4 minute read

Do you know what a rotten herring, a big lie and the 40:60 rule have in common? These are the manipulation tools most often used by Russian secret services, troll factories and Kremlin agents of influence. Information war developed in the 1950s in the Soviet Union. It was then when dissemination of false information became an alternative to traditional warfare. In Putin’s Russia, it has been modernized and applied on a completely new scale.

While Ukrainian soldiers are fighting Russia on the front, bombs are falling on Ukrainian cities, while the global community and Ukrainian allies are fighting the information war. All of us  by being active in social media, while the Russian trolls spread fake news to contaminate and win control over public opinion.

How can we protect ourselves if even the most developed and established democracies such as Sweden, Norway and Finland fell victim? The answer – by learning about the mechanisms of the people-destroying machine. This can be found in a shocking report “Putin’s Trolls: On the Frontlines of Russia’s Information War Against the World” (2019) by Finnish investigative journalist Jessikka Aro. In her book, she describes more than a dozen stories of journalists (including her own), politicians, officials and academics who exposed Russian practices. In revenge, Russian trolls decided to destroy them publicly. Are you a journalist? They will ridicule your work and personal life. Are you a scholar? They will unleash a publicity stunt against your research. Are you a diplomat? They will fake and release a compromising phone call that will lead to your dismissal. And when all accusations are officially declared inconclusive, your mental health and career are ruined. You are no longer a threat.

While it might seem that after the full-scale invasion on Ukraine, the world finally understood who Putin is and his methods, his trolls are thriving. After an initial burst of solidarity, Western societies are faced with the consequences of Russian blackmail and long-lasting EU governments appeasement approach. This resulted in rising inflation and gas prices. Combined with the start of the heating season and winter, Russian trolls have perfect conditions to antagonize and turn people against each other. The good example was spotted by Polish Internet users when Facebook groups previously questioning the Covid-19 pandemic, overnight changed their names to anti-Ukrainian ones. Therefore, we stopped seeing “Don’t believe in the pandemic” groups and instead started to see “We don’t want Ukrainians in Poland”.

Jessikka Aro writes that even one accidental “follow” on social media is enough to start radicalizing an unaware person. Social media algorithms will spot this behaviour and suggest more radical social media groups to follow. Furthermore, in their efforts to draw user’s attention, disinformation platforms place their propagandist videos in the category of potentially unrelated viral posts showing funny life stories or cute cats. Once your attention is gained, they gradually start to promote their own stories. This technique was perfectly mastered by Sputnik and RT channels.

Another example of how Russia creates propaganda was given by Christo Grozev, a Bellingcat investigative journalist, who described the process of story laundering and how it works. The goal is to create a fake story and strengthen its message by allegedly referring to information provided by western media. For example, on October 29, the Russian state-owned domestic press agency RIA Novosti published an article which claims that according to the Belgian portal Modern Democracy, Poland plans to seize western Ukraine. The information seems particularly ridiculous as since the full-scale invasion began, Poland has been at the forefront of helping Ukraine.

Grozev discovered that Modern Democracy is a Greek-owned portal located in Belgium. When he read into the article, at the bottom of the page he found that the text is a reprint of a mysterious International Affairs source. When accessed the link, he was taken to the website of the Russian Federation’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA). Next, the MFA in their release cited the Polish website dziennik-polityczny.com. Grozev looked up the editor-in-chief of the website to find out the person is Adam Kamiński. However, one problem occurred – this person… never existed. His Facebook profile includes a Polish flag and an eagle on the cover photo and his profile picture uses a stolen photo of an unsuspecting Lithuanian doctor. A few days after Grozev’s information, the website was taken down by Polish services. This situation proves that what constitutes a “Belgian media” source for RIA Novosti is in fact an anonymous fake news source. Interestingly, Modern Diplomacy writes on its website that it provides an “impartial and unbiased information” to its readers. Though clearly it is linked to the Russian Federation and likely a tool used to launder stories and use in the information war against its own citizens and democratic societies.

This raises a question about the responsibility of private companies that own social media. Meta (formerly Facebook), Twitter, YouTube and Google for long have been accused of lack of transparent policies that would prevent the spread of hate speech and disinformation. Russian trolls have been able to artificially manipulate Google algorithms so that when an Internet user searches a certain phrase, it shows not the most popular and trustworthy information, but the fake news portal. Social media remain a perfect arena for influence operations. Users do not respond with due criticism on social media content. An ideal SM content provokes and stirs up emotions to be forgotten after a few seconds. That is exactly what agents of influence need.

It was only with the congressional hearing of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Robert Mullers’ report on Russian interference in the US 2016 elections, when the companies started to implement some adequate policies. However, social media platforms receive huge payments for ads bought by agents of influence. Cited by Jessikka Aro, Kathleen Hall Jamieson’s report strongly indicated that Russian trolls influenced the US elections in 2016 – polarization and tailored social media campaigns influenced approximately 80 thousand people in three US states which resulted in Donald Trump’s victory.

Today we find ourselves in a situation in which communication platforms belong to global corporations. Their disinformation and hate speech policies remain unclear. Moreover, they do not cooperate with state authorities who conduct hate crime investigations. A few weeks ago, Elon Musk, Tesla and Space-X founder, acquired Twitter. His claim was to bring back freedom of speech. As soon as he took control over the company, he initiated the process of firing hundreds of Twitter employees, including staff working on content moderation in the US. Four days before the US midterm elections.

While waiting for the EU Digital Services Act that will update the legal framework for illegal content on the Internet in the EU, civil society must learn how to function in the digital social arena. Internet websites that we visit, social media posts that we read and videos that pop up in our feed might be part of the information war targeted at us. In short, always protect yourself on the Internet: verify, approach critically and use multiple sources.