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Kremlin propaganda methods and American extremism

Sun, 09/17/2017 - 08:19

Posted on Sep 15, 2017

By Kseniya Kirillova, for EUToday

The past month was marked in the United States by a series of highly disturbing events. This includes a clash with ultra-right extremists in Charlottesville, and, more importantly, President Trump’s reaction to this event, writes Kseniya Kirillova for EU Today.

Recall that for a long time Trump refrained from criticizing American neo-Nazis, saying that in this tragedy “both sides are to blame”, a position which caused widespread public outrage, but a praise from the right-wing extremists. Then, under public pressure, he was forced to condemn the radical right, but soon returned to his initial statements, saying that some of these people were “real patriots.”

At the end of the month, Trump made another decision which aroused indignation of a large part of the American public. He pardoned the former sheriff from Arizona Joe Arpaio, who on his own initiative created a prison for illegal immigrants and called it a “concentration camp.” As a result, some American media have suggested that the US president is deliberately “flirting” with the extreme right.

In fact, the situation is somewhat more complicated.  It feels as though today’s White House is profiting from the polarization of American society. Even during the campaign, Donald Trump counted on the radicalization of his supporters, creating an image of the destruction and decline of America and exaggerating the existing problems. After the election, this behavior escalated, but this time the target of radical Republican propaganda was not immigrants or minorities, but all critics and opponents of the incumbent president, including journalists, prosecutors, judges, representatives of the intelligence community and even the former director of the FBI.

Earlier, I noted the similarity of the propaganda tactics of the extreme right-wing American media and methods used by the pro-Kremlin propagandists. This includes a direct lie, the denial of proven facts, and all kinds of slander, including all kinds of conspiracy theories.

Kseniya Kirillova

In particular, radical Republican propaganda portrays any criticism of Donald Trump as stemming from the “conspiracy of the left”, “paid for” by George Soros or personally by Hillary Clinton. Thus, in the article justifying an attempt at collusion between Donald Trump Jr. and the Russian lawyer Veselnitskaya, anyone opposing it is stigmatized in the very first paragraph as the “left” and “socialists”. But in reality, in the first place, the extreme left is not very numerous in the Democratic Party itself, since the real left radicals follow rather anarchist views, and have a negative attitude toward the state and any political parties.

In the second place, it is absolutely wrong to reduce anti-Trump attitudes to political differences. The behavior of the incumbent US president is perceived as unacceptable by people of different views, primarily by national security experts, who, because of their work, most often have no particular party sympathies. Moreover, a significant portion of the Republican Party have categorically refused to accept Trump.

Suffice it to say that this is the reason why some previously loyal Republicans broke away from the party and created an alternative conservative movement, acting exclusively from patriotic convictions. The leader of this “Stand Up Republic” movement was former CIA officer Evan McMullin. Recently, there were media reports that in the next presidential election in 2020, there is a possibility that a tandem of Republican John Kasich and Democrat John Hickenlooper will be nominated. Thus, it is obvious that the bulk of American society adheres to very moderate, centrist views. The main problem of the United States is that such sentiments are not yet reflected in the highest echelons of American politics.

However, this whole multifaceted reality simply does not exist in the radical Republican propaganda. Fringe right-wing media actually created their own virtual world, in which “the genius and savior of America” Trump opposes the “left-wing conspiracy,” secretly directed by Obama and Clinton. Since both of them have not influenced US policy for a while, their images are demonized strictly with the help of propaganda. Reading such publications sometimes creates an impression that it is Obama who continues to be the president of the United States, while Trump’s ignorant and offensive statements that are rejected by the bulk of the American society have never been uttered.

By creating an artificial enemy, the new White House administration was able to get away with ignoring all the real problems and maintain the backing of at least the notorious 36% who still support Trump. A side effect of this tactic was the intensification of the activity of various nationalist groups, including those completely autonomous from the presidential administration.

In addition, the right-wing radicalization inevitably causes radicalization at the opposite end of the spectrum, which is also beneficial to the current administration, since the left extremists fit into the propaganda clichés of Trump supporters. At the same time, according to the US edition Politico, US law enforcement agencies note that it was “Trump’s inciting rhetoric and politics – first as a candidate, and then as a president, that contributed to the creation of a situation that has escalated so quickly and so far, and wide that the law enforcement is unable to cope with it.

Of course, left-wing extremism has existed in the American society even before the elections, but what sets it apart from the right-wing extremism is that it has no support on the political spectrum of America, and, in essence, does not seek to lobby its interests through government channels. As mentioned previously, left-wing extremists hold anarchist views, and are hostile to the state as such (recall the protests and riots in Ferguson during the presidency of Barack Obama).

Even under the previous administration, this group of people viewed the state as an instrument of coercion. To attribute the views of these people to the entire Democratic Party, and especially to all of the Trump’s opponents, is a typical propaganda fiction aimed only at strengthening the image of the enemy and dividing the society even further. Moreover, the paradox is that Hillary Clinton’s “shift to the right” during her election campaign pushed this group away from the Democratic Party, and some of the extreme left voted for Trump, agreeing with his populist rhetoric with its occasional neo-Bolshevik passages.

The American extreme left is often characterized by the rejection of patriotism as such. It is they who, even under the previous administration, openly burned American flags and organized street riots. Many of them are sympathetic to Russia and are fans of RT. Most people who hold such views react negatively to any state bodies, primarily law enforcement agencies, seeing in them a mechanism of repression and coercion. The paradox is that, even if some American politicians try to “flirt” with this group, the left-wing anarchists cannot or do not want to effectively take advantage of this situation, and remain steadfast in their distrust of any officials.

The “left-wing” groups, of course, have their own media, but it’s completely wrong to include respected American media outlets among those. Extreme left-wing publications also do not shy away from propaganda, but it mainly boils down to the exaggeration of the ethnic conflicts and the plight of minorities. They are not overly devoted to conspiracy theories, with the most fanciful among them being a story about a complete merger of the Trump’s administration with the law enforcement agencies, especially the FBI. Of course, this does not correspond to reality.

Of course, like any other extremism, left-wing extremism is dangerous and unacceptable, but the paradox lies in the fact that its inherent anarchism makes it much less dangerous than the right-wing one. People of such views are accustomed to expressing their beliefs in the streets, but they prefer to stay away from real politics. They do not seek to lobby their interests through state channels, and thanks to outspoken attacks on state symbols this movement remains very marginal and not so numerous as the ultra-right propagandists would make us believe.

The extreme right is also more dangerous because, first of all, their hatred is not directed at a faceless state, but at distinct groups of people. Their ideology includes openly fascist and Nazi groups, and is not limited to nonspecific anarchism. They are no less inclined to violence than the leftists, but, unlike the extreme left wing, they do not avoid the government. Rather, their anarchism boils down to the struggle with individual American institutions and freedoms, but at the same time they’re not against establishing a dictatorship that is advantageous to them. They support leaders who they consider to be on their side, actively push them into power, and then become one of the important tools of blackmailing the rest of the society in order to retain this power.

Moreover, despite the fact that the Kremlin actively supports radical movements of all stripes, the connections of the far right with Moscow are much deeper and more systemic than those of the extreme left. Several American publications published materials detailing the relationship of several “white supremacists” with Russia, including the odious Russian ideologist Alexander Dugin.  American writer Zarina Zabriski came to similar conclusions and the Voice of America notes that the Russian Vkontakte network has become the home of the American ultra-right. And these sympathies for Russia are another feature that unites extreme rightists with Donald Trump.

Thus, the right-wing extremism in the US, encouraged by the secret complicity of the White House and the open support of the Kremlin, has become a truly dangerous phenomenon. At the same time, left-wing anarchism, which is becoming increasingly radicalized in this environment, only plays into the hands of the extreme right and becomes the “scarecrow”, which right-wing propagandists use to smear a large part of the American society.

By Kseniya Kirillova, for EUToday

Categories: World News

Fake Terrorism Is a Real Threat to the Kremlin (Op-ed)

Fri, 09/15/2017 - 21:10
The string of bomb hoaxes put Putin’s reputation as a ‘security president’ on the line

Valery Sharifulin / TASS

By Mark Galeotti, for The Moscow Times

Could bomb scares, no blood, all bluster, actually be more politically dangerous for the Kremlin than the real thing?

As the tally of false warnings of attacks across Russia continues to rise, the credibility of the regime and the president may find themselves on the line, facing this most low-key of threats.

It is, after all, very easy to launch this kind of campaign. It’s much more difficult — though not impossible — to unmask the perpetrators, especially when someone has the technical know-how to hide their location and IP address using internet telephony.

It could be Ukrainians acting on their own initiative, a Maidan counterpart to the hackers “with patriotic leanings” that Putin conveniently blames for every cyberattack on the West.

It could be homegrown terrorists, seeking to spread confusion or test responses before a real attack. Almost a week into the spree, it could be copycats. Frankly, it could be anyone with an internet connection.

On one level, it is no more than an annoyance, one more irritant of modern daily life, to add to spam in the inbox or traffic jams. But there is a wider significance.

First of all, it will test the resilience of the Russian people to terror challenges. Modern counter-terrorism depends on all kinds of technological solutions, from facial-recognition software to undercover infiltrators.

But maybe the most powerful tools are the familiar ones: a vigilant population willing to speak up if it sees something and a quick response to alerts and instructions from the authorities.

If the response is to become blasé, to assume that every unexplained bag left on the metro is nothing to worry about, that every alarm is just a drill, then the country becomes that much more vulnerable.

Especially given its current commitment in Syria, one unlikely to end soon — defeating Islamic State is only the first stage in winning that messy war — Russia is increasingly regarded as a jihadist target of choice. Although this is no cause for panic or paranoia, the country will likely face more, not fewer, terrorist threats.

But perhaps more strikingly, false alarms may prove more problematic for Putin than real ones. He is undoubtedly a “security president,” one whose legitimacy to a large extent rests on his perceived role as the guardian of Russia from threats foreign and domestic.

Actual attacks, with all the terrible accompanying theater of flashing blue lights, bodies being loaded into ambulances, screaming children and crying mothers, tend to generate a rally-round-the-flag boost for him.

His presidency was born in the apartment bombing blasts of 1999. Periodic incidents, including the recent St. Petersburg metro attack, have played to the sense that a strong hand was needed at the helm of government.

This current campaign, especially if it continues, may prove a rather less useful challenge.

First of all, it is beginning to make the organs of state security look incompetent. There is much they can do, from knocking on (or kicking down) the doors of the usual suspects to tracking down web searches for, say, the telephone numbers of relevant malls, schools and airports.

Putin’s credibility as the man of action and the defender of Russia will not so much be damaged by this campaign, if it continues, so much as become less relevant.

But none of this guarantees a result. And even if some convenient scapegoats are swept up, if the campaign doesn’t stop the Kremlin’s credibility is at risk.

Of course, the best scapegoats are foreign ones, and already this is being mooted. It may well indeed be the case, but this is problematic.

On the one hand, this plays to a familiar narrative of Russia embattled in a hostile world, but it is also an implicit acknowledgment of vulnerability. Blaming Kiev will be tempting, but would the Kremlin really want to admit that the Ukrainians can make Moscow stop trains and empty offices with a phone call?

The other classic temptation is simply to lie, and again there have already been cases where local authorities have sought to present the evacuations as nothing more than drills.

More generally, state media is downplaying the whole campaign, waiting for an authoritative steer from above. Yet for the hundreds of thousands of people directly and indirectly affected, and for the friends, families and workmates they will regale with their experiences, this is real.

Managing perceptions through the media works when the audience has no lived experiences against which to check the official line. Tell Russians that no Syrian civilians were killed in airstrikes and they have little basis to push back. Pretend that there is not a national campaign of what presidential spokesperson Dmitry Peskov belatedly called “telephone terrorism,” and they will soon wonder what is going on.

Of course, this will not bring down Putin, or on its own put any serious dent into his approval ratings. But it does represent precisely the kind of diffuse, low-key and systemic challenge which he is least able to handle.

His credibility as the man of action and the defender of Russia will not so much be damaged by this campaign, if it continues, so much as become less relevant.

What value does a war leader have, who can’t stop irritations and inconveniences, things that are rather closer to the experiences of ordinary Russians?

Such regimes end not so much with a bang, but a grumble.

By Mark Galeotti, for The Moscow Times

Mark Galeotti is a senior researcher at the Institute of International Relations Prague and coordinator of its Center for European Security. 

Categories: World News

Three things you should know about RT and Sputnik

Fri, 09/15/2017 - 09:34

By EU vs Disinfo

RT (Russia Today) and Sputnik are the two foreign language flagships of Russia’s campaign to influence international public opinion. Both outlets present themselves as media that provide alternative views to the mainstream in international news reporting. However, before accepting this premise, three fundamental differences between these outlets and what is normally perceived as independent journalism should be kept mind.

1. They are not independent

2. They do not want to be impartial

  • “The period of impartial journalism is over. Objectivity is a myth”, the CEO and editor-in-chief Dmitry Kiselyov told Sputnik’s editorial staff after a reorganisation of the media house to which Sputnik belongs;
  • The management of both RT and Sputnik receive weekly instructions from the Kremlin. These instructions include guidelines on political narratives, what should be covered and whom the outlets should not talk about.

3. They produce fake news to promote political objectives

  • The independent media watchdog in the UK, Ofcom, has on 15 occasions expressed criticism of RT for, among other problems, “materially misleading” output;
  • RT has for example been instrumental in creating the smoke screen of disinformation, with which the Russian authorities seek to cover up the facts about the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 over Eastern Ukraine with this article as just one of many examples.
  • For other examples of disinformation produced and promoted by RT and Sputnik, see the links below.

Are RT and Sputnik really media?

French President Emmanuel Macron says no: “Russia Today and Sputnik did not behave as media organisations and journalists, but as agencies of influence and propaganda, lying propaganda – no more, no less,” so he told journalists at his joint press conference with President Putin in Versailles on 29 May 2017.

Russian authorities themselves have called the media they control a “weapon” and have describedtheir media role as “like we’re at war”.

If you want to read more about RT and Sputnik, here are some recommendations from international media and from the analysis produced by East Stratcom over the last two years:

Examples of disinformation spread by RT and Sputnik:

This article includes a list with examples of disinformation produced or promoted by RT: Inside RT’s world of alternative news.

A list of disinformation produced or promoted by Sputnik can be found in this article: Sputnik’s short-lived presence in the Slovak press agency.

Whistle blower testimonials:

Some former RT whistle blowers have provided testimonials that are useful for understanding the work of these otherwise secretive organisations: What is it like to work for the Kremlin’s propaganda media?

A German journalist, Martin Schlak, went undercover in RT’s German language newsroom. Here is what he found out: Undercover among Russia Today: Epilogue of the spy.

How does the Kremlin exercise its media control?

The guidelines issued by the Kremlin are called “temniks” in Russian journalistic professional jargon. This story presents an example of how they are used: Temnik – the Kremlin’s route to media control.

“The yellow telephones” are hotlines between the chief editors in leading Russian media and the Kremlin, ensuring the Kremlin’s control over reporting: How the Kremlin and the Media Ended Up in Bed Together. RT’s chief editor admits she has it on her desk “to discuss secret things” with the Kremlin.

Usually the Kremlin’s instructions to media are held in oral form. But sometimes editors print and distribute them: “We don’t promote the English Queen’s anniversary!!!”.

RT itself acknowledges that it has something to hide: Why else would employees face a $50,000 fine for talking about their work at RT? Welcome to The Machine: Inside the Secretive World of RT.

RT sometimes presents itself not as RT

RT has branched out with a series of projects that avoid being associated with Russia Today. One of them is In The Now: RT goes undercover as In The Now.

Another tactic used by RT is to try to turn tables and claim that it is other media, not RT, that produce disinformation. One example is RT’s so-called “FakeCheck” project : KT – Kremlin Today.

By EU vs Disinfo

Categories: World News

Russian Military Exercise Sparks Information War

Thu, 09/14/2017 - 20:34
The speculation surrounding Russia’s “Zapad” military exercises may suit both Moscow and its Western rivals

By Matthew Bodner, Moscow, Russia, for Codastory

It was all those railway wagons that got the speculation rolling over Russian intentions with its military exercises this week along its western borders.

Thousands of flat-bed wagons have been used over the past few months to transport an army of Russian troops, tanks and other heavy equipment to Belarus, the focal point of the drills, which are slated to last until 20 September.

It didn’t take long for Western commentators to make the inevitable comparison with the First World War and the mass train movements that set it in motion.

MOBILIZING FOR WAR?

With NATO officials quoted as saying up to 100,000 troops will be involved in the “Zapad” (which means “West”) exercise, it has prompted warnings on social media that Russia “is mobilizing for war on a July 1914 scale.” And this all comes against the background of Russia’s annexation of Crimea three years ago, and its continuing military presence in Ukraine.

Ukraine — which neighbors Belarus – is especially worried by Zapad. President Petro Poroshenko has called it “a smokescreen” aimed at pre-positioning reinforcements ready for a new “invasion of Ukrainian territory.” And Russia has past form here. It used drills to get ready for real war in Ukraine itself in 2014, and Georgia in 2008.

Allthespeculationis“nonsense”,accordingtoRussia’sForeignMinisterSergeyLavrov,whoslammedclaimsthatitwasplanningtoleavetroopsbehindinBelarus.

The US military commander in Europe, Lt General Ben Hodges, echoed such concerns in an interview this summer, admitting that: “people are worried this is a Trojan horse.”

All of it “nonsense”, according to Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who slammed claims that it was planning to leave troops behind in Belarus. And Russian officials say no more than 13,000 troops will be involved in the drills – to which NATO observers have been invited in accordance with international treaties.

At least according to Russian statements, the exercise’s primary aim is internal. Its forces are linking up with Belarusian troops for a war game where they pacify a separatist movement in western Belarus, near the border with NATO-member Poland.

But Russia’s defense ministry is also running concurrent exercises in other regions, including Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea. Western analysts say the figure of 100,000 personnel taking part in Zapad comes from aggregating all these drills.

And NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has complained that Russia is not giving as much access to the exercise for its monitors as it has claimed.

WWI echoes?
Credit: Mikheil D

OVERHYPED

The Russian defense ministry must have expected some reaction in Western capitals when it announced a tender for 4,162 railcars to transport troops and equipment for Zapad 2017. As it said only around 3,000 personnel would be involved in the exercise, it looked like a clear sign it was hiding something.

But military analysts on both sides say the figures were misunderstood, and that the number of troops Russia claims to have sent west do stack up.

“This has been overhyped by the Western media,” says Vladimir Frolov, an independent Russian foreign policy analyst in Moscow. But Belarus has also played a role, he believes, with its intelligence services using “active measures” to exaggerate the size of the Russian deployment for their own internal and external political reasons.

SomeWesternstatementsare“akintocryingwolf,”agreesMichaelKofman,anexpertontheRussianmilitaryattheCenterforNavalAnalysis,aUSthinktank.Buthesaysthereisalso“causeforprudentvigilance.”

If Russia was planning a major offensive move, one might expect to see elements of its powerful Northern Fleet joining in the exercise. While some of these large ships, such as the Russian flagship Petr Veliky, entered the Baltic Sea in July for Russia’s annual Navy Day celebration, they have since left for deeper waters.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Russia’s nearest Western neighbor, Finland, is keen to play down any immediate threat. “Western countries have taken the bait completely,” said its Defense Minister Jussi Niinistö in a recent interview, calling Zapad “primarily a propaganda exercise.”

CRYING WOLF

Some Western statements are “akin to crying wolf,” agrees Michael Kofman, an expert on the Russian military at the Center for Naval Analysis, a US think tank. But he says there is also “cause for prudent vigilance.”

The US military has been responding to Russian maneuvers, reinforcing NATO units in Eastern Europe, as well as taking charge of operations there. And few believe NATO’s claim that a naval exercise already underway in the Baltic Sea – and which is due to last until late September – is unconnected with Zapad.

There is an information war going on for public opinion in NATO-member states too, with Western governments keen to bolster their case for increasing military spending to counter a resurgent Russian military.

So who to believe? Maybe neither side. After four years of Cold War-style standoff between Russia and the West, sparked by Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, the trust gap between the two sides is immense.

By Matthew Bodner, Moscow, Russia, for Codastory

Matthew Bodner is an American journalist in Moscow who writes frequently on the Russian military. 
Categories: World News

Get ready for pro-Kremlin tinnitus

Thu, 09/14/2017 - 19:48

Feature image source: MV-lehti

By EU vs Disinfo

Imagine someone whispering in your ear non-stop: “Why would you bother, you will never find out the truth.”

Sometimes the voice could grow to an unbearable scream. One of the basic tools of pro-Kremlin disinformation is to fill the information space with constant noise to confuse the audience – or to at least force it to stop paying attention.

A recent target of this method has been The European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats (Hybrid CoE), hosted by Finland. This week, pro-Kremlin attempts to obscure the public discussion around the centre grew in both quantity and absurdity.

Finnish MV-lehti published an article claiming that the “NATO hybrid centre has a license to kill”. Actually the Hybrid CoE is not a NATO centre, but an instrument of its participating countries: Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, Poland, Spain, Sweden, the UK and the USA. More fundamentally, the centre obviously doesn’t have a license to kill, as no one has in Finland.

But the orchestrated disinformation campaign does not end up with one article. What we also saw was the setting up an organisation with a similar name that calls NATO and the EU a threat for democracy in Europe. And in order to further confuse the public, a website was launched – http://hybridcoe.ru/ – [note the Russian domain] – that copies the design of the real centre.

Fake Twitter accounts resembling the Hybrid CoE logo have been circulating since autumn 2016, and some of them got activated again in September. This account has been spreading message that Finnish citizens would be unhappy with the new Hybrid Centre – referring to comments on other disinforming outlets.

Just so you know, these are the actual webpage and the Twitter account of the Hybrid CoE.

Blame the victim!

One of the aims of the pro-Kremlin disinformation campaign is to twist the narrative of WWII. This time, weekly Russian news show Vesti Nedeli accused Poland of initiating the second world war.

We’ll leave it to more reliable sources than Vesti Nedeli to set the record straight on this. But the Russian audience is constantly exposed to this parallel reality. And the results of this disinformation campaign are clearly visible for example in a Levada centre poll on the Molotov-Ribbentrop secret protocols, which reveal that 40% of Russians think it’s true, 17% think it’s false, and 44% are not aware or unsure that the protocols existed.

This week’s disinformation cocktail also included some favourite disinformation themes. We read that Europe’s excessive tolerance towards other religions results in punishing “true” Europeans, and in discriminating against orthodox values.

So disinformation outlets reported about a man being fined for eating bacon in front of Muslims in Sweden and about a Georgian judoka who suffered defeat during the course of the World Championship for wearing a cross around her neck. Visit our table to set the record straight on these two entertaining stories.

And the favourite narrative about EU orchestrating colour revolutions was revived once again. Thus, in a Moldovan disinformation-oriented outlet, the readers were convinced that if the country refuses to join the EU, Brussels will punish it with a Maidan. We are sorry to disappoint, but it is not in EU’s capabilities to instigate a nation-wide revolution.

By EU vs Disinfo

Categories: World News

The Daily Vertical: What Is ‘Undesirable’? (Transcript)

Wed, 09/13/2017 - 22:56

Brian Whitmore

By Brian Whitmore, RFE/RL

What is undesirable is usually in the eye of the beholder.

Consider the case of the Sova Center.

The Sova Center is a Moscow-based think tank whose sole purpose is to monitor, document, and combat hate crimes.

The Sova Center is generally considered to be one of the leading authorities on extremist organizations, political radicalism, nationalism, and xenophobia in Russia.

The Sova Center is widely respected internationally for its defense of minority rights and religious freedoms.

And Russian prosecutors have now opened an investigation into the SOVA Center in connection with a controversial law banning “undesirable organizations.”

Why? Well, the Sova Center’s website provides links to past donors, which apparently include such undesirables as George Soros’s Open Society Institute and the U.S. National Endowment for Democracy.

So what does it say about Vladimir Putin’s regime if it suspects an organization whose sole purpose is to monitor and combat hate crimes of being undesirable?

It’s a fair question.

Now let’s compare the treatment of the Sova Center to how the Russian authorities have dealt with another organization — the far-right South East Radical Block, or SERB.

In the past two years alone, SERB activists have physically assaulted a 75-year-old protester; thrown feces at an opposition journalist; splashed urine on photos at an art exhibition; splashed antiseptic on anticorruption crusader Aleksei Navalny’s face, damaging one of his eyes; and tore down a memorial plaque to slain opposition leader Boris Nemtsov.

But the Russian authorities apparently see nothing undesirable in any of this.

By Brian Whitmore, RFE/RL

Categories: World News

Agent of Influence: Should Russia’s RT Register as a Foreign Agent?

Wed, 09/13/2017 - 11:45

By Elena Postnikova, Atlantic Council

Read the Publication (PDF)

The US Congress enacted the Foreign Agents Registration Act of 1938 (FARA) to ensure that the American people were aware when foreign governments funded media sources; at the time, their concerns focused on the Nazi regime in Germany. Today, this issue has resurfaced with concerns about the Russian propaganda outlet RT (formerly Russia Today). RT broadcasts are reliably consistent with official statements of the Russian government, which is unsurprising, as it is 99 percent funded by the Kremlin. In Agent of Influence, author Elena Postnikova not only argues that RT should register with FARA but makes a legal case for it while laying out recommendations for policy makers. At a minimum, RT’s activities warrant a thorough investigation by the Department of Justice (DOJ). Strong evidence supports the conclusion that Russia’s RT is owned, controlled, and financed by the Russian state. RT advances Russia’s interests abroad and uses communication channels to influence US domestic and foreign policy. RT has not presented evidence to support that it is a bona fide media organization, which would be excluded from registration. If RT fails to respond to a DOJ inquiry or to present ample evidence that it should be exempt, an enforcement action should follow.

By Elena Postnikova, Atlantic Council

Categories: World News

‘The sensible time may have passed’ What happens to American journalists in Russia, if the U.S. government says ‘Sputnik’ is a foreign agent?

Tue, 09/12/2017 - 14:44

Sputnik logo from Facebook

By Kevin Rothrock, for Meduza

On September 11, 2017, Yahoo! News reported that the FBI has questioned two former staffers at the Russian state Sputnik news agency, as part of an ongoing investigation into a potentially undeclared propaganda campaign by the Russian government that violates the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). The effort to treat Sputnik and its older brother, RT (Russia Today), as foreign propaganda, rather than foreign news organizations, has been gaining momentum since last year’s U.S. presidential election, when Russian news coverage turned sharply against Hillary Clinton, inciting fears that Moscow was mounting a coordinated campaign to influence the American public. Meduza reviews the case against Sputnik and examines the consequences it could have for U.S. media outlets in Russia.

The FBI versus Sputnik

According to Yahoo! News, FBI agents have interviewed former Sputnik staffers Andrew Feinberg and Joseph John Fionda, who say they turned over work emails revealing the “internal structure and editorial processes” at Sputnik. The emails reportedly document the Kremlin’s strict control over news coverage, and how the outlet intentionally pursues fake stories and conspiracy theories to advance Moscow’s political goals.

Following the news that Sputnik is in the FBI’s crosshairs, Margarita Simonyan, the chief editor of RT, another Russian state media outlet, warned that Moscow would retaliate: “There is no doubt that Russia will respond to the FBI investigation in the same way and will check the work of American journalists in Moscow. It’s disgusting,” Margarita Simonyan said.

The U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors

Though Simonyan didn’t say which “American journalists” Russian police would target, it’s a good bet that Moscow would start with reporters from RFE/RL and Voice of America. Both these outlets are supervised by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), a U.S. government agency whose stated mission is “to inform, engage, and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy.”

RFE/RL is designed to produce independent reporting and promote democratic values — “uncensored news, responsible discussion, and open debate” — in places where this kind of journalism is believed to be absent. The Voice of America was created to represent America and present the policies of the U.S. “clearly and effectively,” along with “responsible discussions and opinion” on these policies. In other words, RFE/RL is supposed to create independent journalism about the outside world, while VOA is meant to report about America itself.

Formed in 1999, the BBG was designed to serve as a “firewall” against political interference in the journalism it oversees. The bipartisan board’s eight members are appointed by the U.S. president and confirmed by the Senate. There are currently only six members of the BBG, plus U.S. State Secretary Rex Tillerson, who is an ex officio board member.

Last December, with the passage of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017, the U.S. federal government rewrote the allocation of power within the BBG, transferring the bipartisan board’s authority to a chief executive officer appointed by the president. The new CEO will be able to hire and fire senior media staff and determine budget allocations.

Despite the overhaul, the BBG’s bipartisan board still meets, albeit in a diminished advisory capacity, and officials are waiting to see whom the Trump administration will nominate to take the place of acting CEO John Lansing, who’s been in office since September 2015, before the changes.

As recently as June 1, 2017, Politico reported that the White House’s leading candidate for the CEO position at the BBG was Michael Pack, “a conservative documentarian with ties to [now former] chief strategist Steve Bannon.” While Bannon’s ouster likely means curtains for Pack, Lansing is still waiting to be replaced. “The White House could theoretically use the BBG for any kind of messaging,” a senior Washington official told Politico.

So RFE/RL and VOA are America’s Sputnik and RT?

Nobody (currently) employed at Sputnik or RT embraces claims that they’re foreign propagandists. Journalists at RFE/RL and VOA similarly reject such accusations, along with the very suggestion that their publications are even remotely comparable to these two Russian state-funded media outlets.

Audiences will have to make up their own minds when it comes to judging the quality of journalism at these publications, but an important distinction to remember is that RFE/RL is designed to withdraw itself from areas where independent journalism has returned. This, for instance, is why RFE/RL stopped broadcasting in local languages in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and five other European countries in 2004.

An example of Sputnik’s hard-hitting reporting.

Sputnik, on the other hand, describes itself as a “modern news agency” with “products on multiple platforms.” Like RT, the outlet is geared toward “stories overlooked by the mainstream media,” but there is no formula in place for Sputnik or RT to phase out their operations, once the media environment in a host country has reached a certain level of perceived freedom.

When it comes to Sputnik, the closest Russian analogue to the BBG would be Rossiya Segodnya, its parent holding company, which Vladimir Putin created by executive order in December 2013. Unlike the BBG, however, Rossiya Segodnya makes no effort to insulate its media projects from political interference in its journalism. As if to erase even the slightest doubts about this, Putin appointed pro-Kremlin TV pundit Dmitry Kiselyov to serve as the company’s CEO, with none other than RT chief editor Margarita Simonyan joining as Rossiya Segodnya’s chief editor (causing dizziness for more than a few people trying to understand the distinction).

FARA could be too little, too late

It’s important to note that Radio Svoboda has already lost access to radio waves in Russia. In September 2012, the outlet announced that it was switching to Internet broadcasts, following the enactment of a new Russian law limiting foreign ownership in radio stations to 48 percent. In June 2016, Radio Svoboda‘s final shortwave radio transmissions hit the airwaves before the network went permanently silent.

In 2012, Russian lawmakers enacted their own version of the Foreign Agents Registration Act, requiring all politically active and foreign-funded nonprofit organizations to register with Russia’s Justice Ministry as “foreign agents.” RFE/RL is funded by the U.S. Congress through the BBG, and it operates under IRS rules as a private, nonprofit corporation.

In addition to saddling “foreign agents” with crippling police audits, Russia’s FARA-inspired legislation created a new felony offense under article 330.1 of the Criminal Code, making it punishable by up to two years in prison to commit “malicious evasion” of the law’s filing requirements. Russia’s Justice Ministry currently names 88 organizations on its list of foreign agents.

Since it was passed in 1938, there have been only a handful of criminal cases in the U.S. involving violations of FARA, whose registrants are often public relations firms hired to generate positive buzz for foreign governments’ initiatives in Washington. The maximum penalty for willfully violating FARA is 10 years in prison and a $10,000 fine, but even these harsh measures wouldn’t necessarily force a “foreign agent” media outlet off the air.

While serving on the BBG’s bipartisan board, Matthew Armstrong argued in an article that convicting RT of FARA violations could fail on two counts, reinforcing the outlet’s anti-establishment credibility while simultaneously imposing relatively weak penalties. According to Armstrong, even the Nazi news agency Transocean could have continued publishing after its top editors were hit with FARA violations in 1941, if only they had complied with the law’s registration requirements. The degree to which RFE/RL and VOA has been pushed from the Russian media market is already more significant than any impact a FARA case against Sputnik is likely to have. If U.S. officials do prosecute and convict Sputnik under FARA, the situation in Russia for American publications could only get worse.

“The sensible time to register RT as a foreign agent may have passed,” Armstrong wrote. That was more than two years ago.

By Kevin Rothrock, for Meduza

Categories: World News

Russian propaganda’s Sputnik news agency probed by FBI – media

Mon, 09/11/2017 - 19:51

Kintarojoe via flickr.com

By UNIAN

The FBI recently questioned a former White House correspondent for Sputnik, the Russian-government-funded news agency, as part of an investigation into whether it is acting as an undeclared propaganda arm of the Kremlin in violation of the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), according to Yahoo News.

As part of the probe, Yahoo News has learned, the bureau has obtained a thumb drive containing thousands of internal Sputnik emails and documents — material that could potentially help prosecutors build a case that the news agency played a role in the Russian government “influence campaign” that was waged during last year’s presidential election and, in the view of U.S. intelligence officials, is still ongoing, Yahoo News reports.

The emails were turned over by Andrew Feinberg, the news agency’s former White House correspondent, who had downloaded the material onto his laptop before he was fired in May. He confirmed to Yahoo News that he was questioned for more than two hours on Sept. 1 by an FBI agent and a Justice Department national security lawyer at the bureau’s Washington field office.

Feinberg said the interview was focused on Sputnik’s “internal structure, editorial processes and funding.”

Read also Russian bots fight back against bot researchers “They wanted to know where did my orders come from and if I ever got any direction from Moscow,” Feinberg told Yahoo News. “They were interested in examples of how I was steered towards covering certain issues.”

It is not clear whether the agent and prosecutor who questioned Feinberg were acting as part of special counsel Robert Mueller’s broader investigation into Russian efforts to disrupt the 2016 election and possible links to the Trump campaign. “We are not confirming whether specific matters are or are not part of our ongoing investigation,” a spokesman for Mueller emailed. A spokesman for the Justice Department declined to comment, and the FBI did not respond to questions.

Read also Facebook uncovers Russia-funded misinformation campaign – BBC But the inquiry comes at a time when members of Congress and others have pushed the Justice Department to strengthen its enforcement of the FARA, especially as it relates to the operations in Washington of two Russian news organizations, Sputnik and RT (formerly known as Russia Today).

Asha Rangappa, a former FBI counterintelligence agent said that the FBI investigation into Sputnik’s activities “tells me they have good information and intelligence that these organizations have been acting on behalf of the Kremlin and that there’s a direct line between them and the [Russian influence operations] that are a significant threat to our democracy.”

Both Sputnik and RT were identified in a U.S. intelligence report in January as being arms of Russia’s “state-run propaganda machine” that served as a “platform for Kremlin messaging to Russian and international audiences.” As an example, the report said, Sputnik and RT “consistently cast President-elect Trump as the target of unfair coverage from traditional US media outlets that they claimed were subservient to a corrupt political establishment.”

By UNIAN

Categories: World News

Russian Embassy in U.K. Says Everest is Part of Russia

Mon, 09/11/2017 - 19:11

By The Moscow Times

The Russian Embassy in the U.K. said Mount Everest was part of Russia on its Twitter account before deleting the tweet on Monday.

“Good morning! (Mount Everest, Russia),” the erroneous post read, with a photograph of the snow-capped summit attached.

Wedged between Nepal and China, Mount Everest is nearly 2,500 kilometers away from the nearest Russian border.

While the post might have been written off as an honest mistake, some observers quipped that “Crimea is not enough.”

Crimea is not enough:
MK newspaper reports on claim by Russia’s UK Embassy on…Mount Everest https://t.co/NKk69iOM7E

— Jason Corcoran (@jason_corcoran) September 11, 2017


Others referenced “Little Green Men” who occupied Crimea ahead of its annexation from Ukraine in April 2014.

Little Green Sherpas. https://t.co/nIelWI9Ty5

— Eliot Higgins (@EliotHiggins) September 11, 2017


By Monday afternoon, the offending tweet had been deleted.

Little Green Sherpas. https://t.co/nIelWI9Ty5

— Eliot Higgins (@EliotHiggins) September 11, 2017

Earlier this month, Twitter suspended a Russian state-run news channel’s account after the British government complained it has used the UK Foreign Office’s crest without permission.

RT had launched the @BritshEmb1917 to mark the Russian revolution’s centenary.

By The Moscow Times

Categories: World News

Fake: Ukraine’s Tuberculosis Epidemic Threatens the EU

Mon, 09/11/2017 - 11:10

This week several Russian sites – RT, Vesti, Ukraina.ru – published articles claiming that the European Union is seeing renewed outbreaks of tuberculosis because of the visa free regime with Ukraine.  Citing Russia’s State Epidemiology Oversight body,  they claim the tuberculosis situation in Ukraine has reached catastrophic proportions and is worsening every day.

 

Website Ukraina.ru

Website screenshot RT

Ukraine’s Ministry of Health adviser Volodymyr Kurpita told StopFake that tuberculosis is indeed a problem for the country, but the Russian stories are resorting to fear mongering and ignoring Ukraine’s successes in countering the disease. Ukraine is in fact seeing positive trends in its battle with tuberculosis.

For every 100,000 people there are 67.6 cases of tuberculosis, this is a fact, says Kurpita. But this figure is considerably lower than what Ukraine saw in 2012, where there were 80.5 cases of TB for every 100,000 people.

According to the World Health Organization’s annual tuberculosis report, 4.3% of people sick with tuberculosis in Ukraine have a multi-drug resistant strain of the disease, Russia’s rate is much higher, coming in at 13%.

There were an estimated 480,000 new cases worldwide of multidrug-resistant TB in 2015, according to the WHO. India, China and the Russian Federation accounted for 45% of the combined total of the cases.

RT’s article also claims that TB vaccinations are at an all-time low in Ukraine, if in 2007 96% of newborns were vaccinated with the TB jab, in 2016 only 20% received the vaccine, according to RT.

In fact the level of TB vaccinations is much higher in Ukraine, says Kurpita, in 2015 40% of children were vaccinated, in 2016 vaccinations rose to 72%.

In 2016 and 2017 the Ukrainian government designated $20 million to combat tuberculosis in the country.

 

Categories: World News

Russia in the meddle: Interference in the West intensifies

Sun, 09/10/2017 - 08:12

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaking on RT television. [The Kremlin]

By Euractiv

Espionage, disinformation and threats: Putin’s “active measures” to destabilise European societies and governments are multiplying, according to a report by the European Council for International Relations (ECFR). EURACTIV France reports.

According to the report by ECFR, the general objective of the Kremlin is “to weaken the European Union and NATO and to distance Europe from the United States”. Russian President Vladimir Putin has, to this end, surrounded himself with several actors, state or otherwise, which help apply these “active measures”.

They may include members of the religious community, industry lobbies, administration, intelligence services and the military. In short, all those who are “keen to please the Kremlin”, the report said.

Whether it is financing the campaigns of populist political parties or disinformation campaigns, the Kremlin itself does not hesitate to help.

“The Lisa Case”

A prime example of Russia’s meddling was the “Lisa case” in 2016. A 13-year-old German-Russian girl disappeared for 30 hours in Berlin and claimed to have been abducted and violated by three “Mediterranean-type” men.

The results of the investigation by the Berlin police indicated that she was neither kidnapped nor raped.

The girl’s family accused the police of having forced their daughter to withdraw her accusations.

Russian media hastened to relay this information and a channel close to the Kremlin quoted by Le Monde went so far as to declare: “the inhabitants of the neighborhood ensure that the problems with migrants from the Middle East began well before the events of Cologne. […] In Germany and Sweden, women are regularly raped by refugees, there are many cases of sexual assault, but local authorities and the police hide these facts and do not open criminal investigations.”

The case added fuel to the fire for Russian media and extreme right German groups that incite Russian-speakers living in Germany to react and incite hate against refugees. The case turned into a state affair when Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused Berlin of concealing information.

Between Russian media broadcast in Europe in several European languages, such as Russia Today or Sputnik, and the Kremlin, there is only one step.

The report looks at Russia’s various attempts to prevent European states from joining NATO. Moscow is accused of being behind the aborted coup attempt on 16 October 2016 in Montenegro, the day of the parliamentary elections.

“We have evidence that the Russian nationalist structures are behind [the plot], but now also that the Russian state organs are involved at a certain level,” said Montenegrin prosecutor Milivoje Katnic earlier this year, following the results of the survey.

According to the prosecutor’s office, the plotters planned to forcefully enter the parliament to proclaim the victory of the pro-Russian opposition. The only motivation for the coup was “to prevent Montenegro from entering NATO”, said the Montenegrin prosecutor.

The same goes for Finland, which is not a member of NATO but signed a defence cooperation pact with the United States in 2016. A few hours after the ratification, Russian warplanes appeared in Finnish airspace.

It is not a new violation, since radars already spotted Russian aircraft several times in 2014 when Finland was interested in a pact enhancing its collaboration with NATO.

This time, the Russian military threat was accompanied by a large-scale trolling and disinformation campaign, as well as warnings from Vladimir Putin himself that if Finland joined NATO, there would be retaliation.

Like Finland, which shares a border of more than a thousand kilometers with Russia, all European countries are influenced by Russia, but at different levels of exposure, the report explains.

It appears to be essential that the EU invest in counter-espionage measures, in defence capabilities and in the fight against misinformation.

By Euractiv

Categories: World News

Kremlin Distances Itself From Fake Facebook Accounts Ad Buying Revelation

Sat, 09/09/2017 - 09:35

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov Kremlin Press Service

By The Moscow Times

The Kremlin has nothing to do with the hundreds of fake Facebook accounts that reportedly bought political ads during the U.S. presidential election, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Thursday.

“We have never heard about this. We do not know anything about, and moreover we have nothing to do with these cases,” Peskov told reporters, as quoted by the state-run TASS news agency.

Facebook revealed this week that it had shut down 470 “inauthentic” Russia-based accounts that bought 3,000 social and political ads for $100,000. The social media platform said the purchased ads, linked to the infamous “troll factory” based in St. Petersburg, ran from 2015 until earlier this year. One-quarter of the 3,000 ads targeted specific geographical locations “to amplify divisive messages.”

“We ask you not to associate us with this story about Facebook,” Peskov said, state-run RIA news agency reported Thursday.

Facebook analysis reportedly traced the ad sales to the Internet Research Agency, a so-called “troll factory” that employs users to advance pro-Kremlin propaganda online.

By The Moscow Times

Categories: World News

Facebook declares war on Russia’s ‘troll factory’ Here’s how the numbers break down

Sat, 09/09/2017 - 07:19

By Meduza

On September 6, Facebook announced the results of its investigation into potential efforts to use its platform to influence the results of the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The company says it uncovered hundreds of fake accounts and communities managed from Russia with the help of a so-called “troll factory” that paid for promoted content over the course of two years. Facebook blocked all the groups identified in this study, but a source close to Russia’s Internet Research Agency claims that 20 percent of its communities on the network remain active. Here are the main conclusions and results of Facebook’s investigation:

  • 470 fake accounts were launched from Russia.
  • These accounts bought 3,000 promoted posts for a total of $100,000.
  • Network administrators blocked 25 public groups on Facebook and 32accounts on Instagram (and Twitter says it’s also blocked 50 accounts believed to be from Russia’s “troll factory”).
  • The total audience for these accounts and communities was more than 5 million subscribers.

By Meduza

Russian text by Mikhail Zelensky, translation by Kevin Rothrock

Photo on front page: Jeff Chiu / AP / Scanpix / LETA

Categories: World News

Disinformation Review: Back to basics

Fri, 09/08/2017 - 18:06

By EU vs Disinfo

After a summer break from reporting on disinformation we are now back in business, and so are many of the regular disinformation mouthpieces.

The overwhelming majority of disinformation we have seen over the last two weeks is focused on that perennial target: Ukraine. We have seen several of the usual narratives: “Ukraine is not a state”“Ukraine is abandoned by Europe”“there is no Ukrainian independence”. But the most repeated piece of disinformation was the old favourite linking Nazis and Ukraine. So, the country was accused of being a neo-Nazi monster created by the West, as well as being occupied by Nazis who follow in the footsteps of Goebbels. There was no specific mention of the actual occupation of parts of Ukraine (see page 35 in the study).

Press repeat

German Foreign Minister Gabriel was also targeted by disinformation outlets, as he congratulated Ukraine on its independence day by using the words “Slava Ukraini” – meaning “Glory to Ukraine” – on Twitter. These words were quickly reported as a supposedly “well-known” Nazi slogan from the Second World War, in another case of inventive historical revisionism. In fact, the term Slava Ukraini has been used at least since 1919, and it became popular again in Ukraine after the 2013-2014 Maidan protests.

Ukraine was also presented as a victim of the “Evil West” in some outlets – another recurring disinformation theme. As we described thoroughly earlier this week, the infamous hacker group CyberBerkut (see page 39) claimed to have proof that Ukraine is merely a testing ground for secret US experiments. Of course, there was no proof presented of these alleged biological testing sites, a claim that we have seen several times before e.g here; and here.

Earlier this summer, the same story popped up in Armenia – as described in this report by the Union of Informed Citizens NGO. In a similar story, a Czech outlet claimed that an outbreak of measles in Ukraine was caused by US labs producing biological weapons.

Manipulation as a method

Both Georgian and Russian outlets published a supposed scoop this week – that the former chief of British intelligence service MI6 disclosed Western plans for Russia’s fragmentation in an interview with the Guardian newspaper.

This was manipulation, indeed. Not the plan referred to, revealed in an interview which in fact never happened and was never published by the Guardian. But the manipulation of using a stooge website to trick us into thinking that we were reading a genuine Guardian article. It is a trick we have written about before here and here, and it can be a very effective way of spreading disinformation, since it is more likely to get picked up by real media if it parades as real media.

This time, the damage seemed relatively easily averted, since the Guardian quickly debunked the story. And yet, a full five (!) days later, the fake article still made its way to Russian state TV. It was Vladimir Solovyov, the host of one of Russia’s most popular political talk shows, who referred to the article, claiming: “some say it’s true, some say it’s not”. In a classic method of pro-Kremlin disinformation, he later suggested that it was almost impossible to know what the truth is nowadays.

But it’s not. You just have to look at the facts – and want to.

By EU vs Disinfo

Categories: World News

Fake: Ukraine to Introduce Food Ration Cards

Fri, 09/08/2017 - 11:48

At the end of August Russia’s Federal News Agency  (RIAFAN) published an article claiming that Ukraine was poised to introduce food ration cards. Citing Ukraine’s State Statistics Service, an organization that tracks consumer prices, economic changes and inflation, the agency claims that the price of basic food products increased by an average of 15-20%, while meat and fish have doubled in price.

According to the Ukrainian State Statistics Service, milk, cheese, eggs and fish have gone down in price in recent months while meat prices rose by 5%.

The story is filled with value judgments without any factual evidence to support its claims. “Tens of thousands of people living in the former breadbasket of the USSR are on the brink of starvation. In an effort to alleviate the situation the authorities are seriously considering introducing ration cards and special coupons and simultaneously limiting the amount of food purchased.”

The story cites Marina Fedirko, a Social Security employee from an unnamed small city in the northern Chernihiv oblast who purportedly showed the Federal News Agency a list of impoverished local residents who must now rely on welfare help. Another person quoted in the article is identified as an activist called Vladislav Terenchuk from something called Ukraine’s Consumer Association, who calls the food situation in Ukraine catastrophic.

All Ukrainian federal and local government employees must file declarations, their names and places of employment are all available on the Internet. There is a Marina Fedirko in that system, but she is from Cherkasy oblast and not from Chernihiv and works in the State Cadaster Service, which registers property. There is no such organization as Ukraine’s Consumer Association and we were not able to find anyone named Vladislav Terenchuk.

The entire story is made up of fake people saying fake things. Last year StopFake debunked a similar fake story disseminated by the Russian Defense Ministry television channel Zvezda claiming hungry Ukrainians were snatching bread out of the beaks of pigeons in city centers.

 

Categories: World News

Russia’s Infamous ‘Troll Factory’ Is Now Posing as a Media Empire

Fri, 09/08/2017 - 10:49
A Russian ‘troll factory’ rebranded itself as a network of legitimate news sites. But hasn’t quite abandoned its old ways.

Pixabay / modified by MT

By  Alexey Kovalev, for The Moscow Times

Russia’s infamous troll factory — the most successful weapon in its information war arsenal — has rebranded itself as an emerging media conglomerate, an investigation by the Russian news website RBC has revealed.

The secretive troll factory, which garnered massive scrutiny from news organizations both at home and abroad in the past two years, now consists of several websites that produce original reporting and analysis with a strong “patriotic” slant, RBC reported.

The hub of these media operations is a website called FAN (Federal News Agency) whose offices in St. Petersburg are just a stone’s throw from the troll factory’s original location on Savushkina street.

FAN was initially showcased in a New York Times Magazine article in 2015. A Magazine reporter traveled to Petersburg to investigate the troll factory and meet one of its employees. Inexplicably, a muscular man who was introduced as the interviewee’s brother also attended the reporter’s meeting.

But the day after the reporter left Russia, FAN published: “What Does a New York Times Journalist Have in Common With a Nazi From St. Petersburg?” The brother, it turned out, was a notorious neo-Nazi recruited by FAN to discredit the reporter and his story.

From ‘troll factory’ to media empire

Today, FAN forms the core of a media empire consisting of 16 news websites. Collectively, they employ over 200 full-time journalists and editors whose content attracts more that 30 million pageviews every month.

The monthly cost of running FAN and its sister sites is in the area of 20 million rubles ($350,000), RBC estimates. The source of the funding is unclear too, but most of the websites in the empire attract little if any ad revenue. Allegedly, the group has a mysterious sponsor, believed to be Yevgeni Prigozhin, who also known as “Putin’s Cook.”

Everyday, the sites churn out dozens of articles every day that praise Putin, cast Ukraine as a failed Nazi state and expose the nefarious machinations of the United States. Still, FAN stands out. It exploits the unstable media labor market to lure in journalists from other publications with salaries above the market average. FAN even employs foreign reporters — RBC reports they are the most likely to be sent to Syria to provide coverage.

In its coverage of Syria, FAN has an unique advantage over other news outlets — including state-owned media behemoths. Unlike new organizations, FAN reporters are not obligated to embed with Russia’s Defense Ministry, which censors coverage.

Instead, RBC reports that FAN reporters embed with the so-called the “Wagner Group,” a private military company — also reportedly funded by Prigozhin — that is covertly employed by Russia’s Defense Ministry to buttress its Syria operation. This allows FAN’s reporters to file their reports from dangerous frontlines faster than state news media.

Keep on trollin’

Despite its new status as a network of legitimate — if heavily biased news outlets — the “troll agency” hasn’t quite abandoned its old ways, RBC’s report suggests.

At least one popular pro-Trump, anti-Clinton Facebook group called Secured Borders, says RBC, is managed from the St. Petersburg troll factory.

RBC claims it obtained a screenshot of the group’s advertisement statistics (available only to a Facebook group’s administrator) from someone who claims to be its owner, which confirmed that the group is managed from St. Petersburg.

Secured Borders boasts 140 thousand subscribers, and just one of its posts published at the height of the election campaign and heavily advertised on Facebook, reached 4 million people on Facebook, was “liked” more than 300 thousand times and shared more than 80 thousand times. RBC also reported that a right-wing Twitter account called Tea Party News, which is followed by 22 thousand other accounts, is also run from the St. Petersburg hub.

All in all, RBC’s sources say that at the zenith of the U.S. election campaign, the troll factory’s accounts across different social media platforms would churn out as many as 50 million posts a month, with anti-Clinton messages getting the most attention.

By  Alexey Kovalev, for The Moscow Times

Categories: World News

It turns out that a simple hyperlink is enough to trigger Russia’s ban on ‘undesirable organizations’

Thu, 09/07/2017 - 21:57

By Meduza

Police are investigating the analytical “Sova” Center and its director Alexander Verkhovsky for violations of Russia’s law on “undesirable organizations.”

According to “Sova,” officials say it committed this misdemeanor offense by including in its website’s “About Us” section hyperlinks to the Soros Foundation and the National Endowment for Democracy (two organizations recognized by the Russian government as “undesirable”).

State prosecutors told “Sova” that the hyperlinks constitute the dissemination of illegal information. In a statement, “Sova” said it’s never hidden its donors, but agreed to remove the hyperlinks in this case. Despite this capitulation, however, prosecutors haven’t closed the administrative case against the analytical center and its director.

In May 2015, President Putin enacted legislation on nonprofit organizations whose activity in Russia is deemed “undesirable” by the Justice Ministry. The law places steep fines on individuals and legal entities that cooperate with such organizations, in addition to potential prison sentences as long as six years.

George Soros’ Open Society Institute and the National Endowment for Democracy were blacklisted in 2015. As of September 2017, a total of 11 organizations are listed as “undesirable” by the Russian Justice Ministry.

By Meduza
Categories: World News

Facebook Blocks 470 Fake Accounts Linked to Russian ‘Troll Factory’

Thu, 09/07/2017 - 16:25

Pixabay

By The Moscow Times

Facebook has blocked 470 fake accounts it claims are linked to Russia’s infamous “troll factory” that may have bought thousands of ads during the U.S. presidential campaign.

“We have since shut down the accounts and pages we identified that were still active,” Facebook’s chief security officer Alex Stamos wrote in a blog post Wednesday.

The social media network’s analysis indicates that the 470 fake Facebook accounts were linked to each other “and likely operated out of Russia.” About 3,000 ads were purchased for $100,000 and around one-quarter of the ads employed geographical targeting when they ran from June 2015 to May 2017. The majority of the 3,000 ads referenced “divisive social and political messages” rather than directly mentioning U.S. election topics.

Facebook reports to have also uncovered 2,200 potentially politically related ads that might have originated in Russia but are “not associated with any known organized effort.” The ads, which cost a total of $50,000, were, for example, bought by accounts with U.S. IP addresses, “but with the language set to Russian.”

Unnamed Facebook representatives told U.S. lawmakers in a congressional hearing Wednesday that the ads were sold to a “troll factory” that employs users to peddle pro-Kremlin propaganda online. Facebook analysis had traced the ad sales to the notorious St. Petersburg-based “troll farm,” The Washington Post reported Wednesday.

The troll factory, known as the Internet Research Agency or Teka and reportedly funded by oligarch restaurateur Yevgeny Prigozhin, gained notoriety in mid-2015. An extensive investigation revealed earlier this year that it has rebranded itself as a Federal News Agency (FAN) website with offices close to its original address.

Facebook has been accused of allowing the proliferation of fake news and geo-targeted disinformation during the U.S. presidential campaign.

While CEO Mark Zuckerberg initially denied the likelihood that fake news or hoaxes swayed the Nov. 8 election result, the company later stated in its campaign to secure “authentic communication” that the platform has been misused to “spread misinformation or to manipulate discussions.”

By The Moscow Times

Categories: World News

Disinfo goes nuclear in the Baltics

Thu, 09/07/2017 - 11:39

By  Dalia Bankauskaitė, for CEPA

On 7 June, Kremlin media outlet Sputnik.by in Russian and Belarusian reported that the Russian-Belarus Ostrovets Nuclear Power Plant (NPP), situated less than 30 km from the Lithuanian—and the European Union—border, met international safety standards set by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) after Japan’s 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster. On 8 June, Russian nuclear energy website seogan.ru also quoted the Belarus Ministry of Energy as saying that “all aspects of safety, including external influences, were properly analyzed by Belarus when selecting the site and designing BelAES (Ostrovets NPP).” On 8 June, Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite disagreed, stating in her annual report that the Ostrovets NPP was “a geopolitical weapon” and that, together with the militarized Kaliningrad region and the Zapad-2017 Russia-Belarus military exercise in September it poses a major threat to transatlantic security.

The mainstream Lithuanian websites delfi.lt and 15min.lt wrote that the IAEA mission to the Ostrovets NPP, carried out at Minsk’s request, was not a full-scale inspection mission, but rather took a selective approach to nuclear safety security standards because the Belarusian government did not ask the IAEA to measure other modules of security. Inspectors analyzed only two out of six modules required to ensure nuclear safety standards. Moreover, the IAEA did not complete safety inspections concerning the selection and assessment of the site itself, its location or environmental impact. The facility was also not subject to stress tests; the tests the Ministry of Energy refers to related only to the resilience of the planned nuclear facilities against external risks. Because Belarus is breaching the Convention on Nuclear Safety, protection procedures provided for by the Convention on Environmental Impact Assessment in a Transboundary Context (Espoo Convention) also are not being implemented.

Ostrovets NPP poses not only environmental and radiological threats, but competitive and military ones as well. Belarus and Russia are building the NPP with hopes of selling power to Europe, yet Belarus lacks the necessary infrastructure both to operate the power plant and export electricity. For example, it expects to use Lithuanian infrastructure, including new interconnections with Poland and Sweden.

On 15 June, Lithuania’s Seimas (Parliament) ruled that the Ostrovets NPP threatens national security. A week later, it urged the Latvian, Estonian and Polish parliaments to bar suppliers of unsafe nuclear power plants from their national electric grids, and asked those parliaments to support global initiatives against the construction of unsafe nuclear power stations such as Ostrovets NPP. The Belarus Foreign Ministry called this “one more unfriendly act of a neighboring country.” The pro-Kremlin website rubaltic.ru published a cycle of articles accusing Lithuania of irrationality and blackmailing Belarus.

Lithuania’s energy policies are among the top targets of Kremlin disinformation and propaganda. The country’s growing energy independence substantially weakens Moscow’s ability to dominate or control the region through the energy weapon. Yet the lack of Russian-Belarus Ostrovets NPP security keeps Europe in the sphere of Russian influence—a nuclear threat on the brink of the EU. Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko has stated that “our nuclear power plant…is a fishbone in the throats of the European Union and the Baltic states.”

In promoting the plant, pro-Kremlin media outlets selectively emphasize its compliance with world standards (the totum pro parte technique). They also use card-stacking by presenting misleading facts designed to lead Russian and Russian-speaking audiences to conclude that the Ostrovets NPP is safe, and that Lithuania’s concerns are unfounded.

By  Dalia Bankauskaitė, for CEPA

Categories: World News