Logo Utrecht University

ERC Securing Europe, Fighting its enemies, 1815-1914

USHS Blog

Information and Disinformation. The Threat of Online Trolling

The Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament recently adopted a resolution warning against the ‘hostile propaganda and disinformation directed against our societies by both Kremlin and non-state actors such as ISIS/Daesh’. Propaganda, Polish rapporteur Anna Fotyga stated, is a ‘vital issue for European security’. She claims that acts of disinformation seek to ‘distort the truth, provoke doubt, divide the EU and its North American partners, paralyse the decision-making process, discredit the EU institutions and incite fear and uncertainty among EU citizens’. Members of the Committee further note that the Russian government aggressively employs a wide range of media tools ‘to challenge democratic values, divide Europe, gather domestic support and create the perception of failed states in the EU’s eastern neighbourhood’.

This non-binding resolution is another step in the EU’s commitment to monitor and efficiently counter Russian online propaganda and disinformation. The East Stratcom Task Force began with a team of nine communication officers in September 2015. Now it relies on a network of more than 400 experts, journalists, officials and think tanks worldwide. The Task Force publishes two weekly analyses: ‘Disinformation Review’, a journal that includes ‘reports received from members of the myth-busting network’, and the ‘Disinformation Digest’, a bulletin that covers latest trends on Russian social media, ‘how Russian media perceive the world’ and ‘how pro-Kremlin narratives spread’.

The 'Disinformation Review', source: euvsdisinfo.eu.

The ‘Disinformation Review’, source: euvsdisinfo.eu.

Media manipulation and internet trolling

The latest ‘Disinformation’ publications provide insight in the production, dissemination and impact of Moscow’s propaganda, both in Russia and the wider world. Propaganda production appears to be controlled by Kremlin advisers, and information warfare seems a crucial means of combat against Russia’s domestic and foreign enemies. Die Zeit has further detailed how pro-Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine use media manipulation strategies. Citing a handbook compiled in Moscow and Luhansk, the German periodical illustrated how local media outlets are controlled to convey certain narratives, monitor social media and check independent journalists. The services of young and loyal activists are especially encouraged.

Several investigations have detailed the perverse effect of such ‘armies of trolls’, accused of wreaking havoc by spreading misinformation about, for example, an explosion at a chemical plant in Louisiana. The NATO Centre of Excellence in Strategic Communications researched trolling tactics in Latvia and distinguishes between five categories of trolls (ranging from the sweet-naive to the aggressive type). All of them are extremely prolific in disseminating pro-Kremlin messages on social networks or in the comment sections of news outlets.

Hot issues: Ukraine, Syria and US elections

According to the Brussels-based Task Force disinformation campaigns have had three main topics over the last few weeks: Ukraine, Syria, and the US elections. In the narratives of several Russian media outlets, Ukraine’s political leadership is portrayed as a gang of Fascists paid by the West to work against the Ukrainian nation’s vital interests. These corrupt leaders then tried to discredit Russia through accusations of involvement in the downing of MH17 flight in July 2014. As the topic returned to public focus with the press report of the Joint Investigation Team, conspiracy theorists again argued that the shooting down was just a masquerade staged by Ukrainian leaders and their Western patrons. As for the war in Syria, the Americans are guilty for the humanitarian tragedy there. And the mistaken air strike against Syrian soldiers? That was no mistake at all. Russian media also seem to have picked their favourite for next month’s US presidential elections. Hillary Clinton it is definitely not. Russian media note that she considered a drone attack on Wikileaks founder Julian Assange and forged votes in order to return to the White House as president.

 

‘Evidence’ released in 2014 proving MH17 was shot down by a Ukrainian warplane, source: express.co.uk.

‘Evidence’ released in 2014 proving MH17 was shot down by a Ukrainian warplane, source: express.co.uk.

Impact

Russian propaganda and disinformation now have a global impact. Donald Trump quoted misinformation about Hillary Clinton’s campaign (on the Benghazi embassy attack) that appears to have been first propagated by the Kremlin-run Sputnik news agency. Hacking activities linked to Russia, part of the same cyberwar, apparently aim to influence the US presidential elections and would receive a ‘proportional’ response from Washington.

But the long term effects of Kremlin’s information warfare are visible in Eastern Europe, with social media used as a powerful and efficient tool to instil distrust in democratic values and European institutions. In Georgia, pro-Kremlin disinformation has four main goals: incite anti-Western sentiments, disrupt the country’s Euro-Atlantic aspiration, promote the Kremlin’s global policy, and introduce confusion, fear and hatred among the population by propagating conspiracy theories, half-truths and false information. A recent poll in three Central European states (Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic) holds that people are easy targets for intoxication campaigns through alternative media sources. A separate study states that, as a result of orchestrated disinformation operations, half of the Czechs blame the US for the Syrian refugee crisis and more than a third hold the country responsible for the conflict in Ukraine.

EU’s solutions and a Russian response

In such parallel informational universes, it is indeed difficult not be affected by propaganda and disinformation. As argued last time here, social media also feed into a new sort of (anti-)diplomacy and misinformed public pressure on policy-makers can present a great threat to global security. The report compiled by Anna Fotyga concludes that proper solutions to such actions would be ‘positive messaging, awareness raising and education to increase information literacy in EU and to empower citizens to analyse media content critically’.

As for the Russian reaction to the European resolution, an editorial published on Russia Today’s website deplores the fact that the EU ‘has moved almost completely into the US camp’: ‘EU officials are free to shout propaganda to their hearts’ content while concocting ways to limit their constituents’ access to information. Yet, it won’t resolve the underlying problems facing European society that, when not properly reflected in the establishment approved media, are causing the people to seek out alternative sources of news’.