Beware Russian elephant: Kremlin using fake news to confuse the West


Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman of Alphabet, says the company is working to ferret out Russian propaganda from Google News after facing criticism that Kremlin-owned media sites had been given plum placement on the search giant’s news and advertising platforms, according to news reports:

Schmidt, in an interview at the Halifax International Security Forum over the weekend, name-checked two state-owned enterprises. “It’s basically RT and Sputnik,” Schmidt added. “We’re well aware and we’re trying to engineer the systems to prevent it.”

“We’re well aware of this one, and we’re working on detecting this kind of scenario you’re describing and deranking those kinds of sites,” Schmidt said, after being asked why the world’s largest search company continued to classify the Russian sites as news.

The Kremlin has been using fake news to confuse the West for decades, reports suggest, citing Russia’s recent efforts to “weaponize information”, disrupt Western democracy and plant thickets of fake news across the internet.

As the West considers how to respond to the Kremlin’s use of bots, trolls, bullshit news, dark ads and hacks as tools of foreign policy, the way we describe things will define whether we prevail, argues Peter Pomerantsev, a director of the Arena Program at the London School of Economics and author of Nothing is True and Everything is Possible, The Surreal Heart of the New Russia.

To anyone grappling with this, it means entering a labyrinth of language, where each turn opens up a new puzzle, where worlds are created with the words one utters. Describe “it” as an “information war” and one landscape arises. Is it the one we want? he asks in the American Interest:

The Kremlin, and any centralized authoritarian regime, can unite all its national media, hackers and social media workers at will, while easily censoring at home. Democracies are by their open nature vulnerable domestically, and find it hard to focus particularly well abroad. The British government can’t tell the BBC what to do, nor should it. Foreign services, the military and security services will do the information operations which they do abroad, but whenever they have too much influence over domestic media the result has been disastrous. In some senses this is a game we should be losing.

There is a “growing consensus” about the imminent threat posed to Western democracies, especially by Moscow-led disinformation campaigns, according to Sven Mikser, the foreign minister of Estonia, which has been a leading supporter of beefing up the EU’s counter fake news work.

“We’ve seen hybrid tactics ever since we regained our independence in the early 1990s,” he said of Estonia. “But now I think that what we have seen over the past few years—actually not only in Europe but also on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean—there has been a wake-up call and I think that the realization is there that this is something…we need to take very seriously.”

The Russians undertook perhaps the most pervasive and successful disinformation and misinformation campaigns they have ever undertaken, in part, because they understood that our First Amendment and open society could be used against us, argues Ned Ryun, a former presidential writer for George W. Bush and the founder and CEO of American Majority. They probably also suspected that the intelligence community wouldn’t be paying particular attention to the comparatively small ad buys and placements online (nor, to be fair, would the companies that own the social and communications platforms), he writes for The Hill.

For the third year in a row, China has been ranked the world’s worst abuser of internet freedom out of 65 countries surveyed by Freedom House in their 2017 Freedom of the Net report, which this year focuses on government state disinformation campaigns, China Digital Times reports:

The factors that helped win China its rank include the cybersecurity law that passed late last yearincreased censorship on social media platforms such as WeChat, increasingly strict regulations on new media news qualifications and licensing for news services, a crackdown on virtual private networks (VPNs), and the prosecution of activists with prison time for their online advocacy.

On November 13, British Prime Minister Theresa May accused Russia of “seeking to weaponzse information” and using its state-run media outlets to “plant fake stories and Photoshopped images in an attempt to sow discord in the West.” Russia’s actions, she charged, are “threatening the international order on which we all depend,” adds:

On November 15, the Times newspaper cited the findings of a new study showing that over 156,000 Russian-based Twitter accounts had massively tweeted about Brexit in the days leading up the June 2016 referendum. According to the study by data scientists at Swansea University and the University of California, Berkeley, the accounts posted more than 45,000 tweets about Brexit in the 48 before the vote. The majority of the posts encouraged Britons to vote for Brexit. The authors believe the posts were seen hundreds of millions of times.

Could Mexican election be Russia’s next target? The Alliance For Securing Democracy asks:

Russia’s election meddling is not limited to the transatlantic space. Shannon O’Neil urges us to consider, “if Russia truly wants to damage the U.S. and weaken the western world order, Mexico’s elections next year offer a more rewarding and more vulnerable target.” O’Neil believes that Mexico is vulnerable to Russian interference, both because Mexico’s government is not resourced to address disinformation and because “Disinformation campaigns are most effective when they prey on deep-seated beliefs and latent conflicts. The U.S. and Mexico have these in spades.” Fernando Garcia Ramirez , writing in El Financiero, explains, “the goal of Russian intervention [in Mexico’s elections] is to support candidates who favor authoritarian populism, the political model that prevails in Russia …….

According to Robert Service writing in The Guardian, “Russian leaders have taken a cool look at the world and decided that they have nothing to lose … [Putin] is probing weak spots in Europe on the basic principle of making them weaker.”

Acknowledgement of the fact that Russian actors are trying to interfere in the political processes in the West, which Moscow, in its turn, sees as waging a war on Putin’s right-wing authoritarian kleptocracy, does not automatically mean that Russia is succeeding in these efforts, notes Anton Shekhovtsov, author of Russia and the Western Far Right: Tango Noir. Moreover, the rise of the far right in Europe and elsewhere in the Europeanized world is driven largely by internal developments, rather than by Russia’s interference, he writes for Eurozine:

Nevertheless, one can suggest that Moscow’s efforts aiming at destabilizing western societies and undermining the liberal-democratic consensus in the West – if largely unsuccessful in the short-term perspective – may have greater repercussion in the medium term due to the effect of accumulation of far-right pro-Kremlin narratives combined with declining trust in the establishments of the West.

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