Ecosystem of Lies


Russia took production of disinformation for outside audience to the assembly line

On 16 September, the European Parliament adopted a resolution on the EU–Russia relations by a significant majority. This is a very tough document, which highlights literally all the problematic topics, although it seems that there are no non-problematic topics left in the EU–Russia relations. In particular, attention is drawn to the need to counter Russian propaganda and so on.

The activity of Kremlin propagandists has been rolled out on such a large scale and has been in full swing for so long that it seems to have become a familiar background in the European media landscape just as, for example, mosquitoes are an integral part of some natural landscapes.

Recently, experts from the Crime and Security Research Institute at Cardiff University spoke about the results of their observations of the coordinated work of Russian Internet trolls and Russian media. The technology of falsification works as follows: trolls post their provocative comments under articles on websites of leading Western media, and later, based on these comments, materials are prepared for Russian media with allegations about the Western public response to certain events.

In particular, trolls comment on articles related to Russia, and later Russian outlets publish texts with reference to the leading Western media, allegedly based on positive feedback from foreigners about the policies of Russia and its leaders. About 240 such media materials have been published since 2018. Recent events around Afghanistan have been commented on with criticism of NATO and predictions of the collapse of Western democracy, and 18 texts for the Russian public have reported dissatisfaction in the West. This practice has been used since at least 2018, and Russian trolls hang around on websites of 32 media outlets from 16 countries: Mail Online, Express, Times, Fox News, Le Figaro, Der Spiegel, Die Welt, La Stampa, and others.

A more complex picture was revealed by experts from the U.S. State Department’s Global Engagement Center. This structure was created specifically to combat foreign disinformation and propaganda in order to “expose and counter threats posed by malign actors using these methods.” A recent report by the Center exposes a whole ecosystem of Russian disinformation and propaganda, according to American experts. It consists of “the collection of official, proxy, and unattributed communication channels and platforms that Russia uses to create and amplify false narratives.”

This ecosystem consists of five main pillars: official government communications, state-funded global messaging, cultivation of proxy sources, weaponisation of social media, and cyber-enabled disinformation.

The perpetual use of information weapons allows Russia to introduce numerous variations of the same false narratives. Different elements of the ecosystem fine tune their disinformation narratives to suit different target audiences. This allows, if necessary, the Russian authorities to deny their involvement when proxy sites spread dangerous disinformation. At the same time, different elements of the ecosystem enhance each other’s influence on the media, boost the resonance and reach of the audience. The main purpose of this practice, according to State Department experts, is “questioning the value of democratic institutions and weakening the international credibility and international cohesion of the United States and its allies and partners.”

The report cites a number of proxy sites as examples. In particular, there is the website of the Strategic Culture Foundation. This resource is affiliated with the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Foreign Intelligence Service and specialises in publishing texts by Western fringe thinkers and conspiracy theorists. For example, the Irishman Finian Cunningham has written more than 550 articles, where Putin is presented as a “true world leader” and the United States as a “lawless rogue state.” Australian Brian Cloughley has authored 243 articles, which, for example, welcome the operation to annex Crimea. The texts of both authors regularly appear in the Russian state media.

New Eastern Outlook is the website of the Russian Academy of Science’s Institute of Oriental Studies, in which a respectable presentation hides misinformation.

A special place in the ecosystem is held by the Global Research website, founded by Michel Chossudovsky, a former Canadian professor who once undertook the defence of Slobodan Milosevic at a trial in The Hague and sent cordial congratulations to Fidel Castro. He regularly published on the website of the Russian state channel RT, and materials from RT are republished on Global Research. The site contains more than 100 texts by seven false online personas who, according to the Stanford Internet Observatory, were created by the Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation: Sophie Mangal, Anna Jaunger, Milko Pejovic, Adomas Abromaitis, Mariam al-Hijab, Said al-Khalaki, and Mehmet Ersoy. One of the hot topics of recent times is the Covid-19 pandemic as a conspiracy of Western elites to gain control of the world.

News Front is a Crimea-based, multilingual website that covers events related to the activities of the Russian army in eastern Ukraine and Syria in the context of Kremlin propaganda. The fact that its correspondents have the opportunity to travel to the army or paramilitary formations of Russia indicates a direct dependence on Russian authorities. also publishes texts in English, Russian, Spanish, Italian, French, Polish, and Arabic to convey anti-Western and anti-liberal views to foreign audiences. The Katehon website, which pretends to be a page of the Moscow think tank, works in the same way.

All these resources regularly republish each other’s materials and links to them on social networks. They cooperate regularly.

“The Kremlin bears direct responsibility for cultivating these tactics and platforms as part of its approach to using information as a weapon. It invests massively in its propaganda channels, its intelligence services and its proxies to conduct malicious cyber activity to support their disinformation efforts, and it leverages outlets that masquerade as news sites or research institutions to spread these false and misleading narratives,” reads the Global Engagement Center’s report.

Russia has created a whole industry of disinformation production, a lot of money is invested in it, thousands of performers are involved. It is needless to hope that this powerful lie machine will suddenly stop working. Only the daily prophylactic measures in the media landscape and the exposure of malign efforts can neutralise the toxic effect of Kremlin propagandists. À la guerre comme à la guerre.

Leonid Shvets

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