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 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 Tolz and Stephen Hutchings
The latest controversy surrounding Russian malfeasance relates to a RIA Novosti report of 6 April 2020 about UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s hospitalisation. It has been claimed that this report states that Johnson ‘had been put on a ventilator’ leading the Prime Minister’s spokesman to ‘dismiss the report as “disinformation’. Titles of articles in UK newspapers covering the story include: ‘Boris Johnson’s Spokesman Accuses Russia of Spreading ‘Disinformation’ after Russian State Media Claims the Prime Minister Is on a Coronavirus Ventilator’; ‘Downing Street Slams Russian Reports Saying Boris Johnson is on a Ventilator’.
A simple inspection of the original RIA Novosti article reveals that this representation of the Russian news agency report results from a mistranslation. RIA Novosti indeed reported Johnson’s hospitalisation. Any reference to the treatment he might receive is made with the use of the future tense, rather than reporting something that had been given already. Furthermore, the Russian report does not claim that the treatment will involve a ‘ventilator’. The report is entitled – ‘A Source Says: Johnson Will Be Put on an Artificial Breathing Apparatus’. A further quote attributed to an unnamed source which is embedded in the text states: ‘An artificial ventilation of the lungs will be administered to him’. Again, a basic check of any Russian dictionary will tell you that in the Russian language the medical umbrella term ‘iskusstvennoe ventilirovanie’ (artificial ventilation) applies to both invasive treatment with a ventilator and the non-invasive use of an oxygen mask, which, it appears, Johnson has indeed been receiving. RIA Novosti’s short report clarifies neither the kind of ‘ventilation of the lungs’ Johnson will receive to assist his breathing, nor the specific apparatus via which it will be delivered. In fact, RIA Novosti is one of Russia’s more cautious state media outlets and its coverage actually fits the pattern.
Overall, the Russian media, with the exception of RT UK which targets a UK audience, has understandably and predictably exhibited little interest in Johnson’s hospitalisation. Most of RT’s coverage has been factual but some articles on its web-site question the extent to which statements made about Johnson’s state of health by representatives of the government are consistent and believable. Russia’s main domestic broadcasters covered Johnson’s hospitalisation only very briefly and towards the end of their news bulletins, most of which are devoted to the situation inside Russia. One report on the main domestic TV channel that mentioned the hospitalisation briefly notes speculation in the UK press, particularly the tabloids, that Johnson ‘is likely to be put on an artificial breathing apparatus’. Again, the nature of the apparatus is not specified. The UK tabloids referred to here have, by comparison, been less careful, specifically mentioning the likelihood that the Prime Minister will need a ventilator. The title of a Daily Express article actually declares: ‘Boris Johnson on Ventilator’.
In sum, there is no evidence of any attempt by Russian news providers to spread disinformation about Prime Minister Johnson’s state of health. Given that it was bound to elicit an instant and entirely credible denial, such blatant falsehoods would seem to serve little purpose anyway. The febrile environment in which Russian disinformation, even of the crassest and most pointless kind, is anticipated at every step, and in which rudimentary journalistic standards relating to the careful verification of source materials are therefore sidestepped, generates a mis-rendering of a future-tense verb as past tense, and a misrepresentation of what appears to be a very vague use of medical terminology by the Russian report. This in turn spawns a misleading news story in the Western media requiring an unwarranted rebuttal from a UK government with enough on its hands already. It is in no way the aim of the Reframing Russia project to defend Russian state media, let alone the Kremlin, but the inaccuracy with which Russian coverage of the COVID-19 crisis is represented in the EU and the UK is concerning. Countering disinformation with mis/disinformation is counterproductive and provides the Kremlin with an open target.
By Stephen Hutchings and Vera Tolz
The Challenge to Counter-Disinformation Analysts: A COVID-19 Case Study for Policy Makers and Journalists
The EU’s main task force for fighting Russian disinformation is in danger of becoming a source for disinformation itself, and so of skewing policy decisions in the EU and the UK, as well as distorting public discourse throughout Europe. Based on EU-sponsored counter-disinformation analysis in relation to COVID-19, our report explains what is happening and why. It does not dispute the need to track disinformation campaigns. However, it argues that this work has to be done carefully, and differently. Earlier experiences point to a more reliable approach, the consequences of not adopting which are highly counterproductive.
Counter-Disinformation with an EU Stamp
As members of a Russian media research project at the University of Manchester we were recently asked to comment on material in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic produced by EUvsDisnfo, ‘the flagship project of the European External Action Service’s East StratCom Task Force’, established by the European Council to respond to Russia’s ‘ongoing disinformation campaigns’. Since it bears the EU stamp of credibility, it is unsurprising that the material provided the basis for a series of national and international press articles featuring alarming accounts of how Russia was spreading COVID-19 related disinformation, including in The Daily Mail, The Guardian and Deutsche Welle. EUvsDisinfo’s research material, along with the narrative it corroborated, is acquiring viral momentum.
The EUvsDisinfo analyses consisted of English-language summaries of five Russian media stories promulgating coronavirus conspiracy theories. Whilst examining these five in depth, overall our team looked at more than twice that number (there were 112 in the EUvsDisinfo ‘database’ as of 26 March and more are added each day). Each item was given a headline title and it was with these headlines (not those of the original sources) that western politicians and journalists work. The summaries had clearly been translated from the original Russian in which they were compiled. They came with handy, fact-based ‘disproofs’ of the validity of those stories, and a table providing information about the countries in which they were circulating, their countries of origin, and a link to the original stories, some consisting of broadcast content, others of press articles.
Counter-Disinformation with a Question Mark?
Concerned that the summaries might be overgeneralising about ‘pro-Kremlin media’, we sampled a news bulletin from Russia’s main state-aligned broadcaster, Channel 1, shown on 12 March 2020. Coronavirus led the bulletin which also closed with a related story. Coverage here consisted, however, mainly of neutral accounts of recent developments, with much attention to how other nations were responding (inflected with an implicit suggestion that many were overreacting, but also pointedly dwelling on Western hygiene advice clearly intended for Russian viewers to heed). The closing item was a story about how swindlers across the world, including Russia, were exploiting fear of the virus and selling false, ‘folk’ remedies to gullible people. It concluded with a plea to viewers to turn to professional medical staff for advice. Russia’s generally anti-Western stance finds expression throughout Channel 1, but there was little sign here of the coordinated pro-Kremlin ‘conspiracy theory propaganda’ flagged by EUvsDisinfo.
The extent of EUvsDisinfo’s misrepresentation of Russian COVID-19 media coverage in the material we then analysed is troubling. Two of the Task Force’s working methods are particularly problematic.
- The Problem of Context
a. From omission …
First, in some cases individual sentences are extracted from the context of the source materials and rephrased in the form of summaries and headlines which make them sound particularly outrageous. Failure to supply contextual information encourages misreading of the significance of the relevant media content. One item identified a conspiracy theory claiming that COVID-19 ‘was probably created on purpose at the UK’s Porton Down laboratories’. It was aired on a well-known Russian political discussion show called ‘The Big Game’. Most importantly, there is no indication in the EUvsDisinfo database that the theory is rebuffed by the show’s co-moderator, who has previously collaborated with the US government. He repeats several times during the programme that he does not believe the conspiracy theories surrounding coronavirus. He himself broaches the notion that the virus was not ‘man-made’ (the ‘man-made’ fallacy was implicitly attributed by EUvsDisinfo to the entire programme), but transmitted to humans by an animal species, and footage is shown of the very pangolin to which the EUvsDisinfo’s ‘disproof’, citing Nature magazine, refers when rebutting the ‘pro-Kremlin’ conspiracy theory. Moreover, EUvsDisinfo fails to acknowledge that ‘The Big Game’ is a domestic Russian broadcast intended primarily for home consumption. Channel 1 is also widely available in Russian-speaking areas of the post-Soviet space but to the limited extent that ‘The Big Game’ is part of an overseas propaganda ‘campaign’, it contributes (a) only in very general terms, striving to keep its overseas audiences on board with its pro-Russian, anti-Western agendas, thus maintaining Russian influence in its ‘near abroad’ and (b) working with the grain of popular discourses prevalent in the Russian-speaking environment, but less widespread elsewhere.
Indeed, despite the far greater level of state direction and minimal space for free speech constraining it, Russian television, like its British counterpart, tends to reflect back at viewers their own popular beliefs and fears, along with ideas which circulate in online realms often dominated by Russian nationalist positions more extreme than those of the Kremlin. These ideas infiltrate Russian state-aligned media without the explicit sanction of the Kremlin, or even of Channel 1 executives. Coronavirus and other such conspiracy theories rarely originate in the Kremlin. However, as long as they do not explicitly contradict Kremlin thinking, they are frequently aired in talk shows such as ‘The Big Game’. It is much rarer for them to be circulated in direct form in Channel 1 news broadcasts, though the other state channel, Rossiia, will regularly broadcast news bulletins (particularly those fronted by Dmitrii Kiselev, who is an unapologetic state operative) featuring preposterous anti-Western propaganda. By failing to furnish crucial information about the programme in which it features, the EUvsDisinfo packaging of the Porton Down theory overstates its significance.
b. To blatant distortion …
Another item related to an hour-long Radio Sputnik programme on the unfolding of the COVID-19 pandemic in China. Here, a short exchange between two participants is chosen in which one refers to a particular historical episode and claims that today international companies would use the situation ‘to establish control over Chinese markets’. The other participant, however, disagrees, warning against drawing any historical parallels. EUvsDisinfo’s report is misleadingly entitled ‘Coronavirus is an attempt by the Anglo-Saxons to control China’ and the summary represents the programme content accordingly.
In one case, EUvsDisinfo accuses RT’s Arabic branch of itself concocting a claim promoted by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard that COVID-19 is attributable to US biological weaponry, despite the fact that RT merely reports the claim (albeit without clarifying that it lacks evidence). Altogether, EUvsDisinfo identified five RT reports that it classified as disinformation. All are from RT Arabic, including one report which denies that Russia is waging a disinformation campaign around COVID-19. EUvsDisinfo includes this in the database on the questionable grounds that its own staff identified examples of Russian disinformation elsewhere.
A still more troubling item related to a conspiracy theory purportedly promoted by Sputnik Latvia (a Russian-language outlet) and claiming that COVID-19 had been designed especially to kill elderly Italians. The article in question, however, was clearly ridiculing a whole series of international conspiracy theories regarding the origins of the coronavirus. Rather than endorsing these theories, the article highlights their idiocy and urges people to give them no credence. This is one of the most significant examples of EUvsDisinfo’s tendency to misread or misrepresent its sources.
When it does identify genuine disinformation authored by Russian state actors, EUvsDisinfo uses its findings in an inflationary manner that seems designed to deceive. Thus, an article from what probably is a Kremlin-sponsored proxy outlet branded to look like a US alt right site, and containing outlandish ‘One World Order’ conspiracy theories regarding international responses to COVID-19, is recorded on the EUvsDisinfo database under eight different headings and as eight separate items, artificially boosting the overall tally of instances of ‘pro-Kremlin disinformation’.
- The Terminology Problem
A second problem with EUvsDisinfo’s methods is its use of the vague notion of ‘pro-Kremlin disinformation’ to mis-associate programmes from state-funded media outlets with random websites without any traceable links to Russian state structures. The latter include, for example, conspirological, far-right sites which are actually critical of Putin. A further item related to the Porton Down conspiracy theory was labelled ‘The coronavirus is a biological weapon created by the UK’. It was promulgated in the Russian nationalist leaning (but hardly pro-Kremlin) Svobodnaia pressa (Free Press). The article’s title – ‘Patent has been found which proves the British trace in COVID-19’ – supports the EUvsDisinfo account of it. Yet a closer reading of the full article reveals that this title is itself misleading. The suggestion that the virus is ‘a biological weapon developed by the British, even if they pursued scientific goals’ is, indeed, quoted in the article, which, for sure, has a strongly anti-‘Anglo-Saxon’ bias and skirts around several conspiracy theories. However the author first presents this quote as originating in online forums, distancing himself from the quote by suggesting that ‘supporters of the claim are not completely sinning against the truth’. He later concedes that the most probable origin of the virus is the animal world, and specifically a bat species considered edible in China. The article is specious and lacks plausibility, but the EUvsDisinfo presentation of it is inaccurate.
The use of poorly defined notions of ‘pro-Kremlin propaganda’ has already prompted calls for the European Commission to halt the activities of EUvsDisinfo. Parliamentarians and journalists in EU states criticised EUvsDisinfo on the grounds that it violates free speech. Our analysis demonstrates that EUvsDisinfo’s headlines and summaries border on disinformation according to the East StratCom’s own definition of the term. Moreover, EUvsDisinfo’s announcement of the change of policy it introduced in 2018 in response to objections to its work is unhelpful, merely substituting the labelling of pro-Kremlin outlets as ‘disinforming’ with references to disinformation arising from the ‘pro-Kremlin ecosystem’.
EU and UK politicians and journalists are relying on EUvsDisinfo’s claims when asserting that ‘pro-Kremlin media have been spreading disinformation about coronavirus with the aim of aggravating public health crisis in the West’. The source material cited by EUvsDisinfo demonstrates that the Russian state is, in fact, not targeting Western countries with an organised campaign around the current public health crisis – which is not to say that COVID-19 disinformation of Russian, even Russian state, provenance is completely absent from the global media environment.
Reasons for the Problems
Why do we find ourselves in a situation where an EU-funded body set up to fight disinformation ends up producing it? There are two main reasons:
- A profound misunderstanding of how the media in neo-authoritarian systems such as Russia’s work.
- The outsourcing of services by state institutions to third parties without a proper assessment of their qualifications to perform the required tasks.
First, EU politicians and journalists’ claims about Russia are too often based on the false perception that the Kremlin controls all Russian media and communication technologies. Russian affairs specialists frequently caution that in Russia, where the internet is policed only partially, there still are numerous news sites that function independently from the Kremlin, and that a propaganda machine centrally coordinated by the Kremlin exists only in the Western imagination. Sadly such messages tend to get lost in the fog of what is increasingly, and problematically, referred to as the ‘information war’.
Secondly, the East StratCom Task Force relies on as many as 400 volunteers to trace Russian disinformation. It is impossible to check that hundreds of volunteers possess the qualifications essential for passing judgement on what disinformation is and, if this is identified, for summarising the findings in a credible way. Such qualifications, particularly those certificating the skills needed to interpret the data collected, require lengthy training. According to a Dutch public broadcaster investigation, a single jobless volunteer has been responsible for reporting no less than 25 percent of all EUvsDisinfo’s 3,500 disinformation cases. Such volunteers, moreover, are operating in a post-Soviet space saturated (for very understandable reasons) by anti-Russian sentiments from which they are unlikely to be completely free. By outsourcing vital research to volunteers working in ideologically fraught environments, EUvsDisinfo will inevitably struggle to present reliable, robust findings.
The EU is not alone
The tendency to outsource research which in previous decades would have been carried out by trained experts is not peculiar to EUvsDisinfo. With its budgets severely constrained by years of austerity and its own teams of qualified experts diminished, the UK’s Foreign Office is prone to the same policy, the risks to which were illustrated by unwelcome political scandals surrounding its funding of research carried out by the controversial ‘Institute for Statecraft’. Ironically, the Russian state follows not dissimilar tactics, and its notorious IRA ‘troll factory’ is a case in point. Not only is the IRA an example of state outsourcing, it is now itself outsourcing work to networks across the world. There are three linked problems with this strategy. First, it encourages its beneficiaries to skew their research results to reflect what they believe their benefactors want to hear, exacerbating the second problem of unreliability and inconsistency illustrated by the work of EUvsDisinfo. Together these two problems generate distortions which in turn produce a third problem: the unleashing of a self-renewable dynamic of claims, rebuttals and counter-claims. The Institute of Statecraft scandal furnished rich material for Russian state-aligned media’s own campaign against disinformation.
An Alternative Approach and the Consequences of Not Following It
It would benefit the European Commission to learn from disinformation analysis of an earlier period. In the 1980s, Vera Tolz worked as an analyst at the Research Department of Radio Liberty, a US-funded radio station that broadcast to the Soviet Union. These analysts identified some of the most significant Soviet disinformation campaigns. The Department’s weekly reports were used by Western government officials and the media. Unsurprisingly, the quality of the analysis was the result of appointing qualified staff whose work was systematically supervised and checked for accuracy by researchers with long experience. There was a clear understanding that one’s origin in a particular country, the ability to speak its language and having ‘reliably’ anti-Soviet views did not make one a research analyst. 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. The UK’s broadcasting regulator, OFCOM, also deploys appropriate expertise, as demonstrated by its rigorous, balanced and nuanced report on RT’s breaches of due impartiality during the period of the Salisbury poisonings crisis.
The European Commission’s reliance on East StratCom is jeopardising its credibility as an evidence-driven policymaker. It is giving valuable ammunition to Russian state media counterclaims that it is the EU itself which produces disinformation. Indeed, RT has launched its own extensive FakeCheck operation which, in turn, has spawned take-down analyses pointing out that ‘the fact checks published by RT usually result in conclusions that align with Russia’s agenda’. Poor quality counter-disinformation initiatives nourish the wider disinformation ecosystem by feeding off one another as disinformation mutates, virus-like, into its antithesis – counter-disinformation – and back again.
Coverage of the COVID-19 Pandemic on the Website of RT (formerly Russian Today)
Analysis of RT’s coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic carried out by the Manchester University-led ‘Reframing Russia’ AHRC-funded project suggests that it fits with the project team’s overview of RT’s approach to reporting. This overview is based on close monitoring of RT’s output over the last three years (2017-2020). The main features of this approach are:
- During periods when Russian actions are not under the international spotlight, RT’s coverage is more factually accurate and biases are less strongly pronounced than when it covers issues specifically related to Russia’s policies. Particularly after the sanctioning of RT by OFCOM for its coverage of the Salisbury poisonings, RT International, which provides news in the English language, has become more careful in how it presents controversial news stories. The COVID-19 pandemic is one such story.
- RT’s coverage becomes extremely biased and borders on disinformation when events which are of particular importance for Russia’s foreign policy agenda and international image are in the spotlight (e.g. Russia’s annexation of Crimea; the Ukraine crisis; and the Salisbury poisonings). Such events take place only occasionally, and should not be used to draw inferences about RT’s ‘typical’ reporting strategies.
- RT has a tendency to foreground stories that put Western democracies in a bad light. This is consistent with its proclaimed mission ‘to provide alternative perspectives on current affairs’. At the same time, RT also claims to be a regular international news provider. Even allowing for justifiable scepticism about this claim, it should be acknowledged that much of RT’s output is purely factual and consists of aggregations of news reports by leading Western news agencies. Without this approach, RT would stand to lose even the modest audience it currently has.
Our search of RT International’s web-site,* conducted on 24 March 2020, revealed over 300 items, including video clips of news items and web articles, related to COVID-19. The COVID-19 pandemic is not a Russia-related development, meaning that RT (and the Russian state) have little incentive to initiate a coordinated disinformation campaign around it.
Of the identified RT reports on COVID-19, 23 deal with conspiracy theories, and the overwhelming majority of these amount to rebuttals of western media accusations of Russian conspiracy mongering, or mockeries of conspiracy theories touted by others. Typical examples include: ridiculing a conspiracy theory tweeted by a Hollywood actress; and dismissing as ‘Russophobic’ US State Department accusations of Russian conspiracy-theory dissemination.
It is worth noting how RT International covered claims made by officials in China and Iran that COVID-19 was a US attack on their countries, given that China and Iran are Russia’s allies against the West. RT reported the allegations with a caveat that they were ‘unverified’ and that there was ‘no proof that they could be true’ (see examples 1, 2 and 3). However, RT’s cautionary note was much less robustly phrased than the outright dismissal of the Chinese and Iranian officials’ claims by mainstream Western news providers.
The remainder of the 300 stories were either neutral reports replicated from Western press sources, OR attempts to link COVID-19 to various weaknesses and injustices in the UK and other Western states. Examples of RT International’s use of the pandemic to criticize Western elites and media include: a story about how mainstream media reportedly attempted to pit Trump against his health officials; a report on how Twitter users criticized a prominent Daily Telegraph columnist for xenophobia because of her crude anti-Chinese tweet; an RT web article concluding that in Western societies the tendency inflexibly to follow procedures could actually impede efforts to save lives from the deadly virus. This last example represents a variant on RT’s circumspect approach to disinformation; it targets not disinformation itself but the overly cautious branding as ‘fake news’ of what could turn out to be a genuinely effective treatment. The notion of an excessively risk-averse West poorly equipped to take the bold decisions needed to address the COVID-19 crisis appears to be a theme in RT’s op-ed columns.
Indeed, it is noteworthy that most of the items that use the coronavirus pandemic to criticize Western countries are on-line op-ed articles, rather than reports in daily news bulletins. This is in keeping with RT’s usual strategy of reserving its most savagely anti-Western material for op-eds, with a standard disclaimer at the end: ‘The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.’ The apparent mirroring of western journalistic standards of transparency forms part of RT’s identity as a respectable international broadcaster.
A more questionable practice equating to the populist ‘alt media upstart’ component of RT’s brand image is the provision on its web-site of links to hyper-partisan news sites in the column ‘From our partners’. Such ‘partners’ include mixi.media, a news aggregator of unclear provenance, which uploads material from ultra-right wing US sites, such as RealClearPolitics and Grabien. These links appear alongside links to reports by RT and the Russian state-funded Radio Sputnik. In relation to COVID-19, RT provided a link via mixi.media to a RealClearPolitics article by a US doctor who, at an earlier stage of the pandemic, claimed that the mainstream media were creating an unnecessary ‘hysteria’ around the virus.
RT’s services in languages other than English are often subjected to less scrutiny and appear to feature poorer reporting practices. This applies particularly to RT Arabic (but less so to RT France, which is being very closely monitored by the Macron administration). When reporting the statement by the commander-in-chief of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps to the effect that COVID-19 ‘might be a biological attack’ by the US on Iran, in contrast to RT International, RT Arabic omitted any clarification that there was no evidence for the claim. RT Arabic’s short report, entitled ‘The Revolutionary Guards: Corona Could be an American Biological Attack’, merely quoted from Hossein Salami’s statement.
This is, of course, poor journalistic practice. However, it is different from how the European Commission-funded EastStratCom Task Force, set up to respond to Russian disinformation, represents this RT Arabic report. Here, the channel is accused of itself concocting and promoting the IRG claim. Altogether, EastStratCom identified five RT reports that it classified as disinformation. All are from RT Arabic, including one report which denies that Russia is waging a disinformation campaign around Covid-19. EastStratCom includes this as an example of Russian disinformation on the questionable grounds that its own staff identified examples of Russian disinformation. In every case, EastStratCom’s representation of RT Arabic coverage is misleading. As mentioned above, some of RT’s reporting practices are deficient (e.g. the insufficient provision of contextual information; the inclusion of links to hyper-partisan material), but, in the context of the COVID-19 coverage they are undoubtedly superior to EastStartCom’s own methods (see our separate analysis of EastStratCom’s claims above).
Overall, we see no particular reason to refer RT’s coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic to OFCOM. To have any impact, such referrals should be made in the cases of serious, systematic malpractice. There seems to be little evidence of this in the case of RT’s COVID-19 coverage.
* Please note that this analysis is based solely on RT International’s web content. We have not analysed RT’s television and social media output. On the whole, particularly following OFCOM’s sanctioning of RT for its television output during the period of the Salisbury poisonings crisis, RT International’s broadcasts have been more circumspect than its web content.
Stephen Hutchings is Professor of Russian Studies at The University of Manchester.
Vera Tolz is Sir William Mather Professor of Russian Studies at The University of Manchester.