Elves vs. Trolls: Europe energized against disinformation threat


Russia has not hidden its liking for information warfare. The chief of the general staff, Valery Gerasimov, wrote in 2013 that “informational conflict” is a key part of war, The Washington Post reports. The threat of “fake news” has energized Western Europe against the threat of disinformation, said Claire Wardle, strategy and research director at Europe’s largest social media accountability network, First Draft News. “Now you’re seeing Western Europe wake up,’’ she told the Post:

Sweden has launched a nationwide school program to teach students to identify Russian propaganda. …In Lithuania, 100 citizen cyber-sleuths dubbed “elves” link up digitally to identify and beat back the people employed on social media to spread Russian disinformation. They call the daily skirmishes “Elves vs. Trolls” (above) ….Consortiums such as StopFake.org, about Ukraine, and Correctiv.org in Germany have sped up fact-checking with new digital tools and with cross-border journalistic partnerships. ….

In Western Europe, local-language versions of the Russian outfits RT and Sputnik use automated bots and Twitter and Facebook accounts to spread their spin to far-right and far-left news websites, from which it sometimes seeps into the mainstream media, the Post adds.

“These are pretty well-designed messages for local audiences,” said Jakub Janda, the deputy director of the Prague-based European Values think tank. “They’re targeting local-decision-makers and the public, and they’re trying to shift their opinions.” 

The expulsions and modest sanctions announced on Dec. 29 continue to stand as the United States’ most forceful response [to Russia’s electoral interference], The Washington Post reports.

“The punishment did not fit the crime,” said Michael McFaul, who served as U.S. ambassador to Russia for the Obama administration from 2012 to 2014.

“Russia violated our sovereignty, meddling in one of our most sacred acts as a democracy — electing our president. The Kremlin should have paid a much higher price for that attack. And U.S. policymakers now — both in the White House and Congress — should consider new actions to deter future Russian interventions,” adds McFaul, a former Reagan-Fascell fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy.

Russian President Vladimir Putin fears that the West intends to promote Maidan-style street protests to overthrow the Kremlin, his supporters claim.

“Now there is one clear aggressor in Russia and it is the U.S., and the one clear defender is Russia,” said Sergei Markov, a political analyst who is seen as sympathetic to the Kremlin. “Russia is not interested to propose its own puppet in the United Sates government, but the U.S. wants to repeat exactly what they did in Ukraine.”

Europe has managed to remain united against Russia since the latter invaded Ukraine in 2014, analysts Gustav Gressel and Fredrik Wesslau write in The Great Unravelling: Four Doomsday Scenarios for Europe´s Russia Policy. But this resolve could unravel if:

1) the EU decides to enforce the Russian interpretation of the Minsk agreements on Ukraine;

2) Brussels succumbs to ‘Ukraine fatigue’ and accepts the status quo;

3) the US disengages from Ukraine and ends its sanctions on Russia; and

4) the US and Russia reach a “grand bargain” that shatters EU unity and allows Russia to bring Ukraine back into its sphere of influence. 

This article was originally published by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) on 19 June 2017.

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