WAR: Russia against democracy

PART ONE OF TWO PARTS

Democracy doesn’t work in the 21st century.

That’s the overriding message which the world’s two most powerful dictators, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, are blasting out at a still largely unsuspecting world. But it’s not merely a theme, it’s a practice. Utilizing divisive disinformation campaigns, merged with coercion, economic power, propaganda, and – in Ukraine – sheer military force, these dictators are laser focused on reshaping the world order.

Jinping and Putin, February 2022

They share a common enemy, the United States. Russia blames the U.S. for its defeat in the Cold War, and its dictator Putin has for decades schemed to rebuild Russia as a global power. That’s the focus of this analysis. In Part Two, we’ll explain why China has set its aim on the U.S. even though it was other nations which were largely responsible for the country’s so-called Century of Humiliation (1839-1949).

WEAKEN AND DIVIDE

Over the past several years, researchers have gained a thorough understanding of what Russia does in the way of executing its many Disinformation (DI) Campaigns. It practices this three-step process.

  1. Find the littlest snippet of truth to slip into the deceitful message you’re propagating
  2. Twist the narrative to support that message
  3. Amplify. Repeat. Amplify. Repeat. Amplify. Repeat.

Russia’s goal against the nations of Europe, the U.S., Canada, and other democracies can be summarized in two words: Sow Distrust. In 2016, we witnessed how Russia through its so-called “Internet Research Agency” help pit Americans against other Americans over and over again through the usage of social media platforms. As documented before in this blog site, a prime example took place when the groups “Heart of Texas” and “Save Islamic Knowledge” held a protest and counter protest on the same day, at the same place, in downtown Houston. “Heart of Texas” wasn’t from Texas, and neither was “Save Islamic Knowledge” although that wasn’t known to the half million followers (combined) of the two groups on social media. Both “groups” were creations of content trolls operating out of the Internet Research Agency in Saint Petersburg, Russia. Here’s a link to a video with the details:

Do you follow the social media posts about Black Lives Matter? How about groups supporting our Police Departments? Research conduced by the   at the University of Washington proved that internet trolls from the same Internet Research Agency were busy developing fake accounts and propagating posts which amplified the messaging of both sides in 2016. There’s no doubt that additional research will prove Russian trolls were behind similar social media activity surrounding George Floyd’s murder in 2020 as well.

Anytime horror occurs in the U.S., such as Tuesday’s murder of 19 school children and two teachers at Robb Elementary School in Texas, Russia’s disinformation campaigners spring into action. Their inauthentic posts will be crying for BOTH gun control and Second Amendment gun rights, filled with vitriolic language and using images and memes which have already been pre-event tested to evoke the strongest possible emotional reaction from the readers of their posts. Russia doesn’t care about America’s policy or laws, but is simply exploiting the tragedy to ferment greater political and cultural division within the U.S.

While Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms have improved their internal monitoring and are more active at removing what they call fake (or inauthentic) accounts, Russia still continues to employ hundreds of thousands of social media warriors to sway public sentiment all over the world towards distrusting their governments and each other. They pay agents in other countries to set up social media accounts and then utilize them to parrot Russia-selected themes.

And it’s working.

In January 2022, the 6,000-member global communications firm Edelman released its annual Trust Barometer, an annual survey of public opinion among nearly 30 different nations. Among its findings: the public has high levels of distrust of both government and media, and more than three-quarters of the public globally worries about fake news and false information being used as a weapon in their countries.

By this metric, Putin and his oligarchical henchmen are succeeding. Yevgeny Prigozhin operates the Wagner Group, the Internet Research Agency, Concord Management, and other companies which are closely aligned with the Russian military and its intelligence division, the GRU. Prigozhin was one of 13 Russian nationals a Federal grand jury indicted in 2018 on charges of conspiracy to defraud the U.S. conspiracy to commit bank and wire fraud, and fraud in identification documents, all in connection with the 2016 national elections.

UKRAINE and “deNazism”

Long before its Feb. 24 invasion and effort to conquer Ukraine, Russia had begun a global disinformation campaign as an attempt to convince the world that Ukraine was a Nazi nation.

In a speech televised nationally just a few days before beginning the invasion, Putin and his top military leaders claimed that:

  • Ukraine is under foreign control and is being used as a tool against Russia.
  • Modern Ukraine wouldn’t have even existed without Russia, denying its statehood and sovereignty.
  • Ethnic Russians and Russian speakers in Ukraine are persecuted and targets of Ukrainian genocide. (ASIDE: U.S. residents who’ve gone on relief missions to Western Ukraine all attest that a sizable percentage of displaced persons there, fleeing their homes in the east in fear of their lives, are in fact Russian-speaking Ukrainians. That’s a strange way for targets of genocide to act.)
  • US and NATO aggression are threats to Russia.

Also in this speech, Putin used the phrase “deNazification” many times to justify what he later called a “special military operation” against Ukraine. Notice the strategy Putin employs here. Soviet Union dictator Stalin starved millions of Ukrainians to death in the 1930s. When Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, it conquered large portions of European Russia and much of Ukraine as well. Some Ukrainians sided militarily with the Germans, seeing them as liberators who would throw off the yoke of Soviet Union oppression against their country.

Putin’s strategy: Sow Distrust. He believed he would get large segments of the Ukrainian population to assent to Russia’s invasion, using the false pretexts he outlined. But what Putin and his military planners had not taken into consideration was that Ukrainian leaders, especially President Vladimir Zelensky, would oppose Russia’s military invasion with a tenacity and an unshakeable determination to triumph over the invading forces. Russia continues to press attacks against Ukrainian military forces, especially in the Donbas and Donetsk regions, where Russia has sponsored military units and guerilla-type warfare against Ukraine since it also annexed Crimea in 2014.

What Putin and his cronies hadn’t counted on was world condemnation, harsh sanctions, and a near-unanimous decision among European Union nations and the U.S. to take punitive action against Russia for its invasion. And as evidence of war crimes mounts, Russia’s status as a pariah nation cut off from most of the world will continue to grow.

(Aside: Zelensky’s grandfather fought in the Soviet Red Army against the Nazis, and Nazi Germany invaders burned the village where his great grandparents lived, killing the residents.)

WHAT YOU SHOULD DO

As Russia continues to press its attacks against Ukraine, you too can arm yourself against disinformation. Check on the veracity of ANY post or meme you see on social media before sharing it.

First Draft has developed a terrific acrostic and a visual to remind journalists and all of us about disinformation’s dangers – don’t be SHEEP.  In this acrostic, the word stands for Source, History, Evidence, Emotions and Pictures. See the visual definition below:

First Draft News’ founding organizations include Bellingcat and the Google News Initiative

SOME RESOURCES FOR TRACKING RUSSIAN DISINFORMATION

Fortunately, there are organizations carefully monitoring and reporting on Russia’s disinformation campaigns. The best ones are based in Europe, and include involvement from former Iron Curtain countries which obtained their freedom after the collapse of the Soviet Union around 1990.

Want to see about 14,000 examples of Russian disinformation in action? You can through the website www.euvsdisinfo.eu Which is the flagship project of the European External Action Service’s East StratCom Task Force . It was established in 2015 to better forecast, address, and respond to the Russian Federation’s ongoing disinformation campaigns affecting the European Union, its member states, and neighboring countries.

EUvsDisinfo’s core objective is to increase public awareness and understanding of the Kremlin’s disinformation operations, and to help citizens in Europe and beyond develop resistance to digital information and media manipulation. Many of the articles on the EUVSDISINFO website are also available as podcasts. Here’s a link to a recent article which chronicles Russia’s disinformation and lies about the impending global food shortage: https://euvsdisinfo.eu/disinformation-fuelling-food-insecurity/

The Alliance for Securing Democracy (ASD), a nonpartisan initiative housed at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, develops comprehensive strategies to deter, defend against, and raise the costs on autocratic efforts to undermine and interfere in democratic institutions. ASD has staff in Washington, D.C., and Brussels, bringing together experts on disinformation, malign finance, emerging technologies, elections integrity, economic coercion, and cybersecurity, as well as Russia, China, and the Middle East, to collaborate across traditional stovepipes and develop cross-cutting frameworks. You can learn more here:

https://securingdemocracy.gmfus.org/about-us/

Of interest is ASD’s Authoritarian Interference Tracker, which catalogues the Russian and Chinese governments’ activities to undermine democracy in more than 40 transatlantic countries since 2000 using five tools: information manipulation, cyber operations, malign finance, civil society subversion, and economic coercion. Here’s a link to it: https://securingdemocracy.gmfus.org/toolbox/authoritarian-interference-tracker/

In PART TWO, “Right Into the Danger Zone” we’ll be analyzing how China has ramped up both its global media influence and its disinformation campaigns after escaping world condemnation for its role in causing Covid-19.

SOME SOURCES USED FOR THIS COLUMN:

EU vs. DIsinfo: https://euvsdisinfo.eu/a-guide-to-deciphering-pro-kremlin-disinformation-around-putins-war/

EU vs. DIsinfo: https://euvsdisinfo.eu/the-bucha-massacre-how-to-deflect-attention-in-poland/

Edelman: https://www.edelman.com/trust/2022-trust-barometer

National Public Radio : https://www.npr.org/2022/03/01/1083677765/putin-denazify-ukraine-russia-history

New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2022/04/27/us/politics/russia-cyberattacks-ukraine.html

New York Times: https://www.proquest.com/nytimes/docview/2661651060/C3B5E6216D89455CPQ/2?accountid=36446

Wall Street Journal: https://www.wsj.com/articles/my-russian-mother-in-law-believes-putin-aggression-family-propoganda-nazi-ukraine-11653596104?mod=hp_opin_pos_2#cxrecs_s

Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yevgeny_Prigozhin

FINAL NOTE: What do I read and watch for facts about Russia’s warfare against Ukraine? The Wall Street Journal (www.wsj.com) has become a trusted source for both news and analysis. For day-to-day tactical analysis, the Institute for the Study of War’s website provides excellent information about on-the-ground battle activity. Its website is www.understandingwar.org You’re welcome to contact me at john.kerezy@tri-c.edu or at 216.987.5040 for more information regarding disinformation campaigns.

Published by jkerezy

I'm an associate professor of Media and Journalism Studies (MJS) at Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland, and have also had a "side job" as a high school speech and debate coach for the past 13 years. I also worked in journalism, public relations and marketing for many years before going into higher education. My professional email address is john.kerezy@tri-c.edu

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