At a glance.
- Domestic Russian influence operations.
- Ukrainian police roll up another bot farm working in support of Russian influence operations.
- Distinctions: cranks, charlatans, B.S. artists, and propagandists.
Domestic Russian influence operations.
The official narratives around the Wagner Group's mutinous march on Moscow are shifting, generally in an adverse direction for the Wagnerites. The Telegraph reports that shortly after President Putin declared that the Wagner Group's boss had declined an offer to regularize his mercenary forces (which, the President said, in any case lacked legal standing) photos of Mr. Prigozhin wearing nothing more than some unfashionable underthings were leaked online. The intent was evidently to expose the gentleman to derision (the photos aren't a good look for a proper warlord, more your Uncle Louie than Ming the Merciless.) The photographs of Mr. Prigozhin are indeed unflattering, especially if contrasted with shots of President Putin splashing shirtless through a Siberian stream, fishing for taimen or lenok.
There may be some counter-influence in the offing. It appears that the blackout of Mr. Prigozhin's own media properties was both temporary and exaggerated. One of those properties, the notorious troll farm doing business as the Internet Research Agency, is among those that have remained in business, earlier reports to the contrary.
Control of a narrative involves censorship as well as positive propaganda. A study by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace concludes that sanctions have rendered Western technology increasingly inaccessible to Russia's government, and that this is placing Moscow's domestic surveillance apparatus, SORM, under stress. SORM rides atop Russia's ISPs and telcos, and those sectors are being hit hard by sanctions levied in response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine. "Ultimately, the FSB-led surveillance state envisioned by the Kremlin prior to the Ukraine war—and by the KGB in its Cold War heyday—is now beset by a potentially crippling web of dependencies," the report concludes. "Much about the program remains shrouded in secrecy. However, available insights suggest that SORM’s fate is largely anchored to that of the Russian tech sector." The Record points out one irony of the situation: about half of Russia's mobile infrastructure had been furnished by Nokia and Ericsson. Both companies have said they won't sell further systems to Russia, and their participation in the sanctions has been supported by Finland's (Nokia's home) and Sweden's (where Ericsson is based) decision to join NATO. Those decisions were given impetus by Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
Ukrainian police roll up another bot farm working in support of Russian influence operations.
Ukrainian police announced this week that they've broken up a criminal operation working from Ukrainian cities (most of the activity was in Vinnytsia, Zaporizhzhia and Lviv) that amplified Russian propaganda directed against Ukrainian popular opinion. The group is also said to have engaged in data theft and other cybercriminal activities. The police statement said, "Criminal proceedings have been opened under Art. 361 (Unauthorized interference in the work of information (automated), electronic communication, information and communication systems, electronic communication networks), Art. 361-2 (Unauthorized sale or distribution of information with limited access stored in electronic computing machines (computers), automated systems, computer networks or on media of such information), Art. 190 (Fraud), Art. 259 (Knowingly false notification of a threat to the safety of citizens, destruction or damage to property) of the Criminal Code of Ukraine. Investigations are ongoing."
Distinctions: cranks, charlatans, B.S. artists, and propagandists.
Dis- or misinformation can be disseminated for a variety of reasons, and by a range of actors. There are four general styles that distinguish people who push patently false or solidly implausible narratives:
- Cranks. The crank believes what the crank is saying. The crank may be wildly mistaken, but the crank is sincere. Flat-earthers are generally cranks. Bigots are often cranks. Devotees of bizarre medical treatments are usually cranks. Crankishness has been on unpleasant display recently in Robert F. Kennedy Jr.'s reported remarks about the possible engineering of COVID-19. The New York Post quotes the Democratic dark-horse presidential candidate as saying, “COVID-19. There is an argument that it is ethnically targeted. COVID-19 attacks certain races disproportionately. COVID-19 is targeted to attack Caucasians and black people. The people who are most immune are Ashkenazi Jews and Chinese. We don’t know whether it was deliberately targeted or not but there are papers out there that show the racial or ethnic differential and impact.” Mr. Kennedy disputed the widespread interpretation of his remarks as mistaken. We quote his tweet in full: "The @nypost story is mistaken. I have never, ever suggested that the COVID-19 virus was targeted to spare Jews. I accurately pointed out — during an off-the-record conversation — that the U.S. and other governments are developing ethnically targeted bioweapons and that a 2021 study of the COVID-19 virus shows that COVID-19 appears to disproportionately affect certain races since the furin cleave docking site is most compatible with Blacks and Caucasians and least compatible with ethnic Chinese, Finns, and Ashkenazi Jews. In that sense, it serves as a kind of proof of concept for ethnically targeted bioweapons. I do not believe and never implied that the ethnic effect was deliberately engineered. That study is here: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32664879/." Most media outlets, including the New York Times and the Washington Post, still find the remarks off, to say the least. As much as Mr. Kennedy might wish to spin them as reasoned consideration of a hypothetical, even in that form the comments are probably best interpreted as crank utterances.
- Charlatans. The charlatan doesn't believe, for a moment, what the charlatan is saying. The proverbial charlatanic figure in American folklore is the snake-oil salesman. The charlatan's impostures are intended to make the charlatan money.
- B.S. artists. The B.S. artist has no particular allegiance to the truth, one way or the other, neither pro nor con, not even interested in the truth as a liar might be. The B.S. artist simply rattles on, not even caring much about the effect the B.S. has on its audience.
- Propagandists. The propagandists know exactly whom they're serving: the state, or the cause. Whatever serves the state or advances the cause, that's what the propagandist will say, whether the narrative they push is true, false, or undetermined. For the propagandist, the effect on the audience is everything.