Kremlin Watch Briefing: RT’s editorial strategy and a list of regular visitors

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


Russian influence and the elections in Austria, Hungary, Czech Republic

Jakub Janda, Head of the Kremlin Watch Program, co-authored a study focusing on the influence of the Kremlin on elections in the Czech Republic, Austria and Hungary. According to the final report published by the Political Capital Institute, the main difference between the West and the East when it comes to election meddling is the regionally distinct modus operandi. The Kremlin has strategic goals in each country’s election, but the Czech Republic is expected to be the most intense battleground for Russian meddling efforts. However, this mostly applies for the presidential elections next year, not parliamentary elections taking place this week.

RT: A low-grade platform for ‘useful idiots’

“We should not abide ‘useful idiots’ who legitimize RT by appearing on its shows and newscasts”, says Monika Richter, analyst of our Kremlin Watch Program, in an article published by The Atlantic Council. Often, well-known media and journalism personalities help RT blur and thereby inadvertently boost its credibility as a legitimate news source. For more details about RT’s editorial strategy and evidence of impact, read Monika Richter’s full report: “The Kremlin’s Platform for ‘Useful Idiots’ in the West.”

Topics of the Week

US lawmakers are getting serious about cracking down on tech companies that enable the spread of disinformation. They are not backing down on plans to legislate regulation of these companies, despite predictable resistance. These efforts should be unequivocally supported, and should likewise be encouraged in European capitals as a key deterrence step against hostile foreign influence.

In the previous issue, we highlighted the importance of naming and shaming those who regularly appear in Russian media. Because we think it is important to set the agenda for change, we published a report on RT “The Kremlin’s Platform for ‘Useful Idiots’ in the West: An Overview of RT’s Editorial Strategy and Evidence of Impact” that addresses (among other things) the problem of legitimization by Western voices.

The winner of the Czech parliamentary elections, Andrej Babiš, has no clear Russia policy and often changes his viewswrites Jakub Janda in New Eastern Europe. If Zeman were to win the presidential re-election in January 2018, Babiš could align with him, tolerating his pro-Putin narrative. Furthermore, Babiš’s approach (centralised leadership and business-oriented, pragmatic policies) could lead the Czech Republic to become a target of strong attempts by the Kremlin and the business interests around him to extend economic influence. Babiš has already called for lifting Western sanctions against Russia. However, it is also possible that Babiš could be swayed by the pro-Atlantic and anti-Kremlin stances of his own defence minister and leading foreign policy figure within his party, Martin Stropnický.

Good Old Soviet Joke

This is Armenian Radio; our listeners asked us: “Why have Solzhenitsyn, Brodsky, Bukovsky, and other dissidents been exiled from the country?” We’re answering: “Don’t you know that the best products are always selected for export?”

US Developments

Tech giants prepare to face Congress

The story of Facebook’s, Twitter’s, and Google’s public reckoning continues. All three companies have admitted that Russian-linked entities exploited their sites to skew the US election. To recap:

Lawmakers have become more vocal in their condemnation of these activities and the companies’ complicity in the subversion of democracy: Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) did not mince words when he said, “What should alarm the American people is the brazen exploitation and distortion of popular opinion by a hostile foreign power amounting really to an attack on our democracy”.

In a stark juxtaposition, President Trump continued tweeting his outraged denials and criticism of the established media: “Keep hearing about “tiny” amount of money spent on Facebook ads. What about the billions of dollars of Fake News on CNN, ABC, NBC & CBS?”

Last week, a bipartisan bid, The Honest Ads Act, was introduced in the Senate, “aimed at preventing foreign influence on elections by subjecting political ads sold online to the same rules and transparency that applies to TV and radio.” Social media companies have tried to avoid such regulation for years, and it appears that they are finally getting cornered. The hearings will be held Nov. 1 and are certain to shed light on congressional goals to tackle the problem.

US warns about possible cyber-attacks on infrastructure

The Department of Homeland Security issued a rare public warning that cyber-attacks may grow more serious and threaten infrastructure, with hackers allegedly targeting energy and industrial firms. These activities have been monitored for several months and are described as “very aggressive”. Robert Lee, CEO of the cyber-security firm Dragos, has stated that the report “appears to describe hackers working for the Russian government”, but declined to elaborate further. Other parties being monitored are affiliated with China, Iran and North Korea.

The Kremlin’s Current Narrative

Shamed RT strikes back and makes us famous

In the previous issue, we highlighted the importance of naming and shaming those who regularly appear in Russian media. Because we think it is important to set the agenda for change, we published a report on RT “The Kremlin’s Platform for ‘Useful Idiots’ in the West: An Overview of RT’s Editorial Strategy and Evidence of Impact”, that addresses (among other things) the problem of legitimization by Western voices. The Report is accompanied with an appendix document, the RT Guest List, the purpose of which is not to assess the merit of individual appearances, but rather illustrate the scope of the problem.

With respect to this matter, the essence of our argument is this: appearing on RT is not harmless; it enables and legitimates RT’s subversive agenda. RT is not a neutral platform where one can present a given message on one’s own terms. The opposite is true: RT operates on a mandate that is fundamentally hostile to Western liberal democratic interests, and any content it airs, regardless of the source, is calibrated to advance that agenda. It is therefore impossible to appear on RT without being ultimately complicit in its efforts to undermine Western democracy and pollute the information space.

RT reacted immediately and hysterically, both in an article and feature video. The network recruited the help of a British environmental activist and social justice campaigner, George Barda, who called the report “disappointing” and “a piece of propaganda.” Is George on the list? RT furthermore employed classic deflection tactics, fixating on minor editorial errors in the list to suggest its compilation was sloppy, and hyperbolized the claims of the report itself, refusing to engage with any of the arguments and instead simplifying them to allow for easy, lowbrow rebuttal. We extend our gratitude to RT for perfectly affirming every point made in our report!

US meddling in Russian elections?

A top Russian senator expects that the US will exert ‘unprecedented pressure’ to influence Russian presidential polls. “The United States recognizes elections as fair and democratic only when they are won by pro-western candidates,” wrote Senator Konstantin Kosachev on his Facebook page, in response to a statement by US Chief Envoy Nikki Haley, in which she accused the Russian government of meddling in US politics and those around the world.

Kosachev, The Chair of Russia’s Foreign Affairs Committee, expects that the US will seek to influence the country’s presidential election next year. “Judging by the increasing demagogy about alleged Russian interference [in US polls], they have already started their ‘artillery raid’ ahead of the Russian presidential elections. It is likely that the scale of pressure there will be unprecedented.”

However, we expect that Russia will actually meddle in the Russian election, and that the scale of pressure will be unprecedented judging by the increasing demagogy in the Russian media and also based on past experiences.

‘Alternative’ freedom of speech

Facebook, the world’s top social media platform, is seeking to hire hundreds of employees with US national security clearance licenses. As Bloomberg reports: “Workers with such [national security] clearances can access information classified by the US government […] so that they can support company’s attempt to search more proactively for questionable social media campaigns ahead of elections.”

Sound useful? Not to Russian ears! According to RT, this is a sinister plan as the people who share the same worldview as US intelligence agencies will have a direct bearing on what millions of consumers on Facebook are permitted to access. The infernal paradox, according to RT, is that genuinely alternative, critical news sources are now at risk of being censored by internet companies working in league with nefarious US government intelligence.

I think we are fine with that. We do not really enjoy ‘alternative’ news sources or ‘alternative’ freedom of speech. We prefer objectivity and freedom. Thank you. Full stop.

Policy & Research News

The Kremlin hasn’t forgotten its diaspora in Germany

The lack of an intense, visible disinformation campaign prior to the German parliamentary elections surprised many researchers who were preparing to face an information attack from the Kremlin. Most experts now believe that the pro-Kremlin AfD had little chance to win and that is was therefore not worthwhile for the Kremlin to risk further deterioration of German-Russian relations. Maria Snegovaya offers a different view for The American Interest. She points out a more subtle way that the Kremlin helped the AfD: by targeting Russian diaspora in Germany. While the AfD prepared a Russian-language version of its strategy and produced Russian-language ads, it was also highly promoted by Russian state media and Russian social media platforms. Ultimately, the results obtained by the AfD were above average in districts highly populated by Russian Germans.

Awareness about cooperation with the West is key to fighting propaganda

Georgia Today published an interview with Shota Gvineria, the Deputy Secretary of the National Security Council of Georgia, in which he commented on the Russian effort to disrupt Georgian relations with the EU and NATO. “The most damaging anti-western propaganda is aimed at strengthening nihilistic sentiments among our citizens. The only effective way to deter soft-power is to provide a constant update of Georgia’s progress on its path to European and Euro-Atlantic integration”, stated Mr Gvineria. He believes that the key to success in fighting Russian soft power is to take a concrete and strong position and keep civic awareness at a maximum.

The Baltic experience

Deutsche Welle reports on the situation of the Baltic countries, from the Kremlin’s influence operations on their territories to the countermeasures they have enacted. This region is one of the most experienced in Europe with respect to the Russian disinformation and subversion threat and was warning about the Kremlin’s intentions many months before the rest of Europe realized what was happening. The Baltic states’ longstanding historical experiences with Russia have rendered their citizens more resilient towards such influence operations. As we pointed out in our study summarizing the countermeasures adopted by the EU28, these countries qualify as full-scale defenders against the threat, and the rest of Europe has a lot to learn from them.

Russia ramps up media and military influence in the Balkans

The Balkans have been a target of Russian interest for years. Due to the region’s geographical proximity, the Russians are trying to expand their sphere of influence there by buying various media platforms that spread disinformation or by supporting pro-Kremlin politicians. “The information space in the Balkans has one narrative – and that’s Russia”, writes Kaitlin Lavinder in her article for The Cipher Brief.

The aim is to keep the Balkan states away from NATO and to encourage their distrust of the West in a broader sense. Now, Russia is apparently trying to “create a military alliance in the region, it has to be a buffer zone against NATO enlargement”.

Kremlin Watch Reading Suggestion

Co-opting discontent: Russian propaganda in the Bulgarian media

This week, our reading suggestion focuses on Bulgaria, specifically on the rampant increase in anti-liberal propaganda which the country has witnessed in recent years. Even though the case of Bulgaria might be somewhat unique, it sure is not isolated, and the local narratives are very much in line with the pro-Kremlin narratives in other countries. The article, based on a study by the Human and Social Studies Foundation, not only presents startling data about the rising popularity of anti-liberal and pro-Russian sentiments in Bulgarian media but also offers a semantic, frequency and content analysis of the phenomenon.

To illustrate the scale of this issue, here are some numbers: between 2013 and 2016, the number of Bulgarian-language publications praising Russia for one thing or another increased between 42 and 144 times. Publications with anti-US, anti-NATO and anti-EU views or attacking the civil society were also on the rise. However, regarding the role of the Kremlin, the authors conclude that the introduction of anti-liberal propaganda discourse was not directly inspired by the Kremlin; rather it was inspired by local stakeholders (mainly populist politicians), and Russian interferences can be detected at a later stage of the phenomenon. Read the article if you want to know more.

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