Russian propaganda and disinformation operations: domestic and cross-border drivers


 Two new laws in Russia jeopardize the privacy and security of internet users and aim to further control Russians’ freedom of expression, Human Rights Watch said today:

The legislation, signed into law by President Vladimir Putin on July 30, 2017, bans anonymous use of online messenger applications and prohibits the use of software to allow users to circumvent internet censorship. The new laws are part of Russia’s widespread crackdown on online expression, in violation of human rights law and democratic safeguards….Law № 276-FZ, which is scheduled to come into force in November, prohibits owners of virtual private network (VPN) services and internet anonymizers from providing access to websites banned in Russia. The law authorizes Roskomnadzor, Russia’s federal executive authority responsible for overseeing online and media content, to block sites that provide instructions on how to circumvent government blocking. It also authorizes Russia’s law enforcement agencies, including the Interior Ministry and the Federal Security Service, to identify violators, and tasks Roskomnadzor with creating a special registry of online resources and services prohibited in Russia.

“Anonymity protects the rights of internet users and freedom of expression online,” said Yulia Gorbunova, Russia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “These laws negatively affect the ability of tens of millions of Russians to freely access and exchange information online.”

In 2014, Russia’s stealthy forays into eastern Ukraine and its rapid capture of Crimea were seen as skillful exercises in “hybrid warfare,” a combination of cyberwarfare, a powerful disinformation campaign and the use of highly trained special operation troops and local proxy forces, The New York Times reports.

Like the Stalinist system, the Kremlin’s campaign of disinformation is based on lies, but modern technologies and a fundamentally different societal structure make it difficult to lie quite so brazenly, writes opposition politician Leonid Gozman:

Nevertheless, Russia’s current regime takes advantage of its monopoly over television airtime to revise Russia’s past using mythology that benefits it, fabricating a moral authority for the nation and inventing successes for the so-called “Russian world” that don’t actually exist.

The most dangerous feature of the post-2013 course taken by Russian propaganda is the cultivation of militarism and Stalinism among Russians, with a special emphasis on the younger generation. It aims to morally prepare the Russian audience for a potential war with the West, which bitterly resembles the Soviet experience, notes analyst Sergey Sukhankin:

For this purpose, the Russian authorities created two movements – Anti-Maidan and Yunarmia. The first assembles people from all walks of life including illustrious public figures, sportsmen and intellectuals as well as war veterans and Cossacks – the so-called “patriotic core”. The latter intends to familiarise the Russian youth with the armed forces and to promote militarism and “patriotic feelings”

In her analysis, the Russian journalist Kseniya Kirillova presented the following tasks pursued by Russian propaganda, Sukhankin adds:

1) To weaken critical thinking;

2) To create an image of the enemy;

3) To link all internal problems to external factors;

4) To emphasise the consolidation of society in the face of a military threat;

5) To create the image of Vladimir Putin as the only leader capable of withstanding the military threat;

6) To prepare for the inevitable hardships of “wartime”;

7) To create an image for the West of a united Russia ready for war.

In the Czech Republic, this did not raise many eyebrows. Czech president Milos Zeman is a well-known supporter of the so-called alternative media – a media environment that is well-developed in the country, Euobserver reports:

A survey from June 2016 counted around 40 websites in the Czech Republic that regularly published pro-Russian and/or conspiracy narratives. The most successful of them, Parlamentni listy (Parliamentary Letters), has more than 600,000 monthly readers – in a country of 10 million people.  Zeman has already given 40 interviews to the website.

“He is the most important ally of this media scene,” Jakub Janda, deputy director of the European Values think tank, who studies the so-called alternative media in Central Europe, told EUobserver. “He legitimises their work.”

Using “psychographic” profiles of individual voters generated from publicly stated interests really does work, according to new research presented at the Def Con hacking conference in Las Vegas, Nevada, The Guardian reports:

The controversial practice allows groups to hone their messages to match the personality types of their targets during political campaigning, and is being used by firms including Cambridge Analytica and AggregateIQ to better target voters with political advertising with so-called “dark ads”.

A new report from Kremlin WatchMaking online platforms responsible for news content reviews policy debate on online platforms like Facebook or Google, and makes a number of recommendations:


  • Examine the use of algorithms by online platforms in order to reveal potential errors and biases; understand to what extent the algorithms are a conscious editorial choice and how this should effect platforms’ liability.
  • Provide guidelines on the editorial and take-down practices of online platforms. Make sure they are transparent and in line with freedom of speech principles and human rights law. Install dedicated bodies to oversee and report on their conduct.
  • Properly apply existing legislation on platforms, notably from the realms of copyright, audiovisual, and competition law.
  • When proposing legislation about hate speech or fake news, develop definitions for these terms that are as specific as possible.
  • Ensure that platforms install appropriate redress mechanisms that allow users to complain if their content had been unjustly removed.


  • Be transparent about editorial practices and report them, especially when it comes to taking down content.
  • Continue partnering with journalists and fact checkers.
  • Graphically differentiate news content from other types of posts.
  • Publically proclaim your intention to support media literacy and your trust in high-quality journalism.
  • Fund media literacy classes, particularly in those parts of the world that have recently democratized and whose media market does not have an established tradition (e.g. Central and Eastern Europe).

Civil society and the private sector:

  • Push online platforms toward being transparent about their editorial practices.
  • Promote a discourse that views fake news and hate speech as “not cool,” like eating unhealthy food.
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