Since the US election in 2016, the social media giants have been stepping up their action against disinformation and fake accounts in their networks. Facebook has recognized the use of its platform for information operations and the Mueller report showed the scale of Russia’s operation aimed at influencing public opinion on social media before the 2016 US Presidential elections, like reported by euvsdisinfo.eu.
Another study has shown that over 156,000 Russian-based Twitter accounts had massively tweeted about Brexit in the days leading up to the June 2016 referendum.
One response by the platforms has been to suspend suspicious accounts. According to an article by the Washington Post, Twitter suspended more than 70 million accounts in May and June, and the pace has continued in July.
Del Harvey, the vice president for trust and safety at Twitter explains the shift in how the company defines its role in public debate. “One of the biggest shifts is in how we think about balancing free expression versus the potential for free expression to chill someone else’s speech,” Harvey said. “Free expression doesn’t really mean much if people don’t feel safe.”
It’s been just over six months since RT, the controversial Russian channel funded by the Kremlin, aired its first French broadcast from a sleek green-and-white studio in the outskirts of Paris, like reported by euvsdisinfo.eu.
Despite what RT boss Margarita Simonyan claims is a “strong demand for an alternative perspective” among French-speaking audiences, RT’s launch on French airwaves has been anything but smooth.
‘Lack of Honesty’
French lawmakers adopted the draft law in the night of 4 July after deliberating for eight hours. Several weeks earlier, a first heated debate in parliament had ended at 1am with the vote being postponed amid concern about potential infringements on freedom of expression.
The bill will allow judges to remove or block content deemed to be “false” during a period of up to five weeks before elections.
It will also force platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to disclose the source of funding for sponsored content, in an effort to fight what the text describes as “any attempt at destabilization” by foreign-funded organisations.
The proposal was announced in January by President Emmanuel Macron, who famously accused RT and Sputnik of spreading “lying propaganda” during a press conference with Vladimir Putin last year. Macron’s government still routinely denies the two Russian outlets accreditation for covering official events.
The bill could still be challenged by France’s Constitutional Council.
Its approval in parliament comes just days after the French broadcasting regulator, the Conseil Supérieur de l’Audiovisuel (CSA), issued a warning to RT over a falsified report contesting the use of chemical weapons against Syrian civilians.
The April report wrongly dubbed the voices of Syrian civilians, making them say things they didn’t say — a well-honed tactic on Russian state television.
The report also included a number of factual distortions.
In a statement on 28 June, the CSA accused RT of displaying a “lack of honesty, rigour, and diversity of points of view.” The regulator imposed no sanctions on RT over the incident, although it has the authority to fine a broadcaster or suspend its license.
RT France denied any wrongdoing, claiming the mistranslation was due to a technical error.
One day after the CSA’s warning, Russia’s own communications regulator, the state Roskomnadzor, accused French broadcaster France 24 of violating Russian law on foreign media ownership and threatened to revoke its Russian license.
Pushback against RT
The anti-disinformation bill and the CSA’s warning against RT illustrate the broader dilemma faced by Western governments in handling Russian state-owned media that promote the Kremlin’s agenda while pouring scorn on the institutions and values of the Western world, often through distorted and false information.
France is indeed not the only country grappling with the question of whether, and how to tackle pro-Kremlin disinformation.
As RT and Sputnik seek to build their presence in Europe and the United States, a number of countries are divided between their wish to fight disinformation and their commitment to safeguarding freedom of speech.
In Germany, a new law intended to curb fake news, hate speech, and online threats on social networks — where Russians bots and trolls are accusing of seeking to influence several Western elections — came into force last year despite criticism that it could lead to censorship.
RT is in hot waters in Britain, whose media regulator is probing the channel over breaches of impartiality rules since the March poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal on British soil. The regulator has launched a total of 11 investigations into RT but has so far stopped short of forcing the channel off British airwaves.
And in the United States, RT was forced to register as an agent of the Russian government after being accused by U.S. intelligence agencies of spreading anti-American propaganda. Its accreditation to cover Congress was subsequently revoked.
A Chilly Welcome
Before its first French broadcast in December 2017, RT already had a foothold in France through a French-language website run from Moscow
The Russian state network, however, is viewed with scepticism in France, a country that prides itself on having a strong tradition of independent journalism.
Another reason for this scepticism is the French president’s open war on pro-Kremlin disinformation.
Before denouncing RT and Sputnik as liars and “agents of propaganda,” Macron had banned them from his headquarters during his 2017 presidential campaign. The two outlets were accused of spreading lies about him, including allegations of an extra-marital gay relationship.
Understandably, RT’s début on French airwaves received a rather chilly welcome.
Despite its comfortable 20-million-euro budget and its announced plans to hire 150 people, including 50 journalists, French media reported that RT was having difficulty recruiting any prominent journalists in France.
In the months that preceded the launch of RT France, a string of French journalists and public figures had expressed concern about the channel’s arrival in their country.
Some of the strongest criticism came from Christophe Deloire, the secretary-general of Reporters Without Borders, who denounced RT and Sputnik as “enemies of journalism.”
Deloire’s comments drew a particularly spiteful response from RT chief Margarita Simonyan, who published an open letter urging Reporters Without Borders to “quietly dissolve itself.”
Meanwhile, a group of French experts of Russia published its own open letter calling on the CSA to deny RT a license to broadcast in France on the grounds that the network’s objective was to “sow chaos and undermine democracies.”
In line with French law, RT France was also asked to put together a five-person “ethics committee” to monitor its content and report any violations of journalistic principles to the CSA.
The committee is composed of former diplomat Anne Gazeau-Secret, journalists Jacques-Marie Bourget and Majed Nehmé, Radio France’s ex-president Jean-Luc Hees, and Thierry Marianni, a former senator and fervent admirer of Vladimir Putin who paid a controversial visit to Crimea in 2015 following its illegal annexation by Russia.
CSA head Olivier Schrameck also said his agency would keep a close eye on RT and would “react promptly to any anomaly.”
Probably mindful of the sharp public scrutiny, RT France had so far steered clear of the cruder disinformation it is known for peddling elsewhere. The network also broadcasts in English, Spanish, and Arabic, and it has announced plans to open a German-language channel.
Its French programming mostly stuck to RT’s usual cocktail of slanted news about the Syrian war, sensationalist reports on crises in the EU, and Russian news extolling the virtues of Vladimir Putin.
Despite the CSA’s watchful eye, it took just four months for RT France to commit its first major slip-up and receive a warning.
The Russian network is no stranger to controversy; to a certain extent, it thrives on it.
In France, like in other countries where it is implanted, RT has consistently played the victim and brushed off any criticism as part of a repression campaign it claims is being waged against the channel.
But with the new anti-disinformation bill gaining ground and the CSA ruthlessly picking through its programmes, France is giving RT more trouble than it bargained for.
RT France director Xenia Fedorova certainly seems to be bracing for the worst.
“I’m responsible for the staff I hired, I want to protect them,” Fedorova lamented in a recent interview.
As for the channel’s ambitious plans to extend broadcasts to 24 hours daily by the end of 2018, Fedorova says RT France first needs to make sure the channel “won’t be shut down before then.”
Russian television viewers were recently told that Ukraine is solely responsible for all the casualties in the country’s war-torn east.
The groundless accusation was made on 21 June during one of Russia’s most popular political talk shows, “Evening with Vladimir Solovyov,” on the state-run TV channel Rossiya 24, like reported by euvsdisinfo.eu.
In an angry tirade against Ukraine, show host Vladimir Solovyov told his Ukrainian guest that “you already killed 10,000 people in Donbas.”
“Who killed 10,000 people?” asked Ukrainian political analyst Vadim Karasyov, who is regularly invited on Russian TV channels to represent his country.
“You!” Solovyov snapped at him. “You killed, you shot civilians!”
According to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), the conflict in eastern Ukraine killed 10,303 people, many of them civilians, between 14 April 2014 and 15 November 2017.
The figure, however, is a general death toll from the conflict and does not specify which side is responsible for casualties.
Like Solovyov, Russian authorities have sought to cast the conflict pitting Ukrainian armed forces against Russian-backed separatists as an attack on Russian-speaking Ukrainians.
Moscow has consistently denied Russian involvement despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
EU restrictive measures against Russia are currently in force over the illegal annexation of Crimea and the deliberate destabilisation of Ukraine.
Factory of Lies is the name of a new television documentary introducing a number of journalists who have uncovered the hidden processes of the disinformation campaigns coming from Russia, like reported by euvsdisinfo.eu.
Some of these journalists are themselves Russians who have not been afraid of doing this kind of investigative work in the difficult conditions of their country’s highly controlled media environment.
In Factory of Lies, we follow Andrey Soshnikov – a Russian journalist working in Russia for BBC’s Russian service – in his investigation of a fake video, which was spread by the famous St. Petersburg troll factory and purported to show an American soldier shooting at a copy of the Quran with his automatic rifle.
Soshnikov also tells the story about how he worked for almost a year to identify the exact location of a building that was used for recording another famous fake video, which claimed to show ISIS members fighting on the Ukrainian side in Donbas.
The chief editor of the Russian online magazine The Insider, Roman Dobrokhotov, is also portrayed in Factory of Lies. We hear how The Insider made a Russian national living in Germany admit in a telephone conversation that she had received money from two leading Russian state media, Zvezda and Pervy Kanal, for appearing as an actor in staged productions with disinformation stories about violence and chaos in Germany due to the arrival of immigrants.
Dobrokhotov also describes his team’s work with using voice recognition and open sources to reveal the identity of a Russian Colonel General who, according to The Insider’s and Bellingcat’s joint investigation, was in command of the BUK missile launcher which downed Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine, killing 298 innocent passengers.
An international co-production
Factory of Lies premiered on 5 June and is a co-production between Danish and Swedish public service television (DR and STV), Israel’s Channel 8 and the Danish Film Institute.
Producer and director Jakob Gottschau was also behind Facebookistan – a documentary from 2015 which took a critical look at Facebook as a form of a state with its own citizens and set of laws.
Dehumanization is a quite common trait in conflict situations, where the opponents usually intend to build support for their own actions as well as lessen the support for their adversary through harsh rhetoric and disinformation about the other side, like reported by euvsdisinfo.eu.
Within the pro-Kremlin disinformation machinery, dehumanization is often used as a tool to denigrate in particular the Ukrainian Armed Forces (UAF). This despite the fact that the official line from the Kremlin (contrary to the evidence) is that Russia is not involved in the war in Eastern Ukraine.
In the light of new claims about the UAF this week, we found it fitting to look back at some past disinformation about the Ukrainian Army. No evidence has been provided to support any of these claims.
First, this week’s story, which conveyed a dual message of both the cruelty of the UAF and the low level of morality in the West (another favourite topic in the pro-Kremlin disinformation sphere);
”Rich people from Western countries can buy the right to kill civilians in Donbas, this “safari” is provided by the Ukrainian Army.”
This gruesome and unsubstantiated claim originates from one of the official parties to the conflict, a spokesperson for the self proclaimed Donetsk Peoples Republic.
Second, an absurd claim that has nevertheless been repeated several times, namely;
”Zombies are fighting within the Ukrainian forces in Donbas. They continue to fight even after being shot in the head.”
That is indeed some scary stuff. But what could be even scarier? Ask TV Zvezda, the official TV channel of the Russian Ministry of Defence, and they will come up with the answer – Nazi zombies!
A further past unsubstantiated story reported something fishy going on in Ukrainian military hospitals:
”French customs officers at Paris Orly airport confiscated a shipment of human organs from Ukraine. The intercepted organs were “200 nasal septums and sphincters” and were sent from Dnipro Military Hospital.”
Also, according to disinformation narratives, the UAF has no respect for the church and religion, as claimed in the next story:
”Ukraine’s military conducted a night raid on a Ukrainian Catholic monastery looking for conscripts. The monastery was surrounded and searched, the military were trying to find young men evading service in the army.”
This claim was quickly debunked by the monastery in question, which denied any raids on its premises.
There are also stories that aim to belittle the UAF rather than incite fear of them, for example one claiming that the plague has broken out among the UAF or that there are not enough willing conscripts so the UAF has to enlist criminals.
Although this is not an exhaustive list, it does serve to illustrate how dehumanization and alienation of the Ukrainian Armed Forces is being used within the pro-Kremlin disinformation universe in order to lessen support for and sympathy with Ukraine.
The provocation game 2.0
On June 11, a targeted disinformation campaign was launched around an EU delegation’s visit to Ukraine. This week, we decided to dive deeper into this specific information operation.
The disinformation claimed that Ukrainian security forces were preparing a provocation in Donbas; they allegedly planned to shoot down the EU delegation’s helicopter in order to blame the pro-Russian separatists for the attack. As we have highlighted earlier, this is a typical way of pro-Kremlin disinformation: to warn of “provocations” to sow distrust and disruption among partners.
The disinformation again came from a party to the conflict: it was first published on the website of the so called Ministry of State Security of the self proclaimed Donetsk Peoples Republic. The story was aggressively pushed during the first day after publication when the volume of its spread peaked, whereas the next day it quickly slowed down and almost stopped after three days.
The same story was published at least in Russian, English, Spanish, German and French, on over 70 different websites; it was posted on Twitter, Russian social media Vkontakte, blogs, forums, YouTube and even on Bloomberg’s commentary section below a news article.
According to Brandwatch analytics tool, the disinformation gained over 600 000 impressions on Twitter. It succeeded in getting extensive media coverage in Russia, but it did not get into the mainstream media in the EU – at least not in the analysed languages. Sputnik took care of the spread in the EU languages.
The pattern of dissemination was different in English and in Russian. As of 7 AM on June 11, dozens of Russian-language disinformation outlets published the story in short intervals. In English, the story first only appeared in South Front. Then, it was heavily pushed on Twitter by accounts whose activity is similar to the behaviour of bots. The first Twitter account that mentioned the story has an average of 250 daily Tweets. On the first day, the story reached more than 200.000 people in English on Twitter.
Luckily, the disinformation campaign did not succeed in disrupting the visit, but it proved to be able to get wide media coverage in Russia, limited coverage within the EU and a relatively good reach on social media. All this for a disinformation where no evidence of the supposed threat of “provocation” was ever provided.
Social media has been abuzz since Germany’s shock defeat to Mexico in their opening World Cup match on 17 June, like reported by euvsdisinfo.eu. For Russian spectators, the match yielded an additional surprise that has sparked a flurry of online jokes and memes.
Commenting the match live on Pervy Kanal — Russia’s main state-run television channel and the Kremlin’s mouthpiece — journalist Kirill Dementyev said it was time for the embattled German team to adopt a more assertive game plan.
The term he used included the rather uncommon adjective “navalny,” which in this context roughly translates as “forceful” or “high-pressure.”
Incidentally, this adjective is also the surname of Vladimir Putin’s most prominent foe, anti-corruption campaigner Aleksei Navalny, whose name is all but banned on Pervy Kanal airwaves unless followed by a disparaging diatribe.
Dementyev’s fellow commentator, former Russia coach Leonid Slutsky, was obviously not aware of this important editorial rule.
Seizing on Dementyev’s blunder – if it was a blunder — Slutsky jokingly asked about the opposition leader’s skill on the pitch.
“Navalny plays football?” he quipped. “That would be interesting to see.”
After an awkward silence, the two commentators prudently went back to discussing the match.
All fun and (football) games
The pun, however, was not lost on viewers, many of whom took to social media to share their incredulity.
Some, starting with the opposition leader himself, marvelled at the fact that the word “Navalny” could ever be pronounced on Pervy Kanal.
“This moment when censorship fell and I found myself on Pervy Kanal. Well almost,” Aleksei Navalny joked on Twitter.
Others couldn’t resist revisiting previous photos of Navalny, including this picture of him leaving a Moscow jail on 14 June after serving 30 days for organising anti-Putin protests..
The incident has been an opportunity for Russians to poke fun at the increasing government pressure exerted on Navalny, who attempted to run for the March 2018 presidential election.
“Navalny football is when you enter the field and the referee immediately removes you from the field for 30 matches,” reads this post on Twitter. “No, Navalny football is when you are leaving the changing room and the referee removes you from the field for 30 matches,” a reader commented.
As for Slutsky, some observers are voicing concern for his future as sports commentator.
“Farewell to the fantastic expert Slutsky on Pervy,” joked one tweet.
Bad news for fans of Johnny Depp: the Hollywood star is not selling private dates to female admirers as claimed in Russian media, like reported by euvsdisinfo.eu.
The false rumour – debunked by Polygraph — originated in Russia’s Komsomolskaya Pravda, which reported that Depp made about $40,000 during his visit to Moscow and St. Petersburg last month by selling tête-à-têtes with female fans.
According to the popular tabloid, the actor and musician met 40 Russian women during his trip, charging each of them $1,000 for a few minutes alone with him.
Depp was in Russia as part of a European tour with his rock band the Hollywood Vampires, in which he plays the guitar.
“Johnny Depp is a pirate not only on screen but also in life,” Komsomolskaya Pravda wrote, referring to one of his most famous films, Pirates of the Caribbean. “For an encounter with his Russian female fans, the capricious Hollywood star demanded a thousand bucks from each of them.”
The woman who purportedly exposed Depp’s rather ungentlemanly conduct, however, has since rejected the allegations and accused Komsomolskaya Pravda of twisting her words.
Russian businesswoman Anastasia Niyazgulova, who briefly met with Depp during his visit to Russia, said the meetings took place as part of a planned event with fans of the Hollywood Vampires and members of the band.
Tickets for the “Meet and Greet package” were officially sold on the band’s website.
Rossiyskaya Gazeta, the Russian government’s official newspaper, actually took the disinformation one step further.
In an article raising concerns about Depp’s physical condition, the newspaper alleged that Depp’s string of encounters with Russian women had left him looking “drained” and “very weak.”
First we got Ben Nimmo’s “4D approach”. Then came Darth Putin’s “Kremlin Duck” formula. And now we have Natalia Antonova’s “Russian propaganda guide to stealing your roommate’s burrito”, like reported by euvsdisinfo.eu.
11 different ways of not telling the truth
Antonova’s trick is that she transfers typical Russian disinformation tactics from the world of geopolitics to an everyday life conflict between two roommates. One blames the other for stealing a burrito from the refrigerator; but the accused roommate then sticks to no less than eleven different countertactics.
Below we have listed all of Antonova’s roommate’s excuses and added links to examples from the real life of Russian disinformation, as we have described and analysed it over almost three years.
“Deny stealing the burrito”
Flat denial, even when evidence is piling up and smokescreens have been neutralised: This sort of tactics is systematically used by the Kremlin and its media machinery to avoid acknowledging responsibility for the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 over Eastern Ukraine.
“Accuse your roommate of stealing his own burrito”
The well-known psychological trick of victim-blaming stands centrally in Russian disinformation. One example is the campaign targeting Ukraine, where the country is blamed as the guilty party around Russia’s aggression in Crimea and in eastern Ukraine.
“Admit the burrito theft occurred and demand an independent investigation”
Demanding an independent investigation can be a comfortable way of buying time; however, when investigations reach results that do not satisfy the Kremlin, they are often not acknowledged. In the case of Flight MH17, the Kremlin will still not recognise the outcome of three different investigations.
“Switch gears. Point out that your floss is missing from the bathroom cabinet. Pause dramatically. Let the implications set in”
This tactic is also known as “whataboutism”; a method which has, for example, been in use when the Russian side has been accused of interference in foreign elections.
“Accuse your accuser of prejudice”
Dismissing criticism of the Kremlin’s politics as “Russophobia”, and thereby as irrational and founded in prejudice, is one of the most frequent defensive methods in the Kremlin’s rhetorical playbook.
“Point out random historical grievances in support of your argument”
Russian disinformation hardly ever misses an opportunity to use even far-fetched parallels in history to push its narratives. One example is the claim a Swedish offer to support a possible UN mission in Donbas with personnel was in fact part of a plan to take revenge for Swedish king Charles XII’s defeat in the battle of Poltava in Ukraine in 1709.
“Blame Hillary Clinton”
It can come as no surprise that the former US State Secretary and presidential candidate is blamed for many negative things in the pro-Kremlin disinformation campaign. One example is when a spokesperson of Russia’s Foreign Ministry referred to a photoshopped image showing Hillary Clinton with Osama Bin Laden as authentic.
“Blame The Gay Ukrainian Nazi-Jew Lobby”
According to a recent study, conspiracy theories have become six to nine times more frequent in Russian media over the past seven years. In these theories, as well as in the general propaganda, we frequently see gays, Ukraine, Nazis and Jews playing the starring roles.
“Draw a diagram of the kitchen. Photoshop a stereotypical burrito thief into it”
Manipulating images is a widely used tactic in pro-Kremlin disinformation. North Korea’s leader, Kim Jung-un, has had a smile added to his face, and screenshots from computer games have been used as “irrefutable proof” and as showing allegedly authentic battle scenes from Syria.
“Accuse your roommate of being hysterical and unreasonable”
A central pro-Kremlin counterclaim to Western concerns over Russian aggression is to label these reactions as hysterical. This was, for example, the central message in a recent report from Denmark on Russia’s state-controlled NTV – which backfired on the producers when the story was accused of having doctored interviews in order to confirm the pre-set propaganda message that Danish concerns over Russia have reached the level of hysteria.
“Muse poetically on the nature of truth”
Perhaps the most important strategic aim of the Russian disinformation campaign is to confuse us so as to make us think that perhaps there is no truth, and that no clarity will therefore ever be reached in Crimea, Donbas, Salisbury or the case of Flight MH17.
The downing of flight MH17 has been one of the most lied-about events in recent years, and the disinformation campaign surrounding the tragedy shows no sign of abating, like reported by euvsdisinfo.eu.
Revelations that a Russian missile shot down the passenger airplane over eastern Ukraine in July 2014, killing all 298 people on board, have triggered a flurry of fresh disinformation stories from Moscow.
The charge of Russian involvement was made on May 24 by the Joint Investigative Team (JIT), the Dutch-led international group of investigators tasked with probing the crash.
Russian officials and pro-Kremlin media outlets have sought to discredit the JIT’s latest findings, including by claiming that the United States never presented a single incriminating satellite image as pledged in the aftermath of the tragedy.
Russian defence ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova blamed Washington for providing zero “satellite images, the presence of which was announced immediately after the catastrophe.”
Zakharova, however, would be hard pressed to back up her claim considering that some of the satellite images released by the United States on 22 July 2014 — just five days after the plane’s downing — were widely published and scrutinised in the media.
U.S. officials say the images and other sensitive intelligence, most of which remain classified, show that Russia trained and equipped the pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine responsible for the attack on flight MH17.
One publicly available image shows what U.S. officials identified as a Russian military installation near the southern city of Rostov, close to the border with Ukraine, which served as a support base for separatists in eastern Ukraine. The installation is seen to grow dramatically between 19 June and 21 July 2014.
JIT head Fred Westerbeke has confirmed that his team received satellite images provided by the United States after the crash.
To deflect the blame for the tragedy, Russia has released its own “evidence” allegedly proving that the plane was in fact shot down by Ukraine.
The images, presented by the Russian defence ministry at a press conference four days after the Boeing went down, were later proven to having been falsified using Photoshop software.