Backtracking on Russian information warfare

It’s interesting to witness somebody backtracking from a long-held opinion without actually admitting it. This thought came to mind when reading an article by Peter Pomerantsev in this week’s New Statesman reviewing David Patrikarakos’ book War in 140 Characters: How Social Media is Reshaping Conflict in the Twenty-First Century. For some time now, Pomerantsev has been propagandizing (I use the word advisedly) the idea that Russia is waging ‘information war’ against the West. This was the primary theme of a report he wrote with Michael Weiss called The Menace of Unreality: How the Kremlin Weaponizes Information, Culture and Money, as well as of a report he co-authored with Ed Lucas, Winning the Information War: Techniques and Counter-Strategies to Russian Propaganda in Central and Eastern Europe. In his New Statesman article, however, he takes a somewhat different stance.

Pomerantsev comments that he has been researching what he calls ‘foreign (dis)information operations during the German election.’ He remarks that his research showed that,

The campaigns came from all sorts of places. The German-language arm of Kremlin state broadcaster Sputnik was blatantly biased towards the anti-immigrant, far-right Alternative für Deutschland party. Pro-AfD (and most likely German) automated Twitter accounts would avidly retweet Sputnik stories

Contained within this statement is an interesting admission – Twitter accounts promoting the AfD weren’t Russian, it seems; they were ‘most likely German.’ The fact that they may have posted links to Sputnik doesn’t constitute ‘Russian interference’ in the German election. But it turns out that it wasn’t just Germans who were interesting in affecting the outcome of the German election and in promoting the AfD. Pomerantsev continues:

There were also US and European alt-right activists who congregated on the message board 4chan, and more obscure sites such as Discord, to create “meme factories”, partnering with German far-right movements to hijack Twitter hashtags.

So, it turns out that the foreign forces trying to influence German politics were a) American, and b) European. Given the large number of headlines we have seen in the press about ‘Russian interference’ in the German election, this is quite interesting. What we have is not a situation in which everybody in the world is minding their own business apart from the Russians, but one in which people from all over the place are getting involved and trying to influence people in other countries. Pomerantsev thus notes that in his book David Patrikarakos argues that, ‘No longer can we talk of one nation battling another through propaganda: the field is now swarming with individual actors, each a little propaganda state in their own right.’ Pomerantsev concludes:

By the end of our research it was clear that one can’t really talk, as one could during the Cold War, of ‘foreign’ information operations launched against a coherent domestic news space. Instead, one has transnational, ever-shifting networks of toxic speech and disinformation, including both state and non-state actors. These can operate for financial, ideological or simply personal reasons, allying and mutually reinforcing one another to pursue quite different agendas.

Coming from Pomerantsev, this is quite remarkable. After spending the past few years trying to convince us that the problem is information operations conducted by the Russian state against the West, he’s now telling us that, ‘one can’t really talk, as one could during the Cold War, of ‘foreign’ information operations launched against a coherent domestic news space.’ That’s very different.

Pomerantsev doesn’t like what’s going on. The anarchy of the digital information space means that there are lots of ideas out there that he disagrees with, as well as a lot of false information. Something must be done, he seems to be saying. At the same time, Pomerantsev suggests that this messy situation is in some way new, or at least that that is what Patrikarakos claims in his book. But is it really? Non-state actors have been spreading revolutionary messages, trying to discredit their own and other countries, propagating dubious ideas, and distributing downright falsehood for a very long time indeed. If Pomerantsev had been writing 100 or 200 years ago, he’d have no doubt been complaining about how it was far too easy for dodgy states and non-state actors to wage ‘information war’ by means of the printed word, how the declining cost of printing was allowing all and sundry to publish dangerous tracts which undermined Western democracy and subverted our security, and the like. In my opinion, all this talk of ‘hybrid war’ and so on as something new, is so much nonsense. Digital media have made it easier to spread messages faster and wider, but in essence nobody is doing anything different from they’ve done heretofore.

The world is a messy place. Pomerantsev is right about that. That said, I don’t think that messy is bad; diversity of opinions, including that of outsiders, and a clash of narratives and perspectives, is probably healthy. I also have sufficient confidence in the strength of our Western societies not to think that we need to be afraid of people propagating views we dislike on Twitter. Moreover, if what’s really going on is that every man and his dog from every country in the world is piling into political debates, then that’s far removed from the idea that the real problem is ‘Russian information warfare’. It would be good if Pomerantsev admitted it.

7 thoughts on “Backtracking on Russian information warfare”

  1. That’s a very good piece, Paul. On my blog we were just discussing the interview between Margarita Simonyan and Leslie Stahl of “60 minutes”. You can find what I think is the longest clip of it here, on the “60 Minutes” site:

    The western – and those Russian intellectuals whose sympathies lie with the west – consensus continues to be that America’s intelligence services agree, based on evidence that they discovered – that Russia professionally interfered in the American election campaign. It is Clinton’s democrats who will not let this go, and it is untrue. The report was generated by a small group of handpicked experts who may have been chosen for their loyalty and reliability rather than their skill and sources. They equivocated all over the place, and would not say there was no other explanation for any of it. The main charge has always been that the Russians used Wikileaks to dump a bunch of Clinton’s emails just before the election. Assange denies the Russians were the source, and said that nobody from the Mueller investigation ever contacted him to ask. The suggestion this damaged Clinton’s victory prospects looks odd in light of the fact that she won the popular vote, but lost in the Electoral College.

    I had a daily news feed from Handelsblatt for a year, a period which encompassed the American presidential election and the run-up to it. The Germans were open and enthusiastic in their endorsement of Clinton and their contempt for Trump. Never a word was said about German efforts to influence the American election. It is apparently only bad if you supported Trump.


  2. “The anarchy of the digital information space means that there are lots of ideas out there that he disagrees with”

    I don’t think this is about any ideas. I believe this is mostly about censorship and propaganda. Western governments and mass-media practice blatant censorship and misinterpretation (propaganda).

    Consequently, anything that brings attention to the facts they suppress and/or re-interpret their ‘narratives’ is deemed ‘disinformation’.

    The Ukrainian ‘narrative’ is one clear example: I’ve read a million times how the problems stemmed from ‘Russian annexation of Crimea’. That’s propaganda.

    In regards to AfG, I noticed that German police tend to withhold names of perpetrators of certain crimes (like driving a car into a crowd). I was following (just out of curiosity) one case some months ago (forgot the town where it happened). The police refused to disclose the name, there were speculations, and the police spokesperson responded angrily with accusations of racism. Within the couple of weeks while I was following the case, the name wasn’t disclosed. Neither by the police (okay, they may have rules) nor the media (they shouldn’t).

    So, it’s censorship and propaganda. Whatever the intentions (only the best, I’m sure), it creates a backlash. And it gives a huge opening and advantage to the alternative sources, as the population lose trust in the mainstream media and starts looking elsewhere.

    No matter how loudly they squeal ‘disinformation!!!’, I don’t think it’s going to help. The natural reaction is: “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”


  3. Jeffrey Carr on medium is a pretty good source of scepticism concerning the IT aspects of Russiagate.

    I am also taking the liberty of reposting something I wrote there concerning how Russian non state actors hack:

    My understanding of the Russian side is as this:

    1: The entire CIS basically is a shared market as far as malware developing goes. Malware developed by private Ukrainian actors will be used by Russian actors as vice versa.

    2: Generally speaking, CIS based hackers can sell either the fruits of the labors (such as IDs, pilfered information etc.), or the tools they use (such as malware like Xagent) or building blocks for future malware (such as zero days). The trade off for the hacker is that selling things he pilfered makes him fairly criminal in most jurisdictions, while just selling malware is unlikely to come to bite him later. Selling zero days makes less money then a malware kit that utilizes the zero day but is basically risk free.

    3: CIS hackers may or may not have “Krysha” meaning protection from some authorities. My understanding that selling malware and zero days without Krysha is totally feasible.

    4: Russian intel agencies have their own inhouse malware development for highly sensitive and important tasks, but tend to prefer using publicly available malware due to its often smaller cost (a Russian intel agency can likely buy malware from a Russian hacker for free by just offering him improved relations/favors) and due to the fact that using commercial malware does not revealing their actual capabilities. Of course, attribution is also more difficult, but my understanding is that attribution is, in 9 out of 10 cases, a political rather then a fact based question.

    5: The, well, “workflow” is that some independent hacker uses a shotgun approach to get something, will then peruse the something a bit and will then make a decision to offer it either to a specific “customer” or sell it on the black market. That customer may be a Russian intel agency, which may pay for the something in either money or favors. Russian intel agencys do, as far as I know, not comission freelance hackers for specific tasks.
    I did hear rumors of something akin to a “letter of marque”, meaning that a hacker is safe from Russian law enforcement reprisals as long as he campaigns against certain countries, exist.

    6: Something I did hear is that, in some rare occassions, independent hackers may get to beta test actual Russian government spyware (if you want to test something, it is valid to give it to an idiot to see what can go wrong), although these are strictly speaking less spyware programs and more means of organizing servers, masking deployment areas etc.

    7: The one “hack” where I find direct involvement of Russian state agencies credible is when the equation group got hacked by the “Shadow BrokeR”. For those unfamiliar with the affair, “Shadow BrokeR” went into the equation groups (this is basically the hacking group of the NSA) stash of offensive cyber weapons, stole all of them, wrote some messages akin to “Your cyberweapons are epic weaksauce which do not meet our specifications at all, so we are selling them to some idiots on the black market.”
    Publically punking the NSA like that is more likely to be Russian agency business. This is imho not something a Russian hacker who is not in an agency would dare to do.

    8: Said hack may have well been intended as a warning shot. Russia does not want an actual cyber war with the USA (the winner of that would be China), and if the USA believes its own propaganda, and believes that the (very middling) skill level displayed in the DNC hack is an indicator of Russian offensive cyber capabilities, it may well think it would win one.


  4. “Coming from Pomerantsev, this is quite remarkable. After spending the past few years trying to convince us that the problem is information operations conducted by the Russian state against the West, he’s now telling us that, ‘one can’t really talk, as one could during the Cold War, of ‘foreign’ information operations launched against a coherent domestic news space.’ “


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