As the conflict in Ukraine approaches the threshold of its second year, the EU has warned of the “longer-term challenge” to combat online disinformation, having detected more than 200 Russian campaigns in the past year targeting the country it attacked last February.
Meanwhile, analysts are warning that, away from the more obvious Kremlin-controlled information operation (IO) campaigns, the real danger may lie in decentralized but Russian loyalist groups buzzing under the radar.
The EU said it had tracked more than 237 cases of disinformation relating to Ukraine since February, bringing the total since 2015 to more than 5,500, out of “more than 13,000 total examples of pro-Kremlin disinformation.”
But analysts stress that such “cases” can vary widely in terms of sophistication and reach, and such broad-stroke figures, while useful for giving an overview, should be viewed with caution.
“The fight against disinformation is a long-term challenge for European democracies and societies,” said the EU in a statement released on January 20. “Disinformation undermines the trust of citizens in democracy and democratic institutions. It also contributes to the polarization of public views and interferes in democratic decision-making processes.”
This threat has ballooned since the outbreak of war in Ukraine last February, with the wealthy bloc of European nations pointing to a “disinformation campaign of unparalleled magnitude” waged by Russia as part of its offensive against its neighboring state.
To counter this, the EU diplomatic corps, the European External Action Service, has set up the EUvsDisinfo digital platform to combat Russian efforts to mislead, with a mandate “to forecast, address, and respond” to IO campaigns perceived as targeting Ukraine and its allied states in Europe.
Different page, same book
But open-source intelligence analyst Protection Group International (PGI) believes that Russia’s IO infrastructure is not quite as monolithic as some might think, with the Kremlin’s state-controlled efforts augmented by a “myriad” actors who have been given relatively free rein in terms of how they conduct their operations – so long as they adhere to the overarching Putinist narrative.
“When mapping out the information space, we can generally treat state-owned media as a known quantity,” said Shawn Gillooly, digital investigations analyst at PGI. “We know what they’re going to say, generally how they’re going to say it and through what means, and where they’re getting their opinions from. Where things start getting interesting are the myriad of groups and organizations that fall into that gray zone of government alignment and support.”
Gillooly cites the proliferation of pro-Russian hacktivist groups since the outbreak of war as a good example of this, with patriotic outfits such as Killnet frequently making the headlines during the past year. These groups vary among themselves in terms of their origins but can potentially command strong support from the public.
"When mapping out the information space, we can generally treat state-owned media as a known quantity. Where things start getting interesting are the myriad of groups that fall into that gray zone of government alignment and support."Shawn Gillooly, digital investigations analyst, Protection Group International
“Some are state-created, some aligned, co-opted, some even remain entirely separate,” Gillooly told Cybernews. “But the nature of their ownership is in question one way or another, and it’s in this space that we’re often operating when talking about the Russian information environment. While it may be difficult to quantify their precise reach, these groups, organizations, and individuals have significant followings – often hundreds of thousands if not millions of people.”
Not only are such groups quantitatively a force to be reckoned with in terms of their reach, but they can also have a qualitative advantage over their more traditional and overt state-run counterparts, says Gillooly.
“They have earned a level of trust in a way that state media is likely never to acquire from its viewers except from the most ardent of loyalists,” he said. “The war has provided these ‘nodes’ the chance to have more influence than ever before, as there is now a huge market for people – especially Russians in Russia – who want the ‘truth’ of what is happening on the ground.”
All is not as it seems
Of course, under Vladimir Putin’s regime, truth comes at something of a premium; while these so-called independent groups may seem like a more candid alternative to local news outlets, they are in fact, peddling the Kremlin line, Gillooly warns.
In what effectively amounts to a deception within a deception, decentralized Russian forums might offer ‘dissenting’ views on more granular tactics – for example, disagreeing with the mainstream Russian take on how to respond to US and EU sanctions, or whether the military should attack a particular town on the Ukrainian front – but when it comes to the bigger picture they invariably realign with Moscow.
“At this point, you will find most of these nodes in general agreement with the broad strokes of what the Russian government wants to communicate,” he said. “They believe in the cause of the war, that the West is against them, in the infallibility of Putin. Perhaps more importantly, they know their audience does, too. These two facts are the things that are going to keep them aligned to the Kremlin in the strategic arena, which is what often matters most to the Russian government.”
That said, Gillooly says the ‘alternative’ IO campaigners will sometimes find themselves at loggerheads with their central counterparts in Moscow.
“Where they differ are the tactics,” he said. “It can lead to some pretty serious dissension, especially over unpopular measures the military has taken around things like banning the use of private vehicles by soldiers, or critiques of senior military leadership.”
"If there's a willing base of already influential nodes who will generally stick to the Kremlin message and provide the government with legitimacy, they're probably going to take it, even if it means some allowance in what can or cannot be said."Gillooly
This illusory dissent serves the Kremlin’s purpose because it presents a more convincing picture to people both inside and outside Russia who might otherwise be skeptical of the worldview being shaped by Putin and his cronies.
“People are much more wary than they were just a few years ago when it comes to IOs,” said Gillooly. “Because of this, sending a hundred thousand bots out to say the exact same thing at the exact same time isn’t going to convince very many people. However, being able to seed general talking points and launder that message through aligned organic nodes of influence allows your message to propagate with a level of trust that you would never be able to earn from a top-down campaign.”
More prosaically, drawing on a pre-existing group of digital campaigners saves Moscow time and money – all the more, given the extra efforts needed to get disinformation past increasingly wary social media platforms and into the minds of equally suspicious users.
“If there’s a willing base of already influential nodes who will generally stick to the Kremlin message and provide the government with legitimacy, they’re probably going to take it, even if it means some allowance in what can or cannot be said,” added Gillooly.
Anyone can be fooled
And it seems to be working, to some extent at least. One striking thing about IO campaigns is their ability to convince even well-educated, previously well-informed people who may not have realized how prone the internet is to facilitate the spread of disinformation.
“Given the right circumstances and the right pressures, anybody can fall victim to a conspiracy theory, irrespective of class, education, or any other demographic distinction,” said Gillooly. “The characteristics and the social acceptability of the conspiracy theory will change depending on its ‘target,’ but unfortunately, no one is immune.”
He suggests this malleable approach to disinformation is paying dividends, with IO groups able to tailor their campaigns at will to make them more convincing to the intended recipient.
“Behaviour and infrastructure are more often consistent with the actor, whereas the content is generally consistent with the audience targeted,” he said. “Understanding the hallmarks of the former will lead to more interesting questions around who is doing what, how, and why. One of the knock-on effects of that decentralized approach is that suddenly you have dozens of variants of a single piece of disinformation, and those may pop up and be replaced in a matter of days, or even hours, depending on what is happening on the ground.”
"Given the right circumstances and pressures, anybody can fall victim to a conspiracy theory, irrespective of class, education, or any other demographic distinction. Unfortunately, no one is immune."Gillooly
While recognizing the value of the EU’s efforts to catalog Russian disinformation campaigns overall, Gillooly also stresses that when it comes to assessing how effective an IO campaign might be, it is essential to scrutinize each one individually. Especially those that have been exposed as peddling fake news or propaganda.
“Understanding and cataloging disinformation in a standardized way is a very important tool we can use to better conceptualize information environments going forward,” he said. “However, not all content is created equal, so we shouldn’t assess 13,000 examples of individual demonstrably false content as being necessarily 13,000 sophisticated campaigns. In examining the IOs that have been caught, we learn what doesn’t work.”
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