Quo vadis fake news – trends in disinformation 2021
The passing year 2021 is a particularly unique time period from the perspective of studying the phenomenon of disinformation. On the one hand, we are dealing with a rapidly increasing awareness of the prevalence and mass occurrence of disinformation in the information space, which translates into the interest of public institutions, which in turn translates into the emergence of numerous organizations, grant and development programs aimed at understanding and counteracting this particular phenomenon. And these are commendable and very positive actions. On the other hand, however, it should be emphasized that the above-mentioned actions, on such a scale, were not created as a result of analyses and preventive (pre-emptive) measures, but are mostly only a response to the tragic events of the past and the present year, among others:
- Belief in the paranormal and/or conspiracy origin of the SARS-COV-2 virus,
- An increase in populism and a decrease in trust in public institutions: primarily those responsible for the health and well-being of citizens,
- The capture of the Capitol by ”Buffalo man” and QAnon followers,
- Increase in depressive disorders, stigma and violence,
- Mass refusal of vaccinations with all its consequences,
- Death of hundreds, hospitalization of thousands due to disinformation about COVID-19 treatment (e.g. methanol),
- Attacks on medical personnel.
The increasing awareness of disinformation is also accompanied by one potentially dangerous trend – the narrowing of the disinformation phenomenon to the general concept of fake news, which is harmful. Even more dangerous and at the same time blurring the essence of this phenomenon are attempts to artificially divide/distinguish it into: misinformation as information untrue, but disseminated without malicious intent and disinformation as untrue information and given with malicious intent. Such harmful trends in reasoning occur mainly due to the fact that many different communities (mainly academic or journalistic) so far not necessarily dealing with the issues of widely understood security of information space (disinformation, information operations, psychological, special operations, etc.) in their work, research or calculations try to classify and catalog the phenomenon of disinformation using a simple division that can be closed in rigid frames. It stems from the fact that in the world of science, simplifications are often used to explore and understand a phenomenon better (a kind of cognitive error in that profession). Unfortunately but this time it is closer to the conclusion „for simplicity of calculation I have assumed that Pi is equal to 5”. In this particular case, such division or simplification blurs the essence of the phenomenon and works to the advantage of hostile propaganda/disinformation centres whose actions often draw on models of operation of armed forces or special services.
Disinformation in operational terms can be recognized using a variety of patterns. It can also be defined in a different way because the phenomenon of disinformation consists of a whole spectrum of activities such as deception or psychological pressure. Still:
„Disinformation can be seen as an advanced formulation of a message whose purpose is to elicit a view, decision, action, or lack thereof, from the recipient, in accordance with the premise of the center that planned the process of misleading the recipient. In essence, it is interference with the decision-making process of an object (i.e., the recipient), or a group of objects. For this reason, among others, disinformation is also information and is not always false or manipulated information. Message recognition, which is part of the influencing operation of decision-making process and opinion formation, cannot therefore be based solely on information that we define as false or misleading to the audience”.
This report will present and discuss briefly, the main trends in Russian disinformation from the perspective of the Central and Eastern European region in the passing year 2021.
During the Cold War Eastern Europe was clearly perceived as a zone of influence of the Soviet Union, which imposed its political and economic system on the countries of the region. The Russian Federation, reverting to its imperial policy, is not interested in the emergence of cooperation structures between the countries of the Central and Eastern European region (3SI), and further integration of the region with Western Europe (EU, NATO) because it still sees the old Eastern Europe as an area of its imperial interests. Russia’s aggression against Ukraine shows that she is ready to destabilize the situation in Central and Eastern Europe by pursuing rivalry and confrontation with the West. Among the offensive tools below the threshold of war, which the Kremlin very willingly and effectively uses, are information and psychological operations including disinformation.
Russian media as tools for so-called soft disinformation
The times of uncertainty, fears and anxieties in which we now live are conducive to the appearance and spread of myths, conspiracy theories or sinister narratives. This is the result partly of fear and ignorance but also of intentional disinformation efforts. It is relatively easy to spread disinformation in the flood of information about the number of new deaths or infections: in a situation of overinformation, the perception of the average recipient is distorted and incapable of proper critical thinking. As researchers point out in the Digital News Report 2020, published by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism in collaboration with the University of Oxford, in emergency situations (such as the one currently associated with the SARS-COV-2 pandemic) there is a hyperbolization of this phenomenon (as many as 56% of people worldwide are concerned about what is true and what is false online when it comes to news). This consequently allows for mass manipulation of the sense of security and reinforcement of social polarization with the help of disinformation.
Disinformation is one of the components of foreign policy pursued by the Russian Federation. This is partly due to the fact that from the Kremlin’s point of view, in conditions of asymmetry of potentials, disinformation and propaganda are among the most effective instruments of competition with the West. Russia, unlike democratic Western states, controls the flow of information and communication channels almost completely. Russian propaganda activities, considered as a whole of the activities of the state and media apparatus, are aimed at creating distorted conditions for the perception of information selected by the Kremlin regarding permanent, cyclical events, such as
- Historical policy,
- Russian-Chinese Cooperation,
- Military exercises,
- International politics,
- Security incidents.
And also current events and/or created for the information service:
- Pandemic SARS-COV-2,
- Pro-democracy protests in Belarus,
- Ukraine, Transcarpathian region.
The Russian Federation has at its disposal a large media potential, a significant part of which is under the strict control of the Russian administration and frequently acts under the inspiration of the Russian special services. One of the elements of influencing other countries is the construction and maintenance of information portals operating in languages other than Russian in order to effectively influence selected societies. One of the main sources for introducing Russian propaganda material in Central and Eastern Europe is the Sputnik portal, which is wholly owned by the Russian state media company Rossiya Segodnya, based in Moscow. The overt, open channels of Russian manipulative communication are only a fragment of the wide range of possibilities for saturating the information environment with information desired by the Kremlin. Russian activities are characterised by a full spectrum of actions carried out both through the media controlled by the Russian authorities, as well as a whole set of combined actions involving having an impact through the representatives of the government administration, using 'experts’, academic centres as well as the activity of foreign-language media controlled by the Russian Federation.
TRENDS IN DISINFORMATION 2021
Poland and Lithuania are attractive destinations for economic and student emigration among Belarusians. Those who see the pace of social and economic transformation often set the Baltic States and Poland as models of systemic transformation. In order to control its own society, the Russian Federation and Alexander Lukashenka’s regime have been employing the strategy of a ”besieged fortress,” which has naturally translated into a campaign of shifting responsibility (for the internal situation) onto Poland and the Baltic states, especially Lithuania. Compared to Belarus, the Russian Federation has a very extensive information apparatus operating in Western countries and actively supports the propaganda activities of the Lukashenka regime.
The main opponents in the propaganda message of both Russian and Belarusian centres are Lithuania and Poland. Increasingly, Ukraine is also joining this group due to the social transformations taking place there. As a result of Russia’s economic pressure, the Belarusian economy (which is closely related to Russia’s) is in crisis from time to time. In addition, as a result of the harassment during the protests, some Belarusian businesses, mainly from the IT sector, began to relocate to democratic neighbouring countries (Poland and Lithuania). A. Lukashenko’s regime explains this with a coordinated attack on the Belarusian economy to shift blame and dilute responsibility for the mismanagement of their own governments. All information operations based on this narrative are one of the subsequent elements of a disinformation operation aimed at presenting democratic countries neighbouring Belarus as hostile centres which conduct a series of offensive and destabilising operations against Belarus.
The Lukashenka regime’s deadlocked situation can also be proved by the fact that the regime is trying to get back at Poland and Lithuania for showing solidarity with the Belarusian democratic movement and granting asylum to the oppositionists. In order to do so Lukashenka’s regime uses inhumane methods „reserved” only for the most cynical governments: weaponizating migration, or in Polish literature: an attack with „D” (demographic) weapons. These are asymmetric, unconventional actions, below the threshold of war. Belarus and Russia scrupulously use precisely selected information material, and if they do not possess such, they manage field activities and foreigners’ behavior to produce it. Every patrol, reconnaissance activity, time and reaction of Poland and/or Lithuania- are stimulated by Belarusian immigration pressure and analyzed by the regime.Border incidents and provocations in Belarus have recently become more frequent and appear to be elements of deliberate aggression (below the threshold of war) against Ukraine and NATO countries. It is not Belarus itself that is primarily interested in such aggression, but the Russian side, which tries to remain in the shadow of actions of Lukashenka’s regime in order not to be exposed to further direct sanctions from the EU and the US, as well as not to be directly recognised by Belarusian society.
Russia’s armed forces are frequently used to lend credibility to and also strengthen the message or conviction of the rightness of actions in her own society. Such an operation was seen, for example, at the end of March last year when the Russian Federation, not yet experienced in fighting the SARS-CoV-2 virus itself, sent a military contingent to help Italy. The effectiveness of this aid has been verified negatively but the media message both to its own population and to the people of the EU has been sent.
Military maneuvers are one of the most important forms of demonstrating force as a military instrument in the foreign policy of the Russian Federation. The „Joint Strategic Exercise West” is, contrary to Russian and Belarusian messages, not one exercise but a whole complex of different exercises. Therefore, more important than the number of tanks and soldiers gathered on a dozen or so training grounds is to assess the level of the Russian state’s overall preparation for war, its determination and the direction it is heading in.
In Moscow’s perception, the desire for free elections is the same as a military invasion, and Russia reserves the right to use similar means in both cases. Therefore, this year’s edition of ZAPAD maneuvers in the domain of INFO & PSY OPS and strategic communication was aimed mainly at the states bordering the Republic of Belarus: Poland, Lithuania, the Baltic States and Ukraine. The scenario of the exercises is to communicate that the Union State considers supporting the democratic opposition, even in a symbolic dimension, as an act of aggression.
Moscow is interested in deepening the international isolation of Belarus in order to consolidate the republic’s permanent dependence.
Out of a wide range of active measures available, the Russian Federation often reaches for stoking animosities between states or nations. In accordance with the „divide and rule” principle, it deepens the existing divisions or creates new ones, be they historical, national, economic or other. It shows great potential for adaptation in this regard (each „division” has its own characteristics) but the goal is always the same – destabilization. Inspiration and provocation is used to achieve it. Inspiration and provocation are among the tools of the wide range of active measures used by the Russian Federation. Both of these tools have greater potential for impact if their use occurs in favorable factual circumstances. An adequate example would be the inspired provocation and arson of the building of the Hungarian Cultural Society in Ukrainian Transcarpathia in early 2018. At that time, relations between Hungary and Ukraine were very tense due to the adoption of an education law by Ukraine’s Verkhovna Rada a few months earlier.
The Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) prevented a series of terrorist attacks in the Transcarpathian region this year as well. The perpetrator, acting on orders from Russian special services, planned, among other things, to set fire to the Consulate General of one of the neighbouring countries, to destroy a historical monument and to murder a public figure. Ukrainian counterintelligence officers prevented the attacks and established the identity of the saboteur, who is a resident of the Lugansk region. He was recruited by Russian special services to conduct intelligence and sabotage activities. In addition to planned assassinations, he was involved in gathering information on Ukrainian military facilities. He was to receive a financial reward of 30,000 USD for the task. The would-be assassin managed to escape and hide on the territory of the Russian Federation. The man being prosecuted has been charged with, among other things, treason and preparation to carry out a terrorist act.
One of the key activities of the Russian Federation in the area of disinformation is the creation of actual events and then the informational handling of them (in accordance with the Kremlin’s narrative line). For a long time, Russia has been trying to gain an ally inside the EU that would break out of the unanimous sanctions policy imposed in connection with the ongoing aggression and annexation of parts of Ukraine’s territory, and this is what these types of operations are for. The East StratCom Task Force of the European External Action Service, which monitors Russia’s disinformation activities, described the aim of such actions as: „panic and distrust of society towards the rulers and the European Union.”
The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between the Third Reich and the Soviet Union at the end of August 1939 was the end of peace and the beginning of war. Sharing spheres of influence in Europe, the two countries entered the war together. With the German demands on Poland and the incorporation of Gdañsk to the Reich, the policy of appeasement ended. The peace, which had been prolonged for a long time since the mid-thirties, turned into the Polish-German war on September 1, which turned into World War II. On September 17, 1939, the Soviet Union attacked Poland militarily, breaking the non-aggression pact signed with it earlier and joining the German attack. The symbol of this alliance is the joint German-Russian parade of the Wehrmacht and the Red Army on 22 September 1939 in Brest, which was captured by the Germans.
One of the foundations of Russian identity is the myth of the „Great Patriotic War” and the ideological approach to create the image of an anti-fascist state. Therefore, falsification of history and an attempt to shift co-responsibility for the outbreak of World War II onto the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, mainly Poland, is a constant element of Russian propaganda. From the end of 2019 we observe a very big intensification of activities in this field, connected with the celebration (2020) of the 75th anniversary of World War II (article by V. Putin for National Interest).
The main narrative lines of the Russian disinformation campaign that have been repeated also this year are:
- accusations of anti-Semitism.
- Aim: to destabilize the relations between Poland and the USA, building international alliances accusing Poland.
- Repeated threats that the world is potentially on the verge of another war.
- Aim: psychological pressure, intimidation, building submission to concessions in favor of Russia.
- Suggestions that only Russia’s proposals can prevent global destabilization.
- Aim: to push the US presence out of Europe, marginalisation of NATO’s role in the European security system in favour of Russia’s (Union State) position.
- Emphasizing the human dimension of the war and highlighting the heroic, communal dimension of the Soviet people’s achievements.
- Aim: to cover up the crimes against their own people from the war times and to cover up the crimes of the Red Army in the occupied territories.
- Publishing extracts of supposed „archival material” without publishing it in its entirety and appeals to open archives.
- Aim: to build an illusion of alleged support of evidence, to build a conviction about alleged openness to research and cooperation (reverse psychology), while there is full control over historical documents by special services in Russia.
NATO’s presence on its so-called eastern flank has been growing steadily in response to Russia’s aggressive actions in Central and Eastern Europe. NATO has tripled the size of the North Atlantic Alliance Response Force. In addition, the North Atlantic Alliance has updated contingency plans for the Baltic States and Poland (December 2019). These actions are hard evidence of alliance cohesion and threat perception from the Russian Federation.
Due to political cohesion, a constant element (persistent vector) of Russian propaganda and disinformation efforts in the CEE region is the perception of the alliance by ordinary citizens. That’s why disinformation campaigns are mainly targeted at them.
Selected lines of false current narratives in disinformation campaigns:
- The 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act prohibits permanent NATO bases in CEE and the strengthening of NATO’s so-called eastern flank.
- NATO’s presence increases the risk of war and nuclear annihilation.
- NATO presence means loss of sovereignty and is the implementation of US imperial policy.
- NATO soldiers rampage through the roads with impunity.
- NATO soldiers have licenses to kill.
- NATO soldiers commit robberies with impunity.
- NATO’s actions are offensive in nature and are not a response to Russian aggression.
- The strengthening of NATO countries’ military presence on the alliance’s eastern flank is part of preparations for an offensive against Belarus and then Russia.
- NATO soldiers engage in „sex tourism” in CEE countries and „sexual imperialism”.
RUSSIAN – CHINESE COOPERATION
During the annexation of Hong Kong, which was illegal and against society, the Chinese Communist Party began to use very offensive information campaigns. The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic has only further exacerbated and accelerated that making it clear to the wider international community. China has begun to employ new assertive tactics – including the spread of widespread Russian-style disinformation – that suggest Beijing is increasingly trying to shape the global information environment beyond its borders. Chinese propaganda scholars and researchers have carefully studied the example of Russian media organs such as Russia Today (RT) and Sputnik, and clearly see the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity to improve external propaganda, including deepening cooperation with Russian counterparts.
In addition to learning how to wage information warfare from Russia, China is taking an increasingly active part in it, supporting and disseminating Russian propaganda theses. We have seen at least two such campaigns in the past year:
- The Chinese news agency Sina, citing Russian media reports, is circulating a propaganda description of „the course of the Zima2020 military exercises,” indicating that the Polish Army was broken up, while for Poland the exercises ended in „catastrophic failure.” Another of the Chinese portals describing the alleged conduct of the exercises suggests that the results were a strong disappointment for the NATO Allies. Both Chinese agencies suggest that the Polish military was compromised.
- A Chinese news agency, involved in promoting theses that are part of Russian propaganda against Poland, publishes a number of materials aimed against Polish interests:
- The texts present Poland as a country aggressive towards Russia, provoking Moscow, as well as conducting activities falsifying the history of WWII and the USSR.
- In subsequent texts, Poland is presented as a country that not only creates tensions between EU allies but also is responsible for crises in relations with Russia.
- The theses of the Chinese media are eagerly promoted by the Russian propaganda media, waging information war against Poland and NATO. As part of promoting the Chinese media’s thesis, Russian editors accused Poland of aggressive plans against Russia.
The materials published by the Russian side with the support of the Chinese news agency intend to create a conviction that in the face of a clash with Russia Poland (or the CEE region more broadly) does not stand a chance, even with the support of the allies. Moreover, the texts are supposed to show that Poland is the aggressive side towards Russia and is doomed to fail if a conflict arises.
SPUTNIK V VACCINE
The SARS-COV-2 pandemic arrived in Russia just at the time of the Kremlin authorities embarking on a key political operation: strengthening the regime by increasing the powers of the president and ensuring that Vladimir Putin could rule Russia for life. In this situation, the topic of the pandemic has given Putin new opportunities to present himself as a potential savior and remedy to problems while pointing out the mistakes and weaknesses of democratic Western states. The narrative of the alleged superiority of authoritarian regimes in dealing with the pandemic was (and is) distributed primarily to young democracies in Central and Eastern Europe and to societies aspiring to be democratic: Belarus. In this context, Russia’s and China’s actions constitute a simultaneous whole.
Even before the current pandemic, Russia was actively disinforming Western societies about vaccines. However, during the pandemic it further intensified its efforts in this field. According to a report by the UK’s NCSC (National Cyber Security Centre), the well-known Russian hacker group APT29 („Cozy Bear”), which is an intelligence component of the SWR – Foreign Intelligence Service of the Russian Federation, attempted to steal information from scientific centres working on a vaccine against COVID-19. When the first signs of the effectiveness of these preparations began to appear, the Kremlin launched a coordinated disinformation campaign aimed at undermining confidence in scientists and their work, and in particular the vaccines themselves. These campaigns were based on creating fear and uncertainty, e.g. it was warned that AstraZeneca preparations would introduce monkey DNA into the human body. Then to make a gap and vaccine deficit in the European market (to offer its own product Sputnik V as a remedy) Russia actively built and supported a black PR campaign against the Oxford preparation after reports of several cases of possible thrombosis. To that end, among other things, she tried to pay bloggers and influencers. Due to the technology (vector) and production costs, AstraZeneca was a natural competitor of Sputnik V. In order to exert maximum political pressure the Russians also used manipulated and false information concerning, inter alia, participation in and/or passage of the registration process at the EMA (European Medicines Agency), establishment of cooperation with numerous partners in the EU (who obviously knew nothing about that). And they called Pfizer’s vaccine a „death injection” to devalue modern mRNA technology. Despite not having enough production capacity to provide enough vaccines for their own citizens, the Russians used Sputnik V as a tool for diplomatic pressure. In the CEE region, Slovaks and Hungarians succumbed to Russia. Moreover, the Kremlin has on this occasion strengthened its cooperation with the German AfD.
In the 21st century, the concept of war and states fighting against each other has changed. Today, threats to state security can be seen primarily on the Internet. Currently, the information ecosystems of the various countries in the CEE region are under constant manipulation. Such activities include disinformation and propaganda operations as well as psychological and information operations more broadly. The issue is broad in scope and cannot be limited to operations using only correct, false or mixed information. Such actions are designed in such a way as to, on the one hand, build (deepen) social polarisation and, on the other, use its mechanisms to further spontaneously multiply effects (snowball effect) and influence the object of attack many times more by occupying its resources and reducing (narrowing) the perception of threats (tunnel vision).
Impact processes are carried out by more or less specialized units, generally controlled by the state. Reconnaissance processes are also advanced. The state security sector, NGOs, and the public have distinct capabilities to identify these types of threats. Manipulative operations are very often complex and are not limited to overt, propagandistic and/or manipulative actions. An active information operation, conducted by professionals, is often characterized by multi-vector messages, actions in multiple dimensions, e.g., physical and virtual, the use of active means, e.g., provocation, simulation, mystification or inspiration (done consciously or not by the actor), and a planning process based on cognitive models (including models of subjectivity). Previous research indicates that the primary parameter that becomes the target of the attacker is the cognitive processes of the audience, and they should be given special attention first. This is important also from the point of view of creating models of recognition of such operations as skilfully created queries/surveys taking into account the recognition of elements of an information adversary’s actions allow for the detection of an information operation at its early stage.
The centers conducting offensive activities through open or overt channels are undoubtedly China and Russia. It should be remembered, however, that the disinformation processes and activities which the Russian Federation undertakes through the open channels of communication of the Kremlin-controlled media are different from influencing public opinion through lobbying, paying selected publicists or editors, and in some cases the activity of the entire state apparatus through the use of active measures as part of broad deception operations
Report by: INFO OPS Poland Foundation and Res Publica – Civic Resilience Center
November 1, 2021