Computer Crime Research Center

Ukraine/11112.jpg

Propaganda war between Russia and the West heats up

Date: March 04, 2015
Source: Cybersafetyunit.com


The Kremlin has hired a horde of trolls to try to influence views of the Ukraine conflict in the West, which is struggling to respond.

Last year, N walked into a nondescript new office building in St Petersburg, unaware she was about to become a Kremlin troll.

She had been offered a job at Internet Issledovaniya (Internet Research), attracted by the "whopping" salary on offer: 45,000 roubles a month (more than $1300 before the rouble lost much of its value). But the advertisement and interview had been vague, talking of "copywriters" and "content managers".

The atmosphere was strangely regimented, she told Sobaka.ru magazine. "Everything reminds you of school: the offices look very much like computer classrooms, you can't be even two minutes late or they fine you, and you must leave work immediately after finishing and not a minute later."

"Your job is to make 20 news items [per day]," she was told. Her business card said "Federal News Agency". But quickly she got a clue as to what she was really doing: internet traffic to her stories came via the "Kharkov News Agency", a website with a Ukrainian city's name on Ukraine's .ua internet domain.

"For the first few days you just don't know where you are, why you're writing this news or filling the sites with it," she said. "You get the feeling that it's some kind of social experiment or reality show, especially as you sit in an open-plan office with 20-30 other workers with surveillance cameras all around."

But quickly she saw the pattern. The false Ukrainian news sites she was filling wrote news with a particular angle.

"You can't say anything bad about Putin, and [eastern Ukraine separatist] militia men are not terrorists," she said. "There is no ideological brainwashing or regular 'instruction' [but] the feeling is that every new arrival understands what they've got into and how they should write."

Her workmates fell into three categories. Some didn't care what they were doing. Some "knew it's a Kremlin-backed troll factory, but I get paid for it and great". And a minority thought "I'm waging an information war against the fascist junta!"

Other floors of the building contained other "trolls" who attack social sites and blogs with aggressive comments, N told Sobaka.

Last year a series of emails leaked by a mysterious Russian hacker revealed typical instructions to these social media trolls: 50 comments on news articles per day, each person running six Facebook accounts and 10 twitter accounts to flood the internet with variations on the theme "I love Russia".

It took a while for N's distaste to overcome the pay packet's allure. "By December the nervous tension was making my eyes twitch, and at night I kept having dreams of writing and writing news about Putin and Ukraine. Also, I have liberal views ... I was simply ashamed to say what I was doing."

N was a foot soldier in an increasingly heated propaganda war between Russia and the West.

It's not a one-sided war – though the consensus is that the Kremlin started earlier, and is doing it better.

It has cracked down hard on independent media within Russia, and poured billions of roubles into international ventures such at RT.com, which officially launched in the UK in October last year, and barely a month later was found guilty of biased reporting by the UK TV regulator Ofcom, for failing to provide balanced reporting on the Ukraine crisis.

The station, which reportedly has a budget of 13.85 billion rubles, employs more than 2500 people around the world. It is now accompanied by Sputnik, an online and radio network with ambitious plans to broadcast in 30 languages to a "global audience of billions who are tired of aggressive propaganda promoting a unipolar world and want a different perspective", the station said.

But the West is starting to fight back. Britain this month announced a new 77th Brigade, of 1500 soldiers skilled in propaganda, trained to use psychological warfare, Facebook and Twitter to fight in the information age.

Last month several European countries including Britain, Denmark and Estonia called for an EU-wide campaign to tackle Russia's "propaganda campaign".

A letter to Brussels from the countries' foreign ministers said, "Russia is rapidly increasing its disinformation and propaganda campaign, as an asymmetric response to Western economic power", and called for the EU's diplomatic arm to prepare a plan for new sources of information for Russian speakers, so they could hear alternative points of view to those being pumped in from the east.

Also last year, NATO set up StratCom in Riga, Latvia – a hub for research into areas such as "military public affairs, information operations and psychological operations".

Elina Lange-Ionatamishvili, a senior analyst at StratCom, says information warfare is integral to Russia's expansionist strategy – the so-called "hybrid warfare" – as used last year in the annexation of Crimea.

"Information is the key – active propaganda is used to mobilise local population, to cause dissatisfaction in the local population," she said.

"This is a system, it is deliberate and it is rooted in foreign policy documents. Their foreign policy review says that Russia 'should implement effective information campaigns wherever it sees its interests are threatened' or to maintain consensus on its foreign policy."

Russia has revived the old Soviet "active measures" - staging events such as youth camps, funding Russian-language schools and NGOs such as Russian World, ostensibly set up to promote Russian culture.

"But when the right time comes there are these political elements," Lange-Ionatamishvili said. "Here in Riga, during the war with Georgia, Moscow House hosted a photo exhibition with the aim to portray Georgian atrocities against South Ossetia."

Social media and electronic media efforts have massively added to the effectiveness of the propaganda – all clearly under the narrative control of the Kremlin, she said.

"There is a lot of lies, disinformation spread," she said. "The social media and TV reinforce each other."

The question is what to do. "We as Western countries cannot compete with such powerful state-sustained propaganda machine, that is clear," Lange-Ionatamishvili said. "What we can do is first of all strengthen our own media – for example in the Baltic states, we do not offer a good enough alternative for the local Russian speakers."

Other options were for Facebook and Twitter to identify and shut down "troll" accounts, for the EU to set up a fund for investigative journalists, and for a campaign to educate readers on how to identify fake news spread over social media.

"Those of us who remember the Cold War, we know what it looks like, but I think the younger generation are vulnerable," she said.

But others warn that if you fight propaganda with propaganda, you only replicate the Cold War and polarise the audience.

Fairfax spoke to a Russian state media insider – who did not want to be identified.

"The West keeps saying it's a terrible thing that Russia doesn't tell the truth to its own people ... but at the same time they want to do the same," the person said. "Propaganda exists not only in Russia and Ukraine, it exists everywhere."

There is no doubt that Russians are being bombarded with the Kremlin's message by state media, they said. There's a joke in Moscow that Russian television has become "Ukraine TV" – because it talks about nothing else (apart from regular stories on the problems in America).

"If you say all the time that Ukrainian army are fascists, they are at war against their own population, you say that over and over again, of course it affects how the population thinks. I know many people start thinking that Ukrainians are bad, and it used to be a very close relationship, it's a tragedy."

But look at how Western TV reports the conflict, they said – "terrible, wild separatists, and a Ukrainian government dedicated to democracy it's exactly the same way of explaining things [in reverse]".

Just like in the West, the print media in Russia are freer and more balanced than the TV channels, the insider said. "Newspapers have much more freedom and you still can find different points of view."

They are aware of direct interference in the media from the Kremlin – calls to editors at TV stations and news agencies ordering them to kill a story, or change it. More often it is internal, self-censorship by nervous editors.

As for the English-language RT and Sputnik, the Russian media insider wonders if they are simply a waste of money, rather than a propaganda masterstroke.

"I don't quite understand who are the people who are interested in this alternative perspective," they said. "I understand it in Arabic countries, lots of Arabs are sick of American or Western media.


Add comment  Email to a Friend

Copyright © 2001-2013 Computer Crime Research Center
CCRC logo