At a glance.
- Wartime disinformation out of Russia.
- The future of Russian influence operations in the post-Prigozhin era.
- Russian influence operations aimed at NATO's July summit.
- Stalin's rehabilitation continues in Russia.
- The morally coarsening effect of war, exacerbated by the characteristic disinhibition of social media.
Wartime disinformation out of Russia.
The cyber front in Russia's war has been quiet of late, with few cyberattacks or significant instances of cyberespionage reported over the last several days. But disinformation continues. Recent themes in Russian influence operations (debunked by the Canadian Government's standing fact-checking of Russian claims) have sought to portray Poland as avid to recover territories the Soviet Union annexed to the Ukrainian Republic at the end of the Second World War.
The overarching theme of Russian influence operations, represented in a very long interview TASS conducted with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov, is that Russia is the victim of aggression, with Ukraine's government serving as a cat's paw for the United States, which seeks Russia's reduction to a permanent state of as an impoverished, minor power. (The theme is repeated by Iran's semi-official Mehr News Agency.)
Mr. Lavrov represented Russia at the BRICS (the Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa group) summit in South Africa this week. President Putin was unable to attend because of complications induced by his indictment for war crimes before the International Criminal Court. Instead, he addressed the summit by video conference. The New York Times reports that the war against Ukraine was his main topic. He was specifically concerned to blame grain shortages on Western sanctions, and not on Russia's withdrawal from the Black Sea agreement and its attacks on Ukrainian grain facilities. “Our country has the capacity to replace Ukrainian grain both commercially and as free aid to needy countries, especially as our harvest is expected [to] be perfect this year,” Mr. Putin explained. “Russia is being deliberately obstructed in the supply of grain and fertilizers abroad, and at the same time we are hypocritically blamed for the current crisis in the world market."
There's also some retail disinformation in progress. Ukrinform reports that Russian bot operators are sending residents of Kherson threatening texts over social media warning them of physical harm. The recipients are told they'll be spared if they report on the "Nazis" to the Russians, that is, if they reveal information about Ukrainian forces.
The future of Russian influence operations in the post-Prigozhin era.
Yevgeny Prigozhin was killed in a plane crash Wednesday, and his death is widely believed to have been a Kremlin-ordered assassination. His Internet Research Agency (IRA) had already indicated after the march on Moscow that it was ceasing operations, and its future as an organization is more in doubt now than ever. It seems likely, however, that the template for disinformation and influence the IRA established will see continued use by Russian intelligence services, especially the GRU. The Washington Post quotes an assessment by Gavin Wilde, formerly US National Security Council director for Russia, Baltic, and Caucasus affairs, now a senior fellow with the Carnegie Endowment for Peace: “Prigozhin was for Russian information operations kind of what Kurt Cobain was for grunge music. The guy ushers in a certain era and perfects a certain craft, but now that he’s gone, what’s likely to follow is a saturated market of copycats, and that will probably end up falling far short of the kind of heyday or the prominence of what it once was."
Russian influence operations aimed at NATO's July summit.
Graphika has analyzed Russian influence operations aimed at shaping a narrative around the Atlantic Alliance's July summit in Vilnius. The campaign featured documents the operators claimed to have been stolen from the Lithuanian government, and it exhibited a strong interest in driving a fissure between France and the other members of the Alliance. The content distributed included bogus press releases disseminated by inauthentic personae. Graphika identified two distinct operations in the campaign. The researchers attribute one to Doppelganger, which they describe as "a sprawling campaign that has impersonated media outlets and government agencies since at least May 2022 to disseminate pro-Russia messaging." The other operation is attributed to a familiar group, Secondary Infektion, known since 2014 for using fake personae to stage "falsified and hacked documents online."
Whether the two operations were closely coordinated or simply shared a common strategic objective is unclear. The campaign was complex and extensive, but its results were negligible. "Their content received minimal shares from authentic users, and what online traction they did generate was largely in existing pro-Kremlin communities. Graphika also observed social media users, including influential pro-Kremlin figures, calling out the activity as fake, suggesting the actors often failed in their efforts to deceive online audiences." The Sekondary Infektion material in particular was marked by slovenly linguistic execution. "The posts contained grammatical errors typical of native Russian speakers, such as incorrect use of definite and indefinite articles - a consistent feature of Secondary Infektion activity."
Stalin's rehabilitation continues in Russia.
A Russian Orthodox priest blessed a new monument to Stalin recently erected in Velikie Luki, in the Pskov oblast. Not only is Stalin regaining a place as a revered figure in Russian history, but the Russian Orthodox Church aligns itself more closely with the state. It's also an example of the morally coarsening effects of war--that the greatest author of political mass murder in history (done at least nominally in the service of militant atheism) is now receiving the posthumous blessing of those descended from his victims, as a priest speaks the name of his Lord and enacts the service of Moloch, this defies comment and analysis. But it is characteristic of the culture of national greatness to which Mr. Putin aspires.
The morally coarsening effect of war, exacerbated by the characteristic disinhibition of social media.
Among the victims of Russia's weekend missile strike against the civilian center of Chernihiv was a six-year-old girl, Sophia Holynska. Video of her impromptu memorial may be seen here. A Russian Telegram channel posted a picture (retweeted with horror by @JimmySecUK) of a small, impromptu memorial to her: a photo, flowers, and three stuffed toys. Below the picture is the caption, "Children’s shoes for sale. Never worn.” The caption itself is a riff on a six-word short story attributed (apocryphally) to Ernest Hemingway, so the poster is probably not an uneducated person. By Sunday afternoon the post had attracted almost forty-seven-thousand laughing-face emoji reactions, by an order of magnitude far, far the largest class of reaction.
A 2022 essay in the International Journal of Communication, "Sharing Truths About the Self: Theorizing News Reposting on Social Media," by Jueni Duyen Tran, offers a hypothesis about how social media that would explain why they seem to lend themselves to disinformation, and by extension to the kind of reactions to the senseless death of a child on display in Telegram. People care about truth, and can show good logical manners, but social media represent a genre where truth, where facts, in the ordinary senses of the terms, aren't the important thing. Why do people repost manifest nonsense, or post manifestly vicious reactions, to social media? "If users’ main objective behind reposting news is not to transmit accurate information to their network," Tran asks, "what other purpose does this activity primarily serve?" Well, what do social media news sharing functions offer? "To answer this question, this article explores seven key affordances enabled by Facebook and Twitter’s news sharing functions, namely visibility, scalability, persistence, association, meta-voicing, interactivity, and immediacy. Taken together, I argue that, beyond facilitating the forwarding of information, these affordances also render reposting an effective means for self-presentation."
Thus they're usually not about facts, and not about truth, which is why such disciplines as fact-checking, critical thinking, logic itself, can have such disappointing application there. It's about the kind of person the poster is: not about "the truth," but rather about "their truth." And that's got nothing to do with epistemology.
In any case, that the murder of a child strikes people as laugh-out-loud funny, and that they wouldn't be too ashamed of that reaction to refrain from posting it, is shocking. May Sophia be granted peace, her family consolation, and her mockers forgiveness.