‘“Forcing their dirty fingers into the national wounds”: How Russia Today Targets American Audiences with Content on Police Brutality’ | Guest Blog

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 Olipieva, Ipek Cinar, and Geneva Cole are all doctoral students at the University of Chicago. They have presented this work at the UChicago Workshop on International Politics.


Olimpieva
Evgenia Olimpieva (@EvgeniaOlimp) studies comparative politics and quantitative methodology with a focus on authoritarian politics and institutions in post-Soviet context.

 

cole


Geneva Cole (@genevavalerie) studies American politics with a focus on the role of political and social identities in shaping political attitudes and behavior.

 

cinar
Ipek Cinar (@ipekcinar_ic) studies comparative politics with a focus on comparative democratization, quantitative & computational methods and their applications to political science research.

“Doing things Differently: Misinformation and Conspiracy Theories” | University of Manchester Webinar

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.

‘RT takes libertarian anti-lockdown stance’ | Guest Blog

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.


NAH


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.

‘Defence Against Disinformation is a Team Sport’ | Guest Blog

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.

Background

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.

EUvsDisinfo Output

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.

(Mis-)Communication

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.

Next Steps

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.


ciE_PE4h


Keir Giles is a Senior Consulting Fellow with the
Russia and Eurasia Programme at Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs.

‘New on the media menu: How the establishment of the Patriot media group reflects a new approach to controlling information on the Runet’ | Guest Blog

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.

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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.’


VZ

 

Vera Zvereva is a Senior lecturer in Russian language and culture at the University of Jyväskylä

 

 

‘Russia’s Information Warfare Has Deeper Roots Than the Soviet Union’ | Guest Blog

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.

Image 1During 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.

Image 2

An early example of how during Ukraine’s 2004 presidential elections Russian political technologists aimed to inflame regional divisions in Ukraine. Note the “Third Sort” has the same borders as that of New Russia raised by Putin in 2008 and 2014.

image 5

A map of how Russian nationalists view Ukraine historically and in the 2014 “Russian Spring” crisis has a strong resemblance to the above map in the poster produced by Russian political technologists for Ukraine’s 2004 elections.

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.

  1. Ukraine is an artificial country and bankrupt state.
  2. Ukrainians are not a separate people to Russians.
  3. The Ukrainian language is artificial.
  4. Ukrainian nation was created as an Austrian conspiracy.
  5. Belittle, ridicule, and dehumanise Ukrainians.
  6. Foment disillusionment in Ukraine’s reforms and European integration.
  7. Ukraine is a Western puppet.
  8. Ukraine is run by ‘fascists’ and ‘Nazi’s.’
  9. Anti-Zionism and Ukrainian oligarchs.
  10. 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.’

image 3What 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

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).

Lost in Mistranslation: What the Russian Media Actually Said about Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Hospitalisation?

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.

COVID-19 Disinformation: Two Short Reports on the Russian Dimension

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.

  1. 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’.

  1. 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:

  1. A profound misunderstanding of how the media in neo-authoritarian systems such as Russia’s work.
  2. 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.


Council Chamber portrait 1

 

Stephen Hutchings is Professor of Russian Studies at The University of Manchester.

 

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Vera Tolz is Sir William Mather Professor of Russian Studies at The University of Manchester.

Populism, Post-Truth and the Challenges for Journalists: Forging Dialogue Across Divisions

Reframing Russia is a research project that aspires to reach a better understanding of the dynamics of the intensifying ‘information war’ between Russia and much of the “western” world. As part of this ambition, on November 7th, 2019, we organised a dialogue across what are often conceived of as deep set political and media divisions at the Frontline Club in London. The roundtable debate brought together a high-profile RT presenter, a senior RT executive, a columnist for The Independent, journalists from the BBC and from Sweden’s main public broadcaster, SVT, an ABC reporter, a retired senior British diplomat and an academic from the Alan Turing Data Science Institute specialising in researching populist politics and the detection of  extremist discourse online.

‘Populism, Post-Truth and the Challenges for Journalists’ were chosen as topics that could provide common ground. While Russian disinformation, interference and ‘cyberwarfare’ techniques are often invoked in this context, our aim was to forge dialogue across divisions in what has become a very hostile and conflicted space. The discussion was held under the Chatham House Rule.

The dialogue was conducted in a calm atmosphere of mutual respect. There were inevitably several sharp exchanges. Some of these adopted familiar, ‘information war’ tones but there was convergence on a surprising number of issues.

A central point of contention revolved around the assertion by one participant—contested by others—that the loss of public trust in journalism and the very failure of current business models for press journalism might ultimately lead to the ‘death of democracy’. The claim, convincingly illustrated, was that traditional journalistic mechanisms for providing audiences with information of the quality and depth necessary for them to develop informed opinion are being fast eroded. As another speaker argued, the impact of emerging phenomena like ‘deep fakes’ is likely to accelerate this process. Others, however, observed that social media platforms facilitate more meaningful audience engagement and help rebuild trust in journalism; meanwhile access to multiple new open information sources aid news gathering and create space for crowd-sourced and citizen journalism, enhancing the quality and breadth of public knowledge. Moreover, it was suggested, popular concerns over limited political and media literacy resulting in widespread failure to detect misinformation and media bias may well be overstated and reflect condescension towards younger audiences.

The debate took a new direction following an intervention highlighting the alleged degeneration of the traditional media sphere into ‘a self-perpetuating echo chamber that has lost touch with its audience’. This bold inversion of the conventional wisdom that ‘echo chambers’ are the by-product of new, online media led the same speaker to claim that the digital revolution into which RT was born has equipped members of the public with an unprecedented choice to ‘mix and match’ the outlets they follow, and to consume hitherto unavailable stories and alternative narratives which are sometimes unjustifiably vilified.

Inevitably, attitudes to fact-based journalism loomed large in the debate. One participant lamented that in the current political climate, ‘we need to present facts and not speculations; but when we present facts, the audience does not care’.  Others cautioned against over-fetishizing facts and the fact that very different versions of the truth circulate. Nonetheless, pressure on journalists and media organisations to deliver news in entertaining ways to capture audiences, both in terms of substance and format, were recognised as intense – often militating against the straight presentations of facts. An important point of convergence was that the vital contextual knowledge needed to make sense of the complexity of international affairs, not least those involving Russia, was often missing. Russophobic and anti-Western narratives, which are equally toxic, circulate with too little question in both Russia and elsewhere.

The latter point was among several which elicited broad consensus, including the following:

  • The tendency to single out Russia as acting in a unique or exceptional way renders representations of Russia in Western public discourse unbalanced, merely fuelling its claims of double-standards and hypocrisy (e.g. not subjecting the likes of Saudi Arabia or China to the same scrutiny in relation to human rights). This was noted by a respected western journalist who did not specialise in Russian affairs.
  • Focusing on ‘Russian meddling’ unduly narrows and distorts analysis of the reasons for the wider decline of trust in mainstream media and elected politicians. Commercial pressures, decreased funding for quality journalism and UK press partisanship offer better explanations for such phenomena. Participants with very different political views including those highly critical of Russia and RT concurred on this point.
  • UK-Russia relations should be viewed in a longer perspective. Negative images of Russia are historically entrenched in the UK where they are more prevalent than in other European countries. British policymakers, journalists and analysts should broaden their view, avoiding ingrained stereotypes which hamper the analysis of specific situations and the development of appropriate policy responses.
  • The idea that ‘fake news’ and ‘post-truth’ are an entirely recent phenomenon is unhelpful. Misinformation, skewed interpretations and the dissemination of complete fabrications have a long history from which lessons can be drawn in order to identify which aspects of these phenomena are genuinely new (those attributable to the reconfiguration of the public sphere by social media, for example).
  • Most facts are open to all manner of contestation, selection, manipulation and reframing. Journalism in Russia as in the UK is a mix of fact-gathering and fact-curation and debate should focus on the appropriate relationship between these principles.
  • In this context, notions of ‘due impartiality’ should not be confused with ‘objectivity’; the BBC definition of this axiom is admirably nuanced, but it leaves too much latitude for individual journalists’ judgement. But we need to be cautious, lest we undermine the criteria by which we consider journalistic practices in contexts where the hand of state control is more apparent.

Nonetheless, relativistic claims of complete equivalence between media outlets which operate in very different political environments are misplaced. Examples of BBC management standing by its journalists when under severe attack by UK governments are not universally replicable. Dialogue of the sort represented by the discussion at the Frontline Club does not require participants to compromise on points of fundamental principle, to be forced into general accord in the interests of diplomacy, or to lose face; on many points a respectful ‘agreement to disagree’ remained the order of the day.

Indeed, perhaps the key take-away from the event was that, precisely because UK-Russia state relations are stuck at such a stubborn impasse, policy makers and those in the position to influence their thinking on both sides should encourage further initiatives involving actors at the sub-state and non-state levels. Such trust-building exercises could serve as a means of kick-starting the much-needed process of resetting diplomatic relations, if not from the bottom up, then at least from outside conventional channels. There is a valuable role here for discussions under Chatham House rules in which influential figures from opposing positions can come together in open debate, working towards establishing a common agenda, or a common language in which to disagree.

A particularly important place in these forums should be reserved for journalists and newsmakers since they play such a critical role in influencing popular attitudes on both sides, and because mutual accusations of malign interference in the two respective public spheres are driving the diplomatic crisis. That crisis is liable to intensify with Brexit, which may reinforce Russia’s perceptions of British weakness and isolation, whether those perceptions are justified or not. Now, therefore, is the time to act.


See the event photo gallery here.

Maverick minds of the anti-establishment? The personalities behind Sputnik radio | Lucy Birge

Russia’s international broadcasters RT (Russia Today) and Sputnik international have been widely criticised for granting airtime to members of left- and right-wing fringes. Research has identified both far-left and far-right commentary in RT’s news and its presenters and regular contributors similarly range from Slavoj Žižek to Nigel Farage. But thus far there has been little research into RT’s younger sibling, Sputnik.

Sputnik is principally a digital radio broadcaster and multi-media web platform. It was founded in November 2014 following Russia’s March 2014 annexation of Crimea.

Sputnik’s two English languages hubs are based in Washington DC (producing five shows) and Edinburgh (producing two). Sputnik’s shows are fairly typical of the “talk radio” genre – discussion of news and current affairs. However, my doctoral research into Sputnik’s English language channels shows how the broadcaster’s content is shaped by a star line-up featuring four key categories of anti-establishment characters:

1. The “lefty”

With only few exceptions Sputnik English-language journalists come from left-wing and anti-racist activist backgrounds.

On the US side, Garland Nixon, co-host of Fault Lines, is a National Board Member of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) who previously sued the Department of Natural Resources for race discrimination and harassment. Dr Wilmer Leon, presenter of The Critical Hour, is a public intellectual and columnist interested in racial inequality in the United States. Sean Blackmon, co-host of By Any Means Necessary (a phrase famously uttered by 1960’s civil activist Malcom X), is the organiser of Stop Police Terror Project DC, born out of Black Lives Matter.

Brian Becker picture in 2012 . Creative Commons licence: Elvert Barnes

Several more presenters are prominent members of the anti-war and civil rights organisation Act Now to Stop War and End Racism coalition (ANSWER). Eugene Puryear, Blackmon’s co-host on By Any Means Necessary, is one of ANSWER’s national organisers whilst Brian Becker, host of Loud and Clear, is its national director. Puryear and Becker also have close links to a Marxist/Leninist political party, The Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL), with Becker being a founding member, and Puryear having been the party’s vice-presidential nominee in 2008 and 2016.

However, radical left-wing politics is exceptionally marginal in the United States. It is hard to see how this kind of Sputnik content could garner large swathes of the American population.

In the UK, however, this political perspective is slightly more mainstream. This is reflected in the choice of presenters.

George Galloway, former MP turned anti-establishment commentator, is Sputnik’s newest left-wing presenter. Galloway is a prolific anti-war spokesman, founder of charity Viva Palestine, supporter of Corbyn and a proponent of Brexit. He is also one of the longest serving figures on RT, having presented Sputnik: Orbiting the World, since 2013. His Mother of All Talk Shows appeared on Sputnik in June 2019, probably intended to build on his popularity on RT.

But where does Russia come in, for Sputnik’s left-wing pundits and anti-racist activists?

Sputnik’s commentators see Russia as a counterweight to American hegemony. Sometimes, this translates to nostalgia for the Soviet Union, as in a Loud and Clear episode marking the Russian Revolution’s centenary. Here Becker and his guest exhibited particular nostalgic reverence for the Soviet Union. Becker’s guest that time was his colleague from Sputnik, ANSWER and the PSL – Eugene Puryear.

2.   The “Whistle-blower”

John Kiriakou at his 2015 release party. Creative commons: Slowking

The Sputnik journalist with arguably the highest international profile is John Kiriakou. The co-host (with Becker) on Loud and Clear, Kiriakou rose to fame as a whistle-blower. He was the first CIA agent to be convicted, and sentenced, for passing on classified information to a reporter, after a 2007 televised ABC interview in which Kiriakou disclosed the CIA’s use of waterboarding, a form of torture, on terrorist captives.

Since his release from federal prison in 2015, Kiriakou has become a prolific anti-establishment voice, orator and author (having written three books). Kiriakou has campaigned for Julian Assange’s release, using his Sputnik show as a platform. He has also discussed the impossibility of Assange receiving a fair trial on mainstream media outlets.

Sputnik’s defence of and support for Assange (who regularly appeared on RT) and Chelsea Manning, brings to mind the case of illustrious whistle-blower Edward Snowden, who sought asylum in Russia. By supporting and employing whistle-blowers including Kiriakou, Sputnik can discuss in detail the failings of the US and its corrupt institutions from an insider’s perspective. The network can also present itself – and by implication Russia – as the defender of free speech, in contrast to the USA.

3. The network friend

Sputnik shows have many repeat guests including other presenters from Sputnik and RT. As well as Galloway’s expansion from RT to Sputnik, Max Keiser and Stacy Herbert have built on their long-running RT economics show, Keiser Report, with a similar concept for Sputnik, called Double Down.

But the recurrence of ‘external’ guests in Sputnik is no less remarkable. In particular, John Kavanaugh, the New York based editor of online left-wing “social analysis” platform Polemicist.net appears so frequently on Sputnik’s US based shows, Loud and Clear, The Critical Hour and By Any Means Necessary, that he could almost be described as one of Sputnik’s principal voices. Indeed, whilst Kavanaugh’s Polemicist affiliation appears to indicate a journalistic profile independent of Sputnik, his meagre Twitter following of 654 belies this.

Alexander Mercouris is another maverick media personality with multiple guest appearances on Sputnik’s shows. Mercouris, based in London, is the editor-in-chief of alternative multimedia news platform the Duran. The Duran describes itself as: “a conservative news-media platform that advances a realpolitik position” and Peter Lavelle – host of RT’s Cross Talk – is one of its co-founders. Unsurprisingly, Mercouris is a frequent guest on his show, too. While the fringe media platform has a larger following than that of Kavanaugh’s, its 89.7 K followers on YouTube is still negligible for a global internet platform.

Sputnik so frequently hosts fringe media figures promoting their own material that it acts as a hub in a network of various non-mainstream media publications. The profiles of its few right-wing presenters – and their approach to contemporary journalism – gives further indication of how this works.

4.     The right-wing populist

The two stark exceptions to Sputnik’s left-wing activist presenter model are the right-wing populist personalities Lee Stranahan (US) and Jon Gaunt (UK). Reactionary views notwithstanding, Stranhan and Gaunt are still staunchly “anti-establishment”.

A former investigative reporter for HuffPost and the far-right American Breitbart News Network and a self-proclaimed “populist Republican”, Stranhan has co-hosted the Sputnik US show, Fault Lines, since April 2017. Alongside his Sputnik show, Stranahan sells online courses in citizen journalism, as he claims that the online dissemination of news by everyday citizens is the only antidote to the biased mainstream media. Stranahan promotes a similar line on his website, Populist.TV. With a tagline “making you smarter”, Stranahan uses the website to promote his own journalistic material, including that of his Sputnik show Fault Lines.

Across the Atlantic, Gaunt displays an analogously right-wing populist stance on politics and journalism. He is a supporter of Brexit and Farage’s Brexit party. As with Stranahan, Gaunt has previous experience in journalism. He has presented on BBC London and several BBC regional outposts as well as Talksport , and is also a former columnist for British tabloid paper The Sun.

Gaunt has presented Shooting From the Lip since its launch in July 2018 when the UK’s divisions were laid bare. The show’s name refers to speaking confidently on a subject without possessing expertise or prior knowledge. Together with its tagline, “real opinions for real people”, this clearly establishes the show as a populist platform. Amongst the show’s most controversial guests, is British far right activist and founder of the English Defence League, Tommy Robinson.

Stranahan and Gaunt’s appointments demonstrate that Sputnik’s producers are responding to new waves of right-wing populism unleashed by Trump and Brexit respectively. It is notable that Gaunt’s hit the air a few weeks before the left-leaning Hard Facts was axed from the UK service. Crucially though, these personalities are not only railing against the elite, but also, against the practices and dominance of Western mainstream journalism that Sputnik seeks to challenge.

Sputnik: mavericks, markets and memberships

Sputnik actively promotes anti-establishment voices from both ends of the political spectrum. Often these come from activist-type backgrounds whose concern with racial and financial injustices resonates with particular audiences. Sometimes, they have professional experience in more conventional outlets, which makes their criticism of Western mainstream media more credible. Sputnik can then discuss the biases and malpractices of Western mainstream media at first hand. In turn, Sputnik projects Russia as an impartial pioneer of the new digital journalism.

Sputnik is clearly attuned to market considerations: it has commissioned new shows from successful RT presenters; and has included more right-leaning populist content in the aftermath of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. Nonetheless, as my research has revealed, Sputnik’s commentators are predominantly left-wing. But how do we account for Sputnik’s left-wing orientation in the USA – a country where such views are extremely marginal?

To me it seems there is a twofold answer. On the one hand, it seems plausible that Sputnik has a harder time attracting right-wing pundits who, in light of Russiagate, may be disinclined to associate with Russian government funded media outlets like Sputnik. On the other hand, Sputnik appears to be establishing itself as a platform for a particular community with shared affiliations and memberships. Whether Sputnik can boast any real impact on these groups, though, my project will endeavour to elucidate.

 

Lucy Birge (@BirgeLucy) is a third year PhD Candidate at the University of Manchester. Lucy holds a degree in Russian Studies from the University of Sheffield (2012) and an MPhil in European Literature and Culture from the University of Cambridge (2014). She has studied and lived in Yaroslavl and St Petersburg, Russia. Lucy’s research explores Russia’s outward projection strategy via its international broadcasting outlet, Sputnik.