Tag Archives: propaganda

Cunning troll

I once read that the founders of the website Inosmi.ru, which translates articles from the Western mass media into Russia, had hoped that by giving Russians access to Western journalism they would be able to convince them of the rightness of Western ways and of the values of liberal-democracy more generally, and thus rid them of their nationalist and anti-democratic urges. Unfortunately, said the article, Inosmi had had the opposite effect. Once non-English speaking Russians finally got the opportunity to read the over-the-top nonsense about Russia that passes for journalism in the Western press, they became more convinced than ever that the Western world was out to get them. It has thus been suggested that the very best thing that the Russian authorities can do to counter Western propaganda is to spread it as widely as possible among the Russian population. Appalled by what they see and hear, the Russian people will rally around the authorities with great aplomb.

The Kremlin, it seems, has learnt the lesson. If the latest stories in the Western press are to be believed, those dastardly Russians are responsible for turning a piece of anti-Russian propaganda into a viral video on social media. Curse them for their cunning! The video in question, of course, is that by American actor Morgan Freeman recently published by the creepily titled ‘Committee to Investigate Russia’, in which Freeman declared that Russia was at ‘war’ with America. No doubt, many of you have already seen it. If so, it’s quite probably because you are a victim of a Kremlin troll. You see, Kremlin trolls have been spreading the video all over the internet and social media, in order to have a good laugh at it and show how ridiculous anti-Russian propaganda is. My goodness, they’re cunning, ‘as cunning as a fox who’s just been appointed professor of cunning at Oxford University,’ as the great Blackadder said.

Don’t take my word for it. According to that well-known bastion of non-propagandistic, 100% totally objective news reporting, RFE/RL, ‘A top NATO adviser on Russian Internet propaganda and disinformation campaigns says U.S. actor Morgan Freeman appears to have been targeted by “coordinated, pro-Kremlin social-media attacks”.’ Actually, Rolf Fredheim, the alleged ‘top NATO advisor’, is just a ‘data analyst’, and at the Riga-based NATO Strategic Communications Centre for Excellence, not at NATO. The Centre is just ‘accredited by NATO’, which according to the Centre’s website means simply that it’s one of several facilities ‘recognized by the Alliance for their expertise’. But let’s put that to one side for the moment. It’s RFE/RL, after all. Details, details. What matters is what Herr Fredheim has to say, which is the following:

Fredheim told RFE/RL on September 21 that he could not say whether the avalanche of recent English-language attacks against Freeman on Twitter, YouTube, and other social media were directly coordinated by the Kremlin. But he said the timing and similarity of many of the initial attacks suggest an army of pro-Kremlin, online trolls may have taken a cue from the criticism of Freeman by Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on September 20, one day after the Freeman video’s release. ‘It does look very highly coordinated, because you’re seeing something on multiple platforms at the same time communicating the same message,’ Fredheim said. ‘It’s more than just a teenager in the basement. It could be many teenagers in many basements. But it could also be something more sophisticated than that…the St. Petersburg troll factories, for instance. It could be an example of some kind of Russian troll-farm output.’

So, our ‘top NATO advisor’ admits that he has no evidence that the flood of articles, blog posts, and Twitter and Facebook messages linking to Freeman’s video and poking fun at it, are ‘coordinated by the Kremlin’, but he feels confident enough nonetheless to say that it’s likely the case, because it involves multiple messages on multiple platforms, something which could only be achieved by a coordinating centre, and couldn’t possibly be the result of lots of individuals deciding that this was such blithering nonsense that they really ought to comment on it on whatever type of media they happen to choose. Take  for example, Bloomberg’s Leonid Bershidsky, who wrote a scathing article about the video a couple of days ago.  Kremlin troll, obviously! And Fox New’s Tucker Carson, who tackled the issue on his talk show. Troll, too. Must be. And myself … Well, you all know that I’m taking payment from the Kremlin; it’s how I bought my Ferrari.

matchbox-ferrari-testarossa

The funny thing is that the ‘Freeman is a victim of Kremlin trolls’ story has itself gone sort of viral, as other Western media outlets pick it up, and Tweeters and Facebookers spread the word. ‘The legendary American actor is a pariah in Russia,’ says the Washington Post, ‘with Kremlin officials, Russian talking heads and pro-Putin social media trolls ganging up to denounce Freeman. The all-hands-on-deck response suggests a concerted Russian effort to discredit the actor via social media.’ ‘Russian trolls are waging war on Morgan Freeman,’ shouts Viceciting RFE/RL. ‘Russia has aimed its entire media arsenal at the veteran Hollywood actor Morgan Freeman,’ proclaims the BBC.  Blogs are getting in on the act. ‘Is nothing sacred?’ asks the Codebringer, complaining about the Russian trolls’ attacks on Mr Freeman. It’s just one of many such complaints one can find in a couple of seconds through a Google search. And it’s on Twitter and Facebook too, as people share the stories from RFE/RL, the BBC, Vice, and so on. In short, the story’s spreading far and wide.

Well, golly gosh. It seems that we are ‘seeing something on multiple platforms at the same time communicating the same message.’ Very suspicious. This phenomenon can’t be spontaneous, can it, Mr Fredheim? You’ve said so. Somebody must be coordinating it. A NATO troll factory, maybe? I demand we be told the truth.

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Turbans and propaganda

Russian ‘information warfare’ is back in the headlines today, with Postmedia publishing a typically over-the-top piece by Matthew Fisher entitled ‘Russia sharpens information weapon’. What prompts this story? According to a Latvian colonel, somebody somewhere on the internet (we are not told who) wrote a derogatory comment about Canadian defence minister Harjit Sajjan wearing a turban. Of course, nobody writes racist nonsense on the internet without first receiving directions from the Kremlin, so this is clear evidence that Moscow is ‘sharpening’ its information weapons in order to discredit the deployment of Canadian troops to Latvia (though what is so ‘sharp’ about this,  I cannot see). Fisher complains that in a recent report, the ‘pro-Kremlin website’ Vestvi.lv, which is directed at Russian speakers in the Baltics, ‘grossly exaggerated what NATO was doing.’ Gross exaggeration – we can’t have that, can we, Matthew?

Meanwhile, a group of ‘security experts’ from 27 countries are meeting today in Prague for a conference to discuss the threat posed by Russia to democratic elections in the West. Among other things, the delegates will discuss a report issued on Thursday by the Kremlin Watch program of the European Values think-tank entitled ’35 measures in 15 steps for enhancing the resilience of the democratic electoral process’.  The report outlines various ways that Moscow is allegedly interfering in Western elections, as summarized in this diagram:

infowarelections

Let us take a look at this in more detail.

Continue reading Turbans and propaganda

Fact and comment

When reading an intelligence report, it is advisable to distinguish between those parts of the report which are raw information and those which are comments. Intelligence analysts are trained to make this distinction clear. One method is to place raw information in a column on one side of the page and commentary in a separate column on the other side. Another way is to put the word ‘COMMENT’ before any commentary, and to put ‘END OF COMMENT’ at the end. A reader can then evaluate whether a comment seems justified in light of the supporting facts.

With this in mind, let us now turn to the unclassified report released to the public yesterday by the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence, entitled ‘Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections.’

The report doesn’t do a very good job of separating fact and comment. But it does regularly use the phrase ‘We assess.’ Readers can presumably take anything preceded by this phrase as being equivalent to a comment. So let us look at the report’s assessments, and see what facts are used to justify them. Among the quotations which follow, those which I consider to state facts, rather than opinions, are highlighted in bold.

Continue reading Fact and comment

Losing the propaganda war

The Western world, we are told, is subject to a steady stream of ‘Russian propaganda’. Perhaps this is true, but if so it is but a drop in the ocean of overall media content, the overwhelming majority of which is fiercely anti-Russian. Let us see what the English-language press had to say about Russia this week.

Atlantic magazine has just issued a new article entitled ‘Russia and the Threat to Liberal Democracy’. In this, author Larry Diamond explains how ‘Putin’s regime has been embarked for some years now on an opportunistic but sophisticated campaign to sabotage democracy’ and ‘We stand now at the most dangerous moment for liberal democracy since the end of World War II’.

‘CIA concludes Russia interfered to help Trump win election’, says The Guardian, citing the Washington Post and New York Times. Apparently, ‘A secret CIA assessment found that Russian operatives covertly interfered in the election campaign in an attempt to ensure the Republican candidate’s victory’, and ‘intelligence officials had a “high confidence” that Russia was involved in hacking related to the election’.

Building on this last story, the Guardian claims also that ‘Russian involvement in US vote raises fears for European elections.’  This follows a statement this week by the head of the British Secret Intelligence Service, MI6, Alex Younger, in which he ‘said cyber-attacks, propaganda and subversion from hostile states pose a “fundamental threat” to European democracies, including the UK. … Younger did not specifically name Russia but left no doubt that this was the target of his remarks.’ The Guardian says that, ‘there will be speculation that Younger was basing his statements, in part, on suspicions of Russian meddling in Britain’s Brexit referendum campaign. …  Any evidence of direct or indirect Russian interference in the British referendum campaign would be politically explosive.’

The Daily Express picks up on the alleged Russian threat to European elections. ‘RUSSIA TO DESTROY MERKEL’, its headline today reads in capital letters, with a subtitle saying ‘US official discovers intelligence of takedown plot.’  The article proceeds to tell us that, ‘RUSSIA has launched a cyber campaign to take down Angela Merkel and promote far-right groups in the upcoming German elections. … A US official familiar with the investigation says that Vladimir Putin will continue to wreak havoc.’

On a separate subject,  a report issued this week by Richard Maclaren on behalf of the World Anti-Doping Agency says that, ‘More than 1,000 Russians – including Olympic medallists – benefited from a state-sponsored doping programme between 2011 and 2015’. ‘It was a cover-up that evolved from uncontrolled chaos to an institutionalised and disciplined medal-winning conspiracy,’ claims McLaren.

As Syrian forces, with Russian help, recaptured most of Aleppo, Western politicians and the press lined up this week to accuse Russia and Syria of various atrocities. In a joint statement, the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, France, Italy, and Canada demanded a ceasefire in Aleppo and said: ‘We condemn the actions of the Syrian regime and its foreign backers, especially Russia, for their obstruction of humanitarian aid.’ The statement added ‘that hospitals and schools appeared to have been targeted “in an attempt to wear people down”.’ Western media outlets repeated claims of the ‘president of Aleppo city council’ that ‘Today 150,000 people are threatened with extermination’, and parsing Tacitus, MI6 chief Alex Younger complained that, ‘In Aleppo, Russia and the Syrian regime seek to make a desert and call it peace.’

Bear in mind that this is just one week’s stories. The consumers of Western media are subjected to similar output week after week. The oft-stated claim that ‘Russia is winning the information war’ is rather naïve. It is losing it badly.

War: what’s in a word?

A few years back, one of the big discussion topics among international relations professors was the idea of ‘securitization’ devised by the ‘Copenhagen School’ of security studies. Securitization theory suggested that security was ‘an essentially contested concept’ – i.e. that there isn’t an objective definition of ‘security’; it is what you say it is. Security is a ‘speech act’. By labelling something as a matter of ‘security’, you make a claim that it is of special importance, requiring a special response, including additional state resources.

Following this logic, various scholars then argued in favour of ‘securitizing’ certain policy issues – e.g. climate change, poverty, inequality, etc. They argued that they could push these up the policy agenda by relabelling them as matters of national security. People thus began speaking about ‘environmental security’, ‘human security’, and so forth.

Critics raised a couple of objections to the concept of securitization.

First, it’s questionable whether security really is a postmodernist ‘essentially contested concept’. Believing that one definition is as good as another is a form of moral relativism which denies us the ability to make valid judgments. Some things physically threaten life and property in a way that others don’t, and we have to have some word which helps us separate the one from the other. Some things are matters of security; others aren’t. It’s more than a ‘speech act’.

Second, labelling things as security issues when they aren’t produces bad policy. The security label tends to create a certain mentality which encourages a specific form of policy response –aggressive, secretive, heedless of people’s liberties, and so on. If you call AIDS a security threat, then AIDS victims become security threats also. The victims become social outcasts, they don’t come forward for treatment, and the disease spreads further. Securitization is not generally a good idea.

All of this is by way of an introduction to Mark Galeotti’s new report entitled Hybrid War or Gibridnaia Voina: Getting Russia’s Non-Linear Challenge Right, which was published today. In his Executive summary, Galeotti says:

The West is at war. It is not a war of the old sort, fought with the thunder of guns, but a new sort, fought with the rustle of money, the shrill mantras of propagandists, and the stealthy whispers of spies. This is often described as ‘hybrid war,’ a blend of the military and the political, but in fact there are two separate issues, two separate kinds of non-linear war, which have become unhelpfully intertwined. The first is the way—as the Russians have been quick to spot—that modern technologies and modern societies mean that a shooting war will likely be preceded by and maybe even almost, but not quite, replaced by a phase of political destabilization. The second, though, is the political war that Moscow is waging against the West, in the hope not of preparing the ground for an invasion, but rather of dividing, demoralizing and distracting it enough that it cannot resist … The two overlap heavily, and maybe they could usefully be regarded as the two sides of a wider form of ‘non-linear war.’ The instruments which make up ‘political war’ are also crucial to the earlier phases of ‘hybrid war.’ … What has emerged, if not wholly new, is certainly a distinctive way of war.

My objections to this are very similar to those made against the securitization theory:

First, Galeotti, in essence, is attempting to engage in a ‘speech act’ – trying to make a claim that the Russian threat is of special importance because it is ‘war’, and that it therefore requires a special policy response. But war is a very specific thing, involving large-scale organized violence. It has its own laws, its own ethics, its own particular nature and dynamics. What happens when two armies fire multiple rocket launchers at one another is not in any reasonable way comparable to what happens when journalists in two countries fire accusations at one another.

Second, labelling the current tensions between Russia and the West as ‘war’ creates an unproductive, even dangerous, security mentality, and results in undesirable policies. One can see this process at work in the discussions about ‘Russian propaganda’ and Russian ‘information war’. Framing this as a security issue, or even worse as a matter of war, has resulted in proposals to restrict freedom of speech and blacken the reputations of those who have unwelcome views. More generally, saying that ‘The West is at war’ with Russia encourages policies which raise tensions even higher, and make it increasingly difficult to engage in the sort of constructive dialogue which is required to overcome our mutual problems.

Certainly, Russia and parts of the West are engaged in political competition. Definitely, each side is trying to influence the population of the other. Absolutely, they have different ideas of how the world should be organized. But competition is not war. Labelling it as such is not helpful.

Euronews

There has been much discussion in the Russian media this week of a resolution by the European Parliament calling on the European Union to develop a ‘strategic communications’ plan to counter propaganda from the Russian Federation and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). This follows a report issued last month by the policy department of the EU’s Directorate General for External Policy, entitled EU Strategic Communications with a View to Countering Propaganda.

The report, and the ensuing parliamentary resolution, repeat much of what has been said in other documents denouncing ‘Russian propaganda’ which I have covered in this blog: Russia is waging information war against the West, and trying to divide the European Union; RT is bad, bad, bad; something must be done. Where the EU breaks new ground is in directly comparing the Russian Federation with ISIS, and treating the two as if they are one and the same in terms of the threat which they pose to Europe. Perhaps more than anything else, it is this aspect of the EU’s action which has caused outrage in Moscow.

At the heart of the complaint about ‘Russian propaganda’ is a fear that the Russian media is countering the prevailing narrative in the West about international affairs. As the report notes, ‘Russia fosters an anti-interventionist narrative’ and seeks to ‘ convince European audiences that the EU is focused on imagined threats from Russia and neglecting the real ones from the south.’

Putting aside whether this is a good or bad thing, what intrigues me is the Eurocrats’ belief that they can deal with the existence of a Russian counter-narrative by pumping money into counter-propaganda. After all, the narrative which the Russians are trying to undermine is the one which prevails throughout the bulk of the Western media. It is hardly lacking in support already.

In another document issued last month, British neoconservative think tank The Henry Jackson Society denounced ‘Putin’s useful idiots’ in the West and called on academics and journalists to do more to spread the bad news about Russia.  ‘Academics, commentators, and others should raise awareness in the West of the nature of the Russian regime’, says the Henry Jackson Society, ‘Outside of the expert community, there is a general lack of awareness of the Russian regime’s use of selective terror and its criminality – the regime’s dubious origins in the 1999 apartment bombings; its involvement in the murder of people like Anna Politkovskaya, Sergei Magnitsky, and Boris Nemtsov; its military tactics in Syria.’

This is a very odd claim given that ‘outside the expert community’, in the mass media which ‘ordinary people’ consume, denunciations of the Russian government’s criminality are two a penny. ‘Russian propaganda’ hardly registers against the torrent of Russophobia coming in the opposite direction. If people do turn to the Russian media, it is quite probably because they want to hear something different. Churning out even more anti-Russian material is unlikely to make a difference.

This is especially true if the operation is government-run. The EU resolution reflects a strange belief that officially-sponsored efforts to fight the Russians will be more successful than those of the massed ranks of the Western press. Page 9 of the report contains this remarkable, and quite amusing, nugget of information:

The multi-language broadcaster Euronews was launched on 1 January 1993 to promote European unity by presenting information from a distinctly European perspective. …  Since its launch, Euronews has received EUR 240 million worth of funding from the European Commission, EUR 25.5 million of which came in 2014. … On several occasions, Euronews has been accused of biased reporting, particularly through its Russian language service. Coverage of the 2008 war in Georgia, the 20th anniversary of Ukrainian independence in 2011, the 2014 referendum in the Donbas and the conflict in eastern Ukraine, as well as events in Transnistria has been accused of being unbalanced and pro-Russian.

Even the EU’s own propaganda outlets are ‘pro-Russian’, it seems. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Entertainment arms race

Matthew Fisher reports in today’s National Post that:

Jerzy Pomianowski, head of the European Endowment for Democracy (EED), was in Ottawa Thursday to ask Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion whether Canada would help fund a project designed to provide Balts, Moldovans, Belarussians and other eastern Europeans with Russian language television programming that is not produced in Moscow.

While the state-controlled Russia Today and other Russian media spread highly biased ideas about global events, this is a ‘secondary issue’ to the damage done by the Kremlin media machine in countries with significant ethnic Russian minorities and where locals often speak Russian well, Pomianowski said after meeting Dion.

What the former Polish deputy foreign minister was referring to is immediately obvious to travelers to places such as Latvia and Lithuania. Russians there say the only credible news sources come from Moscow. This is although the reports are often biased and sometimes incendiary.

Pomianowski says that the Russian government is capturing the ‘hearts and minds of native Russian speakers with high quality entertainment’ (the devils!), and using this to ‘keep them glued to the screen and then (they are) brainwashed through false debates and lies that are spread through the news programs.’ To counter this:

Seed money is now being sought from several countries, including Canada, to allow independent producers to create high-quality dramas or infotainment programming for Russian minorities and others who speak Russian and live in the Near Abroad. ‘The amount of funds being mobilized is not dramatically impressive,’ Pomianowski said. ‘What we are talking about 10 million or 15 million euros ($14.5 million to $22 million) a year.’

Let’s put aside for a moment the irony of Matthew Fisher producing a propagandistic article complaining about propaganda. Just for the purposes of deeper analysis, let us imagine that all Mr Pomianowski’s complaints are true, that Russian speakers in eastern Europe really are being ‘brainwashed’ by Russian TV  (curse those Russkies for being so entertaining!), and that this really does pose some threat to the security of Europe. The question then arises of why the Canadian taxpayer is expected to stump up several million dollars to do something about it.

The combined GDP of the European Union is approximately $16 trillion. If Russian propaganda really is such a threat, surely the EU could find $14.5 to $22 million a year to deal with it by itself. More to the point, surely the European states most directly affected by the threat should be able to find that sort of money with relative ease. After all, it would be incredibly irresponsible to do nothing about such a grave danger given the tiny cost involved. Yet for some reason, Pomianowski feels a need to go cap in hand to Ottawa. Could it be that despite the hype, deep down in the bottommost recesses of their hearts, Europe’s leaders realize that this isn’t such a big problem after all?