According to an article published by RT on Friday, the hacktivist group Anonymous has unearthed ‘a massive UK-led psyop to create a “large-scale information secret service” in Europe – all under the guise of countering “Russian propaganda.”’ As RT notes, Anonymous has made public documents allegedly originated by a project known as the Integrity Initiative (the ‘psyop’ in question). Despite RT’s breathless claims, I certainly wouldn’t call the uncovered operation ‘massive.’ Nor is it quite as scandalous as RT tries to make out, nor quite as secret, given that the project has a public website. Nevertheless, I do have some concerns about it.
On its website, the Integrity Initiative describes itself as:
a network of people and organizations from across Europe dedicated to revealing and combating propaganda and disinformation. … our members mostly prefer to remain anonymous. … We are not a government body but we do work with government departments and agencies who share our aims.
In the leaked documents, the Integrity Initiative makes it clear that the ‘propaganda and disinformation’ which it has in mind is primarily Russian. Furthermore, the initiative not only works with government departments and agencies, but is largely financed by them. According to the documents revealed by Anonymous, the Integrity Initiative’s funding comes from the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), NATO, the Lithuanian Ministry of Defence, the US State Department, Facebook, and the German business community. If this was a Russian project, we can have little doubt that Western commentators would denounce it as an ‘arm of the Kremlin’.
An Integrity Initiative handbook, which is among the items revealed by Anonymous, states that the project operates by forming ‘a cluster of well-informed people from the political, military, academic, journalistic and think-tank spheres, who will track and analyse examples of disinformation in their country and inform decision-makers and other interested parties about what is happening.’ This setup is unusual. Normally, academics, journalists, and think tankers operate independently from government. Here, they are collaborating. Among the British cluster members are members of Parliament, diplomats, Ministry of Defence staff, think tank personnel (from Chatham House, RUSI, Henry Jackson Society, etc), and journalists (from the BBC, The Times, and the Financial Times). The network also extends to academia, as the project is run in conjunction with the Free University of Brussels. As one of the leaked documents comments, this provides the benefit of ‘enhancing the academic respectability of the project’. As an academic, this makes me uneasy; I can’t help but feel that giving ‘academic respectability’ to secretive political projects isn’t what universities are for.
Beyond that, an application for funding from the FCO explains that the purpose of the initiative is ‘to counter Russian disinformation and malign influence. … Our programme to date has helped the UK to lead this process. Expanding this success will cement UK’s influence in N. America and in Europe post-Brexit.’ This makes it very clear that this is not a research project but a political one. Those joining the network aren’t neutral researchers, but active participants in a political campaign against Russia led by the British state and NATO. I have trouble understanding why either academics or journalists should consider this to be their job.
The project’s politics are made clear by its starting assumptions, as laid out in the funding request mentioned above. This document states:
Russia’s leaders say that Russia is at war with the West. The existence of democracy poses a threat to their dictatorial system. Undermining and ultimately destroying Western democratic institutions is Russia’s way of neutralising this ‘threat’. … … the Western system of democratic values will benefit for being protected against attack by those powers who would seek to overturn our system and all it stands for.
This statement is extreme even by current standards. For a start, I can’t recall any Russian ‘leader’ saying that ‘Russia is at war with the West’. Of course, that depends on how you define ‘leader’, but for all his frustration with the West, Putin avoids such language and continues to refer to Western states as ‘partners’. Furthermore, the idea that the Russian government’s aim is ‘destroying Western democratic institutions’ is patently absurd. I’m not aware of any Russian leader ever expressing any interest in ‘destroying Western democratic institutions’. As far as I can make out, Moscow isn’t in the slightest interested in what political systems other countries have. Likewise, the statement that Russia ‘seek[s] to overturn our system and all it stands for,’ is completely over the top – not merely unsubstantiated, but also entirely false. The Integrity Initiative’s politics amount to fearmongering.
Furthermore, as the leaked documents purport to show, the initiative engages in exactly the sort of ‘meddling’ in foreign affairs of which its members accuse Russia. In one instance, project members disliked the Spanish government’s choice for the post of director of Spain’s Department of Homeland Security. The Spanish ‘cluster’ set about lobbying against the candidate on social media, and eventually the Spanish government appointed somebody else. One can well imagine what the reaction would be if it turned out that a network of influential people who secretly belonged to a group funded by the Russian government had successfully lobbied to prevent the appointment of an official in Spain because Russia objected to him or her.
It’s a common complaint that Russian media are controlled by the state. By contrast, the Western media, and Western opinion formers, such as academics and think tank members, are considered to be independent and impartial. Yet in reality, the relationship between them is often far cozier than people understand, and sometimes far cozier than it ought to be. I’m sure that everybody involved in the Integrity Initiative believes that they are acting for the best. But if they have been secretly working with government officials in pursuit of political objectives, they shouldn’t be surprised that some people don’t trust them. There’s a reason why people turn to sources of information which are accused of peddling ‘fake news’: they don’t believe traditional sources. Projects like the Integrity Initiative help strengthen the impression of secret conspiracies and double standards. Far from solving the problem, therefore, they accentuate it,