At a glance.
- Russian disinformation returns to an earlier, more successful playbook.
- Disinformation in Ukraine.
- Hyperlocal propaganda.
- Coordinated inauthenticity, at scale.
- Reports of a failed assassination attempt on President Putin.
- Dissent in Russia's war.
- Influence ops against authoritarians: mock them, don't demonize them.
Back to throwing sand in the adversaries' metaphorical gears.
Google has traced the dump of pro-Brexit emails to a group of Russian operators, Computing reports. Reuters summarizes the site, including their unhappy misspelling of coup (which is, in fairness, after all a French loanword in English usage): "The website - titled "Very English Coop d'Etat" - says it has published private emails from former British spymaster Richard Dearlove, leading Brexit campaigner Gisela Stuart, pro-Brexit historian Robert Tombs, and other supporters of Britain's divorce from the EU, which was finalized in January 2020. The site contends that they are part of a group of hardline pro-Brexit figures secretly calling the shots in the United Kingdom." The site is very much in the paranoid style increasingly favored even in Russia's recent disinformation that aims at positive persuasion.
But this is old-style Russian online disinformation. Russia more-or-less supported Brexit, considering it a move likely to weaken the EU and Britain, both of which Moscow perceives as adversaries, but this operation shows a reversion to the more familiar (and more successful) practice of increasing the adversaries' friction without really caring, much, about what you can induce people to believe, even in a hemi-demi-semi way. The point is to sow doubt, to darken counsel.
Russian disinformation in Ukraine.
But the Russian war against Ukraine has required Russia to attempt positive persuasion as well. These disinformation efforts against Ukraine have been both heavy and heavy-handed, in some cases using a playbook almost out of the 1930s. The New Yorker described them last week: "Russian armored vehicles drove along Melitopol’s central avenues with loudspeakers blaring, “'The military-civilian administration of Melitopol, in order to prevent law-breaking and to insure public order, temporarily prohibits rallies and demonstrations.'” Newsweek elaborates "Melitopol, a city in southern Ukraine, was one of the first sites of battle in the conflict and one of Russia's earliest successes. On Monday, The New Yorker reported that as Putin's forces stormed through the city in late February, soldiers posted flyers that declared the fighting was for 'the defense of Russia itself from those who have taken Ukraine hostage' and called for 'cooperation so that we can quickly turn this tragic page and move forward together.' Melitopol residents also found that Russian broadcasts had replaced their local radio programming; one played a speech by Putin on a loop. Meanwhile, an adviser to Mariupol Mayor Vadym Boychenko said Monday that Russia was offering to provide financial compensation to residents of the city if they blamed President Volodymyr Zelensky's military for destroyed housing or family deaths."
The Guardian characterizes the latest Russian propaganda tech as "Orwellian," and they appear to have Winston Smith's telescreen in mind. Russian-operated vans carrying big screen on their sides, "mobile information complexes," as the Kremlin styles them, are moving through the rubble of Mariupol to keep the locals apprised of what Moscow wants them to think about the war.
In general, Ukrainian messaging has been more effective and internationally successful. Russian messaging has found, principally, a domestic audience as Moscow's international isolation grows with the duration, brutality, and incompetence of its war. (A recent line, representative in its disconnection from reality, is Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova, who as quoted by the Telegraph explained that the West didn't understand George Orwell's 1984 at all. It's not about totalitarianism in any sense. "This is a global fake," Ms Zakharova said. "He wrote about how liberalism would lead humanity into a dead end.”) Effective disinformation works when lies have a bodyguard of truth. Zelenskyy-as-Nazi lacks that.
The Kremlin's presentation of its war against Ukraine.
The Russian advance has been slow and uncertain, "bogged down," in the AP's summary of its progress so far, as Russia shifts to smaller, possibly more achievable goals in the Donbas. Russian Defense Minister Shoigu says that this is all part of the plan, and that what Western observers see as combat incapacity is in fact humanitarian restraint, since Russia has taken extraordinary pains to avoid harm to noncombatants. In any case, all is proceeding according to plan, or so he tells RIA Novosti. "Russian troops, unlike the Armed Forces of Ukraine," RIA Novosti paraphrases, "do not strike at civilian infrastructure where civilians may be. The firing positions and military facilities of the enemy are hit with the help of high-precision weapons, the general stressed."
General Shoigu (in fairness the rank comes with his office, not his service record: the Defense Minister is a costumed civilian, not a professional soldier) is not the only Russian official to indulge improbable insistence. Argumenty i Fakti has an interview with Nikolai Patrushev, Secretary of the Security Council of the Russian Federation, who doubles down on the claim that Russia is fighting Nazis in Ukraine, and that the hidden hand behind those Nazis is that of the Anglo-American financiers, who are manipulating war (that is, Russia's invasion of Ukraine), starvation (that is, Russia's blockage of Ukrainian grain exports), and pestilence (that is, deliberate introduction of engineered pathogens into the wild to goose the profits of the pharmaceutical companies). The Anglo-Americans have been doing this for centuries, Mr. Patrushev explains. The world should hope for the success of Russia's special military operation, he says, but "Probably, Westerners will not take off their rose-colored glasses until the brutalized Ukrainian thugs start to rage on their streets."
Mr. Patrushev dismisses perceptions that Russia's operation is slowing. Instead, it's just thorough. "We are not chasing deadlines. Nazism must either be 100% eradicated, or it will rear its head in a few years, and in an even uglier form." And he's confident of success, and emphasizes the righteousness of Russia's conduct in Ukraine. "All the goals set by the President of Russia will be fulfilled. It cannot be otherwise, since truth, including historical truth, is on our side. Not for nothing that General Skobelev once said that only our country can afford such a luxury as to fight out of a sense of compassion. Compassion, justice, dignity are powerful unifying ideas that we have always put and will put at the forefront."
It seems safe to say that no one really believes any of this. For counterpoint, see the Guardian's account of the Russian way of war in Ukraine. For context, see the Washington Post's primer on war crimes.
Rossiya-1 sets (lower) expectations.
It will be a long war, but one that will end in complete victory, says Newsweek, citing a report by Julia Davis, who's been watching Rossiya-1 so the rest of us don't have to. Television pundit Vladimir Solovyov put like this, speaking to the Ukrainians: "We are telling people, come to your senses. We're telling people, remember who you are. Look who conquered you. Remember your great past. Wake up, stop lying to yourselves." Davis calls the chat on Rossiya-1 "genocidal," and indeed it's a throwback to an early twentieth-century form of panslavism that saw all Slavic peoples as essentially Russians (the farther west they lived, the more wayward they were, and the more in need of being well-advised). "Why are they making up a language," Mr. Solovyov said, "do you need that language that Zelensky is trying to speak? Look at the history that is being made up for you, the religion that is being made up for you. That is why the people are for us. Westerners say, 'they are not greeting you with flowers.' Yes, they are, despite their fear, they are welcoming us and they will welcome us even more when they understand we are never leaving." Mr. Solovyov is seeing flowers no one else can see. We have heard of no flowers being presented to Russian troops, unless you count the sunflower seeds a Russian woman offered invaders to plant on the graves they soon occupy.
A Krewe of Kounterfeit Karens for the Kremlin.
Hyperlocal sites have been marshaled by Russian influence operators to normalize the occupation of Ukrainian villages controlled by Russian forces, CyberScoop reports. They source their story to Detector Media, which says that the effort is being organized over Telegram. "We managed to find 88 newly created Telegram channels of the occupiers," Detector Media writes. "However, their list is growing. The vast majority of such channels were registered a few days after February 24th. A significant part of local channels was created long before the actual military occupation of the cities, and some of those are the ones that the Russians did not manage to occupy. Conventionally, such channels can be divided into two categories:
- "Those that can act as "official" sources of the occupiers. That is, such Telegram channels post on behalf of the occupiers. For example, inform about humanitarian aid or call for reporting on the movement of Ukrainian military equipment;
- "Those that mimic the media's behavior, i.e., publish news about the occupied city/village but are overfilled with propaganda and misinformation."
The content mirrors familiar Russian lines of disinformation:
- "Discreditation of Ukraine and its leadership, including mayors and regional administrations.
- "Russian military victories and demonization of the Ukrainian army.
- "Conspiracy theories about the actions of the "collective West" in Ukraine.
- "Local "denazification": reporting on "nazis" whom the Russians allegedly managed to catch in the occupied settlements and also informing about the destruction of Ukrainian state symbols.
- "Restoration of normal life after eight years of suffering." Much of the information is related to the life of the occupied cities, particularly the schedules of shops or churches and the education of children in school. However, the propagandists present all this under the guise of the "Russian world" victory. Preparations are underway for the May 9th celebrations.
- "New "administrative units" such as the self-proclaimed "DNR" and "LNR". Propagandists try to explain why such a path is beneficial for Ukrainians and generally advertise the "benefits of Russian occupation." For example, they write that Russia will write off debts for utilities.
- "Evacuation. Most readers are urged to evacuate to the previously occupied parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions or the occupied Crimea. Information on evacuation corridors officially agreed with Ukraine is rather an exception.
- "Humanitarian aid from Russia. Propagandists assert that Russian aid is a salvation from the humanitarian crisis that the Ukrainian political leadership must be blamed for."
The evidence of Russian creation and coordination Detector Media cites is circumstantial but convincing. Coordinated inauthenticity at scale.
Coordinated inauthentic behavior is a different matter. While many have seen, as the Record observes, the Fronton botnet as principally a tool for distributed denial-of-service attacks. While it certainly has that capability, it's more remarkable for its ability to create synthetic personae in social media and marshal them in campaigns that push specific lines of disinformation. The Russian FSB security service is believed to have purchased Fronton from a contractor, 0Day Technologies. Researchers at Nisos have studied Fronton and found that its real novelty lies elsewhere, in its ability to push disinformation.
"In March 2020, a hacktivist group called “Digital Revolution” claimed to have hacked a subcontractor to the FSB They claimed the hack occurred in April 2019. They released documents and contracts about a botnet system of Internet of Things (IoT) devices built by a contractor, 0day Technologies. This botnet is known by the codename Fronton (Фронтон). Media outlets went crazy. Headlines called it a tool that could be used to “turn off the Internet in a small country.” Most analyses assumed that the goal of the system was distributed denial of service (DDoS). A day later, another tranche of documents, images, and a video were released, with significantly less fanfare.
"Nisos research focused on that distribution of content. This release noted that DDoS “is only one of the many capabilities of the system.” Nisos analyzed the data and determined that Fronton is a system developed for coordinated inauthentic behavior on a massive scale. This system includes a web-based dashboard known as SANA that enables a user to formulate and deploy trending social media events en masse. The system creates these events that it refers to as Инфоповоды, “newsbreaks,” utilizing the botnet as a geographically distributed transport. SANA provides for the creation of social media persona accounts, including email and phone number provisioning. In addition, the system provides facilities for creating these newsbreaks on a schedule or reactive basis. Two example lists of posting source dictionaries were included in the data. One, involving comments around a squirrel statue in Almaty, Kazakhstan may have affected the reporting on a BBC story. As of April 2022, 0day technologies has changed its domain from 0day[.]ru to 0day[.]llc. An instance of the SANA system appears to be up at https://sana.0day[.]llc . Nisos assesses that this is possibly a testing or demo instance, and is not currently used by the FSB."
The Fronton toolkit enables not merely an array of coordinated posts, but also likes, reposts, and comments. And it provides feedback on the effectiveness of its operations in achieving reach, currency, and amplification, all of which can be used for the further tuning of disinformation campaigns. As the Hacker News points out, it's unclear whether Fronton has been used in active campaigns or whether it remains under development (or in reserve) but the botnet's capabilities are interesting.
Ukrainian military intelligence chief says President Putin survived an assassination attempt.
Major General Kyrylo Budanov, chief of Ukrainian military intelligence, told Ukrainska Pravda that Russia's President survived an assassination attempt. "There was an attempt to assassinate Putin," General Budanov said. "He was even attacked, it is said, by representatives of the Caucasus, not so long ago. This is non-public information. [It was an] Absolutely unsuccessful attempt, but it really happened… It was about 2 months ago. I repeat, this attempt was unsuccessful. There was no publicity about this event, but it took place." No other details have been reported, still less any independent confirmation, but the story has been widely circulated in Western media. The difficulty of confirmation in this case is characteristic of factual claims made under murky, highly politically charged conditions.
Dissent in Russia's war.
It's easy to misread the extent of dissent in any war, and it's particularly easy for media to overestimate it when they're in broad sympathy with that dissent. But, while an alleged assassination attempt might represent wishful thinking or disinformation, and while fires may be accidents misread as arson, there are some instances of dissent that seem incontrovertible. How significant they may prove to be remains unknown.
The highest profile and best attested case involves Boris Bondarev, counselor at the Permanent Mission of the Russian Federation to the United Nations in Geneva. On Monday he announced his resignation from the Foreign Ministry and the civil service because of his unwillingness to be complicit in what he characterized as a war of aggression. His LinkedIn post announcing his resignation is worth quoting in full. As of this morning it read:
"Long overdue, but today I resign from civil service. Enough is enough.
"For twenty years of my diplomatic career I have seen different turns of our foreign policy, but never have I been so ashamed of my country as on February 24 of this year. The aggressive war unleashed by Putin against Ukraine, and in fact against the entire Western world, is not only a crime against the Ukrainian people, but also, perhaps, the most serious crime against the people of Russia, with a bold letter Z crossing out all hopes and prospects for a prosperous free society in our country.
"Those who conceived this war want only one thing - to remain in power forever, live in pompous tasteless palaces, sail on yachts comparable in tonnage and cost to the entire Russian Navy, enjoying unlimited power and complete impunity. To achieve that they are willing to sacrifice as many lives as it takes. Thousands of Russians and Ukrainians have already died just for this.
"I regret to admit that over all these twenty years the level of lies and unprofessionalism in the work of the Foreign Ministry has been increasing all the time. However, in most recent years, this has become simply catastrophic. Instead of unbiased information, impartial analysis and sober forecasting, there are propaganda clichés in the spirit of Soviet newspapers of the 1930s. A system has been built that deceives itself.
"Minister Lavrov is a good illustration of the degradation of this system. In 18 years, he went from a professional and educated intellectual, whom many my colleagues held in such high esteem, to a person who constantly broadcasts conflicting statements and threatens the world (that is, Russia too) with nuclear weapons!
"Today, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is not about diplomacy. It is all about oi, lies and hatred. It serves interests of few, the very few people thus contributing to further isolation and degradation of my country. Russia no longer has allies, and there is no one to blame but its reckless and ill-conceived policy.
"I studied to be a diplomat and have been a diplomat for twenty years. The Ministry has become my home and family. But I simply cannot any longer share in this bloody, witless and absolutely needless ignominy."
The New York Times has confirmed with Mr. Bondarev that the post was indeed his, and was genuine. He elaborated to the times on what he saw as the Foreign Ministry's contribution to the intelligence failures that accompanied Russia's decision to invade Ukraine. “They got Ukraine wrong, they got the West wrong, they basically got everything wrong,” Mr. Bondarev said. “We diplomats of the Foreign Ministry are also at fault for this, for not passing along the information that we should have — for smoothing it out and presenting it as though everything was great.” Mr. Bondarev has, the Washington Post reports, no plans to leave Geneva.
In another case, this one less convincing, CNN reports an interview with a Russian officer (name, rank, and personal details withheld to protect him, CNN says) who resigned his commission rather than continue to serve in Russia's war. Apparently his commanding officer accepted his resignation, which is surprising, if the story is accurate. "He told me there could be a criminal case. That rejection is betrayal. But I stood my ground. He gave me a sheet of paper and a pen," CNN quotes the dissident officer as saying. This report comes amid other, unconfirmed reports of combat refusals within Russian units deployed to Ukraine. It seems unusual, to say the least, that an officer's attempt to resign in an active theater would be treated as anything other than an offense under military law. It would not be so casually received in most armies, let alone in Russia's.
Finally, a larger and more demotic protest, as well-attested as Mr. Bondarev's resignation, has been reported in St. Petersburg, where people attending a weekend concert by the girl group Kis Kis shouted "F*ck the war!" in unison. The Telegraph has an account, with video from the concert. Again, the importance of the incident is difficult to assess, but that it occurred at all is significant, coming as it did in a country not accustomed to protest.
Lincoln Project veterans visit Ukraine with advice on conducting an influence campaign against President Putin.
Mike Madrid and Ron Steslow, co-founders of the anti-Trump Lincoln Project (which they exited as the group became fractious) are talking with Ukrainian officials about propaganda techniques that might work against authoritarians like Russia's President Putin. They're not, Newsweek reports, taking money from Ukraine, but are simply discussing a campaign of mutual interest. Messrs Madrid and Streslow see the central weakness of an authoritarian regime as its dependence on an image of intimidating competence. "The way to beat these guys is to humiliate them, to turn them into a jester, turn them into a clown," they advise, and say it's a mistake to portray an authoritarian leader as demonic. Better to show them as a malign Bozo than as Milton's Satan. (Milton did a bad job on the devil; His Infernal Majesty has been dining out on Paradise Lost's depiction of tragic pride, injured merit, and noble liberation ever since. Don't be taken in.)