Tag Archives: EU

Exposing the disinformation industry

In my last post I mentioned the growth of an industry of disinformation ‘experts’ who themselves spread disinformation. If anybody has any doubts about it, evidence of how this industry operates came out this week in the form of a couple of short reports from the University of Manchester, which is the home of a research project known as ‘Reframing Russia’.

Led by Professor Stephen Hutchings and Vera Tolz, both well respected researchers, the project primarily studies the Russian media network RT, saying that ‘ we test hypotheses … that challenge conventional thinking and presumptions about RT and really get to grips with RT’s recalibration of Russia’s public image for international audience.’ Beyond RT, however, the Reframing Russia team also comment occasionally on issues relating to the Russian media and disinformation more generally, and this is where this week’s news comes into play.

First off, we had a frenzy of complaints that the Russian news agency RIA had published an article claiming that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson had been ventilated while in hospital suffering from coronavirus. This resulted in a series of denunciations of Russia in the press and on social media, followed by a public statement by Johnson’s office that the story was Russian ‘disinformation’. Rather embarrassingly, however, news soon came out that Johnson had been taken into intensive care and was being provided with oxygen, apparently indicating that the RIA story had been true.

The Reframing Russia team therefore decided to investigate. Apparently, the accusations of Russian disinformation were due to ‘mistranslation’ of what RIA had said, which was not that Johnson was being intubated, but that he ‘will’ (future) be receiving artificial ventilation, a phrase that in Russian includes ‘non-invasive use of an oxygen mask’. In other words, RIA didn’t report that something had already happened, but made a prediction which turned out to be true. ‘In sum’, concludes Reframing Russia, ‘there is no evidence of any attempts by Russian news providers to spread disinformation about Prime Minister Johnson’s state of health’. The whole story, in other words, was sloppy journalism. As Reframing Russia puts it, this case indicates how

rudimentary journalistic standards relating to the careful verification of source materials are … sidestepped. … 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.

That brings us neatly onto the research project’s second report, which deals more generally with claims that the Russian state has been spreading disinformation about the coronavirus. The report involves an analysis of the output of the European Union’s counter-disinformation service EUvsDisinfo, which has been the source for a large number of media stories claiming that the Russian Federation is actively spreading false stories about COVID-19 for nefarious political purposes.

To check whether EUvsDisinfo’s claims were correct, Reframing Russia examined the specific stories the EU organization had flagged as disinformation, but also went beyond that by taking a wider look at what Russian TV has been saying about the COVID pandemic. Observing the output of Russian TV’s Channel 1, the team concluded that, ‘there was little sign here of the coordinated pro-Kremlin “conspiracy theory propaganda’ flagged by EUvsDisinfo.’ On the contrary, ‘The extent of EUvsDisinfo’s misrepresentation of Russian COVID-19 media coverage in the material we then analyzed is troubling.’

The research team identified two ways in which EUvsDisinfo misrepresented the truth. The first is ‘omission’: ‘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.’

The second form of misrepresentation is ‘blatant distortion’. For instance, EUvsDisinfo issued a report claiming that Sputnik Latvia had said that ‘COVID-19 had been designed specifically to kill elderly people’. In fact, ‘the article in question … was clearly ridiculing a whole series of international conspiracy theories … the article highlights their idiocy.’

Beyond this, Reframing Russia attacks EUvsDisinfo’s methodology for assuming that ‘random websites without any traceable links to Russia state structures’ are similar to state-funded media outlets, and that all are part of a coordinated Kremlin-led campaign. This is true even in the case of ‘conspirological, far-right websites which are actually critical of Putin.’

Overall, the Reframing Russia report concludes with characteristically British understatement, that

Our analysis demonstrates that EUvsDisinfo’s headlines and summaries border on disinformation … The source material cited by EUvsDisinfo demonstrates that the Russian state is, in fact, not targeting countries with an organised around the current public health crisis.

The research team suggests two reasons for this: first, ‘a profound misunderstanding of how the media in neo-authoritarian systems such as Russia’s work’ (everything is not, in reality, dictated by the Kremlin), and; second, ‘The outsourcing of services by state institutions to third parties without a proper assessment of their qualifications to do the required work’. In EUvsDisinfo’s case, the work is outsourced to some 400 volunteers, who are ‘operating in a post-Soviet space saturated … by anti-Russian attitudes.’

In short, the disinformation experts don’t understand how Russia operates, and they are also unprofessional, and driven by anti-Russian biases.

I’d go farther than this. The output of the disinformation industry doesn’t ‘border on disinformation’, it is to a large degree disinformation. Furthermore, the industry’s output is a product of more than just lack of understanding and lack of professionalism. I’d argue that it’s inherent in the industry itself. Institutions have purposes, and the methods they use reflect those purposes. The purpose for which the disinformation industry was set up is to be a tool in the current East-West geopolitical conflict. The method is to make Russia look bad by presenting Russia as a source of disinformation, which in some way is said to undermine Western unity, democracy, and all the rest of it. In short, disinformation ‘experts’ exist to find Russian disinformation. It’s what they do. If they can’t find it, their reason for existence disappears. So, they find it. And if they can’t, they fabricate it. The ‘blatant distortion’ identified by Reframing Russia is part and parcel of what this industry is.

Sadly, EUvsDisinfo is hardly unique. Other examples, such as the Ukrainian organization Stop Fake and the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, abound. The problem is that our media and politicians take them seriously. As Reframing Russia notes, ‘Since it [EUvsDisinfo] bears the EU stamp of credibility, it is unsurprising that the material provided [by it] provided the basis for a series of national international press articles’. This applies more generally. The output of the disinformation industry is widely treated as truth. But as the Reframing Russia team have so ably demonstrated, in reality much of it is not.

Group polarization

This week’s ‘Irrationality and Foreign Policy Decision Making’ class will look at group dynamics, in other words how being in a group affects behaviour. The phenomenon of ‘groupthink’ is well known, and its effects on foreign policy have been extensively covered elsewhere, so instead in this post I will focus on a less well known phenomenon – group polarization.

Group polarization refers to the tendency of groups to move towards extremes. At the end of a discussion, group members will probably adopt a more extreme decision than that which they were inclined towards at the beginning. If at the start they were inclined to take a risk, they will be even more inclined to do so at the end; if instead, they were initially inclined to be cautious, they will end up even more cautious. In other words, groups tend to accentuate the existing dispositions of their members.

There are a couple of explanations for this. The first is that people want to fit into the group, and so adopt what they perceive to be the prevailing attitude. As more and more group members do so, the group as a whole becomes more extreme. The second explanation is that as people hear more and more arguments in favour of a certain position, they become more and more convinced of its correctness, as a result of which attitudes harden.

Let us apply this to relations between Russia and the West. Russia is an individual nation. Group polarization does not apply to it. But the West is a group, normally represented by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union (EU). We should expect group polarization to apply to both NATO and the EU in their relations to Russia. It seems reasonable to suppose that at the start of the current crisis in Ukraine, the majority of members of both organizations viewed Russia’s involvement in Ukraine negatively. Given this initial inclination, group polarization would probably have pushed both NATO and the EU to take an even harder line against Russia than the individual member states would have taken if left to their own devices. The existence of NATO and the EU has thus probably exacerbated East-West relations.

Does that mean that Russia should try and avoid dealing with NATO and the EU and instead try to deal with Western nations bilaterally? In the current situation, the answer is yes. Russia will do better by speaking to France and Germany individually than it will by speaking to NATO or the EU. The format of the Minsk negotiations, which included Russia, France, Germany, and Ukraine, are therefore advantageous to Russia compared to some format which might see NATO or the EU involved. This is true, however, only as long as the initial inclinations of Western states towards Russia are negative. Should those inclinations shift in a positive direction, group polarization could push NATO and the EU even more positively inclined towards Russia than individual members were. At that point, it would make sense for Russia to deal with the organizations rather than with their member states. There is little immediate prospect of that, however.


When the West did not exist

The hundredth anniversary of the First World War has produced an outpouring of fresh literature on the subject of a conflict whose legacy continues to shape the world today. With a few notable exceptions (Josh Sanborn’s Imperial Apocalypse, the Russia’s Great War and Revolution project and, of course, my own August 2014 book on Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich), this torrent of commemoration has passed Russia by. Despite the fact that by summer 1915, the majority of the divisions of the Central Powers were fighting on the Eastern and not the Western Front, so much more has been written about the latter than about the former that one might be excused for believing that the British Empire had won the war entirely by itself.

This past weekend I attended a conference about the First World War at the beautiful Château Lake Louise near Banff, Alberta. Of almost 100 papers delivered at the conference, only three were about Russia. This is a shame, not merely because it distorts our understanding of the past, but because it erases from history a time when Russia was fully integrated into the international politics of Europe.

By way of illustration, here is a photograph taken at the Russian Supreme Headquarters (Stavka) early in 1915 showing the Supreme Commander Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich with a group of Cossacks. The decidedly Francophile Grand Duke took two flags with him to Stavka: the first was the standard which his father had flown when commanding the Russian Army in the Russo-Turkish War nearly 40 years previously; the other was a French tricolour given to the Grand Duke by General Joffre in 1912. You can see both flags in the photograph. There is no Russian flag. Extraordinarily, the Russian Supreme Headquarters fought the First World War not under the flag of Russia, but under the flag of France.


As this example shows, one hundred years ago the West, as a collective entity juxtaposed to Russia, did not exist. France and Germany were fighting each other, but Russian and French interests were seen as identical. In today’s world too, there is no inherent reason why on any given subject the interests of France and Russia should not be closer together than, for instance, the interests of France and Germany. The same applies to all European and North American countries. Canada and Russia, for instance, do not have to be further apart than, say, Canada and Slovakia. In fact there are very good reasons for suggesting that Canada might have rather more in common with Russia than with Slovakia. Canada and Russia are, after all, polar neighbours whose economies are both reliant on natural resource extraction.

Seen this way, the West as the opposite of Russia is not a natural phenomenon but rather the product of institutions set up after the Second World War, most notably NATO and the European Union. These institutions have their advantages:  they help to prevent divisions of the sort that ignited the two World Wars. But they also have disadvantages:  their existence encourages their members to regard getting on with other members as more important than pursuing their own interests. Groupthink trumps rationality, and good relations with Russia are sacrificed as a result.

So too does the obsession with ‘Western values’ trump national interest.  A hundred years ago, Imperial Russia and Republican France had profoundly different forms of government. This did not preclude them from getting on. Nor should it prevent Russia and the West today, when the differences are so much smaller.