06 August 2019

Misinformation – an old Russian story with “seven tenets”. And a new one, in the electoral spring of Lithuania and Germany

Laurenţiu Sfinteş

Misinformation, partially true information, fake news are today the facets of a virtual currency, which does not have a classic form, and is thus subjected to the virtuality of the new informational and technological environment, and which is used to buy and sell truth and lie, trust and rejection, as well as doubt and loyalty. There are different methods for the same type of work: the purposeful dissemination, for clear political or military objectives, of false information (misinformation); the presentation of a truncated truth which leads to the recipients being informed in a defective manner (partially true information); the creation or dissemination, sometimes unknowingly, of information which is not related to reality, but which respond to an immediate need, either induced or real (fake news).

Image source: Mediafax

Information and misinformation. From Vladimir to Vladimir

The paradox is that this phrase, “fake news”, which was reintroduced on the Western shore of the Atlantic by a president with a knack for Twitter, is staged in all its variants, professional and aggressive, somewhere to the east of the Baltic Sea. Due to the lack of an own attractive political and economic model, which could be promoted in a global competing society, Russia is spreading the seven tenets of misinformation:

  1. identify the weaknesses in targeted societies;
  2. create a BIG LIE;
  3. wrap it in a truth packing;
  4. hide your tracks;
  5. find someone “naïve” to spread it on the market;
  6. deny any links;
  7. act on the long term.

Democratic societies are not perfect systems, they have weaknesses they are exposing, mostly transparently, they allow criticism, different opinions, challenges. They also have leftist views and political movements which still believe that Russia inherited its ideological orientation from the USSR, they have right-wing nationalistic groups for which Vladimir Putin is a kind of “macho”, good to be shown and promoted as a leader for “rookie” local politicians. These societies also have marginalization, and frustration, and individual egos, sometimes even among personalities, journalists, analysts, even politicians. They are the “naïve”, “useful idiots”, a wording which also comes from a Vladimir: Lenin.

It just so happens that, in the last period, Russia’s interesting subjects in its anti-NATO and anti-US rhetoric are found especially on the right, far-right side of the political spectrum:

- anti-immigration tendencies, because this can prove that there are cracks in Western cohesion, nationalism, racism, xenophobia and all of their associated defects;

- the anti-Brussels, anti-EU bureaucracy debate, because in this manner the organization can be presented as a weak, corrupt structure, uncapable of building unity and of rivalling with classical and national powers.

“Loaned” communicators on left side are also used to transmit especially anti-US messages (because they are the emblem of liberalism), anti-NATO (because they symbolize the supra-state force), anti-globalization (because the individual is “crushed” under the magnitude of the process).

And it also happens that, alongside messages which are legitimate opinions or points of view, corresponding to the political stance of these communicators and the groups they represent, there are also messages which do not correspond to reality, pure misinformation, which is not found in the categories defended by the right to information. If the misinformation operation is also assumed by individual vectors, this is probably an issue which can be discussed depending on the case but, of course, neither the media or real politics can be targeted by accusations of excessive naiveté. Most of the times, these options are assumed and rewarded.

There are two categories of “human levers” utilized by Russian propaganda in target states, especially members of the European Union, the US, but also Ukraine:

- the so-called “fake experts”, journalists, analysts, commentators, self-entitled security advisors who claim to be experts in the fields they do not actually master, persona blog and website owners, recognized by the title they claim for themselves by limited circles of individuals and groups. In this category we find also those who are presented as citizens of the target-states and who criticize their own leaders and the local democratic and economic system which, in some cases, are proved to be “fake strangers”, really Russian denizens, with some accidental visits through the states they communicate about;

- individuals who really are experts and noteworthy communicators in foreign journalistic and analytical environments, but who take part in this cycle of misinformation for different reasons and who, this time, really deserve a case-by-case analysis. Generally speaking, their interventions are punctual, on subjects which are especially more sensible for Moscow than for the local public opinion. When the professional cover, most of the times very consistent, is taken off, underneath it are found political sympathies, for the left or the right, sometimes far-right, which can appear weird for a country such as Russia, in which groups of this type are associated to neo-Nazism, and therefore quite a ways from being marked as friends.

One way through which these “naïve intermediates” of Russia’s media campaigns gain the attention of Kremlin-financed press – Russia Today, Sputnik – is their affiliation, sometimes even belonging to political circles of European parties sponsored by Moscow. Of course, in the case of big parties such as Lega Nord – Italy, Nationally Rally – France and Alternative for Germany, their funding is mostly internal, but outside donations show foreign policy interests, trans-border sympathies, and maybe even political models.

Another way is through particular or private interests, sometimes even family ties with Russia which create dependencies and stances outside of the usual context of local work environments.

One example is that of Danish journalist Flemming Rose who, during the period he worked for the Jyllands-Posten newspaper, published the famous drawings of Prophet Mohammed. Rose studied in Russia, is a Russian speaker and translator, and his wife Natalya is, as you have probably guessed, Russian and a graduate of the Lomonosov University.

For others, making materials which correspond with Moscow’s communication needs is just a business like any other. What Kremlin’s needs are in terms of propaganda is not especially a secret for those working in the field. For the refugee crisis, there is always a local news correspondent, from an unknown small German town, who reports for Russia Today. And from Romania, the assault of NATO tanks on farming crops in Calarasi and Buzau counties is also reported promptly, and critically, by “dedicated” investigative reporters.

Very briefly, the misinformation system, which parasitizes the public agenda with false subjects, and even blackmails some political leaders from great economic structures functions like this:

- hackers retrieve compromising materials, by breaking into the e-mail accounts of some organizations or personalities;

- if what they found is not compromising enough, they use different documents to create “fake documents” and “fake news” on their basis;

- through the use of trolls, these “fake news” pieces are disseminated online on social media;

- important media channels (Russia Today, Sputnik) legitimize these “fake news” pieces by reporting them with extended means;

- through the use of loyal media communicators, or politicians who stand to gain electorally from the upcoming debate, these pieces of information birthed from nothing are re-legitimized;

- in the end, until the soap balloon created by this system is publicly and indubitably rebutted, the false pieces of information are part of the public narrative, and are taken over by neutral media channels, the subject being tumbled around and fuelled by new infusions.

In democratic states, which have mechanism to rebut such lab creations, there is a chance that the truth will be found out and made public in the end. Even if, sometimes, too late. Not the same happens in societies where alternate information is not at the level of official one. Here there is no visible alternative, so the relation with the truth is clear: there is only one.

But misinformation antibodies are slow to develop, inclusively in societies with a vibrant political life, professional media which cover almost all opinion trends and an educated population with access to multiple sources of information.  In the field of information, although, at a first glance, this seems to be an easily-achievable process in short time, it is just as difficult to change the attitude towards the truth, even when it is extremely visible, as is the process to change mentalities. Sometimes it takes decades. And the explosion of information and multiplying its propagation channels the make the operation even more complicated.

Informational warfare also has a frontline. It is true, it was drawn with a carpenter’s pencil, and can be widely scribbled on a map on the model used when Bucovina was split in the 40s, and which stretches from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea. One of the points for defence or attack is Lithuania. But is also has the strategic depth of an important conflict, that’s why misinformation operations are also carried out in France, Great Britain. Or Germany.

Lithuania – an electoral spring

Within a couple of months, Lithuania held presidential, local and European Parliament elections. The pre-electoral periods are among the most active, more condensed with regards to informational interference and, of course, the most propagandistic. Political directions for several years are decided in elections, and the periods before them model public emotions which can have consequences in the voting cabin. But, to model them in the desired direction, you need turning points created by corruption scandals, reveals about the candidates or attacks against individuals of public interest.

The defence minister accused of corruption. On April 10, only one month before the presidential elections, an account which is presumed to belong to a Defence Ministry employee sent MPs, cabinet members, media institutions and the presidential administration information on corruption acts committed by Defence Minister Raimundas Karoblis, accused of receiving a USD500,000 bribe to facilitate military equipment purchase contracts. The Defence Ministry and the National Cybersecurity Centre immediately launch an investigation (this was the third attack of its kind in the past three years!), which is still ongoing, to discover the source of the attack, and rapidly denied the information. Which, however, had already been reported by a series of regional media outlets, such as The Baltic Times.

“For our Lithuania”. At the same time with the attack against the defence minister, an animated movie titled “For our Lithuania” was broadcast, targeting Lithuania’s NATO membership and the national defence system. Benefitting from sophisticated animation, distributed in both Lithuanian and English and re-uploaded on YouTube, the movie, through its content, shows from wat direction the “creative team” could come from. Its ideas are fairly clear:

- NATO is suffocating the national ideal, violates the population’s constitutional rights;

- NATO is an instrument for profitable business which consumes the national budget;

- NATO propaganda increases at the same pace with its budget and fuels the population’s concern with Russia, etc. etc.

A reality – the increase of cybersecurity incidents. Starting with 2007, attacks against Lithuanian media and government websites increased dramatically. Russian TV productions destined for the Lithuanian people doubled in number, cybersecurity incidents considered to be high risk grew by 40% only in 2018 when compared to 2017, the main Russian media vectors in this period being sputnik.lt, regnum.ru, rubaltic.ru, baltnews.lt, ren.tv.

Facebook groups were activated for the Lithuanian elections. Intense online public debate allowed for the use of numerous groups on Facebook, created to direct the debate towards the induced subjects of interests. Among these, we find “Top 10 mistakes made by the propaganda”, “Elections and politics”, “For Our Lithuania”, “Lithuanian presidential elections – 2019”. A lot of them disappeared later, without establishing who were behind them, but during the electoral period they had tens of thousands of followers. Others were activated by individuals who were openly pro-Russian, Lithuanian citizens of Russian or even Lithuanian origin, who promoted the Kremlin’s usual message: Baltic states are Russophobes, local Russian minorities do not have the same rights as ethnical majorities. Among these sites and FB pages are those owned by Vyacheslav Titov, a member in the Klaipeda local council, or Laurynas Ragelskis, a pro-Russian blogger. The subjects thrown into discussion are, of course, NATO, the EU, Brexit, Venezuela, corruption, depopulation but also collateral topics with a higher emotional impact: anti-vaccination campaigns, the Yellow Vests protests, seen through a propagandistic light, the fire of Notre Dame (Islamists caused it!). And general messages are not numerous, but they are pervasive:

- the Baltic states are facing a demographic crisis, problems in the field of energy and increased social inequality;

- Lithuania is a failed state, and Baltics in general are Russophobes;

- NATO’s presence on the national territory only brings problems;

- help can only come from Russia, from President Putin, as was the case during the USSR.

Social studies show that a quarter of Lithuania’s population consider that life was better in the USSR, and the Russian propaganda continues to address this exact percentage of nostalgics.

The other three quarters consider that, however, they must protect themselves against misinformation, fake news-type products, which led, following the annexation of Crimea in 2014, to the establishment of the volunteer movement “Lithuanian Elves”, which currently numbers approximately 5,000 members: IT professionals, students, experts, businessman who aim to identify and expose Russian attempts at online misinformation.

The consequence was the drop in the intensity of media and misinformation campaigns during recent electoral campaigns, but also maintaining an increased level of cyberattacks or e-mail distribution and comments on social networks.

Germany – how to form the “Alternative for Media”

An important role in misinformation campaigns is played by “fighters on the ground”, those who, for various reasons, assume the messages transmitted by Kremlin and disseminate them in their own circles on social media, without necessarily aiming for an immediate reward. And the German example is illustrating for Russia’s capacity to exploit this niche of sympathy, of course coming from times before 1989 and maintained due to frustrations, specially those of the population in East Germany. Facebook groups titled, for example “Putinisten” (15,000 members), “Allianz Europa – Russland” (25,000 members), “Solidaritat mit Russland (12,000 members), “Russia for us” (2,000 members) are fuelled with information from Russian news site which they re-broadcast inside, but also towards their own circles of online friends, those multiplying their area of dissemination.

Therefore, the official information or the one broadcasted by Germany’s important media channels is replaced by what is propagated through these groups. In order to transmit propaganda materials, they make use of media sites (Telepolis, Epoch Times, NewsFront, Anti-Spiegel, Info-Welt), well-made but without the scale of these groups, as they are followed by only several hundred people. After they are posted, these materials are taken over by either the administrators of FB groups, as well as by individual members and exposed to larger audience circles.

Official Russian media also plays an important role in Germany. And fairly well-known German politicians (especially from the Alternative for Germany or Linke) take part, by commenting in these posts, in giving credibility to these pieces of information. And scenarios. And conspiracy theories.

Of course, the insistence of concentrating these media platforms on internal political, economic and social problems, on the negative aspects of everyday life, is not exactly a Russian invention, being initially used by Western media during the Cold War.  The new aspect is the sophistication provided by current-day technologies and the fact that, although the contemporary world is no longer black and white, it can be presented in a way to further these two colours. And those who were, until maybe yesterday, painted in the dark colours of the realities of a political and economic life without perspective, can today appear clean and pure.

At the European Parliament elections in May 2019, these groups and platforms contributed through debating subjects favourable to the Kremlin but, as a general trait, Russia has picked up the fruits an evolution of online discussions towards the right, which favoured its topics o interest. This was especially valid in Germany, Italy, Spain and France, where a genuine explosion of platforms created by members or sympathizers of right-wing parties was registered.

In conclusion…

The antidote is not always at hand…

… because misinformation operations are based on the information consumers’ lack of critical culture. That is why media campaigns from the East do not easily find their entrance in states where public opinion is alerted on the danger and direction from where they can appear;

… because the divisions in society creates social environments which are independent one from another, which believe in their own truths, scenarios or conspiracies, and which do not allow the invalidation of fake news because there is no communication. That is why media campaigns from the East succeed in states which are politically divided, where political consensus does not work, in which internal political enemies are considered more dangerous than foreign ones;

… because a lot of times individuals, but also entire communities, prefer the liberty of being misinformed to the right to information.

Translated by Ionut Preda