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Kremlin Disinformation Effort Is More Than Just Facebook

John Cappello
12th June 2018 - Real Clear Defense

Russia’s disinformation campaign isn’t just a marketing problem for Facebook or a series of nuisance bots on Twitter. It’s a concerted effort to not just disrupt Western liberal institutions, but to actually manipulate narratives that affect foreign policy decision-making.

The special counsel investigating Russian meddling in the 2016 elections indicted13 Russian nationals and three Russian companies in February of this year, confirming that they indeed attempted to interfere with the U.S. political system by participating in what the defendants themselves called “information warfareagainst the United States.” The indictment came on the heels of congressional testimony from America’s top intelligence officials who warned that Russian influence operations in the U.S. would certainly continue.

These findings put to rest the question of whether the Kremlin seeks to influence American politics, and instead beg the question of how. Integral steps in the Kremlin’s plans include sowing discord and spreading distrust toward the U.S. political system. For example, on May 21, 2016, Russian actors using the name “The Heart of Texas” organized both pro- and anti-Islam protests in the same location at the same time, attempting to maximize pre-existing divisions between Americans. This was not the only event the “Heart of Texas” organized in the run-up to the presidential election, and speaks to the Russian-sponsored group’s attempt to intensify America’s internal divisions.

Recent intelligence reports from the Department of Defense on Russian military capabilities dedicated a portion to detailing the Kremlin’s “weaponization” of information, echoing the aforementioned warning from U.S. intelligence officials.

Russia views pre-existing domestic issues in Western societies like race relations, social disturbances, and elections as opportunities to expand upon and even amplify political controversy, aiming to weaken the state’s central authority. In matters of foreign policy, however, the Kremlin uses their state-run media outlets to shape and package narratives in a way that favorably articulates their preferred policies.

These two approaches, disruption and narrative manipulation, are examples of active measures. Russia’s use of active measures is hardly new. In fact, Soviet Intelligence doctrine advocated use of the concept to both promote their foreign policy agenda and subsequently advance their influence abroad through disinformation operations and political manipulation.

Many tactics currently employed by the Kremlin resemble content marketing, an advertising method that embeds a sponsored message within neutral content, effectively disguising the presence of the sponsored content altogether. Kremlin officials regularly coordinate news and policy messages with top editors of state-run media outlets, leaving telltale evidence of a centrally directed narrative embedded in the disseminated media. In these cases, the talking points are frequently of passing relevance to the article’s central idea, and they are remarkably similar in grammar and structure as if simply copied and pasted.

The frequency of these messages in Russia’s English-language media, like Sputnik and Russia Today, exposes which arguments the Kremlin considers central to their narrative. The purpose of these ubiquitous messages is to shape the baseline assumptions of Russia’s English-speaking audience.

To study precisely how the Kremlin engages in embedded content marketing, we studied coverage of Russia’s 2015 intervention in Syria. Articles published in Russia Today (RT) and Sputnik English during the weeks straddling Russian intervention expose the Kremlin’s narrative beginning to take shape. From September 24, 2015, to October 6, 2015, over 190 articles mentioned the Syrian war, and some central themes emerge.

The central message was that Russia is dedicated to fighting terrorism and that the elimination of the terrorist threat is the sole reason for their military presence in Syria. Post-intervention, however, we found that the narrative began to expand: RT and Sputnik went to great lengths to reaffirm that Russia’s only target in Syria was the Islamic State and other local terror groups, rejecting claims from the West that they were instead targeting those opposed to the Assad regime, including civilians. Russian media even went so far as to accuse the West of waging an information war.

Although some of Russia’s airstrikes targeted the Islamic State, there was a strong consensus in the West that the majority of Russian airstrikes specifically targetedanti-ISIS and anti-Assad forces, causing widespread civilian casualties.

Just last month in response to the Assad regime’s most recent use of chemical weapons against civilians, President Trump and his counterparts in France and the UK approved a wave of airstrikes in Syria. Within hours of the coalition strikes, U.S. Defense Secretary Mattis warned media consumers, particularly those utilizing social media platforms, to beware of attempts by foreign adversaries from the Kremlin and the Islamic Republic of Iran to manipulate information surrounding the airstrikes. A press conference at the Pentagon shortly thereafter declared that Russian trolling had increased by 2,000% in the 24 hours following the airstrikes. Foreign efforts to dictate the post-strike narrative included downplaying the Western-declared success of the airstrikes, declarations that the targets were void of any relevant weapons or militants, that regime-backed forces shot down multiple coalition planes, and overstating civilian casualties caused by the airstrikes.

Russia succeeds in influencing perceptions and manipulating the attitudes of their English speaking audience by cherry-picking facts they know will resonate with their audience. The Russian narrative has its sympathizers not because they ensnare the gullible with lies, but because they speak a language that is understood, with arguments widely accepted as legitimate: ISIS is the enemy, terror must be defeated. Thus, the Russian narrative even proved compelling to some in the West with whom the destruction of ISIS was also the prime directive in Syria, presenting the Kremlin as a possible partner in the anti-ISIS coalition.

As is the case with all Russian disinformation efforts, it is difficult to assess with acute precision the extent to which the campaigns shape the attitudes and perceptions of the target population.

On a monthly basis in the United States, RT receives approximately 2.25 million unique visitors, with Sputnik receiving approximately one million. This may seem like a relatively small number compared to CNN and BBC with 56.8 million and 26.3 million unique visitors per month, respectively. However, these numbers are comparable to other foreign outlets like Al Jazeera and Deutsche Welle, receiving 2 million and 2.1 million users per month, respectively. The full severity of the  Kremlin’s efforts may be unknown, but their hostile and alarming intentions are clear. [Visitor data taken from Amazon Alexa Website Traffic Statistics]

An important way to push back against Russian narratives is to cultivate increased media literacy and critical thinking skills, thereby enabling consumers to understand the motives of the agents generating the content they consume. While the recent legislation requiring RT and Sputnik to register as foreign agents is an important step, it will only prove effective if the public internalizes and understands the biases this label represents. One way to foster this understanding is to adopt programs similar to those initiated in the Nordic states, the Baltics, and Ukraine that have proven effective in raising the public’s awareness and resistance to Russian disinformation. These efforts are the missing but crucial complement to Congress’s actions; we must empower the public to consume foreign media responsibly, rather than trying to prevent them from consuming it at all.  

John Cappello, a former U.S. Air Force B-1B pilot and Air Force Attaché to the U.S. Embassies in Tel Aviv and Belgrade, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies focusing on military affairs, where Patrick O’Connor is currently an intern. Follow John on Twitter @jcappello12.

Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.

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