Combating Russia’s disinformation a ‘David and Goliath struggle’



The FBI has questioned the White House correspondent of Sputnik over claims that the Russian news agency operates as a propaganda arm for the Kremlin, Newsweek reports:

Former Sputnik employee Andrew Feinberg, who downloaded a slew of emails and documents before he was fired from the company in May, was questioned for more than two hours on September 1 about Sputnik’s “internal structure, editorial processes and funding.” Yahoo News reported that he handed investigators the information he had taken from the company. Sputnik is funded by the Russian government and has long been suspected in the U.S. of playing a propaganda role for Russia alongside state-controlled news agency Russia Today.

Euromaidan Press

In 2015, suspected Russian hackers broke into the computer networks of the German Parliament and made off with a mother lode of data — 16 gigabytes, enough to account for a million or more emails, the Washington Post reports:

Ever since, German politicians have been watching nervously for the fruits of that hack to be revealed, and for possible embarrassment and scandal to follow. Many warily eyed September 2017 — the date of the next German election — as the likely window for Russian meddling to once again rattle the foundations of a Western democracy.

But with the vote only two weeks away — and with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s European nemesis, Chancellor Angela Merkel, seemingly on track for a comfortable win — the hacked emails haven’t materialized. Nor have Russian-linked propaganda networks churned into overdrive with disinformation campaigns. Even Kremlin-orchestrated bots — blamed for the viral spread of fake news in last year’s U.S. presidential campaign — have been conspicuously silent.

“That’s what makes me worried,” said Maksymilian Czuperski, director of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. “Why is it so quiet? It doesn’t feel right.”

In 2015, as Russia plunged millions of dollars into an escalating disinformation campaign against the West, the European Union’s defense consisted of just one person. A former journalist had been seconded from the Czech Republic to the E.U.’s newly-established East StratCom Task Force, and was working furiously to de-bunk the Kremlin-backed fake news that flooded people’s inboxes, TV screens, and social media timelines, TIME reports:

Now East StratCom is enjoying a reversal of fortune. On a recent visit to their headquarters in a bright and modern building in the heart of the E.U. district, staff were busy putting together their weekly newsletter. They have built a volunteer network of 500 NGOs, diplomats, think-tanks and other media professionals who regularly send them examples of fake news. These are then de-bunked in the newsletter, on Facebook and Twitter……

But combating Russia’s propaganda networks remains a “David and Goliath struggle”, an E.U. official conceded. The Kremlin’s efforts to destabilize the E.U. and promote pro-Russian policy are alleged to include outright hacking, backing for anti-E.U. political parties, heavily biased news reporting, and an army of internet “trolls” who stalk social media with pro-Russian messages. East StratCom will have expanded to 14 employees by the end of this year, but only three of them are working full time on de-bunking disinformation. Their Twitter feed has around 27,000 followers — compared to 2.62 million for RT – while its Facebook page has just over 17,000 likes. Sputnik has over a million. RTWT

According to experts in the matter, it’s not the seeds of a political revolution the Kremlin wants to sow in the West – it’s nothing less than chaos.

“The Kremlin has no ideology to promote, since illiberalism itself is not the ideology, neither is it a certain system of values,” says Olga Irisova, of the Poland-based Intersection Project. Russia typically uses the same tactics abroad that it employs at home. One tactic is “separating society” and “mobilizing one part of it under the idea or a figure useful to the Kremlin”.

Western societies need to build up greater ‘cognitive resilience’ within their societies to counter Russia´s strategic use of disinformation, argues Flemming Splidsboel Hansen, an analyst with the Danish Institute for International Studies.

As for the absence of Kremlin disinformation in Germany…..

Even after 12 years of Merkel, German voters appear in little mood to shake up the system and veer away from her studied centrism, the Post notes.

“The intention [of Russia] is to destabilize European society,” said Annegret Bendiek, an analyst with the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. “In Germany, that’s not so easy.”

In March 2017, former FBI agent Clint Watts told Congress about websites involved in the Russian disinformation campaign “some of which mysteriously operate from Eastern Europe and are curiously led by pro-Russian editors of unknown financing,” SLATE adds.

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