A few years back, I wrote with wry amusement about how ‘the hunters become the hunted’ – in other words how some of the ‘infowarriors’ leading the pack in the fight against Russian ‘hybrid warfare’, ‘disinformation’ and the like had themselves been accused of being Russian stooges. In that case, it was the notably Russophobic Legatum Institute. Now, the same phenomenon has repeated itself, with an attack on the person of Latvian-based Russian journalist Leonid Ragozin.
Journalist is perhaps a loose word for Ragozin, who has also worked as a travel writer for Lonely Planet, and whose Twitter feed marks him out as a fervent member of the Alexei Navalny fan club. As he admits, he was arrested in Moscow in 2012 while taking part in an anti-government demo. In other words, he is in many respects a political activist, devoted to the struggle against the ‘Putin regime’.
It must have come as quite a shock to him, therefore, to find himself denounced as an intelligence asset of that same said regime by the ‘Ukrainian infowar outfit’ Informnapalm. According to Informnapalm, Ragozin is a ‘promoter of Kremlin narratives whose career points to ‘potential recruitment by the Russian Intelligence Services’.
Anybody who reads Ragozin’s output on a regular basis can only have a quiet chuckle at how silly the allegation is, but Ragozin himself was upset enough to pen a long piece on it for BneIntellinews, in which he draws a possible connection between Informnapalm and a ‘psy-ops unit of the Ukrainian army’ as well as a link between it and the Ukrainian far right. He then conjectures that his own attacks on that far right, as well as stories he has written about a Ukrainian operation to kidnap members of the Russian mercenary group Wagner, probably lie behind the group’s denunciation of him. He notes:
‘What becomes abundantly clear from looking at social media accounts associated with the group is that members of Informnapalm belong to a part of the Ukrainian security community, which is vehemently opposed to President Volodymyr Zelensky. It is in turn a part of a broader coalition of hawks and nationalists that has coalesced around former president Petro Poroshenko.
The hit piece about me came completely out of the blue, as I haven’t done any stories about Ukraine since last winter. But the authors made sure that I understand the peg. The piece begins and ends on something that is being peddled by anti-Zelenskiy opposition under the brand Wagnergate.‘
What interests me about this, though, are not so much the reasons behind this particular spat, but what it reveals about what in the past I have called the ‘disinformation industry’ – that is to say the large-scale, well-funded network of government agencies, private institutions, and individuals devoted to combatting ‘Russian disinformation’. For as Ragozin notes, the story
‘Illustrates the dubious role played by organisations which claim to counter Kremlin misinformation and propaganda, but in reality disseminate their own.’.
Exactly. Well said, Leonid!
For you see, Informnapalm is typical of its breed – an organization dedicated in theory to countering disinformation that in reality is driven by a narrow political ideology that leads it to consider anything it disagrees with as ‘disinformation’ and in the process induces it to spread lies and ‘fake news’ of its own.
In Ukraine, the other organization most noted for this is Stop.Fake, to which Ragozin devotes some time, noting its ‘whitewashing of the far right and links to them.’ Ragozin also calls out former Estonian president Toomas Hendrik Ilves, commenting that
‘Both Ilves and Stop.Fake are part of a toxic community that has been for years suppressing genuine experts and moderate voices involved in the discussion about the conflict between Russia and the West. They also promote conspiracies and xenophobia.’
The problem is that they are not alone, nor are they without influence. In 2019, for instance, Stop.Fake’s most prominent member, Katerina Kruk, was appointed Facebook’s public policy manager for Ukraine, in effect becoming the person responsible for deciding what Ukrainian news was ‘fake’ and ‘disinformation’ and so worthy of censorship. Stop Fake’s influence, moreover, is international. For instance, in 2018 the Canadian Security Intelligence Service(CSIS) published a report based on a seminar held by CSIS on the topic of disinformation which contained a chapter that was to all intents and purposes an advertisement for Stop.Fake, and which one has to suspect was written by one of its members. As for Ilves, he also has a Canadian connection via the one time head of the Estonian Central Council in Canada, Marcus Kolga, who has set up an infowar outfit at the MacDonald Laurier Institute under the name DisinfoWatch. It’s quite the network.
The disinformation industry stretches far beyond them, however. At the highest level are government-run agencies, such as the US government’s Global Engagement Center (GEC), and the European Union’s EUvsDisinfo. As I have pointed out before, these are as much disseminators of disinformation and they are weapons against it. The GEC, for instance, produced a ridiculous report that alleged an international web of Russian government-led conspiracy, based on a comment by Vladimir Zhirinovsky and a bunch of websites run by the likes of Alexander Dugin and a retired economics prof in Montreal. As for EUvsDisinfo, most of what it claims is ‘disinformation’ is nothing of the sort, and its methodology has been thoroughly panned by outside researchers, as I revealed in an earlier post (here).
Beyond government agencies are private institutions, mainly think tanks. But while they are notionally private, they are often government-funded at least in part, and often closely tied to the Western military industrial complex. An example of this would be the anti-disinformation organization known as the Digital Forensic Laboratory, which is run by the Atlantic Council. Even more sinister was the infamous ‘Integrity Initiative’ run by the Institute for Statecraft in the UK, which was funded by the Foreign Office and had close connections to the British army’s psychological operations unit. To say the least, these are not the sort of unbiased people one wants determining what is and is not disinformation and what can and cannot be read or heard on the internet, TV, or radio.
The final layers of the disinformation industry are individuals. Some are academics and reasonably respectable, but others are cranks. The sad thing is that the cranks often have enormous followings, despite churning out stuff of the most extreme unreliability. For some reason, they seem to get away with it.
All told, what this sorry state of affairs tells us is this: ‘combatting’ Russian hybrid warfare and disinformation is big business. Not only have governments taken to creating large agencies dedicated to the struggle, but they also shower money on think tanks, academics, and others to spread the word of the terrible threat that we all face. Yet much of what this collective industry produces is of decidedly poor quality. Moreover a lot of it is not objective analysis of the problem, but rather politically-driven and as such extremely biased. Consequently, as Ragozin points out, the disinformation industry is itself a major source of disinformation.
This puts us in an unpleasant situation. To fight the alleged threat of Russian ‘influence’ operations , we have created a great industry dedicated to in effect censoring discussion of key matters of public interest. But the censors are not to be trusted in the job. The disinformation industry is not about protecting the truth but about controlling the flow of information to ensure that only that which accords with certain interests is allowed to see the light of day.
Ragozin concludes: ‘Military psy-ops teams should be explicitly banned from attacking and smearing civilians.’ The problem goes beyond military psy-ops teams, though. It extends to a large industry of civilian government bodies and government-funded research teams and think tanks who are equally as active in smearing those they do not like. And it goes far beyond Russia and Ukraine. In our struggle against ‘disinformation’, we have created a monster that threatens freedom of speech. Beware those who pretend to the post of guardian of the truth. For they are nothing of the sort.