Kremlin Watch Briefing: Mark Zuckerberg’s congressional testimony

Weekly monitor of pro-Kremlin disinformation effort in Europe. We follow best European analysts, best counter-measures and trends.

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We have recently begun gathering information about investigations into the Kremlin’s influence operations conducted by national parliaments. Thus far, we are aware of cases in the United States, United Kingdom, and Singapore. If you have information about similar initiatives, we would love to hear from you! The European Values Think-Tank enthusiastically supports investigative efforts by national legislative bodies.

Topics of the Week

How do Estonian intelligence service assess the threat the Kremlin poses to Estonian national security?

Read about Mark Zuckerberg’s congressional testimony.

New US sanctions are hitting Russia hard, sending the stock market tumbling and targeting the wealth and businesses of several oligarchs close to Putin.

If you want to know what the Kremlin thinks of the situation Syria, read what its representatives say about it.

Good Old Soviet Joke

Question to Radio Armenia: “Is it possible to build Communism in a random capitalist country like, say, the Netherlands?”

Answer: “Of course it’s possible, but what have the Netherlands ever done to you?”

Policy & Research News

Syrian airstrikes: disinformation sparks fly

US, British and French airstrikes on target locations in Damascus on Saturday sparked an immediate surge in Russian disinformation activity online. According to Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White, “there has been a 2,000 percent increase in Russian trolls in the past 24 hours.”

While the world waits to find out what will happen next, the battle for the information space has already begun. Kremlin officials have repeatedly asserted that the attack had nothing to do with chemical weapons. According to the New York Times, General Sergei F. Rudskoi stated in a briefing that the attack was actually “a reaction to the successes of the Syrian armed forces in the struggle to liberate their territory from international terrorism.”

Kremlin-loyal media sources reported that the attack was actually an attempt to impede inspectors from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) who were scheduled to assess the nature of the previous week’s chemical weapons attacks. Other suspicious narratives are being spread in the Russian information space, including the story that Syrian missile defense systems shot downdozens of tomahawk missiles, which contradicts the Pentagon’s assertion that no missiles were shot down and none malfunctioned.

The Kremlin’s disinformation machine in Syria

After innumerable examples of the Kremlin’s use of information operations, categorized by Ben Nimmo as 4 Ds: dismiss, distort, distract and dismay, should we really be surprised that the same arsenal of tools has been deployed to cover the tragic events in Syria after another chemical weapons attack against civilians? Of course not. In an article for Snopes, experts including Scott Lucas and Pat Hilsman describe how the Russian Federation prepared to launch disinformation operations even before its military presence in Syria and how trolls supportive of Syrian dictator Bashar al Assad operate online.

GCHQ boss warns against cyber-threats from Russia

Jeremy Fleming, head of the British Government Communication Headquarters, spoke at the CyberUK conference in Manchester last week. Although the fight against Da’esh propaganda was the main topic, he also touched upon the Kremlin’s cyber-attacks on European countries. According to Fleming, the Kremlin is “blurring the boundaries between criminal and state activity.” He highlighted that the Russian Federation is not acting in accordance with international norms and, as examples, mentioned the NotPetya attack against Ukrainian financial, energy and government sectors, and also “industrial scale disinformation to sway public opinion”.

Estonian internal security and Russia in 2017

The 2017 annual review of the Estonian Internal Security Service, which is among the special services also functioning as an investigative agency and the rights of the police, states that while Estonians are mostly concerned by a possible terror act, the greatest problem in ensuring national security is still the threat to constitutional order that arises from the Kremlin’s divisive policies. The review studies the security threats arising from the Kremlin’s operations using three examples.

The first is manipulation of the young. In accordance with Lavrov’s statement in 2017, Moscow is paying increasing attention to establishing a network of sympathetic (and Russian-speaking) youth outside Russia and, in fact, began to lay the groundwork years ago. Several large events were organized for compatriot youth that Estonian youngsters participated in as well. Besides the fact that these events are highly appealing for youth, given that accommodation and travel expenses typically covered alongside free entertainment, the danger lies in the fact that “As well as spreading Russia’s world ideology and the Russian official interpretation of history, rebellious and easily manipulated people are sought at youth events to be recruited and exploited later. (…) The Russian interpretation of World War II (including cultivating the myth of the Red Army as liberators) and the justification and glorification of Russian foreign policy is often at the core of the influence activities conducted during these events.”Moscow is also seeking to prevent Russian-speaking youth from assimilating into Estonian society, its sphere of values, and culture so that they can be better targeted for the Kremlin’s divisive policies. Thus, Russian authorities collect personal data on participants and on people close to them, aiming to use them as a tool for reaching foreign policy goals while appearing to support the ambitions and success of these youngsters.

The second tool to divide societies is to create public tension over memorials, paying consistent and increasing attention to history as propaganda. This approach was visible around the 9th of May campaigns distributing ribbons of the Cross of St George and the organization of “Immortal Regiment” marches and various road trips sporting provocative symbols outside Russia.

Thirdly Moscow makes tremendous efforts to legitimize the annexation of Crimea, primarily by using “people’s diplomacy”. To this end, a conference titled “Crimea in the Modern International Context: The Friends of Crimea Forum” was held in Yalta, resulting in the foundation of the international Association of Friends of Crimea. Russian TV channels continued to target Estonia in 2017. False statements and misinformation were knowingly presented in the guise of factual reports. The propaganda machine continuously associated Estonia with Nazism and xenophobia for depicting differences and causing enmity between different communities in the country.

US Developments

Data privacy regulations and Zuckerberg’s congressional hearing

Mark Zuckerberg testified in his first senate congressional hearings last week. The Facebook CEO was questioned by dozens of US Senators (many of whom demonstrated a concerning lack of knowledge about the technical issues in question) and displayed a contrite shift in tone in regard to Facebook’s social responsibilities. Zuckerberg acknowledged that “we didn’t do enough to prevent these tools from being used for harm as well,” adding, “and that goes for fake news, foreign interference in elections and hate speech, as well as developers and data privacy.”

Zuckerberg apologized for not doing enough to counteract disinformation and hate speech. He called Facebook’s inability to identify Russian disinformation efforts one of his “biggest regrets,” stating that addressing this problem is a major priority for him and Facebook in 2018. In his testimony, the CEO mentioned several strategies that Facebook is already implementing to counter disinformation influence, including screening advertisers who post political or issue ads. Zuckerberg lamented that new security measures will “significantly impact our profitability going forward,” but added that “protecting our community is more important than maximizing our profits.” Whether these comments will be reflected in concrete policy shifts at Facebook remains to be seen.

The hearing also touched upon Facebook’s unfettered access to user data, a fundamental aspect of the company’s business model. Following revelations that Cambridge Analytica collected the data of millions of Facebook users without their knowledge, many lawmakers are calling for tougher regulations on data privacy.

During Zuckerberg’s testimony, Steve Huffman, CEO of the discussion forum company Reddit, announced the closing of 944 accounts linked to the Russian Internet Research Agency. Huffman stated that his company is cooperating with Congress on investigating this matter.

Did Zuckerberg tell us what we wanted to know?

In an article for Wired, Molly McKew strongly criticizes the way Zuckerberg was questioned during his hearings, summarizing the five most problematic topics related to Russia he was not asked about or did not answer to. The questions focused on ads and promoted content from Russian entities, but these were far from the primary means of collecting information, promoting narratives and distributing content. The main tool, fake accounts posting “native” content and building relationships with real users, went unscrutinized. Other overlooked issues were data sharing with Russia (by storing data in Russian servers as required by the country) and third-party apps scraping data. And the biggest missed opportunity was not asking whether Facebook has preserved all of the data and content connected to Russian information operations and would make it available to researchers and intelligence agencies for evaluation. The involvement of Facebook employees in “black PR” and coercive psychological operations remained untouched too, as did the storage of “custom audiences” and Russian datasets from 2016 that could be compared to Cambridge Analytica and or Trump campaign data. Overall, Facebook’s narrative of “users controlling their data” is not convincing, and the fact that the hearings did not focus on the real threat posed by Russian hostile activities is highly worrisome.

New US sanctions: impacts and responses

Major Russian companies have already taken significant hits on the Russian stock exchange and Moscow is maneuvering to respond to new US sanctions targeting oligarchs close to Putin. Investors dropped Russian stocks and bonds following the sanctions, producing one of the worst days for the Russian stock market since the 2014 annexation of Crimea. Still, while oil prices remain relatively high, the sanctions are not expected to take a major toll on Russia’s monolithic energy-based economy. Among the companies hit hardest by these sanctions is the aluminum producer RUSAL, headed by Oleg Deripaska, who has ties to Paul Manafort. Its shares fell by more than 20 percent.

According to the New York Times, the sanctions may also impact Russians in London after the US warned British banks that they may face penalties if they continue dealings with any of the 24 Russians included in the sanctions.

The sanctions have created uncertainty in Russia about its business dealings with the West. There is a strong possibility that this was only the first of a series of powerful blows from the US, although Trump has now backtracked on new sanctions, overruling his advisers. The Kremlin is thus taking precautions and prepare for the future. Some responses include establishing domestic tax havens, putting more of the economy under state control, and encouraging wealthy Russians to bring their money home.

There is uncertainty about the retaliatory measures Moscow will take in response to these sanctions. Although it has no significant economic leverage over the US, experts foresee the possibility for retaliatory action in the Syrian or Ukrainian conflicts or perhaps against US firms that have a strong physical presence in Russia, such as Boeing or Microsoft.

The Kremlin’s Current Narrative

Syria: ground for an awe-inspiring military performance

The Syrian war is the most dramatic military crisis of our times: a country left in ruins, millions of refugees, unthinkable crimes against humanity. The natural and humane reaction, one would think, is ‘how do we stop this bloodletting and restore peace to start rebuilding the country?’. But we already know that humanitarian concerns are beyond the interest of the Russian military leadership.

“Before our eyes, Syria is turning into a stage on which a grand military performance will be played. Russian air defense systems will beat off a mass attack of American cruise missiles. The reputation of Russian weaponry is at stake.” This is a statement for Vzglyad provided by a general in the Russian Ministry of Defense“Military staff around the world will analyze this attack for a long time, this will be an important lesson […] We can say that the Soviet experts have prepared for this kind of battle 60 years ago. Soviet and Russian air defense systems are the best in the world but they have never had a real chance to prove this in battle. So this is time for a final test not only for Russian and Syrian soldiers but for the entire Russian air defense school.”

Syria, just like Donbas, is simply a huge military testing ground for Russians. There is no mention of the civilians, of the war-torn state, of the endless suffering of millions. The only thing Russia really cares about is showing off its military capabilities in full grandeur and affirming its status as a military superpower. Keep that in mind the next time you hear Russian humanitarian declarations.

Kremlin Watch Reading Suggestion

The Future of Political Warfare:

Russia, the West, and the coming age of Global Digital Competition

In a recent study for the Brookings Institution, Alina Polyakova and Spencer P. Boyer review a number of tactics that the Kremlin has deployed in its political war against the West. It also highlights future shortcomings and lays out concrete steps which Western governments and the private sector should implement in order to mitigate the future effects of malicious foreign political warfare. Specifically, the authors identify the emerging threats posed by the evolution of new technologies intersecting with political warfare and influence campaigns. The effects of some of these emerging threats have already been witnessed, albeit on a smaller scale. These emerging threats are: sophisticated Artificial Intelligence (AI) able to mimic human behaviour used to create bots and fake accounts, thereby making detection harder; the accumulation of private data collected on social media platforms used in malicious ways, as the recent revelations about Cambridge Analytica have illustrated; the possibility of using ‘deep fakes’, technologies fabricating realistic video and audio clips of anyone; and cyberattacks targeting critical infrastructure, as Russia has been doing in Ukraine since 2014.

To counter this, the study suggests several steps: increase information sharingbetween Western governments and the private sector; strengthen information security by reviewing and strengthening vulnerable systems (tech and social media companies should implement ways of detecting and removing fake and automated accounts and prevent malicious actors from buying targeted ads); invest in researchof how technological advances will affect our societies; and develop AI-driven detection techniques to counter malicious uses of AI. Western governments also need to develop a deterrence strategy against foreign political warfare.

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