondents were concerned about the economic consequences of the pandemic.
Maria Zhukova is a Research Fellow at the Slavic department and Associated Fellow in Zukunftskolleg at Konstanz University in Germany. She leads a postdoctoral project ‘TV Discourses in Print Media, Film, and Literature in Late Soviet Russia of the 1950s-1980s‘.
By Evgenia Olimpieva, Geneva Cole and Ipek Cinar
With the 2020 Presidential election looming and the United States in disarray due to COVID-19 and sweeping protests around police brutality after the murder of George Floyd, the specter of international interference has fallen from view, but perhaps this should not be the case. Our research, which focused on the content published by RT and RT America channels on YouTube in the period from 2015-2018, suggests that the Russia-funded international broadcaster takes advantage of political moments of unrest, and especially the salient episodes of police brutality. We argue that such events provide opportunities for the broadcaster to build trust with the viewers and influence their political opinions by exposing them to other politically charged content.
Rachel Maddow described Russia’s interference and specifically the activity of Russian trolls in 2016 as “forcing their dirty fingernails into our various national open wounds.” This evocative imagery provides a framework for our research. To achieve its goals, we hypothesize that RT targets national wounds in the relevant media market. In the United States, this national wound is racism. In particular, RT zeroes in on police brutality as the manifestation of this national wound. This is an apt choice: Pew finds that attitudes about police brutality are moderated by race and partisanship.
Research on Russian interference and trolls in the previous presidential elections found that while targeting both political left and right, they specifically focused their activity on Black Americans. We find that while RT America mostly caters to the audiences on the left, there is evidence that Black Americans are particularly targeted by the channel as we discover its exceptionally high and persistent attention to the events related to the issue of police brutality. This comes both in specific advertising targeted at black audiences, and the coverage of specifically racialized police brutality. In particular, our research shows:
First, there is an extremely high prevalence of the videos with content of police in the RT Flagship and RT America channels. We find, for instance, that these channels devote nearly six times as much of their content to the topic of police as CNN and about three times as much as Al Jazeera.
Second, videos on police tend to get more views than videos published by RT on other topics—even elections during the 2016 cycle. In fact, 13 of the 20 most viewed videos on RT America were devoted to the topic of police. For example, the second most watched video on RT America, with 2,366,522 views, is titled “Police bust up filming of rap video to arrest felon with gun.” Our quantitative analysis across the entire sample also confirms this.
Third, videos about police drive viewership of RT America as a whole. We found that the proportion of police videos is a statistically significant predictor of channel viewership for RT Flagship and RT America. This was not the case for our comparison channels, CNN and Al Jazeera.
We also found qualitative differences in the way that RT covers instances of police brutality vis-à-vis its competitors. We analyzed the videos from RT America and CNN that covered the same viral instances of police brutality in April 2015 (Freddie Gray) and July 2016 (Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, followed by the Dallas police shooting all in a 3-day period). The differences were stark. CNN was much more likely to take an institutional approach, focusing on official reports and the perspectives of police, police families, legislators, and other individuals with institutional power. RT, on the other hand, had a more populist approach, relying on raw footage and the perspectives of activists and the families of victims.
With the recent murder of George Floyd by members of the Minneapolis Police Department, the wound of police brutality remains open and raw. Presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden remarked that “the original sin of this country still stains our nation today … we see it plainly that we’re a country with an open wound.” We approach the 2020 election with a gaping national wound and concerns about the potential interference from Russia remains. As our research shows, “populist” coverage of the political wounds and police brutality in particular drives the viewership of the network and exposes more viewers to its content. We worry that it might build trust for RT among viewers despite the labels introduced by YouTube, and expose the trusting viewers to biased content and ads that could influence how they vote in 2020. After all, the 3rd most watched video on RT America following during 2016 presidential election cycle covered the calls to lock up Hillary Clinton.
As protests erupted in response to George Floyd as legitimate expressions of real grief, a small number of “outside agitators” took advantage of the situation to sow chaos and division. We can think of RT’s coverage of police brutality in this same light: while they are providing coverage of newsworthy content and even providing a necessary perspective on police brutality, their ultimate purpose is to behave as an outside agitator.
Evgenia Olimpieva (@EvgeniaOlimp) studies comparative politics and quantitative methodology with a focus on authoritarian politics and institutions in post-Soviet context.
Geneva Cole (@genevavalerie) studies American politics with a focus on the role of political and social identities in shaping political attitudes and behavior.
Ipek Cinar (@ipekcinar_ic) studies comparative politics with a focus on comparative democratization, quantitative & computational methods and their applications to political science research.
At the end of May, Professor Stephen Hutchings and Professor Vera Tolz took part in an online seminar “Misinformation and Conspiracy Theories”. The discussion explored the sources and spread of conspiracy theories in Russia and the West, assessed their ‘success’ and ways to stem the flow of misinformation. Our University of Manchester colleagues, Professor Peter Knight (English and American Studies), Dr David Schoch (Sociology) and Dr Michael Prentice (Cathie Marsh Institute for Social Research), took part in the webinar.
The discussion was part of a new series ‘Doing Things Differently‘, which brings the University of Manchester’s Humanities researchers together to discuss how COVID-19 and lockdown are changing the way we think about society, politics, the environment and everyday life. Watch the recording below.
By Natalie-Anne Hall
This month, as the world has been debating how and when to lift Covid-19 ‘lockdown’ and Boris Johnson set out the UK’s moderate (if confusing) easing of restrictions, RT has published a series of anti-lockdown op-eds. Since 1 May, nine opinion pieces (by six different authors) have been published on RT’s website criticising the UK’s restrictions, compared with just one in support of them (back on 1 May). All of these op-eds have also been posted to the RT UK Facebook page, increasing their visibility. Many of the authors of these pieces, like Damian Wilson, Robert Bridge, Rob Lyons and Norman Lewis, are regular contributors to RT online, writing from politically and economically right-wing standpoints including attacks on climate activism, refugee programmes and ‘PC culture.’
These pieces have a distinct libertarian tone, evidenced in incendiary language like ‘riding roughshod over basic freedoms’. Much of the language used is provocative, with words like ‘authoritarianism’ and ‘socialist experiment’ conjuring images of communist dictatorships. In his piece following the 10 May announcement, Norman Lewis calls Johnson’s policy ‘patronizing and demeaning,’ eluding to a small-government, free-market approach. Mitchell Feierstein in his piece twice likens the government’s furlough scheme to the fiscal irresponsibility of ‘Zimbabwe and the Weimar Republic,’ and stokes anxiety with lines like ‘I am frightened by what I have been hearing, and you should be, too’. A third piece published on the same day (13 May) by Damian Wilson compares the UK’s current situation with the poverty and rationing experienced by Cuba in the 1990s, saying ‘the UK has sleep-walked into socialism without a single tank bearing cigar-smoking, khaki-clad revolutionaries rolling up Whitehall’. There are arguably dangers, as well as political benefits, of invoking such alarmist and militaristic analogies.
Some of the pieces also use decidedly Brexit-style language and appeals. The term ‘project fear’ is resurrected with the claim that Britons have been driven to ‘existential angst’ and become ‘petrified of normal life’. Brexit itself is mentioned in a handful of the pieces, for example jibing at the irony of Remainers now ‘embracing public opinion’ over the lockdown. More subtly, the same anti-trust, English nationalist and nostalgic messaging that has been seen in Brexit campaigning both on and offline is present in many of the articles. In his 11 May piece, James Heartfield uses the terms ‘English liberty’ and ‘British liberty’ interchangeably, and stokes nostalgia for a time before the end of the Cold War, when this ‘proud tradition’ suffered a ‘strange death’ and was replaced by fear and snowflake-like vulnerability (as though the Cold War period itself was free of public anxiety and paranoia). In the same piece he bemoans the government’s having ‘caved in to the experts’ and reminisces about the days when Tories like Michael Gove boldly claimed that ‘the people in this country have had enough of experts’ during the 2016 referendum campaign.
In line with these anti-expert sentiments, the pieces also make claims about the effects of lockdown strategies that are unevidenced and as-yet unverifiable, such as that the proposed necessity of lockdowns to ‘flatten the curve and protect the health service’ has now been exposed as ‘just fearmongering and exaggeration’, or that Sweden’s soft-touch policy has succeeded in the ‘bolstering of immunity among the young and the healthy’. Conversely, one of the most recent pieces entitled ‘London’s Covid-19 R number is well below critical at 0.4, with only 24 new cases a day. NOW why can’t we have our lives back?’ appeals specifically to ‘the science’ in its call to end the lockdown. It does not, however, stop short of employing cultural logic, claiming that as Britons, ‘Social distancing is already a way of life, we are born into it.’ Rob Lyon’s piece also published 15 May calls for the UK to ‘end the lockdown as soon as possible’ and ‘conquer the fear factor’ for the sake of the economy, on the grounds that the most recent figures show ‘hardly any’ recorded deaths by the virus for under-40s.
While most of the pieces constitute direct and obvious criticisms, some, like Damian Wilson’s piece on ‘Professor Lockdown’s career ‘thankfully’ being over, use popular news stories to package their critique. Similarly, Robert Bridge’s 7 May piece began by predicting the unfortunate loss of customs like handshaking, only to move dangerously close to ‘plandemic’ conspiracy theories by pointing to Bill Gates’ financial interest in vaccines. He then uses such logic to proclaim emphatically that being ‘forced to endure endless lockdowns and quarantines behind surgical masks’ is a strategy that ‘cannot last forever’.
If this wasn’t enough to convince readers of RT’s position, a standard news article with the innocuous headline ‘PM Johnson says UK hopes to EASE some lockdown measures on Monday’ published on 6 May was accompanied by an image of protesters holding signs that say ‘No more lockdown’, both on RT’s website and the RT UK Facebook page. Like such strategic choices of photographs, the publication of op-eds can be conveniently non-committal. ‘Op-eds’ are just that, opinion pieces by those whose views are allegedly ‘their own,’ to some extent absolving RT of journalistic responsibility around their accuracy. But given what is at stake in a pandemic that has already claimed over 300,000 lives, this one-sided promotion of anti-lockdown viewpoints by the outlet could be a dangerous game.
Natalie-Anne Hall is PhD candidate in Sociology at the University of Manchester. She is currently conducting research for the ‘Reframing Russia’ project on how and why RT’s content appeals to Facebook users.
By Keir Giles
A friendly-fire incident between counter-disinformation researchers shows that in defending Western democracies against malign influence, no one team or organisation has all the answers.
Malign influence is a complex and multi-dimensional issue, and adversaries that seek to harm Western societies through information operations select from a wide-ranging and constantly evolving toolkit, adapting and developing their tactics, techniques and procedures as they go. It follows that defences against information attack need to cover a similarly diverse range of approaches, spanning different disciplines, theoretical and applied, and from strategic down to tactical level.
In April 2020, two teams from two of these different disciplines came into direct collision, as academic researchers from Reframing Russia took aim at the methodology of counter-disinformation practitioners from EUvsDisinfo. Despite the fact that both groups are notionally on the same side, the incident highlighted a polarisation of opinion on methods to counter disinformation – but also pointed the way to better cooperation between different organisations with widely differing approaches and priorities.
In a short article on their website, Reframing Russia provided a critical assessment of EUvsDisinfo’s methods in selecting and publicising instances of Russian disinformation for their database and analytical products. Highlighting what they described as problems of omission, distortion and terminology, Reframing Russia’s Professors Stephen Hutchings and Vera Tolz suggested that through misrepresenting source material, EUvsDisinfo “is in danger of becoming a source for disinformation itself”.
Reactions from across the spectrum of counter-disinformation activity were swift and uncompromising. Reframing Russia itself came under vehement attack, including by activist group GorseFires Collectif seeking to identify the author of a post uncritically promoting RT on the Reframing Russia website, and a tendentious and personalised attack by “The Insider”, insinuating that Reframing Russia are funded not only by the UK but also by “Russian sources”. Meanwhile Reframing Russia’s article was strongly endorsed not only by RT and pro-Russian activists, but also by RUSI, a think-tank in London, which among valid and constructive points inadvertently repeated inaccurate claims about EUvsDisinfo and its operations. Overall, neither side in the conversation emerged with credit. But a closer look at the nature of the disagreement between the two sides in the conversation – and at how little they have in common despite in theory sharing common aims – shows the way toward a far more effective cooperative relationship between the many organisations working on the problem of disinformation and malign influence.
Where Reframing Russia went into specific detail on its criticism of EUvsDisinfo, that criticism appears valid. Reframing Russia’s article highlighted reports which, it claimed, were misrepresented. Referring back to the original media outputs confirmed that their description by EUvsDisinfo was inexplicable; and Reframing Russia assert that these were just a selection from a substantial number of similarly troubling reports in the EUvsDisinfo database. According to Vera Tolz survey of Covid-19 related entries in EUvsDisinfo’s database showed that “80% contained gross misrepresentations”.
Credibility is critical to EUvsDisinfo’s role. Association with the EU gives the project a mantle of authority, reflected in the widespread quoting of its findings. EUvsDisinfo will inevitably be held to a higher standard of proof and probity than the organisations they report on. It would therefore surely be in their best interest to address doubts in their reporting directly, looking again at the source bulletins and responding frankly and honestly if mistakes have been made. If not, they risk precisely the erosion of trust of which Reframing Russia is warning.
In addition, Reframing Russia highlighted EUvsDisinfo’s “pro-Kremlin” formulation to describe the sectors of the Russian information environment whose disinformation it reports. This too seems to point to a valid problem. Each page of the EUvsDisinfo website carries a caveat that its database collects “messages in the international information space that are identified as providing a partial, distorted, or false depiction of reality and spread key pro-Kremlin messages. This does not necessarily imply, however, that a given outlet is linked to the Kremlin or editorially pro-Kremlin, or that it has intentionally sought to disinform”. The explicit equivocation may well be a necessary substitute for an extended essay on the nebulous and sometimes intangible nature of malign influence, but it presents an obvious hostage to precisely this kind of criticism.
The roots of Reframing Russia’s disquiet about the nature of EUvsDisinfo’s work lies in the latter’s remit. As described by Anneli Ahonen, head of the European External Action Service’s East StratCom Task Force that manages EUvsDisinfo, it “is an awareness raising campaign, with a disclaimer stating that this does not reflect official EU position. This provides us with distance and analytical freedom from political level, and results in more credibility.” The campaigning role drives Reframing Russia’s core concern that in the drive to raise awareness, EUvsDisinfo steps beyond objective appraisal of the material they are handling.
Unfortunately, however, in presenting their concerns over EUvsDisinfo, Reframing Russia convinced some of their readers that they had fallen victim to the same problems of methodology that they themselves were criticising. Highlighting individual examples of miscategorisation by EUvsDisinfo gave the impression of cherry-picking material. Concerned that EUvsDisinfo might be “overgeneralising”, Reframing Russia sampled one news bulletin from one Russian channel on one day (Pervyy kanal on 12 March), and then appeared to draw generalised conclusions from it. Their article linked to contentious sources to bolster its arguments, such as repeated references to an attack on EUvsDisinfo by fringe Dutch activist Arjen Nijeboer in 2018. It included the suggestion that “the East StratCom Task Force relies on as many as 400 volunteers to trace Russian disinformation” (a claim later echoed by RUSI to call EUvsDisinfo “amateurish”), despite this not having been the case for over two years at the time of writing.
Reframing Russia later explained that the challenges to its methods were based on misinterpretations, that its “Two Short Reports” on Russian disinformation on Covid-19 were rapid response pieces produced following requests by a UK newspaper journalist and by a parliamentary committee, and that the short notice at which they were produced explained the strictly limited dataset on which its survey of RT coverage was based.
But in part because none of this was made clear, the response to the reports was savage criticism, extending to questioning the integrity and motives of the project leaders. Reframing Russia’s reference to being “asked to comment” on material produced by EUvsDisinfo sparked particular concern, and speculation over whose initiative it might have been to produce an apparent hit piece on the agency. In posting what they believed was a hasty but reasoned critique of another organisation’s methods, Reframing Russia’s project leaders inadvertently stepped out of academic debate and into a hornets’ nest of accusation and recrimination.
Reframing Russia’s Contribution
Reframing Russia’s contribution to counter-disinformation efforts lies at the academic and theoretical end of the spectrum. Primarily examining RT, the project’s remit is to investigate “the processes by which RT not only reconfigures publics and audiences, but also furnishes the very conditions for unprecedented modes of international mistrust, conflict and insecurity”. Academics friendly to Reframing Russia stress that this is a creditable, serious undertaking, and Professor Hutchings points out that “we have had academic articles deriving from our research accepted for publication in prestigious outlets like European Journal of Cultural Studies” – meaningless to most people, but a significant marker of achievement for academics. Vera Tolz adds that “our project is for academics. We are not political campaigners, practitioners or activists. If our work is useful for policy analysts and practitioners, it is great, but we do not pro-actively seek this impact.”
Theoretical study of disinformation and its effects provide a necessary counterpoint to the practical and tactical focus of organisations like EUvsDisinfo. This is especially important when considering whether disinformation is in fact effective. If Reframing Russia does in the end make a contribution to the vital question of how much impact – if any – malign influence campaigns using mechanisms such as RT do in fact deliver, then their work is crucial.
But the difference of opinion between Reframing Russia and EUvsDisinfo highlights the challenges inherent in crossing the boundaries between theoretical investigation and practical application. As noted above, EUvsDisinfo struggles with the problem of scoping and defining its target material: conversely, a separate attempt by Reframing Russia to deconstruct an individual item of Russian disinformation led to yet another trail of misunderstanding and misrepresentation.
At the time of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s admission to hospital with coronavirus in early April, Russian sources reported that he would be put on a ventilator – with the implication both that his condition was more severe than was being made known at the time, and that Russian media had well-placed sources within his health care team. This was widely covered in British media as a prime example of Russian disinformation. Reframing Russia took issue with this characterisation, and set out to prove that it was mistaken. But again, its conclusion that it could find “no evidence of any attempt by Russian news providers to spread disinformation about Prime Minister Johnson’s state of health”, and its means for reaching that conclusion, sparked alarm, concern and fierce criticism.
Reframing Russia pointed out that the original Russian report said Johnson was to be put on a ventilator whereas English translations reported that he already had been, which was true; but then implied that this difference between future and past tense invalidated the charge of disinformation. Vera Tolz’s argument that the Russian phrase for putting someone on a ventilator could also mean simply giving them an oxygen mask was received sceptically by other native Russian speakers. Most strikingly of all, Reframing Russia argued that the Boris Johnson ventilator story could not be called disinformation because it was so easily deniable, and “such blatant falsehoods would seem to serve little purpose anyway”.
This would seem to indicate a gulf between academic and practical approaches to Russian disinformation, since suggesting that Russian disinformation efforts do not include blatant falsehoods runs counter to years of detailed practical research on their methods. (Again, Reframing Russia later clarified that their comment should not be taken at face value, and explained that: “We have never suggested that Russian disinformation does not include blatant falsehoods. Of course, there are numerous examples of those… But in relation to issues where Russia is not directly implicated, the Russian media still can use poor practices, but they are much less likely to disseminate direct, pointless fabrications”).
This gulf between the two approaches to countering disinformation stems not only from mutual incomprehension but also from mutual unawareness. Reframing Russia and EUvsDisinfo were only dimly aware of each other’s existence before colliding, let alone having a clear understanding of each other’s methodology. Reframing Russia could have raised their concerns over EUvsDisinfo output privately before launching a public critique: the EU’s Q&A page explaining what East StratCom Task Force is also explains how to contact it about mistakes spotted in its output. But Reframing Russia felt that the problems they identified were so systematic and significant that this approach was not appropriate; furthermore “there are no specific names on the East StratCom site suggesting who exactly is in charge of the operation, with their personal email addresses”. Therefore, in Reframing Russia’s view, a public commentary was the preferred solution.
Reframing Russia contrasts EUvsDisinfo’s awareness-raising campaign with its own research, which it says aims to be dispassionate and objective, including when this leads to uncomfortable conclusions. Stephen Hutchings suggests that “some of RT’s reporting practices are deficient… but, in the context of the Covid-19 coverage they are undoubtedly superior to EastStartCom’s [sic] own methods”. Vera Tolz adds that “We do, however, believe that EUvsDisinfo’s data on Covid-19 is an exact equivalence [to RT]. In its factual inaccuracy it is considerably worse than what RT International produced. Their database entries include systematic misrepresentations. They can be legitimately called falsifications.”
This, naturally, means Reframing Russia is faced with the need to rebut accusations of drawing false equivalence between Russian malign influence campaigns and those who seek to counter them. A statement that the Institute for Statecraft in London and the Internet Research Agency in St Petersburg “follow not dissimilar tactics” was, Reframing Russia explained, no more than a reference to outsourcing policies by governments. Professor Hutchings adds that “none of us would dream of drawing an equivalence between RT and BBC, there is none. However it seems to us perfectly legitimate to point out instances where the practices are equivalent.”
While EUvsDisinfo may lean too far in flagging content as disinformation, Reframing Russia may risk similar criticism in the opposite direction through presenting research conclusions on RT which inadvertently resemble making excuses for it – particularly when those conclusions echo the talking points of outright apologists. Reframing Russia stresses that “much of RT’s output is purely factual”, which critics say plays down the remainder that is distorted or manipulative.
Where the facts are in question, Reframing Russia is at risk of appearing to give RT the benefit of the doubt. This extends to falling victim to a classic confusion of balance with objectivity. Because the project’s various correspondents unanimously disapprove of RT, in order to address this perceived imbalance the project’s leaders decided to host (and later delete) an article promoting RT on their website, once again generating fierce criticism and deep, yet unfounded, suspicion of their motives.
The manner in which these two organisations work to fundamentally different principles is reflected even in how they present themselves to the world. The purpose of EUvsDisinfo’s public presence is specifically to raise awareness. By contrast, the part of Reframing Russia’s work which it considers most significant is largely hidden from view.
Reframing Russia’s team members have written a number of academic studies, some of which are available for public consumption despite the majority being confined to academic journals. The project has made a significant contribution to understanding of RT’s programming, content, and audiences in multiple languages, as part of its goal “to situate RT in the international media ecology”. But it has also been criticised specifically for this close focus on RT, forming as it does only part – and a relatively insignificant part – of a much wider effort of malign influence using levers way beyond traditional or social media. Practitioners argue that close focus on RT while neglecting the broader disinformation ecosystem – for example social media – means missing essential context, in particular other instruments of subversion or destabilisation like agents of influence, useful idiots, and others who consciously or unconsciously promote and disseminate Russian talking points.
But Reframing Russia points out once again that the impression that its work is limited to RT is a misinterpretation, and further that the project’s apparent emphasis on instances of direct falsification, as opposed to the broader picture of narratives and intent, is also misleading – as is the suggestion that the project does not examine social media. In each case, Vera Tolz points out, visitors to the project’s website have been misguided by the assumption that what is presented there is representative of the project. Instead, she points out, “blog posts” there are “not representative of any research we do”, and in fact “from what is currently on the website it is not easy to get an impression of what project is about”. Instead, Reframing Russia’s primary output is intended to be academic journal articles and contributions to compiled volumes, culminating in a book to be published long after the project ends in August 2020.
The contrast with EUvsDisinfo, whose aim is rapid campaigning on current issues using the website and associated database as a key communication medium, could hardly be greater. But the key point that unites both projects is a need to pre-empt or mitigate censure and denunciation on mistaken grounds by more clearly communicating their aims and objectives, and in particular the principles to which they work, not only with each other but with audiences in general.
The Covid-19 pandemic provides the ideal environment for malign influence to thrive as it fills a vacuum of authoritative information. The perceived lack of reliable data about the virus provides fertile ground for information and disinformation campaigns, especially feeding on fear, uncertainty and doubt. Russian sources, unsurprisingly, are making the most of the opportunities provided by coronavirus to reinforce their long-running narratives. Vigilance against these campaigns, and successful identification of where they do (and do not) have the potential to cause real damage, is essential. But the divergence in approach between Reframing Russia and EUvsDisinfo reflects the fine balance between over-reaction to Russian disinformation campaigns and failing to react at all.
One answer lies in successful collaboration, cooperation or at the very least communication between different groups. For example, flaws in EUvsDisinfo reporting or deeper problems with methodology, when pointed out constructively, should be welcomed and acted on. Meanwhile Reframing Russia could be assisted with the broad context within which their important work sits. The same principles apply to many of the disparate groups, entities and even individuals now active in the counter-disinformation industry.
The organisations working in this space are many and varied, but not all are able to share the results of their endeavours. Professor Tolz, drawing on her substantial experience of monitoring traditional media for Radio Liberty during the 1980s and early 1990s, suggests that “further lessons on how high-quality, dependable media analysis is produced can be learned from the work of BBC Monitoring whose well-trained experts follow media across the world, including Russia.” This may well be true even following BBC Monitoring’s evisceration and repurposing by the BBC in its disapproval of “doing government work”, but at the time of writing BBCM’s contract to provide services to East StratCom has not been renewed, and much of its counter-disinformation work remains accessible by subscription only. Similarly, other centres of expertise appear constitutionally or organisationally constrained from pooling and sharing their knowledge and analysis. The US Global Engagement Center, for example, reports that it has established international partnerships to facilitate information sharing and response coordination, but declines to publicise its methodology on the grounds that this would reveal “tradecraft”.
But in the absence of a broader dialogue across all sectors of the expert community, counter-disinformation efforts will remain hostage to well-intentioned but misguided efforts, such as the detailed and widely-quoted New York Times explainer from mid-April that was roundly condemned by disinformation researchers for being deeply misleading. Those at both extremes of the conversation will continue to argue from entrenched positions rather than considering issues, instances or nuances. In addition some of the most prolific writers on Russia can at times adopt a condescending tone, suggesting that all those who disagree with them do so only because they do not understand Russia as well or are incapable of evidence-based discussion and analysis; and too often this approach is used to attempt to win an argument rather than actually arrive at a sensible conclusion.
That sensible conclusion lies in the middle ground. It is not true that counter-disinformation teams don’t get it wrong and can’t be criticised because they are the good guys. Where they slip up or make mistakes, or even where their core principles of operation may be flawed, this should be highlighted to make their output better and more useful and relevant. But it is also not true that when counter-disinformation teams do get it wrong, that makes them just as bad as the malign influence they are working against. This is a false and damaging equivalence, since aims, transparency, accountability and much more set them poles apart. It is further not true that established academics should not be criticised from outside the profession, or their remit questioned, on the grounds that this constrains free enquiry. There is no reason why universities should not be held to the same standards of relevance and recognition of the real-life impact of their utterances as any other organisations. Mutual support is overdue: by seeking a cooperative, rather than adversarial approach between players on the same side, defenders against malign influence can help mitigate the effects of propaganda outlets rather than providing them with material.
Keir Giles is a Senior Consulting Fellow with the Russia and Eurasia Programme at Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs.
Read more: Paul Bischoff explores how disinformation is spread on social media in this Comparitech report. “Inside a Facebook bot farm that pumps out 200k+ political posts per month”.
By Vera Zvereva
Something interesting happened in autumn 2019 in the sphere of pro-presidential media on the Runet. Several news sites – the Federal News Agency (RIA FAN, Federal’noe Agentstvo Novostei), Politics Today (Politika Segodnia), Nation News (Narodnye Novosti), and Economics Today (Ekonomika Segodnia) – announced the creation of the Patriot media group. Its board of trustees, according to the Patriot website, is chaired by the businessman Evgenii Prigozhin. According to the Bell and the BBC, this is the first time Prigozhin has been mentioned officially in connection with these media, although journalists have long associated his name with these sites and their umbrella media structure which they call the ‘media factory’, and with the Internet Research Agency, a ‘troll factory’ structure in St. Petersburg. The creation of the Patriot media group continues the trend of strengthening the pro-presidential media cluster on the Russian-speaking Internet.
Keeping a grip on digital space
In recent years, Russian state authorities have sought to address a complex challenge. They have tried to increase their control over communications in Russian society and to make the Runet a ‘safer’ and more manageable space, especially in the sense of deterring users’ protest activities. Therefore, they have tightened legislation and introduced restrictive measures to control user data and the dissemination of information online. On the other hand, full control over the Runet is hardly possible in the present day, thanks to the spread of digital communication and the proliferation of information channels. Moreover, overtly authoritarian attempts to bring the internet under state control, following the Chinese model, would undermine the image of ‘Russian democracy’ presented to the outside world.
In this situation, the strengthening of the state authorities’ influence in the digital space is being achieved not by legislation alone. On the Russian Internet a communicative system has been created that aims to manage meanings. In this system, actors willing to support the state authorities’ stance on current events – pro-Kremlin journalists, bloggers and social media users, paid propagandists and amateur volunteers, trolls and the ‘soldiers’ of information campaigns – have been enabled to fulfil this task by any means necessary. Besides individuals, the system also includes a multitude of ‘patriotic’ web resources, – websites, YouTube channels, communities on VKontakte, and so on, – publishing anti-Ukrainian, anti-EU and anti-American content. Not only official supporters, such as registered online pro-Kremlin movements, but also unofficial ones, including anti-Western communities on social media, sympathisers, semi-criminal ‘fishermen in muddy water’ and those who for any reason are willing to contribute, are invited to participate.
The law in this sphere is applied selectively. Proxies of the Russian state authorities receive tacit permission to attack, rebut or pour insults on communications by the political opposition and other ‘malcontents’. These ‘volunteers’ appear to be expressing their personal points of view. This gives them the freedom to jeer at or discredit their opponents, to overlook minor and sometimes major inaccuracies in their own material, to use derogatory language, and to indulge uninhibitedly in aggression and exaggeration in defense of the authorities (see Zvereva 2020 for an in-depth discussion). Among these volunteering supporters are trolls who, in seeking to provoke such reactions as fear, despair or aggression, or to trick users into accepting fakes as facts, also play an important part in spreading commissioned content. Often, it is the trolls who present themselves as the mouthpieces of internet freedom of expression which is being restricted everywhere (and which on the Runet is constrained, according to their logic, by pro-American ‘liberal’ journalists and bloggers). Trolls justify their upsetting and threatening discourse by reference to their own characterisation of reality as upsetting and threatening.
Ordinary internet users have no way of knowing for certain who is behind this or that claim – whether it is somebody like themselves or a paid author. However, ordinary users are themselves an important part of the system, consuming and spreading the messages in circulation. By doing so, they contribute inadvertently to the maintenance of this system of communication.
Emerging into the mainstream
This system of proxies and supporters developed rapidly after 2012, alongside the first legislative acts known as the ‘laws against the internet’. The most widely cited and investigated group of pro-government actors engaged in disseminating pro-state messages on Runet was the so-called Olgino Trolls. In 2013, the Internet Research Agency in the Olgino suburb of St Petersburg hired staff to work for what was effectively a ‘troll-factory’ – a conveyor belt of pseudo-bloggers to write posts and comments in bulk on prescribed topics: against the opposition, against America and Ukraine and in support of the Russian president. The trolls’ work was intended to increase the circulation of pro-government views on social networks, to counter quickly any criticism of the Russian authorities and their actions and to use aggression to deter opponents of the government from communicating online. According to an investigation published by the Russian media company RBK, the Internet Research Agency and a number of other media resources later absorbed into the informal group of businesses that journalists have labelled the ‘Media Factory’ were allegedly financed by Evgenii Prigozhin. In 2018, Prigozhin and the Internet Research Agency among other companies and individuals were indicted by a US grand jury for organizing activities for the purpose of interference in the 2016 US presidential election. The sites RIA FAN and Economics Today, along with several others, were included by the US Treasury Department in the sanctions list drawn up as a consequence.
In 2017-18, Facebook and Twitter removed several hundred accounts presumed to be associated with the Internet Research Agency because of alleged interference in the US elections. Among them were accounts of the Federal News Agency (FAN), the main information resource of the ‘Media Factory’. It is important to note that the FAN has never been clandestine: from the very beginning it has operated openly on the Runet. In 2017, ‘Media Factory’ included at least 16 online information resources, nine of which were registered under the official category ‘mass media’ with Roskomnadzor. According to RBK, its combined monthly audience in 2017 was more than 36 million, which exceeded those of Runet’s largest established media resources. Thus, in Runet these newer media resources have been consolidating their position among established media, despite their delegitimization in the West.
It seems that over the past three years, this field of communication in the Runet has begun to change. Proxy warriors took an active part in the anti-Ukrainian information campaign, the campaigns against the European Union and America because of the imposition of sanctions, information support for Russia’s participation in the war in Syria, and in the fight against the Russian opposition. More recently, however, new laws regulating freedom of expression on the Internet have come into force in Russia, and new means developed for restricting various kinds of digital dissent. At the same time, ordinary Runet users have become more familiar with the activity of internet propagandists and trolls. In this new political and legal reality, the need to maintain a shadow army of trolls has disappeared. Therefore, a substantial part of the FAN media resources on the Runet has begun to operate like ordinary mainstream pro-Kremlin media. The creation of the Patriot media group represents a logical continuation of this process.
In particular, a discursive rapprochement is taking place between these dubious (from the Western point of view) resources and the mainstream media. The boundaries between them are becoming difficult to define. Many of the websites associated with the former ‘Media Factory’ had a similar agenda to RIA Novosti, RT Russia, and others, and simply reiterated their news, opinions, and interpretations on the Internet, keeping users inside the discursive space and the circle of resources that they sought to manage, but without reciprocation from the established media. Now, however, RIA Novosti and RT Russia are sharing the links and banners of Patriot group news sites. A network structure allows the same interpretation of events to be quickly propagated from site to site. At the same time, the language circulating in this environment is becoming more similar, whether it is used by high officials or by ordinary users, partly because the language of ‘patriotic’ web-resources often mimics that of the political establishment, and partly because the political language of Russian officials in the media has itself become so rich in street language, non-diplomatic idioms and elements of trolling that what officials say is no longer clearly distinguishable from the speeches of less respectable media actors.
The landing page of the Federal News Agency thus looks quite respectable. It displays photos of the president of the Russian Federation, ministers, and deputies of the State Duma. It offers a similar selection of news stories to what appears on the RIA Novosti and RT websites. In terms of style and language, as well as in its promotional and persuasive techniques, FAN differs little from the mainstream media that present news ‘patriotically’. Political news is discussed in the same way on the FAN and other sites of the Patriot media group as has been practised for years on Russian news and current affairs television programmes and talk-shows.
Politics Today, Economy Today, and Nation News also present themselves as respectable resources. However, the partner materials on these sites often link to teaser networks like Lentainfo, Infox.sg and 24smi, which frequently publish clickbait and content which is inaccurate or misleading. According to investigations by journalists of Lenizdat into the promotional system of the site Nation News, in 2018 this material was promoted not only with search engine queries dealing with content linked to the current news agenda, such as ‘the war in Syria’, but also ‘movies for adults’, ‘watch video 18’, ‘’Serebro’ [pop group] naked’, and so on. Clicking on links from these websites very quickly leads to scandal sites that promise sensation, true crime horror, trash photos and adult content.
For example, on 13 April 2020 the ‘News from our partners’ rubric on the Nation News website included clickbait links such as: ‘It’s all happening on 30th April. Golikova [Deputy Prime Minister for Social Policy, Labour, Health and Pension Provision] reveals the truth’ and ‘Mishustin allowed to shoot down civilian aircraft: the details’. Clicking these links leads to the page of the teaser network site Infox.sg, which in turn encourages readers to access a text entitled ‘Kirkorov’s [Russian celebrity musician] perversions revealed’, linking in turn to the dubious News-fast.com site promoting ‘50 naughty beach shots’ as well as an article published on Rossaprimavera.ru (‘Krasnaja vesna’) entitled ‘UN expert believes that coronavirus was created in the USA in 2015’. Thus, the mainstream political discourse promoted by these websites is just a click away from Internet resources offering the discourse of scandal, ‘fake news’ and debased language.
Promoting good news and fighting ‘anti-Russian’ media
According to Patriot’s own website, the media group was created in order to disseminate information about events happening in Russia ‘to create a favourable information space aimed at developing the country.’ The group’s websites try to present ‘positive’ stories. Thus, on the FAN website under the tag ‘good news from Russia’, FAN holds a regular contest for good news stories to encourage regional journalists promoting a positive agenda. For example, on February 25, 2020, it is reported that readers voted the first prize (30,000 roubles, about £350) to a journalist of TASS Chechnya for her report ‘Chechnya has patented technology for manufacturing healthy lemonade with fern extract’; and 20,000 roubles second prize to a journalist from the Chelyabinsk Argumenty i Fakty newspaper for the story ‘My eyes and ears: Lekha the cat saved his owner from a fire in Chelyabinsk’.
These publications are reminiscent of a well-known feature of Soviet journalism of the Brezhnev period: reports of positive news such as ‘an increase in the milk yield’ were used as a pretext for discussing those whom the media presented as ‘anti-Soviet’. Indeed, on Patriot sites still more energy is invested in creating another kind of text familiar from the Soviet press – texts about the ‘detection of the enemy’.
The Patriot website declares: ‘Amid the development of modern technologies and the Internet, there is a growing number of media outlets, anti-Russian ones among them, that promote negative information and don’t notice the good things happening in the country’. Most of the attention of these resources is devoted to combatting those media, voices, and interpretations that express points of view that challenge the positions of the Russian authorities. Declaring such sources of information and interpretation as ‘anti-Russian’, the publications of the Patriot group overtly articulate sharper assessments than would appear in the official state media – RIA Novosti or RT.
On the FAN website there are thematic sections devoted to the fight against the ‘anti-Russian’ media: for example, the section ‘Bought by Khodorkovsky’ or ‘Rating of anti-Russian media’. In the FAN project ‘Media Classifier’, media are categorised as follows: Foreign, Anti-Russian, State, Patriotic, Socio-political, and Ukrainian. In the Foreign section one can read, for example, the following: ‘The BBC Russian Service: [this] media regularly publishes materials representing corrupt opposition figures as martyrs and victims of the regime, and also welcomes in its publications the anti-Russian sanctions of the West’. Or ‘Medusa: [this] media promotes homosexuality, incites hatred between nations, publishes custom-made materials advertising fraudulent Internet services, and discredits charities.’ FAN also strategically makes counter-allegations about the USA spreading anti-Russian fake news, investigates the activities of ‘Russophobic media’ and exposes foreign agents in Russia. Thus, FAN tries to seize the initiative by asking who should investigate whom?
An important task for the publications of the Patriot group is to re-interpret ‘inconvenient’ news. For example, in early April this year, news spread in the media that the Novgorod regional police had stopped a convoy of the Alliance of Doctors union and detained activists who were bringing personal protective equipment – masks, gloves, protective suits, goggles, and disinfectant – to doctors in Novgorod hospitals. When detaining the head of the Alliance of Doctors, Anastasia Vasilyeva, police officers had used physical force and then brought charges against her for disobeying the police and violating the self-isolation regime. In response to the ensuing public outrage on the Internet, the Patriot websites posted a number of articles, all repeating the claim, with slight variations that recall the guidelines for writing texts for troll factory employees, that the detention of the activists was justified because they had violated the quarantine regime; that Vasilyeva was associated with Alexei Navalny; that the actions of the Alliance of Doctors and Vasilyeva were not humanitarian aid, but caused harm; and that Russian hospitals have been provided with everything necessary to combat the coronavirus epidemic.
Here are a few quotes. FAN: ‘The Alliance of Doctors trade union is disguising itself with good intentions for the sake of flouting the self-isolation regime. The leader of the union, created by the odious blogger Alexei Navalny, was detained on 3 April on the M-11 highway in the Novgorod region. … At the same time, local medical institutions had no need of support – everything they needed was already available. … The Association of Health Managers has already issued a statement stressing that Vasilieva is trying to sabotage the work of hospitals and is putting the lives of doctors and patients in danger.’
Politics Today: ‘The raids of the Alliance of Doctors in the Moscow regions are aimed at discrediting Russian doctors. Anastasia Vasilieva and her Alliance of Doctors union have staged several provocative actions in Russian hospitals. She … is herself a project of the infamous blogger Alexei Navalny.’
Nation News: ‘The Alliance of Doctors has violated three decrees to comply with the self-isolation rules. The actions of the head of the Alliance of Doctors trade union, Anastasia Vasilyeva, who travelled to the regions, may constitute evidence of a violation of the high alert regime in Moscow. Alexei Navalny’s attending physician herself thinks differently …’
The Patriot group sites have become an important part of the information system with its ‘control points’ in different communication nodes, from official information agencies to informal social media groups and everywhere in between. At these control points, a concept may be taken and have its meaning adjusted in accordance with the line given at the top.
While their reporting objectives vary with current events, the Patriot news sites appear to follow two strategies consistently. They seek to gain greater legitimacy as news media, while continuing to carry out those tasks from which official state media refrain.
P.S. On 17 April 2020, FAN reported that Google had blocked its media account and its associated YouTube account. Representatives of the Patriot media group have claimed that these actions violated its right to free speech. According to TASS, ‘The Kremlin considers Google’s blocking of Russian media accounts unacceptable and expects that such decisions will be reviewed. This was reported to journalists by the press secretary of the President of the Russian Federation, Dmitry Peskov.’
Vera Zvereva is a Senior lecturer in Russian language and culture at the University of Jyväskylä
By Taras Kuzio
Although much has been written about Russia’s information warfare one topic has been absent in these analyses and that is why Moscow is so obsessed with Ukraine. Besides a lack of research there is also a tendency among some Western scholars writing about Russian nationalists to downplay the influence of nationalism in Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
Of the 8223 disinformation cases in the EU data base collected since January 2015, a high 3329 (or 40%) are on Ukraine. This figure is higher than the 2825 disinformation cases collected for the European Union (EU), an organisation that unites 27 countries. As the EU’s Disinformation Review writes, ‘Ukraine has a special place within the disinformation (un)reality.’ The Ukrainian NGO StopFake has collected 500 stories from Russian disinformation on Ukraine.
Mikhail Zygar in his book All the Kremlin’s Men. Inside the Court of Vladimir Putin writes that Putin was obsessed with Ukraine almost from day one of his presidency. ‘We must do something, or we’ll lose it’, he is quoted as saying. ‘Ukraine is by far the most misrepresented country in the Russian media. Out of over 5000 disinformation cases registered in the EUvsDisinfo database since 2015, almost half target Ukraine.’
Putin’s obsession with Ukraine became noticeable in his response to the 2004 Orange Revolution when Viktor Yanukovych, the winning candidate whom he supported, was defeated by protestors forcing a re-run that he lost. The election of Yanukovych in 2010 brought ‘normality’ to Russia’s relations with Ukraine that Putin sees as the way things should be between ‘two fraternal peoples.’ This natural state of Russian-Ukrainian affairs was again undermined when Yanukovych fled from power during the 2013-2014 Euromaidan Revolution.
During the Euromaidan and since, Russia’s information warfare has gone into overdrive when covering Ukraine. ‘Almost five years into the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, the Kremlin’s use of the information weapon against Ukraine has not decreased; Ukraine still stands out as the most misrepresented country in pro-Kremlin media.’ This coverage can only be explained by Moscow’s Jekyll and Hyde view of Ukraine as both hostile to Russia and at the same time very close. While denigrating Ukraine at a level that would make Soviet Communist Party ideologues blush, Russian leaders also continue to display warm feelings towards their close ‘Ukrainian brothers’ and point to the inevitability of Russian-Ukrainian unity.
The roots of this Jekyll and Hyde view are in long-standing Russian nationalist views of Ukraine as an artificial construct made up of Crimea which was wrongly given to Ukraine and in an act of justice returned to Russia, New Russia populated by ‘Russians,’ Little Russia and Galicia. This view of Ukraine was evident as early as 2004 when tens of Russian political technologists working in Ukraine for Yanukovych’s election campaign produced a poster of Ukraine divided into ‘Three Sorts’ with Eastern Ukraine depicted as the worst of the three. The aim was to frighten Ukraine’s Russian-speakers about a possible election victory by ‘fascist’ Viktor Yushchenko who is married to a ‘CIA agent’ (because she worked at one time in the White House) and grew up in the Ukrainian nationalist diaspora.
In this Russian nationalist world view, New Russia and Little Russia always strive to be in unity with Russia. This is not possible, Putin and Russian leaders believe, because west Ukrainian ‘fascists’ took power in the Euromaidan ‘putsch’ and they are propped up by the West.
The aim of the West is, as always, to keep Russia down and deny its right as a great power to have a ‘privileged exclusive sphere of influence’ in Eurasia. Putin has decried the fact that Russians are the most divided people in the world, with ‘Russians’ here defined confusingly as including Russian speakers living outside the Russian Federation and sometimes including (Little Russian) Ukrainians. Galicia was never included within the Russian-Ukrainian union because of its alleged Russophobia and is viewed as lying outside the Russian World. Igor (‘Strelkov’) Girkin, who led Russian special forces in their April 2014 invasion of Ukraine, supports Russia (which he conflates with the USSR) returning to its 1939 borders; that is, without western Ukraine.
Putin’s and Russian nationalists’ views of Ukraine have no basis in reality. This was clearly seen when Russian speaking Ukrainian patriotism defeated the New Russia project in 2014. This has even less basis in reality since the election last year of Russian-speaking and Jewish Ukrainian Volodymyr Zelenskyy for whom six out of seven western Ukrainian regions voted. Nevertheless, Russia’s information warfare against Ukraine has continued to use the same themes as those promoted against former President Petro Poroshenko.
What has been ignored in analyses of Russian information warfare is how Putin’s rehabilitation of the White Guard movement and reburial of its officers and philosophers in Russia has influenced his chauvinism towards Ukraine. Ivan Ilyin, for example, who was reburied in Russia in 2005, denied the existence of a Ukrainian nation.
In the USSR, Russians and Ukrainians were viewed as having been born together and always seeking to live in union but nevertheless they were separate peoples. Ukraine was a founding member of the UN and had a separate seat to the USSR. Tsarist and White Guard views, which are now influential in contemporary Russia, deny the existence of Ukraine and Ukrainians.
Russian information warfare propagates ten themes which are discussed below. The first six have their roots in Tsarist and White Guard nationalism and the last four are from the USSR. Following is a list of the ten narratives followed by short descriptions of each.
- Ukraine is an artificial country and bankrupt state.
- Ukrainians are not a separate people to Russians.
- The Ukrainian language is artificial.
- Ukrainian nation was created as an Austrian conspiracy.
- Belittle, ridicule, and dehumanise Ukrainians.
- Foment disillusionment in Ukraine’s reforms and European integration.
- Ukraine is a Western puppet.
- Ukraine is run by ‘fascists’ and ‘Nazi’s.’
- Anti-Zionism and Ukrainian oligarchs.
- Distract attention from accusations made against Russia.
Firstly, Ukraine is an artificial country and failed, bankrupt state. Putin first raised this in his April 2008 speech to the NATO-Russia Council at the Bucharest NATO summit. Then, and since, Putin repeated the false claim that New Russia is inhabited by ‘Russians.’ In his December 2019 annual press conference, Putin called this region Prichernomorie (Black Sea coastal lands) [a term going back to the pre-revolutionary period and used ever since, including throughout the Soviet period] saying, ‘When the Soviet Union was created, ancestral Russian territories [such as] all of the Prichernomorie and Russia’s western lands, that never had anything to do with Ukraine, were turned over to Ukraine.’
Secondly, Ukrainians are not a separate people. Putin and Russian leaders repeatedly say Russians and Ukrainians are ‘one people.’ Ukrainians are a ‘brotherly nation’ who are ‘part of the Russian people’ and reunification, Putin told the Valdai Club in October 2017, will happen. ‘One people inhabits Ukraine and the Russian Federation, for the time being, divided (by the border)’ Security Council Secretary Nikolai Petrushev said in 2016.
Thirdly, the Ukrainian language does not exist and what is spoken are dialects of Russian. Although the USSR promoted Russification, it recognised the existence of the Ukrainian language. The Russian information agency Rex published an article claiming the ‘Ukrainian language is a weapon in the hybrid war’ and promotion of the language in contemporary Ukraine is ‘artificial’ and hybrid ‘brain programming’ political technology.
Fourthly, claiming the existence of a Ukrainian nation is a conspiracy against Russia. Putin has revived Tsarist and White Guard nationalist views suggesting that the Austrians created the Ukrainian nation. Putin said during his long interview by Tass in February, ‘The Ukrainian factor was specifically played out on the eve of World War I by the Austrian special service. Why? This is well-known – to divide and rule (the Russian people).’ His statement builds on the idea of the West always seeking to divide the ‘Russian nation.’
What is astounding is that Putin has taken on board views earlier espoused by extreme Russian nationalists. Four years prior to Putin talking about an Austrian conspiracy lying behind the Ukrainian people, leader of the Russian Imperial Movement Stanislav Vorobyev said the same.
Ukrainians seeking to live outside the Russian World are separatists breaking up unity of the Russian people. Girkin, who is a member of the Russian Imperial Movement, believes ‘The real separatists’ are not to be found in Russian-controlled Donbas but they ‘are the ones in Kiev, because they want to split Ukraine off from Moscow.’
Fifthly, the Russian media and information warfare routinely de-humanise Ukraine and Ukrainians by belittling the very idea that they can exist without external support, whether Russian or the West. The strategy for denigrating Ukraine in the Russian media is to belittle, ridicule and dehumanise. One example of this strategy was mocking and ridiculing Ukraine possessing a navy during the Russian-Ukrainian naval confrontation in the Azov Sea in late 2018.
Sixthly, spreading disillusionment in Ukraine’s reforms and European integration is an outgrowth of the previous theme. Ukraine and Ukrainians, because of their artificiality, are simply unable to introduce reforms and fight corruption to join the European Union. Ukraine is plagued by corruption and rule by oligarchs. To hammer this home, a final point is made that nobody is waiting for Ukraine in Brussels and that eventually Kyiv will understand this and return to Russia’s bosom. One important reason for propagating this theme is the potential threat of the success of Ukrainian reforms and their destabilizing influence on Putin’s authoritarian system. Ukraine is already a hub for anti-Putin opposition activities by exiled journalists and political activists. Some anti-Putin Russian nationalists are even fighting with Ukrainian forces in the Donbas.
Seventh, Putin believes Russia is fighting a war with the West in Ukraine and not with the majority living in New Russia and Little Russia who desire to be part of the Russian World. Ukraine is always portrayed as a country without real sovereignty which only exists because it is propped up by the West. As in Soviet propaganda and ideological campaigns, Ukrainian ‘nationalists’ are depicted as the West’s puppets and since 2014 are doing the West’s bidding by dividing the ‘Russian nation.’
Eighth, drawing on Soviet ideological campaigns against ‘Nazi collaborators’ in the Ukrainian diaspora, Ukraine is depicted as a country ruled by ‘Nazi’s’ and ‘fascists.’ Soviet propaganda and ideological campaigns attacked dissidents and nationalist opposition as ‘bourgeois nationalists’ who were in cahoots with Nazi’s in the Ukrainian diaspora and in the pay of Western and Israeli secret services. The claim was based on a Soviet understanding of ‘Ukrainian nationalist’ as anybody who opposed Soviet rule over Ukraine or Soviet nationality policies, whether he or she was a national communist or integral nationalist. Today, a ‘Ukrainian nationalist’ in Moscow’s eyes is anybody in Ukraine who supports its future outside the Russian World. With President Zelenskyy continuing his predecessor’s support for EU and NATO membership, Russia has begun criticizing him as a ‘nationalist.’ Director of the Foreign Intelligence Service, Chairman of the Russian Historical Society, Sergei Naryshkin, commenting on the statements of the Ukrainian president during his visit to Poland said ‘It is clear that Mr. Zelensky is more and more immersed in the ideas of Ukrainian nationalism.’
A common theme in Russian information warfare and diplomacy is the claim that with nationalists ruling Ukraine there is an existentialist threat to Russian speakers. Putin refuses to countenance the return of Ukrainian control over their joint border because of the threat of a new ‘Srebrenica’ genocide of Russian speakers. This claim ignores Ukrainian opinion polls which always show that most Ukrainians do not believe such a threat exists while ignoring the high levels of Russian speaking patriotism in Ukraine. The highest number of casualties of Ukrainian security forces from a Ukrainian region are from Dnipro (Dnipropetrovsk) and the highest number of veterans from the war in the Donbas are to be found in Dnipro, Kharkiv and Poltava.
Indeed, with Putin and Russian nationalists convinced New Russia is inhabited by ‘Russians’ and wrongly assuming these are pro-Putin (which is synonymous with pro-Russian) they are unable to fathom the very concept of a Russian-speaking Ukrainian patriot. This theme became particularly bizarre last year when Ukraine was the only country outside Israel with a Jewish president (Zelenskyy) and Jewish Prime Minister Volodymyr Hroysman. Mocking Russia’s obsession with searching for ‘fascists’ in Ukraine, Jewish-Ukrainian oligarch Ihor Kolomioyskyy began wearing tee-shirts emblazoned with ‘Zhydo-Banderivets’ (Yid-Banderite), a sarcastic reference to his status as an alleged Jewish supporter of nationalist leader Stepan Bandera.
Ninth, Soviet anti-Zionism, which was always a camouflaged form of anti-Semitism, has been revived in Russian information warfare against Ukraine and more broadly. Ukraine’s oligarchs, such as Kolomoyskyy who took a decisive stance against Russia as governor of Dnipropetrovsk in 2014, are pillorized as being in bed with Ukrainian nationalists. Ukrainian nationalists and Jewish oligarchs are Western puppets. Ukraine is being colonized by the EU, US and the West as part of a liberal elite conspiracy that promotes globalization to destroy the sovereignty of nation states. Globalization, with George Soros used as a favourite target, is synonymous with the older world-wide Jewish conspiracy. Anti-Zionism using such themes are found in Russian-controlled Donbas.
The tenth theme has its origins in the USSR and is also a product of Putin’s undeclared war against the West. The USSR long practiced the covering up of crimes it had committed against its own people and those by its security forces and assassins abroad. The 1933 Holodomor in Ukraine, for example, was denied by the USSR until 1990. Those who wrote about the Holodomor in the West, including diasporic Ukrainians and well-known historians like Robert Conquest, were castigated as anti-Soviet ‘Cold War warriors.’ Denial of the Holodomor has been revived in Russian disinformation and in the writings of some Western academics. Sputnik International, an important weapon of Russian disinformation abroad, published the ‘Holodomor Hoax. Anatomy of a Lie Invented by the West’s Propaganda Machine’ nearly three decades after it was last seen in the late 1980s in Canadian communist Douglas Tottle’s book Fraud, Famine and Fascism: The Ukrainian Genocide Myth from Hitler to Harvard.
In 2015, work by Polish Jewish scholar and lawyer Raphael Lemkin who developed the concept of genocide after World War II and wrote about and testified on Stalinist crimes against Ukrainians as a series of acts of lethal and non-lethal nature, with the intent to destroy them as a national (state-aspiring) and ethnic (culturally distinct) group, was included as number 3151 in Russia’s Federal List of Extremist Materials.
Russian information warfare distracts blame from Russia over major international crises such as the July 2014 shooting down of the civilian airliner MH17 with the loss of 298 lives and covering up the existence of Russian troops in eastern Ukraine. Distraction of blame, as in the case of the shooting down of MH17 from Russia to Ukraine and the West, has through over 200 disinformation stories and conspiracy theories entered into academic writing and journalism. In 2018, the prestigious Manchester University Press published Flight MH17, Ukraine and the New Cold War. Prism of Disaster by Kees Van der Pijl, which blamed the shooting down of MH17 on a Western-backed Ukrainian plot.
Russia has always denied the existence of Russian forces in eastern Ukraine and when these have been caught has blamed soldiers ‘getting lost’ or ‘being on holiday.’ Nearly two thirds of Ukrainians (65%) believe Russian troops are in Ukraine whereas only 27% of Russians believe this. 63% of Ukrainians and only 25% of Russians believe their two countries are at war.
Russian information warfare propagates a multitude of themes. Nevertheless, forty percent of its output is directed at Ukraine and this should therefore become an important component of our research and analysis.
Taras Kuzio is Professor in the Department of Political Science, National University of Kyiv Mohyla Academy and Non-Resident Fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute, School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University. He is the author of Putin’s War Against Ukraine (2017) and joint author (with Paul D’Anieri) of The Sources of Russia’s Great Power Politics: Ukraine and the Challenge to the European Order (2019).