Re-active measures: defending the West from Russian disinformation


Most internet users today take for granted their ability to instantly retrieve information and communicate across an open and secure, globalized web, notes Will Wright, a program officer for Russia and Eurasia at the National Endowment for Democracy. However, the internet’s structure is continually evolving and regularly contested.

Just because the internet has so far operated in line with principles inherited from its original creators, emphasizing interoperability and free expression, does not mean it always must or will, he writes for Open Democracy. In fact, the recent and intensifying push by governments to promote the concept of “digital sovereignty” represents a real and rising threat to the internet as a force for good, Wright suggests.

Probes into Russian interference in the Brexit referendum were more about national security than about the legitimacy of the vote, according to British opposition MP Ben Bradshaw.

“This is about the security and integrity of our electoral system – you should worry about this if you are a Remainer or a Leaver,” he told EUobserver on Wednesday.

“If the results [of the British investigations] show that Russian influence played a major role in the referendum then I’m sure those questions [on its legitimacy] will be asked, but we’re far from there yet,” he said.

Today the The Times reported on research conducted by a group of data scientists in the US and UK looking at how information was diffused on Twitter around the June 2016 EU referendum vote, and around the 2016 US presidential election, TechCrunch adds. The Times reports that the study tracked 156,252 Russian accounts which mentioned #Brexit (see below) and also found Russian accounts posted almost 45,000 messages pertaining to the EU referendum in the 48 hours around the vote.

Russian cyber operatives have attacked Britain’s media, telecommunications and energy sectors over the past year, according to the head of the government’s main cyber defense agency, Reuters reports:

Ciaran Martin, chief executive of the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), said in prepared remarks: “I can confirm that Russian interference, seen by the National Cyber Security Centre over the past the year, has included attacks on the UK media, telecommunication and energy sectors.” The agency was “actively engaging with international partners, industry and civil society” to tackle the threat from Russia, he said. Martin echoed Prime Minister Theresa May’s comments that Russia was trying to “undermine the international system” with information warfare and cyber attacks.

Russian disinformation around Ukraine set the stage for the Kremlin’s election meddling elsewhere, notes Richard Stengel, a former official in the State Department’s Global Engagement Center. But the goal of “active measures” is even grander than influencing an election: It uses disinformation, propaganda and cyberware to weaken the West, foment division in NATO and undermine America’s image around the world, he writes for POLITICO:

The social media that accompanied Crimea wasn’t so much to support Russia’s point of view, but to sow doubt about anyone understanding what was happening. Russian digital disinformation is post-modern: It’s less the propagation of lies than the idea that there is no truth. Ultimately, “active measures” seeks to undermine the very concept of empirical facts.

Last week, the Russian Defense Ministry released video footage proving that American forces in Syria have been allowing Islamic State fighters to escape from besieged cities, Christian Caryl writes for the Washington Post:

Or that, at least, is what the Russians claimed. It took a few days for fact-checkers at Conflict Intelligence Team and Bellingcat, private organizations devoted to debunking disinformation, to figure out that the alleged evidence was completely fake. ….Caught in the act, the Russian ministry has since admitted that it used fake evidence — and then repeated the allegations using new video material.

“The reality is that spreading disinformation continues to earn dividends for the Russians. They can go right on spreading confusion and chaos at minimal cost,” Caryl adds. “They increase their influence over the politics of other countries without having to confront them directly. And they have yet to pay a political price.”

Madrid believes Russian-based groups used online social media to heavily promote Catalonia’s independence referendum last month in an attempt to destabilize Spain, according to reports:

Spain’s defense and foreign ministers said they had evidence that state and private-sector Russian groups, as well as groups in Venezuela, used Twitter, Facebook, and other internet sites to massively publicize the separatist cause and swing public opinion behind it in the run-up to the Oct. 1 referendum.

“What we know today is that much of this came from Russian territory,” Spanish Defence Minister Maria Dolores de Cospedal said of Russian-based internet support. “These are groups that, public and private, are trying to influence the situation and create instability in Europe,” she told reporters at a meeting of EU foreign and defense ministers in Brussels.

Governments around the world are dramatically increasing their efforts to manipulate information on social media, threatening the notion of the internet as a liberating technology, according to Freedom on the Net 2017 (above and right), the latest edition of the annual country-by-country assessment of online freedom, released by Freedom House:

Online manipulation and disinformation tactics played an important role in elections in at least 18 countries over the past year, including the United States, damaging citizens’ ability to choose their leaders based on factual news and authentic debate. The content manipulation contributed to a seventh consecutive year of overall decline in internet freedom, along with a rise in disruptions to mobile internet service and increases in physical and technical attacks on human rights defenders and independent media.

“The use of paid commentators and political bots to spread government propaganda was pioneered by China and Russia but has now gone global,” said Michael J. Abramowitz, president of Freedom House. “The effects of these rapidly spreading techniques on democracy and civic activism are potentially devastating.”

“Governments are now using social media to suppress dissent and advance an antidemocratic agenda,” said Sanja Kelly, director of the Freedom on the Net project. “Not only is this manipulation difficult to detect, it is more difficult to combat than other types of censorship, such as website blocking, because it’s dispersed and because of the sheer number of people and bots deployed to do it.”


“When I interviewed Putin in 2006 for Time, he said the greatest tragedy of the 20th century was the unraveling of the Soviet Union,” adds Stengel, who is writing a book on the global information war:

His unstated goal is to put Humpty Dumpty back together again by uniting the Russian diaspora, keeping his neighbors unstable, and undermining the appeal of the U.S. and the idea of democracy itself. Russian investment in media of all kinds—from television stations in the periphery, to reality TV to VKontakte, a sort of Russian Facebook—is a giant loss-leader and is meant to topple what he once called the “Anglo-Saxon monopoly” of media.

Under Vladimir Putin, Russia has embarked on a systematic challenge to the West, observes Ivo H. Daalder. The goal is to weaken the bonds between Europe and the United States and among EU members, undermine NATO’s solidarity, and strengthen Russia’s strategic position in its immediate neighborhood and beyond. Putin wants nothing less than to return Russia to the center of global politics by challenging the primacy that the United States has enjoyed since the end of the Cold War, he writes for Foreign Affairs.

The “Russian world” concept, actively promoted one way or another for at least ten years, has virtually become an official ideological doctrine since the annexation of Crimea, says analyst Vladislav Inozemtsev. It certainly has a whiff of nationalism, and it is no coincidence that even the regime’s staunchest supporters were swift to draw parallels between Vladimir Putin’s “2014 model” and Hitler’s “1938 model”, comparing the seizure of the Ukrainian peninsula with the Austrian Anschluss, he writes for Intersection.

Russia lies on an ‘industrial scale’ about its ‘hybrid warfare’ as it parks tanks over its neighbors’ borders and hacks computers in the West, Ukraine’s foreign minister claims.

In Ukraine, Moscow had to apply the entire spectrum of its hybrid warfare tactics, including maskirovkato hold the country in its sphere of influence, notes Major General Volodymyr Havrylov, the Defense Attaché of Ukraine in the United StatesIn trying to hide the presence of its troops in Ukraine and to prevent other countries from providing assistance to Kyiv, Russia used traditional tactics of obfuscation known as the “4D” approach, he writes for Cipher Brief:

  • Dismiss – as Putin did for over a month despite it being obvious that Russian soldiers had occupied Crimea
  • Distort – as exemplified by an actress playing the role of a pro-Russian Ukrainian
  • Distract – as Russian media did with absurd theories about the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17
  • Dismay – as Russia threatened to deploy nuclear-capable bombers to Crimea

Ukraine has learned that the best way to prevent and preempt the success of Russian use of maskirovka is to collect and disseminate, in real-time, facts and evidence of Russian hybrid and illegal activities on foreign territories through use of modern information technologies, Havrylov adds:

This strategy may also apply to Moscow’s interference in the internal affairs and politics of Western countries. Truth and transparency frighten Moscow. They pose a direct threat to Russian internal and foreign policy that is based on half-truth, manipulation of public opinion and disinformation.

The Russian security services are trying to influence public opinion in the Netherlands by spreading fake news about the MH17 disaster, home affairs minister Kajsa Ollongren has said in a briefing to MPs, reports.

“The Netherlands is being monitored by the Russian security services among others,” Ollongren told MPs, according to Dutch News. “We know what Russia is up to, but we should not assume Russia is the only one.” Spreading disinformation is not a new phenomenon but it is “easy, anonymous, fast and cheap”, the minister said.

The key to sustaining healthy governance of the internet is promoting robust democratic voices within the multistakeholder communities shaping the internet’s evolving structure, in contrast to state-led visions of cyber sovereignty, the NED’s Wright contends in Open Democracy:

These communities can protect internet governance bodies and processes from capture by actors with agendas inimical to the internet’s core values of interoperability and free expression. Another important step is formally integrating human rights impact assessments into the processes for reviewing new protocols and policies at internet governance bodies, such as Article 19 recently introduced for engineers working in Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) and as ICANN moved towards in its adoption of a human rights bylaw in 2016. Otherwise, it is possible a very different vision of the internet could become tomorrow’s reality. RTWT

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