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Struggle against fake information about events in Ukraine
Updated: 5 min 52 sec ago

Google pulls Russia’s RT network from Premium YouTube Ad Program – Bloomberg

Wed, 10/04/2017 - 12:28

By UNIAN

Google recently removed Russia Today from a package of premium YouTube video inventory that the company sells to advertisers, a spokeswoman said on Tuesday, according to Bloomberg.

The decision comes amid a Congressional investigation into the ways Russian actors used digital platforms to influence the U.S. election, Bloomberg reports.

Google has been called to testify to both the Senate and House Intelligence Committees, along with Facebook and Twitter.

YouTube is a focus of the inquiries, and Congressional investigators have eyed the role of Russia Today, or RT, and other networks that U.S. intelligence agencies have identified as close to the Russian government.

Previously, Google had packed the channel – which has more than two million subscribers on YouTube – as part of its premium inventory of popular channels for marketers, called Google Preferred. The Google spokeswoman said that after a recent update the channel was removed.

By UNIAN

Categories: World News

Kremlin Watch Briefing: October 3, 2017

Tue, 10/03/2017 - 16:01
Topics of the Week German elections
  • Germany passed the election test and managed to defend the democratic process, mainly thanks to a widespread awareness campaign.
  • The Social Democrats, supporters of Putin’s foreign policy, failed. The coalition negotiations will have a huge impact on Germany’s stance on Russia. In the likely case that the SPD does not become part of the coalition, Angela Merkel will have more room to manoeuvre in order to make Berlin the leading force pushing back against Russia’s attempted subversion of European democracies.
  • SPD’s position will also impact the Kremlin’s short-term project in Germany, Nord Stream 2. SPD is a key proponent of the project and without SPD in the coalition, Merkel could stop it.
Referendum in Catalonia
  • The tumultuous poll in Catalonia left more than 800 injured and pretty much everybody with mixed emotions which offers a perfect opportunity for Russia. Russia has no particular interest in Catalonian independence but Russian media were actively promoting the narrative about Spanish authoritarianism and Russian hackers helped the organizers keep their websites up. Russian interest lies in shifting the narrative around Crimea, keeping the EU busy with other topics than Russian aggression, and mainly in dividing Europe as well as undermining Europe’s democracy and institutions.
Social Media
  • Even though we still don’t know the scope of final impact, there is little doubt that social media provide a platform that can be easily abused to spread disinformation and hate, especially if their owners are not held accountable.
  • Democratic governments should provide clear and transparent guidelines for editorial and take-down practices of social media platforms and ensure that they are transparent and in line with freedom of speech principles.
  • Social media should continue partnering with journalists and fact checkers in order to make their fight against disinformation more effective and financially support media literacy education, especially in the regions where the media market does not have an established tradition.
News of the Week German elections and the winner is…

Autumn has begun and Russian media and bots have been busy working on a few campaigns. The long-awaited German elections resulted with a weakened Angela Merkel and a shockingly strong AfD, which surged from zero to 91 seats in a chamber of 631 lawmakers. Our Jakub Janda writes for the Observer that this is probably still the worst possible result for the Kremlin and also summarizes the main stances of German political parties towards Russia.

Russia has played a game of nerves. Everybody expected some kind of meddling and the German media seemed to be even slightly disappointed that Russia did not attempt to launch any cyber-attacks in Germany. Is it possible that the Kremlin has decided to rethink its approach? We doubt it. The smart German defence was to never stop talking about it. The whole country was watching; even the readers of  Bild were aware of the threat.

However, Russia has been gaining ground slowly and systematically. With its gain of 13%, the AfD might be a temporary phenomenon succeeding to channel frustration with Merkel and benefitting from anti-establishment sentiment. But there is something unique about Germany – namely, its Russian emigrant community that came out heavily in support of the AfD. Millions of German voters were reached by pro-Kremlin media that apparently enjoy more trust than mainstream German channels.  Moreover, the game is far from over. A senior German intelligence official, Burkhard Even, has warned that foreign powers, including Russia, could try to shape the outcome of talks by German parties to form a governing coalition. To be continued…

German voters more resilient against Twitter bots and disinformation

Scientists from Oxford University who launched the Computational Propaganda Project in 2012 tracked bot activity and the spread of disinformation on Twitter prior to the general elections in Germany. According to their report, a disproportionately large portion of Twitter activity has been dedicated to support the far-right Alternative für Deutschland party compared to their actual share of votes. However, generally the impact of bots was minor, and German social media users shared one link to disinformation for four links to professional news sources. Overall, the consumption of news seems to be more professional in Germany than in the United States or the United Kingdom, but less so than in France.

The EEAS East STRATCOM task force summarized on its new website what topics dominated the disinformation scene in the German media space and what Germany did to prevent any interference, including strengthening its cyber-security, cooperation with fact-checkers, and legislative take on hate speech on social media.

Good Old Soviet Joke

Joke: A frightened man came to the KGB “My talking parrot disappeared.”

“This is not our case. Go to the criminal police.”

“Excuse me. Of course I know that I have to go to them. I am here just to tell you officially that I disagree with that parrot.”

US Developments Ramping up investigations into the role of social media

Federal investigators are further probing the role of social media in spreading false information during the 2016 presidential campaign, as incoming reports allege that Russian disinformation efforts are ongoing. Earlier this month, Facebook gave a detailed Senate briefing about how Russian actors had used the site, including examples of political ads tied to the St Petersburg troll factory. On September 28, the Senate Intelligence Committee interviewed representatives from Twitter about “whether false information spread by Russian accounts made it into real news stories aimed at torpedoing [Clinton’s] candidacy, and whether the social media company took any steps to stem the fake news.” In addition, investigators are inquiring whether Twitterbots were utilized to boost the Google ranking of fake news stories. So far, Twitter has maintained a hands-off approach with respect to the mitigation of fake information on its site, justifying this on grounds of ‘encouraging the free exchange of ideas and information’.

On November 1, Google, Twitter and Facebook are invited to testify publicly about Russia’s efforts to exploit digital and social media platforms to influence the election. Meanwhile, an article in Axios describes how Big Tech is preparing for the inevitable backlash vis-à-vis the disinformation threat. Stay tuned for updates…

Russia’s disinformation campaign operates according to different tactics in each target country. In the US, these include the following:

  1. Creating and publishing fake news stories;
  2. Using bots to amplify disinformation and civic division (e.g., the controversy surrounding the NFL protests);
  3. Using false identities (e.g., the impersonation of the California-based organization, United Muslims of America, by Russian operatives to spread divisive, fabricated content);
  4. Using advertisements to build audiences;
  5. Capitalizing on existing grievances and political rifts (e.g., Black Lives Matter)
Poll: the public supports investigating Russia’s interference

A bipartisan Fox News poll of US voters found that the majority support continuation of the Mueller probe and, by a considerable margin, believe that the Kremlin sought to aid Donald Trump’s election. Specifically, 69% of voters say that it is at least ‘somewhat important’ to continue looking into Russian meddling, while only 29% believe it is ‘not at all important’. With respect to potential coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia, 67% of voters say continued investigation is important while only 31% say it is not. The full poll results are available here.

Russian backlash

Following Facebook’s announcement that it would give Congress the details of 3,000 advertisements bought by a Russian agency to sway the US election, Russia threatened to ban the company from the country during its upcoming 2018 election.

The grounds for the implied ban is Facebook’s noncompliance with a law requiring websites that store personal data of Russian citizens to do so on Russian servers. Meanwhile, an article in Newsweek details how activists in Russia’s online sphere are using memes against Putin’s social media censorship.

The Kremlin’s Current Narrative Referendum in Catalonia: The Crimean spring has moved to the Pyrenees… Not.

Despite Dmytry Peskov’s statements that the Catalonian referendum is an internal Spanish matter, Russia would not want to miss a chance to bring its alternative point of view on the Catalonian referendum or extend a helping hacking hand to the referendum organizers either. Spanish media have been on high alert. El País blatantly stated that Russian news networks are using Catalonia to destabilize Europe. These accusations have been thoroughly investigated by the Atlantic Council’s DFR Lab, focusing on the role of Sputnik and RT. Russian media spread stories about a violent and repressive Spanish government and warn that a civil war is imminent as the EU passively stands by. Russian creativity is legendary and the media managed to find similarities with the situation in Crimea and Kurdistan.

According to the Russian press, independent Catalonia might recognize Crimea as part of Russia. The benefits of doing so are not very clear, Russia might in exchange push Nicaragua to recognize Catalonia? “This does not mean that Russia wants Catalonia to be independent at any cost. What it fundamentally seeks is to create division, in order to slowly undermine Europe’s democracy and institutions,” says Brett Schaffer, an analyst at the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a project of the German Marshall Fund. And we can only agree with that.

Ukraine: Never off topic

Maria Zakharova, the spokesperson of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, holds weekly briefings which are worth your attention. Zakharova advised the Kiev authorities to watch the film “Crimea” directed by Alexei Pimanov in order to not forget where ignoring the rights of people to cultural identity can lead to. She reacted to the new Ukrainian education law, signed by Ukrainian President Poroshenko on September 25 which, according to Russia, violates the basic principles contained in the documents of the UN, OSCE and the Council of Europe. Ukraine is famous for creating problems for itself and making the cause difficult even for Kiev’s advocates. Nevertheless, Russian criticism made us think of another movie that the Kremlin should watch – “Haytarma” directed by Akhtem Seitablayev. As Zakharova says, history must teach us something, and watching a movie about Crimean-Tatar deportation would be a good refresher, especially in the light of the unlawful imprisonment of Umerov and Chiygoz in Crimea which is still illegally occupied by Russia.

Policy & Research News Should Morgan Freeman study Kremlinology before shooting a video?

The Committee to Investigate Russia has been established based on the ongoing investigations of the Kremlin’s attempts to influence the presidential elections in the United States and the links between the Russian Federation and the administration of President Trump. It is a non-profit website collecting and providing information about what we already know. Recently, they published a video promoting the activities of the Committee, starring Morgan Freeman:

Because of his role in the project, Mr. Freeman became a target of verbal attacks from Russian officials and trolls almost overnight. He also received criticism from a contingent of the Western community for his lack of expertise on the subject.

Stopfake.org co-founder offers her experiences from the information war

Margo Gontar, a co-founder of a Ukrainian fact-checking project StopFake.org, shares lessons learnt from the Ukrainian information war for Business Ukraine magazine. Her main advice is:

  • Don’t take anything at face value, question everything, but remember that facts still exist
  • Be aware that the Kremlin can change its tactics quite frequently (which also shows that fighting its subversive activities works)
  • Count on the fact that the Kremlin knows the weaknesses of every country and society very well and will abuse those unique vulnerabilities whenever it can
  • Fighting propaganda with pure facts might not be enough; in the modern world, we need “shiny packaging” and entertaining context in order to reach mainstream audiences
  • Never forget that Russia does not want to convince you of ‘truth’. More likely, it wants you to believe nothing at all.

What to do about it? According to Margo Gontar, “the simple answer is to continue refuting, debunking and exposing lies while at the same time relentlessly promoting fact-based narratives.”

Kremlin Watch Reading Suggestion Should Russia’s RT register as a foreign agent?

With a claimed global reach of 700 million people in more than 100 countries, the Kremlin-funded news network RT (formerly known as “Russia Today”) has an important place in the Russian media toolkit. RT, which operates as an independent news broadcaster, is in fact a mouthpiece for Russian propaganda, promoting the Kremlin’s interests and undermining trust in mainstream media. In the USA, a new strategy for dealing with RT has recently been laid out.

The core of it is to compel RT to register as an agent of foreign principal under the Foreign Agents Registration Act of 1938 (FARA), which was originally enacted to address Nazi propaganda and has proven useful since then. Many foreign media organizations have registered as agents of foreign principal, therefore, there is an established precedent. If the US government wished to do so, it would have to present evidence that RT acts “at order, request or under direction or control, of a foreign principal” and engages in “political activities” in the interest of its foreign principal. If registered, RT would not be restricted from distributing information (therefore, free speech would not be violated), however, it would have to (among other things) conspicuously label its information as “distributed by an agent on behalf of the foreign principal”, which should warn the US public that RT is not a impartial news source.

Even though the Kremlin does its best to portray RT as an independent and impartial organization, there are many arguments that prove the opposite and would help this case, such as its reliance on the Russian state for 99% of its budget and its non-transparent governance structure. That and much more, including recommendations for the modernization of FARA and predictions of what might happen if the US were to enforce FARA against RT, can be found in this report by the Atlantic Council.

Kremlin Watch is a strategic program of the European Values Think-Tank, which aims to expose and confront instruments of Russian influence and disinformation operations focused against liberal-democratic system.

Categories: World News

Russian lawmakers want to expand the government’s power to block websites without court oversight

Tue, 10/03/2017 - 09:06

By Meduza

What happened?

On September 30, the newspaper Vedomosti reported that the State Duma has introduced legislation that would allow officials to circumvent the courts when blocking websites that publish calls to unsanctioned public demonstrations and share other “undesirable information.” Several major Russian news outlets later reported this same story, citing the article that appeared in Vedomosti.

Is the story true?

Not exactly. You see, Russia already enacted a law like this four years ago. Putin signed it in late 2013, empowering the Attorney General’s Office to block a website without a court order, if prosecutors determine that it is publishing calls to public unrest, inciting extremist activity, or promoting unsanctioned demonstrations.

But now there’s something new. What’s changed?

In 2015, Russia passed a law against so-called “undesirable organizations.” If the Attorney General’s Office decides that a particular foreign or international organization threatens Russia’s national security, it can declare that group to be “undesirable.” One of the restrictions of being named “undesirable” is that you’re prohibited from disseminating information inside Russia, including on the Internet. State Duma deputies say they’re concerned that the Attorney General’s Office will need to appeal to Russia’s courts in order to block such materials online, and so the new draft legislation submitted to the parliament would add “undesirable” content to the list of things the Attorney General’s Office can ban without judicial oversight.

The Russian government currently recognizes 11 “undesirable organizations”: the National Endowment for Democracy, the Open Society Institute, the Open Society Foundation, the U.S.-Russian Foundation for Economic Advancement and the Rule of Law, the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, the Media Development Investment Fund, the International Republican Institute, the Open Russia Civic Movement, Open Russia, the Institute of Modern Russia, and the Black Sea Trust for Regional Cooperation.

Most importantly, the draft legislation also contains a small but highly significant proposal: the extrajudicial blocking not just of “undesirable” content, but of any online information that allows Internet users to access content banned in Russia. In theory, this means the legislation would empower the Attorney General’s Office to block any website or webpage that publishes instructions for circumventing the government’s Internet censorship.

By Meduza

Categories: World News

A new Russian movie set in Crimea during the 2014 annexation enjoys another round of Internet mockery

Tue, 10/03/2017 - 08:40

By Meduza

On September 28, Russian movie theaters started showing Alexey Pimanov’s new film “Crimea,” whose viewer rating on Kinopoisk (Russia’s version of IMDB) hackers recently tried to inflate. Russian Twitter users have since noticed that many of movie’s screenings took place for an audience of one, leading to speculation that nobody is going to see this movie.

Сходить что ли посмотреть на этого человека pic.twitter.com/dJbLuSTt0v

— Лев Бирюков (@lbiryukov) 29 сентября 2017 г.


“Maybe I’ll go, just to watch this one person.”

Сходить что ли посмотреть на этого человека pic.twitter.com/dJbLuSTt0v

— Лев Бирюков (@lbiryukov) 29 сентября 2017 г.

“Don’t bother the director as he quietly enjoys his brainchild in solitude.”

On September 28, a day before “Crimea” hit theaters, Kinopoisk chief editor Elizaveta Surganova revealed on Facebook that tens of thousands of user accounts had been hacked and used to inflate the film’s score to 6.2.

Despite apparently empty cinemas and a current score of 2.4 out of 10 on Kinopoisk, the movie “Crimea” reportedly earned 160 million rubles ($2.8 million) on its opening weekend.

Pimanov’s “Crimea” tells the love story between Sasha, a man living in Sevastopol, and Alena, a journalist from Kiev. The film is set in 2014, when the Russian government annexed Crimea from Ukraine. The movie’s budget was 400 million rubles ($6.9 million).

“Crimea” international trailer Kino Guru By Meduza
Categories: World News

The Kremlin’s Internet Master Bears Down

Tue, 10/03/2017 - 07:51
A previously obscure Russian oversight body has been turned into the government’s chief cyberspace censor

By Daria Litvinova, for Codastory

It was impossible for the Russian media not to cover the hour-long rap battle between Oxxximiron and Gnoiny, two cutting-edge rappers carving out new avenues of street argot.

Within a day of being posted on August 13, a slickly-filmed video of the clash had already received more than eight million views on YouTube, with even state-run outlets like the RIA Novosti news agency giving it headline treatment.

So it was a shock for all the sites that had carried the video to be told by Russia’s media and communications watchdog just a week later that they had broken the law, and were being rapped in another way — with heavy fines.

Officials from Roskomnadzor, as the agency is known, said the video contained obscene language — officially outlawed in Russian media.

Critics say, it is the latest example of the watchdog showing its censoring bite. A court still has to decide the size of the fines, but “the Leviathan is in motion,” says Maxim Kashulinsky, publisher of Republic news, one of the websites affected.

“STIFLING FREE SPEECH”

Roskomnadzor or RKN — which translates as the “Federal Service for Supervising Communications, IT and Mass Media” — is equivalent in many ways to America’s Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

RKNhasbecomethe“masteroftheinternet”forRussians,saysDamirGainutdinov,alawyerwiththehumanrightsNGOAgora.

Yet instead of acting simply as a regulator, its opponents say RKN has become the main engine of Kremlin efforts to stifle free speech. As well as harassing media outlets, it has banned thousands of websites and threatened international social networks, increasingly emulating China’s draconian model of cyberspace control.

RKN has become the “master of the internet” for Russians, says Damir Gainutdinov, a lawyer specializing in freedom of speech cases with the human rights NGO Agora.

Not surprisingly, the agency staunchly defends its actions. The internet is a much safer place as a result, according to Roskomnadzor’s boss, especially for children. “As a parent, I care which pages my kids visit,” Alexander Zharov told Vedomosti newspaper in a 2014 interview, “and the state definitely has power to limit access.”

But numerous requests by Coda Story to interview Zharov went unanswered.

“SPECIAL SERVICE”

The “master” used to be a relative poodle among the panoply of security agencies and government bodies the Kremlin uses to exert its will — overseeing areas like radio frequency distribution, broadcasting licenses and data protection.

But all that changed after mass protests between 2011 and 2012 against election rigging and Vladimir Putin’s resumption of the presidency. Having previously adopted a lighter touch towards the internet, the Kremlin began to clamp down, using RKN as its main tool.

It was given the job of enforcing a website “blacklist law.” The purported focus of the list — to combat child pornography and drug use — may have sounded laudable, but it marked the agency’s transformation into a “special service” akin to the FSB security services, says Gainutdinov. RKN reveled in its new powers, he adds, “proudly reporting every day on how many websites they had added to the black list.”

The ultra-conservative lawmaker Yelena Mizulina, known for her traditional family values crusade, was a key player in implementing the law. It was necessary to protect children from “harmful content”, she said — before later becoming famous for her campaign to allow men more legal leeway to beat their wives and children.

“82,000 BANNED WEBSITES”

And the blacklist’s parameters have steadily expanded to include so-called extremist materials and calls for demonstrations — with more than 82,000 websites now listed.

“Itgetstoyou,”saysMikhailFishman,aformereditorinchiefofTheMoscowTimes.“Itcreatesthisimpressionthatyou’reconstantlybeingwatched.”

RKN’s powers have grown further as it has set its sights on foreign IT giants like Apple, Google and Facebook — demanding that they place Russian users’ data on local servers. Several messaging services including Blackberry Messenger, have been blocked after refusing to comply with its demands for user information.

Opposition sites have been caught up in the agency’s cyber-dragnet too, with a smothering effect on free expression, says Mikhail Fishman, a former editor in chief of The Moscow Times. “It gets to you,” he says. “It creates this impression that you’re constantly being watched.”

MAKING THE INTERNET SAFE AGAIN

RKN has plenty of defenders, who say it has helped curb criminal activity online. Child pornographers and drugs dealers have been forced underground into the “dark web,” says Denis Davydov, director of the Safe Internet League, an NGO close to the agency, “where normal people don’t go.”

But as it tightens its grip, campaigners say it is hobbling Russian cyberspace as a whole. Companies that happen to have the same IP address as a blacklisted website can find themselves put out of business.

At least three million “innocent websites” currently suffer this kind of collateral damage, according to Artyom Kozlyuk from the NGO Roskomsvoboda (Russian Communications Freedom). And at least seven million websites have been affected since 2012. But RKN usually stonewalls any complaints, leaving the companies no choice but to find new IP addresses.

NOT CHINA YET

It is still a far cry from the days of Soviet censorship — when censors dissected everything from newspapers to theater handbills. RKN’s actions are “mosquito bites” by comparison, says novelist Sergei Litvinov, who was a journalist in Soviet times.

And while it is clear the Kremlin wants full control, “it is also clear that it can’t get it” says Gainutdinov of the NGO Agora. It doesn’t have Chinese-levels of resources for one thing. Russia’s sophisticated internet users have also become adept at working around RKN blocks.

The agency has also struggled to replicate China’s success in controlling foreign IT giants. Facebook and Apple have withstood pressure to move all their Russian user data onto locally-based servers.

Among major Western names, only LinkedIn has been forced off-line for non-compliance. And the popular messaging service Telegram — founded by two Russian brothers — has also managed to survive RKN’s pressure so far. The agency still doesn’t understand that the internet is “not something you can fully control,” says Gainutdinov.

But that doesn’t mean it is going to stop trying. A new surveillance law is about to come into force, says Artyom Kozlyuk. And that means the RKN behemoth “will have even more duties.”

By Daria Litvinova, for Codastory

Illustration by Alessandra Cugno.

Daria Litvinova is a Moscow-based journalist
Categories: World News

StopFake #151 with Romeo Kokriatsky

Mon, 10/02/2017 - 18:21

Fake Ukrainian ISIS militants, Ukraine’s new language law and fake Roshen chocolate expansion in Russia.

Categories: World News

How Russian news networks are using Catalonia to destabilize Europe

Mon, 10/02/2017 - 18:17
Media stories in English, Russian and German equating crisis in Spain with conflicts in Crimea and Kurdistan

News stories about the Catalonia independence issue

By David Alandete, Madris, for El Pais

In a bid to sow division within the European Union, Russia’s online disruption machinery is working at full speed to equate the Catalan crisis to the Crimean or Kurdish conflicts in the eyes of public opinion.

A detailed analysis of pro-Russian media shows that these have multiplied their coverage of Catalonia in Spanish, English, German and Russian, and that all of this output systematically portrays the Spanish government and justice system as guilty of violent repression in the northeastern region. These news organizations claim that Madrid has sent paramilitary troops to Barcelona, and warns that a civil war is imminent as the EU passively stands by.

A story published by ‘Hispan TV’ in 2016 with the headline “An independent Catalonia will recognize Crimea as part of Russia.”

The Russian media compared these events to Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and the Kurdish referendum vote that will be held today despite it being deemed illegal by the central government in Baghdad.

One pro-Kremlin news organization, the daily Vzglyad, on Wednesday wrote: “Spain forcibly suppresses the Catalan spring,” followed by the assertion that “the Crimean spring has moved to the Pyrenees.”

This outlet also notes that “only the intervention of the Russian military was able to uphold the popular right to expression in the peninsula [of Crimea].”

On September 8, the same newspaper wrote that “Catalan politicians are already discussing what they’ll do after proclaiming independence. One of them told Vzglyad that Catalonia will seek recognition for Abjasia and South Ossetia,” referring to territories that proclaimed their independence from Georgia in the 1990s, and which have only been recognized by Russia, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Nauru, a tiny island in Micronesia.

The source of those statements is Enric Folch, the international secretary for a party called Catalan Solidarity for Independence. In 2015 and 2016, Folch was a delegate at a meeting in Moscow that was organized by the pro-government Anti-globalization Movement of Russia. The conference was partly sponsored with Russian public funds.

What Russia fundamentally seeks is to create division, to slowly undermine Europe’s democracy and institutions

Brett Schaffer, analyst at the Alliance for Securing Democracy

Folch is an old source for propagators of pro-Russian fake news. A year ago, several news outlets published a story stating that an independent Catalonia would recognize Crimea as part of Russia – a territorial claim that the Kremlin has been making since 2014. The source of this insider information about the Catalan government’s alleged intentions: Enric Folch, a member of a party with no presence whatsoever in the Catalan parliament.

The basic premise of the pro-Russian disruption machinery is to create information that is sometimes real, sometimes fake.

“We’re not talking about Soviet propaganda or anything like that. It’s not all fake news,” says Brett Schaffer, an analyst at the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a project of the German Marshall Fund created in the wake of Russian meddling in the US elections, and whose goal is to “publicly document and expose Vladimir Putin’s ongoing efforts to subvert democracy in the United States and Europe.”

“This does not mean that Russia wants Catalonia to be independent at any cost. What it fundamentally seeks is to create division, in order to slowly undermine Europe’s democracy and institutions,” he adds.

The Alliance for Securing Democracy has been tracking Russian influence operations on Twitter, and found that between September 16 and 23, “among trending topics, a thread of pro-secession movements was visible, including support for Kurdistan, Catalonia, and, more subtly, a travel guide for Crimea.”

A Pravda headline reading: “Anger in Madrid: Barcelona recreates the scenario in Crimea.”

One of the most-shared tweets on September 23 on the German-language channel of the Russian media outlet Sputnik carried the headline: “Searches and arrests in the Catalan government – students demonstrate against the paramilitaries.”

And Pravda on Thursday ran a story in Russian claiming that “Barcelona recreates the Crimea scenario.” This story was shared on Twitter by two Pravda accounts (@pravda.ru and @pravdaonline) both with a following of 230,000 users. The story clearly says that “if Catalans hold the referendum and unilaterally declare independence, there will be a precedent for the EU similar to Crimea.”

One of the Twitter accounts that most aggressively advances the Kremlin’s interests is Voice of Europe (@V_of_Europe). In recent days this account has retweeted stories supporting the line that the Catalan conflict is breaking up the EU, such as “Spain BOILS: EU REFUSES to act for Catalonia despite Spain ‘violating basic human rights,’ or “Spain in CRISIS: Troops sent in as 40,000 protest over ‘WAR’ on Catalan independence vote.”

Russian news organizations with ties to the Kremlin, such as RT and Sputnik, do not publish outright fake news but twist real stories. On Wednesday, RT ran the headline: “State of siege: Catalan officials, including vice-minister of economy, arrested over referendum papers.”

RT’s Spanish-language Twitter account, with 2.74 million followers, and Facebook account, with 5.1 million followers, are also disseminating messages such as “Catalonia: the dictator Francisco Franco has returned victoriously.”

By David Alandete, Madris, for El Pais

English version by Susana Urra

Categories: World News

How Russia and WikiLeaks Became Allies Against the West

Mon, 10/02/2017 - 16:10

Andrei Dorokhin

Some claim WikiLeaks is working for the Kremlin. The reality is hardly so simple

By Matthew Kupfer, for The Moscow Times

The timing couldn’t have been better for Moscow.

Russia was being accused by U.S. intelligence of hacking the 2016 presidential election in support of Donald Trump. Documents stolen in the hack, agencies allege, were given to WikiLeaks for public release. Many Trump opponents blamed Russia for his victory. And Washington hummed with speculation about illicit meetings between Trump administration officials and the Russian ambassador.

Then, on March 7, WikiLeaks released “Vault 7,” a trove of documents detailing CIA surveillance and cyber warfare capabilities. Among its many shocking revelations, the cache showed that the U.S. intelligence agency could carry out cyber attacks imitating other countries — including Russia.

While it is unclear who leaked the documents, the information seemed calculated to undermine faith in the hacking allegations against Russia and, possibly, to support Trump.

Soon politicians weighed in. Senator John McCain, a noted Russia hawk, asserted that “WikiLeaks has had a Russian connection.” Former CIA Director Michael Hayden said he believes WikiLeaks was “acting as an arm…of the Russian Federation.”

But for all the talk of an alliance between WikiLeaks and the Russian state, many experts believe the reality is more complicated.

 

Hayden: “I’m now pretty close to the position that WikiLeaks is acting as an arm, as an agent, of the Russian federation” pic.twitter.com/8fCmcAl915

— Colin Jones (@colinjones) 8 марта 2017 г.

The Man in the High Tower

Few people who know WikiLeaks from the inside — former employees and collaborators — are willing to talk openly about the organization today. The whistleblowing platform’s mercurial leader, Julian Assange, and his supporters have harassed many critics into silence. Even Edward Snowden — the leaker who revealed mass surveillance by the U.S. National Security Agency and subsequently sought asylum in Moscow on Assange’s advice — has run afoul of the WikiLeaks founder in recent months.

Several former Wikileaks collaborators declined to speak with The Moscow Times on the record. But their collective characterizations of the organization paint a chaotic picture. Contrary to the image it presents, WikiLeaks is neither a large organization, nor motivated purely by ideology. Assange — currently hiding out in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London to avoid Swedish rape charges — dominates the organization, and its actions reflect his personal motivations.

“Julian has long viewed the world through the prism of his own situation,” one former WikiLeaks collaborator told The Moscow Times on condition of anonymity. Assange sees Russia as a supporter, and views the U.S. and Britain as his enemies. As a result, “in recent years, WikiLeaks and the Russian state have effectively joined forces,” the former collaborator said.

Others question that the relationship is so straightforward. Mark Galeotti, a researcher at the Institute of International Relations Prague and an expert on the Russian security services, believes Russia views WikiLeaks as a “convenient outlet when it has material it wants to make public.”

But this means keeping a low profile. Russia likely does not have “institutional contact” with Assange, as this would only serve to discredit WikiLeaks. Still, Assange would have to be “extraordinarily stupid and naive” not to realize the DNC hacks came from Russia, Galeotti says.

“The problem is that the information that’s being distributed is real,” he says. “That makes it much less of a problem for people of [Assange’s] ideological bent.”

Black Box

Maintaining “plausible deniability” is likely key to any possible ties between Russia and WikiLeaks. But this deniability is also built into the organization.

Both supporters and critics of Wikileaks told The Moscow Times that WikiLeaks’ means of receiving leaks can often make it very difficult to trace their origins — or confirm their veracity. The organization accepts anonymous, encrypted submissions online.

WikiLeaks is a “black box,” says Israel Shamir, a controversial activist connected with the organization. “If it would be possible to say I got it from John or Mark, pretty soon the CIA or FSB [Russian security services] would come running after them.”

A Russian-born writer frequently accused of anti-Semitism, Shamir portrays himself simply as a WikiLeaks-accredited journalist in Russia. But his real role was much greater. He visited Assange in Britain in 2010 and was entrusted with distributing leaked U.S. diplomatic cables to Russian journalists.

His involvement in the organization alarmed several former participants in the WikiLeaks project, and some suggest he may be the conduit between Russia and Assange. Shamir is also believed to have passed diplomatic cables onto the government of Belarus, leading to the arrest of opposition activists in the country.

(Shamir denies any connections to the Russian or Belarusian governments and says he simply published articles based on documents related to Belarus. He says he no longer works with WikiLeaks.)

But Shamir’s characterization of WikiLeaks is at least partially correct.

“In theory, it’s a safe and anonymous letter box,” Galeotti says. “But I have a suspicion that things are sometimes fed in, and [WikiLeaks does] know where they came from.”

Changing Fortunes

If Russia has ties with WikiLeaks today, that certainly wasn’t the case seven years ago, says Mika Velikovsky, a Russian journalist who worked extensively with WikiLeaks and interviewed Assange three times.

While working for the magazine Russian Reporter, WikiLeaks’ main partner in Russia, Velikovsky received packets of U.S. diplomatic cables from Shamir, sorted through the documents and published articles based upon them. He also worked on the 2012 leak of emails from the intelligence company Stratfor and collaborated with WikiLeaks on the 2013 documentary film Mediastan.

In 2010, Velikovsky defended WikiLeaks on Russian state television’s political talk shows — programs that often reflect the positions of the Kremlin. There, he clashed with pro-Kremlin experts who claimed that WikiLeaks was the anti-Russian project of American spies.

“At the time, it seemed the authorities were worried about WikiLeaks and didn’t know what it was,” he says. “So the Russian mainstream media was very anti-WikiLeaks.”

Then, in 2012, Julian Assange got a show on RT, a Russian state-funded propaganda channel. The development came amid a worldwide financial blockade of WikiLeaks, when the organization desperately needed money. Velikovsky thinks Assange’s appearance on RT marked WikiLeaks’ transformation from a threat to an ally in the eyes of the Russian authorities.

However, he suggests that WikiLeaks’ seeming alliance with Russia stems from Assange’s own personal predicament. Hiding in the Ecuadorian Embassy for over 4 years has robbed Assange of “a lot of the joy [of life] that you and I have,” Velikovsky says. “If someone did that to us, it would be very personal.”

But to the anonymous former WikiLeaks collaborator who spoke with The Moscow Times, that’s hardly an excuse — particularly after the U.S. election hacks.

“It’s one thing publishing material from a whistleblower like Edward Snowden who is acting from idealistic motives,” he said. “It’s another acting as the publishing wing of Russian intelligence.”

By Matthew Kupfer, for The Moscow Times

Categories: World News

Kosovo: Fake news in a struggling democracy

Mon, 10/02/2017 - 08:10

By Orjela Stafasani, for Eurozine

In Kosovo, political corruption, a weak cultural sector and the absence of regulatory bodies allow fake news to thrive, particularly online. Without a normalisation of the political, institutional and social situation, a responsible media can never exist in the recently independent Balkan state, writes Orjela Stafasani.

Although the internet and social media have greatly accelerated the spread of news, there is less control of the news offered to the public. The planet has been transformed into a ‘global village‘, throughout which news is spread within minutes, yet written journalism is on the decline. News appears more in the form of comment and opinion, while internet portals have become the fastest carriers of news. The speed of the publication of news on the internet and its presentation as hypertext has attracted public attention yet only deepened the crisis of print media. The last decade has brought major changes to journalism, but with each passing year it seems that the news offered online increasingly aims at sensation and effect rather than truth.

The situation is no different in Kosovo. On top of the media change, however, comes a set of political factors. Political interests and financial profiteering in Kosovo have caused chaos in the media and turned online journalism into a sham. This, combined with unemployment, a weak economy and a political crisis, means that most news served up by internet portals attaches no importance to objectivity, but only to sensation. Under the tight control of political parties, online journalism in Kosovo has failed to perform its mission of representing the truth.

Cultural-political malaise

The war in Kosovo in the late 1990s and the delayed declaration of independence in 2008 posed many challenges for the new state. New in its government, its institutions, its public services, its economy and its culture, this state was also new in its media. Almost ten years of independence have not sufficed to stabilise the situation. The crisis in which the country finds itself was also evident in the parliamentary elections held on 11 June 2017, which despite the formation of electoral pacts, failed to deliver a coalition or party able to form a majority government. The people have had their say: they do not believe in the political parties that lead Kosovo, and they are tired of corruption and the scandals that marked previous governments.

While the Democratic Party of Kosovo (PAN), the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo (AAK), and Initiative for Kosovo (NK) are trying to make up the required number of MPs to govern Kosovo for the next four years, there is no promise of any great change in the economic situation, in education, health, culture, and so on. Economically, Kosovo has remained at rock bottom, and is among the poorest countries in the Balkans, with a frightening level of unemployment in relation to its population. Most families live on welfare or are supported by relatives living and working abroad. The health service is in a catastrophic state, and the hospitals do not possess the necessary resources to treat patients, whether because of the shortage of specialist staff, the lack of equipment and medicines, or because of the hygienic conditions.

Cultural life virtually does not function at all, because support for the arts is conditional on party allegiance. The fact that Kosovo comes 68th in the PISA rankings out of the 72 states in which tests were carried out, and that 131 university programmes were suspended because of a lack of qualified academic staff at the University of Prishtina and private universities, testify to the very low level of education in Kosovo. The Department of Journalism at the University of Prishtina also lost its right to accredit and will not be able to admit masters’ and doctoral students from autumn 2017. The media at once called for an explanation from the University of Prishtina, whose rector Marjan Demaj stated that ‘The main reason for the suspension of the programmes is that we do not have the staff. We are very restricted. In reality, we are mere dogsbodies, who are doing jobs beyond our level of higher education.’ Demaj, the Education Inspectorate, and the major national media have refused to verify and investigate abuses in the selection criteria for the recent vacancies for academic staff in the Department of Journalism (as in other departments of Prishtina University), because political interests are involved.

This situation has had a significant impact on the development of the media in Kosovo, which has been fraught with problems in every field. Television, the print media, and online media all exhibit almost identical shortcomings. Kosovo Radio-Television, which is subsidised directly by the government, receives more financial support than any other television channel in Kosovo, but in terms of its staff and the quality of its programmes it is the poorest in the country. Other channels are filled with Turkish and Spanish soap operas, and carry virtually nothing of any educational value. In the print media, Koha Ditore (Daily Time), which also has its portal, koha.net, is probably the most serious and least politically biased newspaper in Kosovo.

Investigative journalism, which should be a principal line of development for journalism in Kosovo, is virtually non-existent, apart from the programmes ‘Life in Kosovo’, ‘Zona Express’, and some investigations conducted by Koha Ditore, the portal Insajderi(The Insider), and the newspaper Zëri (The Voice).  However, these investigations have mainly been superficial, and have not caused any anxiety to the political leadership.

The print media and the online media have failed to fight the corruption that has spread to every aspect of life in Kosovo. This failure is evident in the silence over the abuses committed by ministries and state institutions, the religious extremism that has spread throughout Kosovo, and the crimes, abuses, and corruption of individual politicians. The Kosovo media are not guided by the principle of free speech, but controlled speech. Their politics is manipulative, with the aim of attracting the clicks that bring them profit, and their purpose is disinformation, because of the interests of the political parties that finance them.

Political bias and revolving doors 

The media in Kosovo are not independent, but are managed and directed by the political parties. This is shown by the allegiances of several journalists and former journalists to parties. The recent elections also exposed the political bias of many journalists.

The case that caused the most commotion and indignation among the public was that of Arbana Xharra, editor-in-chief of the newspaper Zëri, who, after investigating corruption in the Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK) – for which she was rewarded with several national and international prizes – shocked the public in June 2017 by joining the very same party. A similar thing happened a few years ago when Margarita Kadriu, editor-in-chief of the newspaper Kosova Sot (Kosovo Today), also joined this party. The former editor-in-chief of Zëri had no answer to those who had trusted her in the war against corruption, but as happens with everything else in Kosovo, it took only a few days for the matter to be forgotten. The reason for this is simple: journalism in Kosovo does not function independently of the political parties and nobody believes that a journalist might expose or even bring down a government that is mired in corruption.

Berat Buzhala, the director of Gazeta Express, the largest online newspaper in Kosovo, was a deputy of the PDK, which clearly indicates the allegiance of this portal.

Halil Matoshi, a journalist, writer, and political analyst who was once a well-known supporter and member of the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK), joined the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo (AAK), issuing a pompous declaration that, just as he had once trusted the LDK Chairman Ibrahim Rugova, he now trusted AAK Chairman Ramush Haradinaj.

Dukagjin Gorani, a journalist, political analyst and one-time adviser to the prime minister and chairman of the PDK, announced that he had joined the Vetëvendosja [Self-Determination] party.

The journalist Milaim Zeka, also well known for his frequent criticisms of the political parties and the previous government, joined the Initiative for Kosovo (NK).

These are only some of the examples of journalists who have openly crossed over into politics, but there are plenty of others who, either openly or covertly, have worked for the benefit of these parties. Such  hypocrisy on the part of journalists has destroyed trust in the media and quenched public hopes for a better future for the country. The number of Kosovans who have sought asylum in Germany and other European countries shows how weary of this situation most of the country’s citizens are.

The politics of online news: Fake vs. Fact

Kosovo boasts more than three hundred portals dedicated to the spread of fake or partially fake news, which are beyond the control of any institution. Few online journalists in Kosovo observe the Media Code, the sources of their reports are unverifiable, and speculation and personal opinion replace facts and data. Reports taken from other portals generally do not indicate their original source, and subject the public to disinformation and manipulation.

Online portals in Kosovo are of two kinds: daily newspapers that have also become web portals, and newspapers that operate only online. The most well-known portals in Kosovo are ExpressZëriKosova SotInfopressBota SotTelegrafiInfokusiInsajderiKohaPeriskopi, etc. Most of these are either directed by people in political parties, or openly display their political bias.

Thirsty for clicks, these portals are eager to launch unverified and often fake news reports. They lack any linguistic culture: in most cases, the writing is unedited, and reports from other languages are often lifted verbatim from Google Translate. Fake news is present in almost every portal that operates in Kosovo, and comes in several forms: manipulation of headlines, manipulation of content, and partially fake news. The sole aim is to attract clicks and satisfy the appetites of the political parties.

There are several types of fake news circulating among the Kosovo online media.

The first type is a headline that promises information, but which is not supported by the content. One example is a report published by Koha.net at 08:21 on 4 July 2017 under the headline ‘AAK Replies to Mustafa’s Invitation to Coalition’, which implied that the political parties were breaking their pre-electoral pacts with the sole aim of forming a government, regardless of their political convictions. However, the item itself did not report anything of the kind, only speculation by an AAK party member, who states, ‘It is not proper for Isa Mustafa, the leader of the LDK, to ask Haradinaj to break his partnership with the PDK in order to work with the LDK–AKR (Aleanca Kosova e Re, or New Kosovo Alliance)–Alternativa coalition.’

The second type is an item based on a question in the headline, generally addressed to a naive public, such as, ‘Do You Know What Gülsaran’s relationship with Özan Is in Everyday Life?’ (Gazeta Express, 17:05, 22 April 2016). Such items are widespread among Kosovo portals, aimed at average readers, who follow the soap operas served up by Kosovo television channels and spend most of their time on the internet.

The third kind of item is one that manipulates both the average and the elite readership, such as: ‘Russia Finances Fake News Against the United States – Who Is Financing It in Kosovo?’ (Gazeta Express, 12:16, 10 June 2017). This headline immediately arouses the reader’s curiosity because, in the present critical state of the media, everybody is looking for the reason for this chaos. The content of the report is entirely different to what the headline promises: a compilation of data published in American media, an article by Peter Singer, the ethics professor and newspaper columnist, some decisions about fake news taken by Angela Merkel’s cabinet, and a bit about Kosovo, which appears to be merely the opinion of the author. The reader, who is inevitably most interested in the part about Kosovo, will be surprised to find that the parts of the article that are about Kosovo bear no relation to the headline. ‘Fake news has become more common in Kosovo too, especially on the threshold of the elections. Some political parties are spreading fake news about their opponents. … In Kosovo, fake news is not covered by the Penal Code because slander and defamation are not considered crimes. These two matters have been decriminalized and are a matter for civil suits against the authors.’

The fourth kind is the presentation of untrue information through a headline, when the source of the content is totally unverifiable, such as: ‘Reuters: George Washington Was of Albanian Origin’ (published by Zëri at 22:32 on 26 July 2016). The same report with the same title was also published also by Infopress (2320 hours, 29 June 2017). Neither of these portals has yet removed this report from their sites, although it is totally untrue. The report has been in circulation among various pseudo-portals since 2011. The daily paper Koha Ditore, following its long-standing tradition of publishing a bogus news item on April Fools’ Day, carried it on 1 April 2011, but accompanied by a note stating ‘April Fo-o-o-l’ at the end. These portals picked up this news item years later and published it as genuine, even referring to the Reuters news agency.

‘The mother of the famous US president was an Albanian with her origins in the Peja area. President George Washington himself is said to have left a letter among his last wishes, asking for America to protect the Albanians at all times and in every way possible. … The Institute of Biochemistry and Genetics based in Schaffhausen, Switzerland, has published the results of the latest genetic research into world leaders, which show that the historic president of the United States George Washington was of Albanian origin.’ (Zëri)

The fifth kind of news gives us its information in its very title. In the following example, both the headline and the content are true, but the time when the events took place does not fit the publication date. At 09:21 on 7 July 2017, the portal arbresh.info (which beneath its mastheadcarries the motto, ‘Only Accurate News’) published a report under the headline ‘Leaving for Holiday, Three Out of Family of Five Die.’ At 09:30, the portal infokusi.com published the same report with the same headline, as did the portal periskopi.com at 10:29. The first portal gave all the information in the headline, in order to gain clicks rather than to act according to journalistic principles. The Albanian or Albanian-speaking viewer or reader will be shocked by the headline, and click on it more readily than if the headline had not included the number of dead. This report would not so far be worth mentioning in our study, because there are such cases in every portal every day, except that the reader, continuing to the body of the report, will discover that this incident in fact occurred in 2014. This not only violates every rule of journalism, but also trifles with the feelings of the relatives of the deceased. No institution has taken action against the portals that published this report, and none of the portals has deleted it.

At this fraught political time, when none of the pre-electoral pacts is able to muster sufficient deputies to form a government, the portals are chock-full of fake news, accompanied by denials from the people and organisations affected by it. However, there is no institution in Kosovo able to investigate such cases or convict the perpetrators.

The crisis in Kosovo society has created a state of apathy throughout the country. In order to alter the direction that the media have taken, what is first necessary is a drastic change within the political parties. Political parties should make the country’s future their priority, not their personal interests and their control of ‘free speech’. Meanwhile, the citizens of Kosovo are preoccupied with their own struggle for survival. Isolated from the rest of the world, and jeopardised by their own state, the crisis in the media is the least of their worries. Only a normalisation of the political, institutional, and social situation would enable us to discuss the normalisation of the media. Only when journalists are truly independent, free, and protected by the state will journalism be able to make progress on the path of truth. As long as no law against slander and defamation is enforced in Kosovo and there are no institutions or any other means to filter information, online journalism will continue to make use of every means to gain the clicks that translate into cash revenue.

PUBLISHED 29 SEPTEMBER 2017

Original in Albanian
First published in Symbol 11 (in Albanian) / Eurozine (in English)

Contributed by Symbol
© Orjela Stafasani / Symbol / Eurozine

PDF / PRINT

Categories: World News

Why Trump’s UN Speech Was Gold for Russia’s Top Propagandist

Sun, 10/01/2017 - 23:37

Screenshot from TV Channel NTV 22 September 2017

By EU vs Disinfo

  • Below you find a summary of the main topics on Russia’s most watched TV news channels this week.
  • The news shows’ agenda in Russia is carefully attuned to serve the Kremlin’s needs.
  • Therefore, following Russian state controlled media sheds light on our understanding of how the Kremlin seeks to influence the Russian-speaking audience in Russia and beyond. Read our story here.
  • Our monitoring of pro-Kremlin disinformation also reveals that many of the themes set out in Russia’s most popular state TV news programmes find their way into European outlets.    
”It’s impossible to erect a statue of Stalin because Stalin is the speed of light”

Writer Alexander Prohanov, Rossiya 1, 24.9.2017  

1. The German elections and AfD: “Good opportunity for Moscow”

Before the elections

Ahead of the elections on 22 September, TV Channel NTV dedicated its talk show to the German elections. After ridiculing the expectations that Russian hackers would have meddled in the elections, the audience learned, through an analysis of German political leaders, that Angela Merkel is “the main engine of anti-Russian policy”, and that Russian TV should tell the seven million ethnic Russians in Germany every day that Merkel is a “Russophobe”.

After the elections

The main focus on Russian TV news was given to the Alternative for Germany (AfD) entering the German parliament. It was interpreted as a success that Russia could gain from. The party’s position on “unconditional abolition of Russia sanctions” was in the spotlight.

The support for AfD was repeatedly interpreted as German AfD voters backing the lifting of sanctions and normalising the relationship with Russia.

Migration used to be a taboo in Germany, but the AfD touched upon it, political analyst Vladimir Kornilov says. The rise of the right-wing parties and the loss of left-wing governmental parties is a general trend in the whole Europe. “We have to study this situation and, to be honest, develop it”, he states.

Another talk show described how Moscow now has a good opportunity to build a dialogue with the AfD and other opposition parties, even if the next government is to be less friendly.

The reasons underlying the AfD’s success were “migration, disagreement with Angela Merkel’s policies, and a powerful desire to cancel the sanctions against Russia and recognise Crimea as Russia’s”, the presenter of talk show on Rossiya 1 claimed.

News program Vesti on TV Channel Rossiya 1, September 25, showed a map with AfD’s results in the elections in west and east Germany.

US “artificially” creating the North Korea crisis

The crisis with North Korea was high on Russian TV’s agenda and widely reported from the angle of criticising the US and President Donald Trump’s response to it as dangerous and provocative.

Federation Council member and a TV talk show host Alexei Pushkov says that Trump threatened to destroy the North Korean nation during his UN speech. “The threat is a clear bid for genocide”, he describes.

The commentators on a talk show on Rossiya 1 express the view that it was the US creating the North Korean crisis deliberately.

The actions taken by North Korea in developing nuclear weapons and violating all UN resolutions are viewed as a necessity and a deterrent against the US. North Korea with its nuclear weapon program is admired for the “full independence in its foreign and defence policy”.

In the end, the guests agree that there will no war on the Korean Peninsula.

3. Targeting Ukraine: waging a “ethnogenocide”

Reports on the education reform bill in Ukraine had a keyword “ethnogenocide” that was repeatedly used on three TV talk shows to describe the situation. “This is genocide of the Russians, real and actual genocide”, a “genocide” of ethnic minorities and a form of “political revenge”, the talk shows’ guests stated.

On Tuesday, the presenter of the talk show on Rossiya 1 admits “for the sake of fairness” that the law actually does not ban Russian language for schools in Ukraine, but on Wednesday the same presenter describes it once again as “ethnogenocide” of the Russian-speaking population in Ukraine.

By EU vs Disinfo

Source of the Alexander Prokhanov’s quote: Grani.ru 

Categories: World News

Moscow, Not Kyiv, Behind Ethnocide of Ethnic Russians in Ukraine, Yakovenko Says

Sun, 10/01/2017 - 21:43

Paul Goble, Window on Eurasia

The Russian Duma has declared that Kyiv’s decision to make Ukrainian the language of instruction in Ukrainian schools is “’an act of ethnocide’ of the ethnic Russian people in Ukraine, thus denouncing in another what Moscow is itself doing in Russia and ignoring who is really responsible for the shift away from Russian ethnic identity in Ukraine.

In a Kasparov.ru commentary, Russian analyst Igor Yakovenko notes that “ethnocide is the policy of the intentional destruction of national identity and the self-consciousness of a people” that can be achieved either by genocide or by forced assimilation into another human community.

There is no genocide of ethnic Russians going on in Ukraine except in the fevered imaginations of some Russian commentators, Yakovenko says; but there is assimilation of ethnic Russians into the Ukrainian nation – but not as a result of Kyiv’s policies but rather because of the actions and statement of the Russian government.

In Soviet times, the share of ethnic Russians in the Ukrainian population rose from 9.23 percent in 1926 to 22.07 percent in 1989, the result of the mass murder of the Ukrainian peasantry by Stalin and the Moscow-organized in-migration of ethnic Russians and Moscow’s encouragement of Russian as opposed to Ukrainian identity.

The next Ukrainian census is scheduled for 2020 and it will show a precipitous decline in the share of ethnic Russians in the population, Yakovenko says. A recent survey found that only six percent of the citizens of Ukraine now say they are ethnic Russians. The figure in 2020 will likely be even lower.

Most ethnic Russians in Ukraine are characterized by “bi-ethnicity,” the Russian analyst says. That is, people who hold this identity view themselves as part of two peoples simultaneously – Russians and Ukrainians.  But now if they have to choose, almost all of these people will choose to identify as Ukrainians.

According to Yakovenko, “the process of the sharp reduction of the share of people who consider themselves ethnic Russians is occurring in all post-Soviet republics except perhaps Belarus.”  In Ukraine, he says, “this process is occurring in a more troubled and more intensive manner.”

More troubled because of the ethnic closeness of the Ukrainian and Russian peoples, and more intensively “above all” because of the war that Russian has unleashed against Ukraine.  But it is not connected only with the war, Yakovenko says. It also reflects the hatred of Ukraine spewed out by Russian media outlets which still reach many people in Ukraine.

As a result, “to be an ethnic Russian in Ukraine is becoming a problem,” the analyst says.

It is not just a problem of how others view ethnic Russians in Ukraine, he argues; it is also a problem of self-consciousness, of how ethnic Russians in Ukraine see themselves. They do not see themselves as Moscow TV commentators insist they should, and they are choosing to be Ukrainians even though under different circumstances they might have chosen otherwise.

“If it weren’t for the war, the political talk shows, and a number of other broadcasts of Russian television,” ethnic Russians in Ukraine wouldn’t be confronted with a choice. But when they hear what those who are invading their country say, they make the only reasonable choice and become Ukrainians.

Thus, Yakovenko says, “an ethnocide of the Russian people in Ukraine is really occurring. Russia by its military actions and its television broadcasts is intentionally carrying it out.” That Moscow should blame Kyiv for what the Russian authorities are doing is only yet another confirmation of that reality.

Paul Goble, Window on Eurasia

Categories: World News

On Telegram, Russian Politics and Memes Translate Into Big Bucks

Sun, 10/01/2017 - 21:18

The most popular Telegram “channels” have many thousands of subscribers. Screencapped by Alexey Kovalev

By Fabrice Deprez, for Global Voices

With more than 90,000 subscribers, the Telegram channel “MDK” is not just one of the most popular one-stop shops for Russian-language memes on the messenger app. It’s also a profitable business.

MDK’s administrator told RuNet Echo he charges 25,000 rubles ($420) for a single ad on his channel, a blogging platform somewhere between a Facebook and Twitter account. He would not comment on how much money the channel was making overall, but sources in Russian media have claimed popular Telegram channels such as MDK can bring in up to 1 million rubles ($17,000) a month. Even that, however, can look like chump change when compared to other, more political, channels.

The emergence of Telegram channels is one of the consequences of the growing popularity of the messenger app created by Pavel Durov, the tech entrepreneur behind Vkontakte, a Facebook clone that still dominates the Russian social media landscape.

Most popular chat apps in Russia, graph by @thebell_io pic.twitter.com/X2uHDQfj1o

— Fabrice Deprez (@fabrice_deprez) 27 сентября 2017 г.


Telegram channels are a distinct feature allowing the messenger app to also be used as a blogging platform: anyone can subscribe to a channel, but only the creator can post on it. Channels have quickly grown in size and numbers in the last two years, and in some cases have become sizable business operations. One of the most popular Telegram channels made the headlines in the Russian press in September 2017 when it was sold for 5.5 million rubles (US$95,000) just two weeks after its creator had first sold it for 1.2 million rubles (US$20,000).

The business side of channels can get murky, however. That is because they have proved attractive not only to news websites and meme aggregators, but also to a whole new brand of anonymous political bloggers who specialize in revealing what they claim to be “insider information” about Kremlin politics.

On September 27, Russian business daily Vedomosti reported that Telegram channels had turned into a new market for “political ads,” claiming that business and political actors were ready to pay up to 450,000 rubles (US$7,500) to get information published on these channels. An administrator from the “Karaulny” political channel, which has 26,000 subscribers, told RuNet Echo that offers for publishing information on their channel ranged from 50,000 to 150,000 rubles and were essentially about “corporate conflicts,” but they would not comment on whether or not they accepted the proposals.

Vedomosti’s piece does not say what kind of information is being published for this kind of money, though it quotes a source claiming the publication of “negative information” (otherwise known as black PR) can cost two to three times as much as more positive ads.

These prices might stem from the growing belief that these channels have gained a loyal readership in the higher ranks of the Russian state apparatus. In January 2017, local outlet Ura.ru claimed Telegram channels were routinely read during morning briefings and meetings of Duma deputies and in various ministries’ cabinets. In September, Vedomosti also revealed the channels were being monitored by Russia’s Federal Security Service as well as the defense and interior ministries.

Thanks to a flurry of information and a few scoops, anonymous political channels have become over the previous year a major – albeit controversial – source of insights into Russian politics. “Nezygar,” the most popular of these channels, increased from 16,000 subscribers at the beginning of the year to more than 72,000 in September.

This growing popularity has also attracted criticism over the lack of transparency these anonymous channels thrive in. Oleg Kashin, a Russian journalist and himself an avid Telegram user, told the Rain TV channel in January that “If Russia had good political scientists, active political journalism and strong, independent media, the ‘Nezygar’ phenomenon would not exist.”

Given that not only the channels but also the high-ranking officials allegedly reading them are, in most cases, anonymous, doubts remain about their actual influence, while theories abound about their provenance. But whether they are, according to a source quoted by Vedomosti, a “plaything” of the Kremlin’s internal politics department or a new media for political experts, one thing seems clear: it’s a promising business.

By Fabrice Deprez, for Global Voices

Categories: World News

Political censorship in Russian comedy shows

Sun, 10/01/2017 - 01:04

By EU vs Disinfo

Satire and comedy are universal ways of overcoming tensions in any society. Kings and queens have always had to live with being made fun of – they might even have learned something from seeing themselves and their power mirrored in the jokes of their fools and jesters. In modern Russia, however, it’s a different story.

The whistle blower

The fact that certain issues are not supposed to be made fun of on Russian state TV was highlighted earlier this month when a popular Youtube channel published an interview with Dmitry Kolchin, long-time sketch writer for KVN, Russia’s most watched comedy show. In the interview, Mr. Kolchin shared details from his experience with political control and censorship in his former job, thereby throwing light on the methods used for exercising political control even over entertainment programmes on Russian television. According to the whistle blowing ex-writer, the primary red lines are when jokes target presidents. But jokes that are seen as potentially giving voice to social and political discontent are also a no-go.

The word “change” is censored

“It is extremely difficult to have jokes about presidents approved”, Kolchin said, and added that in those rare cases when presidents are allowed to be mentioned, “it is always done in the form of compliments and worship”. Mr. Kolchin went on to describe the working environment at KVN as one with “multiple filters”, meaning that he and his colleagues were instructed “not to make fun of this or that topic, not to mention this or that name”. As an example, Kolchin explained how he and his team had written and directed a sketch with a song about an apartment owner who wants to renovate his flat, basing the song on a popular Russian pop song called “Change”. “A person showed up after one of the rehearsals”, Kolchin recalls, “and said: ‘That song can’t be included in Pervy Kanal’s broadcasting. It is directly associated with dissatisfaction with the authorities’”. Kolchin underlined that the “people” in question, i.e. those who execute the censorship, are managers from the state-owned TV channel rather than the management of the the production company contracted to produce the show. Nevertheless, even the contractor finds it necessary to systematically rule out certain topics “to be on the safe side” and avoid tensions with the commissioning Pervy Kanal, Mr. Kolchin explained.

Strong reactions

As a sign of the sensitivity of the topic of censorship in a highly popular TV show, a number of publications followed in Kremlin-loyal media, all of which tried to downplay Mr Kolchin’s testimony. For example, Pervy Kanal’s management deemed it necessary to comment on the issue of presidential jokes, as reported by RIA: ” If there had been such a ban, then there would have been nothing to show on the TV screen. Such stupidity”, a spokesperson said. It is difficult not to interpret this reaction, in particular the use of the word ”stupidity”, as a sign that Mr. Kolchin must have hit a nerve.

Comedy shows as strategic communications

The show Mr. Kolchin used to write for is known by the acronym “KVN”, and is aired on the state-controlled national TV channel Pervy Kanal. Besides being Russia’s most popular (for example, a broadcast in November 2016 scored the highest rating among everything that was aired on Russian television throughout the entire year of 2016), KVN is also Russia’s oldest televised comedy show, dating back to a 1961 premiere.

The details in Mr. Kolchin’s testimony echo and confirm conclusions reached by researchers at the NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence in Riga, when they in a report published in March this year pinpointed exactly the KVN show as a part of the Russian authorities’ political communications campaign towards Russian speakers inside and outside Russia. When the report was published, it was mocked with sarcastic comments by a wide range of pro-Kremlin media and Russian government communicators.

Censorship and disinformation go hand in hand

Not unlike the way disinformation goes hand in hand with corruption on Russian television, Mr. Kolchin’s testimony underlines how disinformation also correlates with a culture of strict government censorship. This triangle of systemic problems – corruption, censorship and disinformation – challenges professional integrity among employees and undermines the trustworthiness of these media’s total output. To see examples of disinformation broadcast on the state-controlled Pervy Kanal, take a look at the results that appear after a search in the EUvsDisinfo website’s new searchable database.

By EU vs Disinfo

The English language newspaper Moscow Times also covered this whistle blower story. The most thorough transcript from the interview with Mr. Kolchin is available in RBK Daily’s article (in Russian). 

Categories: World News

The election was rigged, the news is fake, and the deep state is out to get us

Sun, 10/01/2017 - 01:00
Or, How conspiracy theories are (still) for losers! Conspiracy theories are all about power – who has it and what they are doing with it, particularly when no one is looking. The losing side will inevitably accuse those in power of conspiring. Democrats would be convinced that Trump is involved in a grand conspiracy, no matter what evidence was available.

In the last two years, conspiracy theories have become integral to American political discourse. Politicians have shaped priorities and policy around conspiracy claims, and the mainstream media has been all too happy to highlight conspiracy theories in their coverage. Polls show that Americans hold many conspiracy beliefs in the aftermath of the 2016 election. For example, 50 per cent of Democrats believe that Russia hacked the voting machines despite having no evidence of such. That Americans believe in conspiracy theories is nothing new. That conspiracy theories have become so prominent in our political rhetoric is.

Conspiracy theories have always have found a home in the United States. Colonists burned ‘witches’ at the stake, believing they were conspiring with Satan. Early Americans later separated from the British King partially out of concerns of a conspiracy by the crown. A long conspiracy narrative to document this conspiracy is written into the nation’s Declaration of Independence. The American Constitution’s main feature – separation of powers – is an effort to quell any conspiracy by one branch of government or another.

Since the passage of the Constitution, Americans have imputed conspiracy theories to virtually every group (the British, French, Spanish, Bavarian Illuminati, Freemasons, Slave Power, Abolitionists, Catholics, Jews, Mormons, Muslims, communists and capitalists, to name just a few) and to every major event (assassinations, elections, plane crashes, moon landings and untimely deaths, among many others). Whether we are arguing over major policy issues such as health care, environmental protection, or election integrity, or less important matters such as bicycle sharing programs, conspiracy theories crop up to warn of hidden plots and impending danger. It is difficult to know if the United States is more influenced by conspiracy theories than other nations (social scientists don’t yet have enough data to answer this question), but it is enough to say that Americans are no stranger to conspiracy theorizing historically or contemporarily.

More so than any recent election, 2016 was plagued by allegations of schemes and skullduggery. Conspiracy theories became the grounds on which issues were argued and candidates were judged. Either candidates were accused of engaging in far-reaching conspiracies, or they were accused of propagating dubious conspiracy theories. The election’s aftermath has seen a continuing wave of conspiracy accusations – mostly surrounding a supposed illicit alliance between Presidents Trump and Putin. These conspiracy theories beget more conspiracy theories and they shape politics and policy.

Most recent accounts of conspiracy theorizing in the media have adopted an alarmist tone – suggesting that Americans have ‘lost their minds’ and that we have entered a ‘post-truth world’. But what is the reality? It is easy to be discouraged by the on-going conspiracy rhetoric, but the social scientists who study conspiracy theories can offer us a very different story – one which, despite the apocalyptic notions of a post-truth world, offers a narrative of stability rather than of impending doom.

When it comes to the amount of conspiracy theorizing plaguing the public, journalists always find it easy to ring the alarm bell. The New York Times recently described American politics as ‘deeply infused with paranoia and distrust’. It’s easy to be alarmed by such headlines telling of a decent into post-truth conspiracy mania, but when put into context, fears of conspiracy theories are overdrawn and much too frequent. In 2011, the New York Daily News declared ‘It’s official: America is becoming a conspiratocracy’. Seven years earlier, the Boston Globe suggested that 2004 was the ‘golden age of conspiracy theory.’ In 1991, the Washington Post asserted that we lived ‘in an age of conspiracy theories’, but changed its mind in 1994, when it claimed that Bill Clinton’s first term ‘marked the dawn of a new age of conspiracy theory.’ In 1977, the Los Angeles Times declared that America had hit the high-water mark and were ‘as conspiracy prone in our judgments as the Pan-Slav nationalists in the 1880s Balkans’. I have no idea what was going on in the 1880s Balkans, I can only assume that there were lots of conspiracy theories. Going back to the assassination of JFK, the New York Times was sure in 1964 that conspiracy theories had ‘grown weedlike in this country and abroad’.

If the headlines are to be takes seriously, conspiracy theorizing in the US has always been at an all-time high, and is only getting higher. At least 150 per cent of people should be hard-core conspiracy theorists, with daily runs on the grocery store for tin foil. Journalists and commentators in the above instances simply relied on their own impressions without any data or point of comparison. An exploration behind the headlines – into the psychology and politics that drive conspiracy theorizing – might better contextualize the role that conspiracy theories, fake news, and hyper-partisanship are playing in American politics right now.

A conspiracy within a conspiracy: The DNC leaks

It is true that, in 2016 conspiracy theories became so frequent and at times so bizarre that mainstream news outlets were unsure of how to cover them. For example, Donald Trump’s assertion that Senator Ted Cruz’s father had taken part in the assassination of JFK in 1963 led the Washington Post to proclaim in exasperation, ‘How on earth is the media supposed to cover Trump’s wacky JFK–Cruz conspiracy theory?’ While Trump deserves a fair share of the credit for elevating conspiracy theories into the electoral discourse, he can’t take all of it. There was fertile ground. And, there were other high-profile politicians trafficking in conspiracy rhetoric.

Political discourse over the last two decades has been riddled with conspiracy theories. Bill Clinton’s impeachment was about a vast conspiracy as much as it was about his sexual improprieties. Post 9/11 rhetoric was often driven by conspiracy theories suggesting the Bush Administration murdered thousands of Americans or manufactured pretense for a war just for oil. The Obama Administration was held in equally low regard: Obama was accused of being a foreign usurper, of blowing up the Deepwater Horizon Well, killing the kids at Sandy Hook, and orchestrating a military take-over of Texas.

Obama’s second term was particularly fertile ground for conspiracy theories. 2013 started with a series of scandals involving Benghazi, the wiretapping of journalists and their families, and the IRS targeting of conservative groups. These scandals dragged on through the 2016 campaign and primed the public for an election filled with allegations of fraud, corruption, and cover-ups.

The most prominent conspiracy theory now is that Trump conspired to relieve sanctions if Russia were to help the Trump campaign beat Hillary Clinton. Russia supposedly obliged by hacking into the Democratic National Party’s emails. These emails, which painted the DNC in a negative light, were released right before the Democratic convention in which Clinton was to be nominated. The leak mattered because the contents suggested that the Democratic Party rigged the primaries against Bernie Sanders, Clinton’s opponent. This of course alienated the more liberal wing of the Democratic Party, perhaps pushing some Sanders supporters to vote for Trump and others to stay home. It became later known that Donna Brazille, who was both a CNN analyst and vice-chair of the DNC, had fed the Clinton campaign debate questions in advance. She initially lied about her role, but was fired and eventually admitted to her wrongdoing. In essence, the Trump conspiracy theories assert that Russia conspired with Trump by exposing an actual conspiracy within the DNC.

The conspiracy theories swirl so fast it is difficult to keep up. During the primaries, Trump was accused of being a Clinton agent whose task was to destroy Republican chances at beating Clinton. Once he won the election, that conspiracy theory went away and was replaced with the theory that Trump conspired with Putin to illicitly win. Trump claimed throughout the campaign that the election would be rigged against him; now he is accused of doing the rigging himself. Immediately after the election, far-left Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein raised more than seven million dollars, supposedly to investigate irregularities in the voting machines in several states. These irregularities were supposedly the result of Russian hacking. No irregularities were found, and a recount did not ensue. Despite this, Stein is now accused of being a Russian agent.

What is a conspiracy theory?

Just the term ‘conspiracy theory’ has been known to stop fruitful conversations in their tracks. It can imply that an idea is without merit. Beyond this, ‘conspiracy theory’ is often used to refer to a range of concepts – ESP, Bigfoot, Loch Ness Monster, ghosts, aliens, etc. – that go far beyond what I reference here. Let me get the perfunctories out of the way with a brief discussion of what I mean when I say ‘conspiracy theory’.

A ‘conspiracy’ is a small group of powerful persons acting in secret for their own benefit and against the common good. In my usage, conspiracies are large scale assaults on our bedrock institutions and practices. Conspiracies are real and happen all too often. Likely, there are many taking place right now. Prime examples are Richard Nixon’s crimes against the Constitution and subsequent cover-up, known as Watergate; the Iran-Contra affair, in which arms were illegally traded for hostages; and the Tuskegee experiments, where doctors injected syphilis into the eyes and spines of African-Americans and Guatemalans without their consent. It is important to acknowledge, however, that just because conspiracies happen, not all conspiracy theories are true.

‘Conspiracy theory’ refers to an accusation, which may or may not be true, that posits a conspiracy. Conspiracy theories are not concerned with small crimes (e.g. a temptress and her lover devise to kill the cuck husband), but rather with actions that tear at the very fabric of our society. These might include global financial scams, mass brainwashing, depopulation, and interference with democratic institutions and processes. The theory that the CIA killed JFK is a conspiracy theory; so is the notion that climate scientists faked data to precede a socialist take-over. I am obliged to state here – contrary to many conspiracy theorists – that the term ‘conspiracy theory’ was itself not created as part of a CIA conspiracy to hinder scepticism in the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination.

There are millions and millions of conspiracy theories. If you want proof that the internet is not fertile ground for conspiracy theories, just spend a few days on Twitter. Thousands of conspiracy theories will appear each day, but the vast, vast majority will disappear into the night having generated little interest and few followers. It is only a select few that amass a measurable number of believers and any degree of staying power.

Philosophers have invested considerable energy into defining the difference between conspiracies and conspiracy theories. Some of this work focuses on delineating the conspiracy theories which are warranted – those which are likely to be true – from those which are most likely false and should be abandoned. There is a great deal of disagreement on this front, largely because conspiracy theories are non-falsifiable. Given that we expect evidence to be hidden and red-herrings to abound, proving a conspiracy theory true or false is exceptionally difficult. But for the purposes of my usage, the difference between conspiracy and conspiracy theory rest on what is most likely true as determined by our appropriate knowledge-generating institutions. I refer to Watergate as a conspiracy because courts held trials, Congress held hearings, perpetrators went to jail, and the relevant evidence is out in the open for all to see. Theories about JFK’s assassination – whether they implicate the CIA, then Vice-President Lyndon Johnson, Cuba, or the Soviet Union – are conspiracy theories because the appropriate institution in this instance, the Warren Commission, determined that one lone assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, acted on his own and without direction.

Experts, scientists, and officials could be (and are) wrong from time to time, but the best path to truth in those instances is more experts, scientists, and officials rather than more conspiracy theories. Conspiracy theories and theorists can occasionally do good by promoting scepticism and encouraging scrutiny, particularly of the powerful; but as a pathway to truth, conspiracy theories are generally terrible when compared to our mainstream knowledge-generating institutions. Conspiracy theory ‘methods’, if they exist, have never been shown to be reliable.

Nonetheless, if one wants to challenge mainstream wisdom, conspiracy theories are an excellent rhetorical device for doing so. If the evidence is not in one’s favour, if one’s experts are outnumbered and outmatched, then a conspiracy theory can easily explain away shortcomings and change the grounds of debate. Climate change deniers and creationists typically reach for conspiracy theories to explain why their ideas are not discussed in the mainstream, not included in serious scientific journals, and not endorsed by a consensus of scientists. A conspiracy theory can change the tenor of the debate so that the onus shifts to mainstream scientists and institutions to prove there is no conspiracy, rather on the science deniers whose ideas offer sparse or dubious evidence. In this way, conspiracy theories can act as a disruptive political mechanism.

Much like ‘conspiracy theory’, ‘conspiracy theorist’ is also a freighted term: a few brave souls wear it as a badge, but most would recoil if called one. The term could refer to anyone who believes in a conspiracy theory – which would be every American – or it could be used to refer to a subset of believers, perhaps those who create or propagate conspiracy theories, or those who have a belief system that is comprised largely of conspiracy theories. I favour the latter usage.

How we conceptualize conspiracy theories has a bearing on how we think about them and how we might choose to address them. The conceptual take-away is this: conspiracy theories are dubious ideas that could be true, but probably aren’t. Despite this, everyone partakes in conspiracy theorizing from time to time, and some conspiracy theories flourish despite a dearth of evidence. There are two sides to the ledger, of course: sometimes conspiracy theories shed new light on a subject; but usually they leave adherents shadowed in ignorance. If conspiracy theories are so dubious, why do so many people believe them?

People rarely adopt ideas they believe are false. People believe things because they assume those things are true. This is one reason why it is so difficult to discuss religion or politics – people have a set of beliefs and despite any evidence to the contrary, they are convinced those beliefs are correct. Similarly, conspiracy theories often leave little room for negotiation. As much as you might think that beliefs in faked birth certificates, controlled demolitions, or second shooters are unevidenced and irrational, the people that have adopted those beliefs are convinced of their veracity and of their own even-minded evaluation of the ‘evidence’. This matters in democracies: if we are going to call on citizens to make decisions which will be backed by force, then we should want citizens to have the most accurate view of reality possible and to reason as rationally as possible. My research into conspiracy theories suggests that many citizens’ views skew far off of reality and that their reasoning is largely biased by socialized worldviews.

Why do people believe in conspiracy theories?

The most appropriate way to conceive of conspiracy theories is as political opinions. The simplest way to understand how political opinions arise is as the sum of a piece of new information coming in and being laid on top of an existing predisposition that helps us interpret that new information. For example, during the last month of the Obama administration, the final Obama era jobs report came out. The numbers showed national unemployment holding steady at around 4.7 per cent. Democrats looked at the number and thought, ‘Great job, Obama!’ Republicans looked at that same number and thought, ‘that number isn’t picking up on what’s really going on out there. And worse, that number may be faked!’ Same information, but two very different interpretations.

Elections results and party control have an effect on this too. Before Trump won the presidency, Democrats has a very positive view of the economy; Republicans, on the other hand, had a more sour outlook. When Trump was elected, opinions reversed: Democrats began to sour on the economy while Republican views improved dramatically. The economy has not changed much in the last few months, nor has it changed differentially for Democrats than it has for Republicans. In short, our opinions are shaped by our underlying worldviews and suffice it to say it’s unwise to assume that our political views are derived from an even-handed assessment of facts.

The most important worldview that drives political opinions in the US is partisanship, and American parties are like tribes. Americans are socialized into having an attachment to a party and once solidified these attachments tend to stick for life. Partisans feel a sense of belonging to their party label and likewise, many also feel a disdain for the opposing party. Once Americans hit middle age, they tend to vote for the same party over and over. So, while campaign coverage in the United States makes it seems as though many Americans are making up their minds about candidates, or switching back and forth between parties, the truth is that because underlying dispositions such as partisanship are stable, partisans’ views and behaviours are more stable than the news often lets on. Stories about stability don’t attract as many clicks.

Just as a mother would never believe her son a killer, even when presented with fingerprints on the smoking gun, partisans rarely believe their own party has committed a wrong. Partisanship guides the direction that people point their fingers. Republicans believe that Democrats, labour unions, socialists and communists are conspiring. Democrats on the other hand believe that Republicans, corporations, and the wealthy are conspiring. Most of the time, conspiracy theories are just a new mask for old partisan critiques.

Social psychologists converged around the idea that beliefs in specific conspiracy theories tend to derive from a predisposition toward conspiracy logic – I refer to this as conspiracy thinking. Whereas people might believe that they believe a particular conspiracy theory because they think it is true, or at least well-evidenced, social scientists argue that conspiracy beliefs are little more than the conclusions of biased minds. We all have a friend (or worse, family member) who believes every conspiracy theory they encounter – it can’t be that this person has stockpiled good evidence for their beliefs, rather it’s more likely that they are just predisposed to accept conspiracy theories more so than other explanations.

Perhaps the most important study on the topic shows that conspiracy theorists who believed Princess Diana had been killed by the royal family also believed she was still alive and in hiding; those who believed that Osama bin Laden had been killed before the Navy Seals got to him also believed he was still alive.1 That conspiracy theorists were willing to believe contradictory narratives suggests that it’s not evidence of a particular plot that drives conspiracy theorists, but rather an underlying disposition towards seeing events and circumstances as the product of conspiracy. People that think very strongly in conspiratorial terms need little evidence to suspect a conspiracy – while those who do not think very strongly in conspiratorial terms need much more evidence. Think of this as a continuum rather than a dichotomy: most people are somewhere in the middle. Education and income are good predictors of how much people engage in conspiracy thinking; the poor and uneducated are more likely to think in such terms while the educated and wealthy are less likely to do so.

When we put partisanship and conspiracy thinking together, we end up with a ceiling for partisan conspiracy theories that tops out at about 25 percent. The reason: in order for someone to endorse a partisan conspiracy theory, they must be both inclined to believe in conspiracy theories and be willing to accuse the villain in the particular theory. ‘Truther’ theories that accused the Bush Administration of complicity in the 9/11 terror attacks plateaued at about 25 per cent – Republicans and people resistant to conspiracy logic were not going to believe this theory. The same goes for the ‘Birther’ theory, that Barack Obama faked his birth certificate – this also peaked at around 25 per cent because it could only persuade conspiracy minded Republicans. The good news is that 75 per cent of the country disavows each theory; the bad news is that 50 percent endorsed one of the two.

Conspiracy theories are for losers

Conspiracy theories are, at their core, about power – who has it and what they are doing with it, especially when no one is looking. Conspiracy theories always accuse a villain presumed to be immensely powerful. Rarely do conspiracy theories accuse the powerless, poor, or crippled. It makes perfect sense, then, that if conspiracy theories are about the machinations of the powerful, then conspiracy theorizing would track actual power. The evidence shows this is the case.

When a Republican is in the White House, conspiracy theories tend to accuse Republicans, the wealthy, and corporations; when a Democrat is in the White House, conspiracy theories tend to accuse Democrats, socialists, and communists. We have seen this pendulum swing back and forth with power over the last few decades. During the Bush Administration, Democrats were the ones pushing conspiracy narratives about 9/11, Bush, Cheney, Haliburton, Blackwater, and so on. This switched as soon as Barack Obama won the 2008 election: theories about 9/11 and the ‘war for oil’ became socially inert and were replaced by conspiracy theories about the faked birth certificate and so on. No doubt each of these presidents did things that deserve scrutiny, but the thousands of conspiracy theories that marked their presidencies were well out in front of any evidence. Conspiracy theories are for losers and the losing side is going to accuse those in power of conspiring. It is no shock then that Democrats currently feel cheated and are convinced that Trump is involved in a grand conspiracy. No matter what evidence was available, they would feel this way.

People don’t like to be ruled by others. Republicans don’t like being ruled by Democrats and vice-versa. People experience anxiety when they are ruled over by others – this is accompanied by the fear that an opposing group can get their way with force. Conspiracy theories help mitigate these fears sort of like a coping mechanism. The weak are in a precarious situation. Victories provide power and resources which breed future victories. To prevent those future victories, out-of-power groups need to revamp and recoup from their losses, close ranks, overcome collective action problems, and sensitize minds to perceived vulnerabilities. Conspiracy theories accomplish these goals by focusing the efforts of the weak toward overcoming the strong.

We see this reflected in our media environment. Because they are in a precarious situation, losers have a need for information; winners don’t. Two examples for the cable news market illustrate this. Fox News Channel, which appeals largely to Republicans, achieved very strong ratings following Obama’s election in 2008. The Democrats took control of the White House, Senate, and House of Representatives. At the same time, CNN and MSNBC, which appeal to more liberal audiences, faltered. Republicans were under threat and Democrats were not. Fox at the time featured radio host/conspiracy theorist Glenn Beck and his conspiracy chalkboard during their five o’clock spot. When the Republicans took control of the House in 2010, Republican anxiety was at least somewhat tempered; FNC’s ratings declined and conspiracy theorist Glenn Beck left the network. We see the opposite now. With Republicans having control of the federal government, MSNBC’s ratings have surged, in particular, the viewership for Rachel Maddow’s night time program. Maddow has focused her program on Russian conspiracy theories and this has boosted her ratings.

Conspiracy thinking and the 2016 presidential election campaign

To paint then with broad strokes, Americans believe in conspiracy theories because of dispositional and situational factors. Some people are predisposed because of their socialization to be more accepting of conspiracy theories, and shifts in political power can accentuate those dispositions. Power shifts back and forth in democracies, therefore the prominent conspiracy theories will shift in time to follow that power. This paints a picture of stability more than of change. Why, then, has our information environment been inundated with conspiracy theories and fake news, and why did the American public become so captivated by conspiracy theories during the 2016 election?

The answer to the latter question lies in two candidates, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. Both candidates based their campaigns on conspiracy narratives. Trump’s frequent conspiracy theories received a lot of notice, but only because he pushed new varieties each week. But, if we were to boil all of his conspiracy theories down into one, it would be this: political elites have sold out the interests of ordinary Americans to foreign interests. Sanders, on the other hand, pushed a single conspiracy theory, that political elites had sold out the interests of ordinary Americans to financial interests, who he referred to as the 1 per cent. Both candidates painted a bleak picture of politics and motivated their crowds with claims of ‘rigging’.

Both Sanders and Trump were ‘outsider’ candidates. Sanders was not really a Democrat; he instead identified during his campaign as a democratic-socialist. This is about as outside as one can get in American politics. Trump was not even a politician and there were many questions about whether his issue positions, if he held any consistently, were congruent with those of the GOP. Sanders was up against Hillary Clinton, who by all accounts was set to be crowned by the Democrats, while Trump was competing against a strong pool of Republican candidates, including Jeb Bush. To justify their existence in the race, each had to turn to conspiracy theories. Why should either party nominate an outsider who is clearly less experienced and less electable than the mainstream choices? This is where Trump’s and Sanders’ conspiracy theories come in. If the entire process is corrupt, if the experienced political elites are all corrupt, and the media is all corrupt, then experience, endorsements, and mainstream views should count for nothing.

Given that Trump and Sanders appealed to the conspiracy-minded members of their respective parties, it is no surprise then that each of them received about 40 per cent of the votes during the primaries. For Trump, this plurality was enough to win the nomination, because the field of mainstream candidates opposing him divided the mainstream vote.

Normally, politicians who espouse conspiracy theories do not get far in America. They could make a short-term splash, like Senator Joseph McCarthy, buy they tend to face ridicule and fade away rather quickly. The mainstream media – with some exceptions – is quick to denounce politicians who push conspiracy theories. Trump and Sanders were able to prosper with conspiracy theories for two different reasons. Trump was able to excite a sector of voters who felt underrepresented by the mainstream GOP, and he was able to mobilize new voters because his mix of conspiracy theories and nationalism resonated with them. Sanders was able to mobilize the conspiracy-minded left wing of the Democratic Party because he appealed to its belief that the system was rigged against it by a small group of high earners. In short, conspiracy-minded people exist in each party and have been underserved by party rhetoric in the past. Trump and Sanders gave these conspiracy-minded people what they wanted. It isn’t so much that demands changed, it’s just that Trump and Sanders both made bold attempts to capitalize on it. The same logic applies to the current ‘epidemic’ of fake news plaguing our information environment.

Time to start worrying?

It is true the false ideas plague our political discourse. Some of these ideas are shared widely on social media, so much so that they sometimes outshine more accurate news. Should we be concerned? The short answer is no. Fake and frauds have always existed; the fact we are noticing them more now is a testament to our concern over truth, rather than our disdain for it.

Fakes news can spread fast. Conspiracy theories, in particular, have found a home on the internet and can be shared easily on social media, sometimes creating a wildfire of false beliefs. During the election, fake headlines – for example, those claiming Hillary Clinton was dead – were shared despite having no truth to them. The assumption is that these false ideas pop up on social media and are shared indiscriminately by users. This makes a good headline of course, but contrary to most of the claims made by journalists and commenters, this is not the case. People who are resistant to conspiracy theories won’t traffic in them on the internet, and partisans won’t traffic in conspiracy theories that accuse co-partisans. This leaves the online conspiracy theorizing to those who believe in conspiracy theories anyway.

The bigger picture is that while there are conspiracy theories on the internet, we have overestimated their place there. Everything – recipes, kitten videos, sports – is on the internet, yet it seems that we only think that conspiracy theories and other forms of dubious information are taking over. To put this idea to rest, consider the following. There is currently no evidence to suggest that public beliefs in conspiracy theories have increased since the internet or social media were rolled out. Most conspiracy theories that arise on the internet die on the vine. The websites that traffic in conspiracy theories do not get anywhere near the amount of web traffic that mainstream websites do. People go to the internet to get real news, book travel, get dates, and look at porn in far higher numbers than they go to look at conspiracy theories.

There are good reasons to suspect that the internet has tamed conspiracy theories and false information. First, the internet and social media provide easy access to authoritative sources. People don’t need to rely on village wisdom to solve problems, they can get immediate authoritative information at the touch of a button. But more importantly, peoples’ dispositions still drive what they believe, and elites still largely drive the contours of public opinion. There just isn’t enough room for fake news to affect anyone who doesn’t already have a worldview driven toward dubious ideas to begin with.

For fear of upending a great narrative, fears of a post-truth world are vastly overblown. First, if we had descended into a post-truth world, we probably would not know it, nor would anyone care. The fact that we are having a conversation about the accuracy of our information environment is proof – to a certain extent – that we do care about truth.

  1. Wood, M., et al. (2012). “Dead and Alive: Beliefs in Contradictory Conspiracy Theories. Social Psychological and Personality Science 3(6): 767-773.
PUBLISHED 28 SEPTEMBER 2017

Original in English
First published in Eurozine

© Joseph E. Uscinski / Eurozine

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Categories: World News

No chance for fake news

Sun, 10/01/2017 - 00:51

Think first, then share.
Picture credits: unsplash.com / Jacob Ufkes

What we might have come to understand after this german election

By Jutta Kramm, for Correctiv

For four weeks a group of “fact checkers”, put together by CORRECTIV and First Draft, have been tracking down fake news. Six chapters stating what we have learnt so far.

The video clip is shaky. It shows several dozen dark skinned people at a bus station wearing long white clothing. Behind this post on Facebook stands a group, hiding behind the account name “Ich will mein Land zurück” (“I want my country back”). They commented and said the following: “Heute morgen in Leipzig. Nein man kann wirklich nicht von #Islamisierung, #Umvolkung oder #Verfremdung sprechen. Bitte teilen und Seite liken.” (“This morning in Leipzig. Do you still think that we should not be allowed to talk about #islamization, #repopulation or #alienation. Please share and like the page.”) It is September 9, 2017. The clip will be shared on Facebook several thousand times.

We checked this video right away and found out that the people in this video were African Christians wearing their holiday clothing. They had just come from a baptism ceremony.

This is one of the examples of so-called “fake news” that we have tracked down and debunked in these last few weeks. This video of a group returning from a baptism is a good example of the things WahlCheck17 has uncovered so far. This fake news story about the supposed “Islamization” has not been noticed by much of the general public. Nevertheless, it still achieved its goal – the spreading of indignation within right wing circles. Since the end of August, our team of 18 journalists, made up of the two non-profit media organizations CORRECTIV and First Draft, has not just searched for lies or disinformation but has also published a constantly growing number of fact-checking articles. In our daily updated newsletter “#WahlCheck17”, we informed journalists and other interested people about fake news and disinformative campaigns.

We have come to learn a lot about this country – we have especially learnt how the spreading of emotional posts and campaigns is also affecting Germans online. We have learnt how this method of campaigning is used to persuade masses and suggest a majority, as well as to trying to steer these masses.

In the following six chapters, we are stating what we have learnt so far.

1. No fake news is good news

The German election has not been decided by one fake story, the one big and deliberately shared political lie did not emerge during the last weeks. This is a good thing. All of the reputable surveys are stating that a majority of the German population is openly trusting traditional media – meaning big and small regional German newspapers, Germans trust their traditional news broadcasts “Tagesschau”, “heute-Journal” and the likes. Notably, most of the sampled Germans are mistrusting information they come across on Social Media platforms like Facebook and Twitter.

Both platforms, known to be used for the spreading of misinformation in countries like the US or the UK, do not play a significant role in Germany. Political discourse predominantly does not take place online. There simply aren’t as many people active.

We have observed that most of the distortions and the stories having been quoted out of context have only been shared a few thousand times. Most of the fake news we have tracked down have even been only shared by a few hundred users. This is the reason why most of the general public has not taken a hold of them.

This fact has probably been known by the political campaigners, whose mission is was to spread fake news. A big and absurd story like “pizzagate” during the 2016 election campaign in the US would not have come to a success in Germany. The German public appears to be very aware of fake news.

2. The poison of small lies

The general awareness of the population could have been taken into account for the development of another misinformation strategy. We observed many small fake news – Memes, montages, half-true assertions, distortions or falsely chosen figures and dates. For most of the time, these misinformation pieces were about migration policy, refugees, asylum policy or crimes supposedly committed by migrants.

The propagators of these fake news have apparently been aiming at the xenophobia of many people and at their fear for losing their “cultural identity”. The propagators played with the occurrence of racism within the German society. Also, they consciously tried to stir up sorrows. Many of these small stories have been circulating on a regional level, as well as most likely within closed groups on Facebook. We assume that they are taking full effect regionally and within closed circles. These are the places where fake news are hardly refutable, because they are difficult to be tracked down by fact checkers. The sheer number of these groups is making it tedious to detect them – also, because rumors spread in such circles aren’t sought to emerge in the media.

3. Fakes are spread by the right

Almost all of the noteworthy misinformation has been spread within the right wing environment. There, the Alternative for Germany (AfD) has fought a provocative and polarizing campaign. The party’s supporters, as well as recently its top staff members as well, have shown to be the main propagators of fake news. This is attested by our fact checking articles as well as by research and papers by experts.

4. Russian bots are asleep – almost

Until last Saturday, right before the election, all of the bot researchers we have been in contact with couldn’t affirm an increased Russian bot activity. The bots that have been in use have been working predominantly in favor for AfD. They accounted between seven and twelve percent of the traffic on Twitter.

According to social bot expert Ben Nimmo, it was only last Saturday when a botnet has been activated to work towards the topic of election fraud – in case of a week turnout of votes for AfD.

4. Anger and indignation – analog and digitally

The wave of anger that has been following Angela Merkel’s election appearances since August, has also been dominating discourse online. This wave has already been clearly observed in the weeks before street campaigning. The street protests have been organized online as well. The Internet – Social Media – has been an indicator for the growth of anger. One who cries out load, one who tweets misinformation is suggesting an angry morale but is not displaying an angry majority. These users have been working on distorting political discourse, making it nearly impossible for constructive discussions and rational dispute to root.

5. They came to stay

Fake news, distortions and consciously shared half-truths have always existed, especially during election campaigns. Nowadays, digitally, they can be shared and amplified quicker.

This German election revealed that the German public is ripe and able to an enlightened political debate. Still, a large part of this society is prone to misinformation campaigns, mainly due to its isolation from public dispute. By the well-accepting resonance to many of the small and big lies and half-truths it became apparent that this method of misinformation isn’t yet exhausted. It is to be feared that the propagators of negative campaigning have only just begun. They might just have used this summer for practicing their strategies.

6. Think first, then share

Fake news are neither the cause nor reason for the success of the extreme right-winged AfD. Fake news aren’t the problem, they are the expression of an underlying problem. Nevertheless, fake news are a slow poison for democracy. This is why it is necessary to counterpose them and to insist on an enlightened, fact based political discussion. In order to be able to guarantee free opinion making and to guarantee our cohabitation as a tolerant society, it is necessary to unmask disinformation campaigns through fact checking.

Fact checking has taken an important role in digital media education. They are practicing one principle: “Think first, then share”. We have learnt about the immensely important role of media education, because we are all senders and receivers of information. And we have come to learn that the role of journalists as gatekeepers of information has weakened.

It stays relevant to discover why fake news can take effect: Why are so many people ready to believe in rumors and willing to spread them? Only if we work successfully on regaining the thread of conversation with the angry and the frightened, fake news won’t stand a chance anymore.

By Jutta Kramm, for Correctiv

Categories: World News

Russian Censor Summons CNN Staff Over Supposed Media Law Violation

Sat, 09/30/2017 - 00:12

Nicole Mays / Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

By The Moscow Times

Russia’s state media censor on Friday summoned representatives of the U.S.-based CNN International cable news television channel over supposed media law violations.

Roskomnadzor spokesman Vadim Ampelonsky told the state-run news agency TASS that CNN had provided an outdated dateline. Documents submitted by CNN to prove they had fixed the problem were “being analyzed,” he said, but the station would remain under observation.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry warned on Thursday that it could retaliate against a U.S. demand for Kremlin-backed news channels RT and Sputnik International to register as foreign agents.

President Vladimir Putin also addressed the “continuing pressure on Russian media in several foreign countries” during a meeting with his national security council, the Kremlin said Friday.

CNN ran several stories this week on Facebook and Twitter ads purchased by Russia’s Internet Research Agency during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign described as sowing public discord.

Roskomnadzor issued a universal 10-year broadcasting license to CNN in 2015, allowing the channel to sign broadcasting deals with Russian cable and satellite providers.

By The Moscow Times

Categories: World News

The pro-Kremlin pulp mill

Sat, 09/30/2017 - 00:00

By EU vs Disinfo

This week, pro-Kremlin propagandists wrapped themselves in red tape. Significant paper work is needed to dig into the details: it’s all about official documents and agreements.

The first target of the disinformation stream was Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s proposal for peacekeepers that would cover the whole of eastern Ukraine including the border with Russia. So, we heard from the Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov that deploying a UN peacekeeping mission at the Russian-Ukrainian border in Donbas would contradict the Minsk agreements.

In fact, the Package of Measures for the Implementation of the Minsk Agreements does not mention peacekeeping missions. Instead, it states that full Ukrainian government control has to be restored over the state border.

Another narrative – directly contradicting this one – was that the peacekeepers are not needed, as the border between Ukraine and Russia is “a zone of peace and tranquillity”. Take a look at the figuresconcerning the civilian death during the war in Ukraine to know that that is disinformation.

The topic also enabled the evocation of some of the most popular false narratives about “Ukraine being run by a terrorist junta that destroys the Russian language” and that the US and the European countries brought both Hitler and Poroshenko to power.

No evidence needed

The second target of the past week was the recent report on Crimea by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. According to the UN, the human rights situation in Crimea has significantly deteriorated under Russian occupation. “Grave human rights violations, such as arbitrary arrests and detentions, enforced disappearances, ill-treatment and torture, and at least one extra-judicial execution were documented”, the report says.

But apparently the report is based on lies, or that was the simple pro-Kremlin answer. The argument went as follows: the UN experts haven’t been to Crimea, so they received all the information from Ukraine and those who “haven’t visited Crimea for a long time and judge the situation based on Ukrainian TV channels.”

In fact, the Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine has been collecting information throughout Ukraine, including in Crimea – where the Russian authorities provided it access only once. Part of the documentation was in the form of direct interviews and fact-finding missions at the Administrative Boundary Line between mainland Ukraine and Crimea.

Also, an attempt was made to mislead the audience about Spanish Mallorca’s appetite for independence. Sputnik claimed that not only Catalonia wants to vote for independence, but that the Balearic Islands calls for independence as well. In reality, the vote of the Mallorca Republic is just a political intention and a manifesto written by one minority nationalist party.

Disinformation outlet Rusvesna claimed that Lithuanian NATO instructors had raped two girls in Donbas.

Finally, though, the pro-Kremlin disinformation paper mill returned to one of its most straightforward techniques: in fact there’s no need at all for any documents to support false arguments. So we heard that a Lithuanian NATO instructor had raped two girls in Donbas. The latest manifestation of this well worn theme, which we have tracked for a long time, was quickly debunked by Lithuania.

In addition, Latvia and Estonia heard that they have territorial claims over Russia, just as Poland has over Ukraine and Belarus, and Romania over Transnistria.

And we learned that during the wildfire raging in the Borjomi Gorge, the US merely helped Georgia by donating only useless shoes that are usually used for burial rituals of homeless people in the US. Check the truth here.

By EU vs Disinfo

Categories: World News

The Monumental Obsession of Bulgaria’s Russophiles

Fri, 09/29/2017 - 10:24

By Michael Colborne, for Codastory

Could a campaign to protect Soviet-era statues become a future Kremlin Trojan horse in Bulgaria?

To hear Nikolai Malinov tell it, his 35,000-strong National Movement of Russophiles is just a cultural movement, a big club that puts up statues and organizes festivals to remind Bulgarians of their country’s longstanding historical, cultural and linguistic ties with Russia.

But he is also clear about his views. “Russia today has a spiritual plan to rescue Europe, with traditional values, a strong state and a multipolar world.” Given Russia’s power plays across Europe, some here in Bulgaria think Malinov and his movement have a bigger political goal — to move the country further into the Kremlin’s orbit.

Since Malinov took over as leader eight years ago, his “Russophiles” have been busily erecting plaques and statues to people they regard as heroes of past conflicts involving the Russians. That includes the 1877-1878 Russo-Turkish war which liberated Bulgaria from Ottoman control, and even the 1944 Soviet invasion that put the country behind the Iron Curtain.

Monument Battle

It is also why, Malinov says, they protect old monuments, among them a giant display in central Sofia of Soviet soldiers fighting in World War II. It has often been defaced — prompting protests from Moscow — including one time when it was repainted in the colors of the Ukrainian flag in response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

“Memory is very important to us,” says Malinov.

With Malinov at the head, Slavophiles in Bulgaria have made it their mission to protect monuments associated with the Soviet past, like this WWII memorial in Sofia.

The Russian language is also important; the Russophiles have organized nationwide festivals of Russian poetry and dance for children (called “Let There Always Be Sunshine”), and helped fund Russian-language courses in more than 300 kindergartens across Bulgaria.

It’s all part of Malinov’s mission to encourage Bulgarians to embrace Russia “on the basis of historical traditions, Orthodox Christianity and Slavic ideas and values.”

This year, the Russophiles sponsored trips to Bulgaria for Russian military cadets who had won a history-essay contest overseen by Russia’s Heritage Foundation, which is dedicated to promoting the country’s history. Writers of the top three essays about the Russo-Turkish War traveledto Bulgaria to visit “sites of Russian glory.”

The Heritage Foundation is headed by a familiar name to Russia-watchers in the Balkans (of which Bulgaria is considered part). Leonid Reshetnikov, someone Malinov calls his friend, was known for his “extremely hawkish” views in his previous job at the SVR, Russia’s foreign intelligence service. He also compiles an annual ranking of “Russophobic foreign journalists, and last year Reshnetnikov said it was “time [for Russia] to return to the Balkans.”

“RussiatodayhasaspiritualplantorescueEurope,withtraditionalvalues,astrongstateandamultipolarworld.”

Reshetnikov and Malinov also have a friend in common — Russian investment banker Konstantin Malofeev, who has been sanctioned by the U.S. and the European Union for alleged financial support to pro-Russian forces in Ukraine.

In 2015, Malinov and Malofeev joined forces to attempt a takeover of Bulgaria’s TV7, a privately owned entertainment station. In an interview at the time, Malofeev described his relationship with Malinov as “very close” and predicted a “brilliant future” for the Russophiles.

But that “brilliant future” has still to materialize. The TV7 takeover ultimately failed and the station has since closed. Malinov failed to win a seat in this year’s parliamentary elections, running on the far-right United Patriots list, after pulling out of the Bulgarian Socialist Party on the grounds that it was behaving like an “enemy of Russia.”

At the helm of Bulgaria’s 35,000-strong National Movement of Russophiles is Nikolai Malinov.

They have one guaranteed source of support — the older generation who still remember the Soviet Union. According to one recent survey by Alpha Research, a market-research agency, 95 percent of Bulgarians over 60 view Russia positively. “They are the keepers of this trend to move closer to Russia,” says Alpha’s Boryana Dimitrova. But the Russophiles have struggled to win wider support, especially among the young.

Malinov and the Russophiles can’t be counted out though. They claim 10,000 people came to their annual festival-style meeting, where they were selling T-shirts with images of Vladimir Putin, Josef Stalin and Bulgaria’s Communist-era leader, Todor Zhivkov.

The movement matters “as a legal vehicle” to spread a Kremlin-friendly point of view, argues Martin Vladimirov, an analyst at Sofia’s Center for the Study of Democracy. In that way, he says, “Malinov does have an impact.” Dimitrova echoes this, saying Moscow is more than happy to have homegrown groups like the Russophiles acting as its advocate.

And though they have admit to “financial difficulties” in their most recent annual report, the Russophiles say they’ve seen an increase in donations and sponsors over the last year, though they won’t say who from publicly.

But at the Monument to the Soviet Army, there is little sign of Malinov’s steadfast pro-Russian message connecting.

Three teenagers are perched above, drinking bottles of beer with their feet dangling down over the heroic-looking statues. For the moment, the monument is back to its usual dark, greenish-grey, but spray-painted below are three words in Bulgarian:

“Boli me fara” — “I don’t care.”

By Michael Colborne, for Codastory

Michael Colborne is a journalist based in Prague

Categories: World News

John F. Tefft: On the Day of My Departure (Op-ed)

Fri, 09/29/2017 - 09:03

U.S. State Department

We need to rebuild trust between our two countries.

By John F. Tefft, for The Moscow Times

When I first joined the diplomatic service, working on the Soviet desk in the 1980s, our relationship with Russia was at a low point. The Soviet Union had just shot down a Korean Airliner, with almost 100 Americans including a Congressman on board. There was a lot of anger in America.

Today, as I prepare to leave Russia, our relationship has reached another low point. Americans are concerned and angry about Russian interference in our elections and by the Russian authorities’ refusal to accept their responsibility for it.

As Secretary Tillerson said, we need to rebuild trust between our two countries and move our relationship to a different place. The American people want the two most powerful nuclear nations in the world to have a better relationship. From the earliest days of this Administration we have said time and again that we would prefer a constructive relationship with Russia based on cooperation on common interests. We remain prepared to try to find a way forward.

Serving the American community is at the heart of the work of the U.S. Mission in Russia, and it will continue to be a main priority moving forward. The U.S. Embassy and our Consulates General throughout Russia first and foremost are here to provide services to the Americans living, working, and traveling in Russia. During my time here, I have seen what Americans can do in Russia to bring our countries together on a people-to-people, business-to-business, scholar-to-scholar, performer-to-performer level. This gives me hope, even during these difficult times.

With the help of our Foreign Commercial Service and Foreign Agricultural Service, U.S. and Russian businesses receive assistance developing and expanding new relationships and introducing innovative technologies. This increases trade and investment and strengthens ties between our two countries. I have seen how cattle ranchers from the United States and Russia work together to produce high quality beef for the Russian market and how American-trained managers bring productivity and streamlined processing into Russian businesses to help make them more profitable and more successful.

I am particularly proud of the positive influence U.S. companies have had on the Russian business culture. When I contrast the present business culture with what I witnessed here in the 1990s, I notice tremendous progress in the areas of transparency, business ethics, and corporate social responsibility.

U.S. companies have led by example on corporate social responsibility. One major soft drinks manufacturer has partnered with governmental and non-governmental organizations to preserve and protect important watersheds; an oil and gas corporation has provided over $250 million to support infrastructure and community projects in Sakhalin and Khabarovsk Krai; and a paper and pulp producer supports social programs in Svetogorsk. These are just a few of the many examples of the benefits of the presence of U.S. companies here in Russia. I have also been very impressed with Russia’s talented business leaders, including women, many of whom rose from entry-level positions at U.S. companies to the highest ranks of leadership.

As I look back over my time here in Russia, I am struck by the richness of Russian culture and history. I will look back fondly on my travels to places like Tikhvin, where I had the pleasure of visiting Rimsky-Korsakov’s childhood home and seeing the piano on which so many amazing and talented Russian composers played and composed their works. I will particularly remember my annual visits to events such as the pop-culture and entertainment conference Comic-Con, my travels throughout the country to visit American businesses and partnerships, and all of the opportunities I have to meet with many creative, intelligent young Russians who are inspired by the possibilities of what we can do when we work together.

We will continue to stand up for our interests while looking for avenues of dialogue. We remain dedicated to finding ways to bring together Russians and Americans both to discuss our differences and to discover the many things we have in common. Having seen how we weathered the storm in the 1980s and the dedication of our staff of talented professionals in the State Department back home and here in Mission Russia, I remain optimistic that our governments will ultimately find a way forward. On our side, we’re certainly ready.

By John F. Tefft, for The Moscow Times

John F. Tefft is former U.S. Ambassador to Russia.

Categories: World News

Now Facebook is Feeling Election Heat in Russia

Thu, 09/28/2017 - 15:01

By Codastory

Already under fire in America over allegations it was used as a platform for Russian interference in last year’s US presidential campaign, Facebook now finds itself in Moscow’s cross-hairs too — and yet again elections are at the centre of the showdown.

Russia’s media and communications watchdog has threatened to block access to Facebook if it does not comply with demands to store data from Russian users on local servers by next year, when President Vladimir Putin goes to the polls for a fourth term.

As Coda Story reported this week, the Rozkomnadzor watchdog, or RKN, has become increasingly aggressive in its efforts to control internet activity in Russia.

Foreign IT giants like Facebook, Google and Apple have resisted past demands to give RKN access to data generated by their Russian users – but a precedent was set when the watchdog blocked access to Microsoft-owned LinkedIn last year over its refusal to comply. With the elections due in March next year, RKN now seems to be widening its net.

“Everyone needs to abide by the law,” the Interfax news agency quoted Roskomnadzor chief Alexander Zharov as telling reporters. “In 2018, everything will be as it should be for sure,” he said, referring to Facebook. If it fails to comply, he warned, “the company will cease to work on the territory of the Russian Federation as unfortunately happened to LinkedIn. There can’t be any exceptions here.”

It comes as Facebook is under growing pressure in America to reveal more about alleged Russian efforts to swing the 2016 election. Last week, its CEO Mark Zuckerberg agreed to hand over more details to Congress of thousands of adverts allegedly bought by Russian operatives to influence US voters. Now Facebook may have to open up more to the alleged source of this influence operation too.

By Codastory

Categories: World News