international analysis and commentary

Understanding Russian disinformation strategies inside and outside the country

3,264

Disinformation itself is not some unexplored phenomenon that occurs only under special conditions. Far from it, we see examples on a daily basis in information sources, on the official accounts of government institutions, on news pages, in random posts by influencers, and so on. In current times, the situation with the deliberate spread of Russian news requires close attention because of the impact it has on political decision-making and frontline events in the ongoing armed conflict in Ukraine. Russian disinformation is deeply rooted in state propaganda, empowered further by the government’s use of official accounts to share fake news, which leads people inside of Russia to trust unreliable sources. These circumstances, though, make it easier to detect the state-based disinformation thanks to standardized clichés, semantic similarities and shared sources. The following analysis of Russian disinformation is intended to present a relevant picture of the dynamics of the development and dissemination of disinformation between 2014 and 2023, and to illustrate some instances of the spreading of false information which support us in identifying whether information is fake or not.

 

Structural elements of Russian disinformation

Russian disinformation is a large scale example of the systematic production of false information about daily events, creating political myths and falsifying history to justify political decisions made both within Russia and on the geopolitical scene. Today, we are talking about an industry that involves both state institutions and private groups of people or organizations, just to name a few: the Russian Academy of Sciences, the Russian Historical Society, the Federal Security Service/Bureau of Russia (intelligence and counter-terrorism departments of FSB), state television (1st Channel, Russia 2, Russia 24, Russia Today, etc.) and other media (primetime television programs led by state propagandists and one of the authors of the idea of total hatred towards Ukraine: Vladimir Solovyov, Dmitry Kiselev and Margarita Simonyan who mostly appeared in the field in 2014).

Furthermore, Russian disinformation is also promoted by private companies, one of which is known as the “Troll Factory” whose trail leads to the not-so-secret Evgeny Prigozhin, the founder and head of the criminally notorious Private Military Campaign “Wagner”.[1] This company has been in existence for about ten years and initially worked to protect the interests of the ruling regime and undermine the credibility of the liberal opposition led by the murdered Boris Nemtsov and the imprisoned Alexei Navalny.

Additionally, one of the least obvious, but strongest influencers of Russian disinformation and propaganda is the Russian Orthodox Church, which has the freedom to reshape Russian values, lie and manipulate minds outside Russian borders, working closely with all Russian-speaking diasporas, including non-Russian members of different communities.

 

A fair question arises: How does it work outside of Russia? To answer this question, let us start with a brief explanation of how this system is working for Russians, and then in a comparative manner it will be more beneficial to see the way it is proven to work abroad.

First, the state media use the most variable ways of spreading disinformation: state TV, commercial broadcasters, newspapers, online media, social media, official sites of administrative and government institutions, official accounts of governors, politicians, diplomats, celebrities. The state-run national TV has a few very important primetime political shows that serve one purpose: to spread disinformation among Russian citizens to support the main ideological track of state propaganda. The most popular channel is Russia 1, with shows like “Duel” (Vladimir Solovyov), “60 Minutes” (Olga Skabeyeva), “Evening with Vladimir Solovyov” (Vladimir Solovyov), the same ideological content is also prominent on Channel 1, with shows like “Time will show” (Artem Sheynin), and many others. Usually, the level of subtlety of the disinformation is much higher for international audiences. Meanwhile, in Russia, in these shows, the creators present pure ideological propaganda without any proof, and with a heavy usage of simple or vulgar speech. These shows never end up in the global feed mostly because they are too open and would ruin the political goals of the Russian government. For instance, the speakers of these shows have encouraged the masses more than once to normalize the murdering of LGBTQ+ individuals, the usage of nuclear weapons against the EU and the US, and offered to kill Ukrainian children, and so on. However, the social media content and newspapers (Russia Today, Russia 1, RIA News, etc.) are more often used, even by foreign media, as sources for newswriting, which seems innocent, but unfortunately quickly helps the spreading of Russian disinformation. For example, the idea of a peaceful reunion of Crimea and Russia in 2014 was presented frequently in the international media thanks to Russian news agencies abroad. In 2022, international media speculated for a while about Ukrainian Nazism, an idea that was brought from Russian agencies (as well as Italian media).

 

Read also: A state of mind: how conspiracy theories became the Kremlin’s ideology

 

Second, the Church, both abroad and in Russia, has the chance to preach to people from the pulpit, and so it does, using the community as the receivers and agents of disinformation. For instance, there are around 3,000 Russian Orthodox Churches in 29 countries, which cover the religious needs of more than one million members, and so it is one of the biggest networks of disinformation spread outside of Russia. Since 2014, but especially over the past two years, Orthodox priests have been calling for support of Russia in the war. They pray for it and they teach believers that the war is God-blessed, and Ukrainians deserved it for their hate and sins.

 

Russian disinformation as a threat to democracy

Another moment in which Russian disinformation campaigns have emerged as a significant concern was the 2016 US presidential election. The Troll Factory became too reckless and visible on social media, leading the global community to recognize the fact that this level of disinformation was posing a threat to the stability and integrity of democratic institutions. Thus, this part of the article explores the sources and methods employed by Russia in spreading disinformation, with a particular focus on its dissemination through foreign media channels in the EU and the US.


State-sponsored media outlets

Russia employs state-sponsored media outlets, such as RT (formerly Russia Today[2]) and Sputnik News, as major sources for disseminating disinformation. These outlets provide a platform for promoting Russian narratives and alternative viewpoints, often characterized by biased reporting and propaganda. State-sponsored media outlets had a reported budget of around $300 million in 2019, making them one of the most prominent platforms for disseminating Russian narratives, according to the US Department of State (“Russia’s Influence and Disinformation Operations: A Case Study of RT”[3]).


Social media platforms

Russian disinformation campaigns heavily exploit social media platforms, utilizing targeted advertising, bots, and troll networks to amplify their narratives and influence public opinion. Platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have been increasingly used as conduits for the dissemination of misleading information and divisive content. According to a report by the Oxford Internet Institute, the Internet Research Agency (IRA), a Russian troll farm, reached over 100 million Americans on Facebook between 2015 and 2017 (“Computational Propaganda in the United States of America: Manufacturing Consensus Online”)[4].

 

Amplification through online communities

Russian disinformation often leverages existing online communities and echo chambers. By targeting like-minded groups or individuals who are susceptible to specific narratives, the reach and impact of disinformation are amplified within these networks. A study by the NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence found that Russian disinformation networks on Twitter had over six million users, with a core group of highly influential accounts generating significant amplification (NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence, “The Big Bad Data: The Network Propaganda of Russian Troll Accounts”)[5].

 

Strategic leaks and hacking

The strategic leaking of sensitive information or engaging in cyberattacks allows Russia to manipulate public discourse by selectively releasing information that serves its objectives. These tactics aim to sow confusion and erode trust in democratic institutions. The 2016 US presidential election interference involved hacking and leaking sensitive information through entities like WikiLeaks, leading to public debates and impacting the electoral process. Examples include the hacking of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) during the 2016 US presidential election (Source: US Department of Justice, “Indictment – United States of America v. Internet Research Agency LLC et al.”)[6].


Covert influence through intermediaries

Russian disinformation campaigns exploit willing intermediaries, including foreign bloggers, journalists, and opinion leaders who are either ideologically aligned with Russian narratives or have been compromised or co-opted by Russian intelligence agencies. This enables disinformation to seep into mainstream foreign media outlets.

 

Read also: The Russo-Ukraine-Western Intelligence War


Purchasing advertising space

Russia utilizes its substantial financial resources to buy advertising space in foreign media outlets. By doing so, it gains access to a wider audience and disseminates disinformation disguised as legitimate news, opinion pieces, or sponsored content. The US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence found that the Internet Research Agency spent approximately $100,000 on Facebook ads targeting the American audience during the 2016 election campaign (Source: US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, “Report of the Select Committee on Intelligence United States Senate on Russian Active Measures Campaigns and Interference in the 2016 US Election”[7]); Russian sources though show higher numbers up to $200,000 – 250,000, but for both Twitter and Facebook (the data has been provided by a unnamed source linked to accounting department of Media Factory).


Usage of lies to create fake news with solid references

The examples below are mostly related to the Ukrainian-Russian conflict (2014-present) simply because they are more complex and can be considered as deep-fakes, not just fake news, which can be exposed in a few minutes. Unfortunately, this kind of falsified narrative requires research and professional expertise.

  1. a) Justification of annexation: Russian disinformation attempts to legitimize the annexation of Crimea by presenting it as a “reunification” with Russia, downplaying the violation of international law and the impact on Ukraine’s sovereignty.
  2. b) Distorting events: Disinformation campaigns may distort or manipulate events related to Crimea, such as the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 in 2014, to divert blame or create alternative narratives that absolve Russia of responsibility.

 

с) Russia disseminated narratives claiming that the fire in the Trade Unions House in Odessa, resulting in numerous casualties, was a deliberate act of Ukrainian nationalists targeting pro-Russian activists. However, independent investigations, such as those conducted by international HRO, found no evidence of a deliberate attack. Instead, the fire was a tragic incident fueled by escalating tensions between different factions involved in the conflict.

  1. d) Russia has consistently spread disinformation claiming that Ukraine’s desire to join NATO is a threat to Russia’s security. However, Ukraine’s decision to pursue closer ties with NATO is a sovereign choice based on its own national security interests. NATO’s enlargement is a voluntary and cooperative process, and it does not pose a direct military threat to Russia. The narratives spread by Russia aim to undermine Ukraine’s right to determine its own foreign policy and to justify Russia’s aggressive actions in the region.

In summary, Russian disinformation represents a formidable challenge to political stability and democratic processes, both domestically and internationally. Rooted in state-sponsored propaganda, it leverages official channels and widespread mistrust of reliable sources among the Russian population. However, this reliance on standardized tactics and shared sources allows for some degree of detection and identification. Beyond its borders, Russia employs a multifaceted approach to disseminate disinformation, utilizing state-sponsored media outlets, social media platforms, online communities, strategic leaks, intermediaries, and purchased advertising space to amplify its false narratives. These campaigns employ tactics such as distorting events and justifying actions like the annexation of Crimea to manipulate public opinion and erode trust in democratic institutions. To effectively counter these disinformation efforts, it is essential to develop comprehensive strategies that address the complex web of sources and methods employed by Russian actors.

 

 


Footnotes:

[1] The Private Military Campaign “Wagner” of Russia or “Wagner Group” (created in 2014 in Russia despite the Criminal Code of Russia that forbids any mercenary organizations and armed groups), led by Evgeny Prigozhin, is a controversial paramilitary group comprised of mercenaries. They have been involved in various operations in Syria, African countries, and Ukraine. In Syria, Wagner mercenaries have been supporting the Syrian government forces in their fight against rebel groups, while in African countries, they have been deployed to protect Russian interests and provide security services. Additionally, Wagner mercenaries have been implicated in the conflict in Ukraine, allegedly assisting pro-Russian separatist forces in the eastern part of the country in 2014-2022, and then joined the frontline of Russian troops upon the ongoing war conflict since February 2022. The Wagner Group is also known for involvement of criminal persons in their ranks, conscription from prisons, especially of former military and murderers with a term of 10-20 years, which is also unacceptable under the Russian Criminal Code, but nevertheless exists right now, in conditions of war with Ukraine.

Update: After the attempted mutiny by Wagner on June 25, 2023, the capture of the cities of Rostov, Voronezh and moving towards Moscow (ended in a retreat of mercenaries to positions in field camps in the evening of June 25), E. Prigozhin was transferred to Belarus and some troops of the Wagner regrouped in Belarus as well. At the level of political elites, the head of the Wagner PMC has lost confidence but gained interest among the common people.

[2] Some examples of National TV and state media: Российская газета (rg.ru), Коммерсантъ (kommersant.ru), Известия (iz.ru), РИА Новости (ria.ru), RT (russian.rt.com), Вести.Ru (vesti.ru), Лента.Ру (lenta.ru), НТВ (ntv.ru) Первый канал (1tv.ru).

[3] See m ore on U.S. Department of State “Report: RT and Sputnik’s Role in Russia’s Disinformation and Propaganda Ecosystem”, URL: https://www.state.gov/report-rt-and-sputniks-role-in-russias-disinformation-and-propaganda-ecosystem/ (Accessed 01.07.2023), as well as this material “Disarming Disinformation: Our Shared Responsibility”, URL: https://www.state.gov/disarming-disinformation/ (Accessed 24.07.2023).

[4] See more on Oxford University Research Archive, URL: https://ora.ox.ac.uk/objects/uuid:620ce18f-69ed-4294-aa85-184af2b5052e (Accessed 22.07.2023).

[5] 1. “Virtual Manipulation Brief”, NATO StartCom, URL: https://stratcomcoe.org/publications/download/Virtual-Manipulation-Brief-2023-1-digital.pdf (Accessed 20.06.2023); 2. Ibid., “Analysis of Russia’s Information Campaign against Ukraine”, URL: https://stratcomcoe.org/cuploads/pfiles/russian_information_campaign_public_12012016fin.pdf (Accessed 25.06.2023); 3. “Fake News: a Roadmap”, ISSUU.COM, URL: https://issuu.com/natostratcomcoe/docs/fake_news_book_final_full_version__ (Accessed 23.06.2023).

[6]  1. “Internet Research Agency Indictment”, U.S. Department of Justice, URL: https://www.justice.gov/file/1035477/download (Accessed 20.06.2023); 2. “Combating Russian Disinformation: The Case for Stepping Up the Fight Online”, ISUU.COM, URL: https://issuu.com/nyusterncenterforbusinessandhumanri/docs/nyu_stern_cbhr_combating_russian_di (Accessed 01.07.2023); 3. “USA v. Internet Research Agency llc et al”, Law360.com, URL: https://www.law360.com/cases/5ab13ff14de9750c0f000001/articles (Accessed 30.06.2023).

[7] 1. U.S. Senate, “Report of the Select Committee on Intelligence United States Senate on Russian Active Measures Campaigns and Interference in the 2016 U.S. Election”, Rpt. 116-290, URL: https://www.intelligence.senate.gov/publications/report-select-committee-intelligence-united-states-senate-russian-active-measures (Accessed 30.06.2023); 2. “Report of the Select Committee on Intelligence United States Senate on Russian Active Measures Campaigns and Interference in the 2016 U.S. Election: Volume 2: Russia’s Use of Social Media, with Additional Views”, University of Nebraska, URL: https://digitalcommons.unl.edu/senatedocs/4/ (Accessed 23.06.2023).