Article by: Kseniya Kirillova
In late November, a scandal erupted in the largest Russian media. Propaganda publications told us about the “British anti-Russian program,” The Integrity Initiative, which, according to RIA Novosti, “was used to interfere in the internal affairs of European countries and for the information war against Russia.”
The Russians refer to internal documents of the British project, saying that the hacker group Anonymous claimed responsibility for obtaining them. At the same time, even the Russian media don’t deny that the goal of the Integrity Initiative was not creating propaganda but fighting against it.
“The stated goal of the Integrity Initiative project is to fight against ‘Russian propaganda and information attacks.’ The way to do it is to form a network of knowledgeable people from the political, military, academic, and expert areas,” RIA Novosti quotes the British project in one of their articles (as of now, this website contains over 30 publications about the Integrity Initiative).
Nevertheless, Moscow is trying to prove with all its might that the goal of the project is to deliberately denigrate Russia and “interfere in the affairs of other countries.” Through the mouths of hackers, Russia states: “Hiding behind noble intentions, Britain actually created a large information secret service in Europe, the USA and Canada… As part of the project, Britain has repeatedly interfered in the internal affairs of independent European states.”
At the same time, Russian propagandists claim that the project is nothing but a brainchild of British intelligence services and is “closely connected with British intelligence.”
The scandal has grown so large that members of the Russian State Duma have already stated their willingness to conduct an investigation into the Russians cooperating with the project, and the Russian embassy asked the British Foreign Ministry for clarification about the authenticity of the published documents on the activities of the Integrity Initiative, as well as the information about all the projects on Russia funded by the Ministry.
What are the Russians accusing The Integrity Initiative of?
Let’s try to figure out what the Russians base their accusations on, and what makes the British project the main “evidence of malicious purposes”? Focusing on publications in the main Russian propaganda media devoted to the analysis of the published documents, one can single out the main “complaints” presented by the Russian authorities.
- Effective organization of activities in different countries, built through a system of “clusters”.
- Coordination and interaction between clusters, which is carried out both electronically and, sometimes, through British embassies.
- Great analytical work on Russian propaganda in each region, conducting seminars and studies.
- Promotion of the results of this work in social networks, the use of information platforms to counter Russian “active measures.”
- Partial financing of the project by the British government and NATO, the participation of Western security experts in the project.
The Russian authorities were particularly insulted by the project documents mentioning of one of the people most hated by Vladimir Putin – financier and lobbyist of the “Magnitsky Act” William Browder, as well as Vladimir Ashurkov, an associate of corruption fighter Alexei Navalny, and the Russian scientist Igor Sutyagin, convicted in the past for spying.
It is important to bear in mind the documents laid out by hackers may partially be faked. However, the project’s management does not deny that the program dedicated to fighting against disinformation in Europe really does have to spend most of its time studying the activities of Russia, including those carried out through intelligence services. The Integrity Initiative considers the hacker attack carried out under the name Anonymous itself as one of the Kremlin’s propaganda operations.
Thus, both parties recognize as generally truthful information about the structure, scale of activities and contacts of the project. The fundamental difference between what Russian propagandists say and the real work of the Integrity Initiative is primarily in the goals and methods of the British organization. In order to understand which of the parties is right, it is important to answer the main question: does the fight against Russian propaganda really require such complex organization, coordination, and funding as is being used in the British project?
How does Russian propaganda work?
Over the past years, many experts have described the strategies and tactics of Russian propaganda and “information operations,” which are part of the “active measures” of the special services. However, the most accurate information about these tactics can be obtained from legal documents. In particular, the indictment by US special counsel Robert Mueller against 13 Russians accused of interfering in the elections in the United States, describes some of them in detail.
The employees of the “troll factory” worked day and night in two shifts for many months and created hundreds of social media profiles using the names of the Americans. Since 2014, they have created the web pages of organizations fighting for immigration, the importance of the lives of African Americans (“Blacktivists”), Muslim and Christian groups, etc., which then pitted the Americans against each other. In 2015, Lakhta employees have started buying advertising on social networks and have become more active on Twitter. Their work and the main topics of agitation in the meantime were carefully supervised from Moscow.
Lakhta also acquired servers in the United States and created virtual private networks, trying to disguise themselves as a domestic American network. E-mail addresses for non-existent Americans were also created. With their help, they communicated with other activists and circulated appeals to local media for the purpose of promotion of their events.
In 2016, Lakhta employees began using real social security numbers and genuine birth dates of actual Americans without their knowledge. With the help of this information, “wallets” were created in the PayPal payment system, driver’s licenses were obtained, and then pages of organizations controlled by Lakhta were created under the names of the victims of theft, and advertising on social networks was bought.
Starting in February 2016, Lakhta began to use any opportunity to criticize Hillary Clinton and support Trump, including organizing rallies in his support. Rallies “in support of” the Democrats were also held but were actually aimed at discrediting them (for example, their organizers called for the introduction of Sharia law in the USA). Lakhta also called on the Democrats’ potential electorate not to vote.
A vivid example of the “flow” of Russian slander into American mass media is a smear against James Comey published in an English-language source, but using the Russian word pravda (truth), written in Latin letters.
Separately, it’s worth mentioning the activity of Russian trolls that preceded the release of the Nunes Memorandum, in which the FBI and the Department of Justice were accused of bias against President Donald Trump. The Twitter hashtag #ReleaseTheMemo was originally published by several Republican senators on 18 January 2018, and on the same day, it was picked up by Wikileaks.
At the same time, as indicated on the website of the American Alliance for Securing Democracy, from 14-31 January 2018, members of the Alliance studied 159 major articles distributed from the URLs of Kremlin-linked accounts on Twitter. As a result, it turned out that 31% of the trending links were devoted to the legends of the “Deep State” and attacks on the FBI, the Department of Justice and the Mueller probe. Half of these articles were devoted to the release of the “Nunes Memo.” Other targets of Russian trolls were Hillary Clinton, Andrew McCabe and Lindsey Graham. An anti-immigration theme was also trending. Based on this data, congressmen Dianne Feinstein and Adam Schiff sent a letter to the Twitter and Facebook management asking them to investigate the bot activity.
The Lakhta project reappears in another indictment, issued by the US Justice Department against Russian citizen Elena Husyainova. She was involved in accounting for finances, which were used, in particular, for conducting operations to influence American elections. Cash flows were used for payments to activists, political advertising in social networks, registration of domain names, purchase of proxy servers, etc. This time the interference was also directed at the mid-term elections to the US Congress in 2018.
The operational budget of the project, according to the investigation, in 2016-2018 was $35 million; moreover, only part of it was spent on the operations in the USA. Also, part of the funds was allocated for the campaign to discredit Republicans John McCain and Paul Ryan, who were contrasted with Trump as a “defender of America’s true interests”. Trolls were encouraged to support all of Trump’s initiatives as president.
If we look away from the American realities, we can recall one of the largest revelations of Russian “active measures” in Ukraine, in particular, the publication of the letters of the “gray cardinal of the Kremlin” Vladislav Surkov in 2016 and 2017.
Why is the Integrity Initiative necessary?
I mentioned and described only a few examples of the actions of Russian propaganda in just two of the many countries where Moscow conducts its “active measures.” However, they show how much effort Russia directs at destabilizing sovereign states, trying to split their societies and supporting candidates loyal to the Kremlin. Naturally, the victims of such interventions try to defend themselves from hostile attacks. By the way, according to the above-mentioned indictment against Husayinova, the Russians informally call intervention in the American elections an “information war against the USA.”
In 2015, a group of American volunteer enthusiasts led by the former senior CIA officer Charles Leven created an informal group to combat Russian disinformation in Linkedin in the United States. The work of this group was described in major American media.
However, their project only lasted a year – the Russian trolls, funded by the Russian government, well-organized and much more numerous, succeeded in blocking the American volunteers by using the standard social media complaint mechanism. It became obvious that ordinary people with limited resources are unable to stop the flow of misinformation from a huge totalitarian country which made the spread of fake news and trolls one of its priorities. At the same time, it is no less obvious that protection against such aggressive intervention is a national security issue for victims of Russian “information operations.”
Now, let’s return to the points listed above on the basis of which the project The Integrity Initiative was condemned by the Russian media, and try to understand whether they constitute necessary conditions for protection against Kremlin propaganda.
1. State funding and participation. It is clear from the above-mentioned facts and figures that volunteers, working at their own expense, are not able to withstand a huge propaganda machine, whose work is worth millions of dollars a month on a single country from the list. The participation of government funding in the Integrity Initiative is also understandable: “active measures” are a professional area of activity of Russian special services for the destruction of democratic institutions in other countries, thus protection against them is a matter of national security. These issues, of course, fall within the purview of the government of any country.
2. “Clusters.” The work of the Russian propaganda described above is carried out in all countries which the Integrity Initiative interacts with. For the above-mentioned reason, enthusiasts engaged in combating this propaganda need help, including organizational assistance. Coordination of common work is perfectly normal for any serious business.
3. Participation of security experts and other professionals in the activities of the clusters. Fighting Russian propaganda is a matter of national security for many countries, since in some of them this propaganda is aimed at weakening and destabilizing the country, and in others (in particular, post-Soviet ones) threatens the very existence of the state. A group of volunteers cannot effectively confront the special services – this should be done by professionals, at least veterans, as well as professional journalists, linguists, and other experts. It is also quite normal that these experts share their knowledge with less experienced community members.
4. Analytical work. From the above documents, we see that Russian trolls disguise themselves as the ordinary residents of the victim countries; therefore, in order to identify propagandists, understand their tactics, and effectively resist disinformation, serious analytics are needed. Moreover, Russian propagandists, while publishing the stolen documents, unwittingly confirm that the activity of the Integrity Initiative is not aimed at creating propaganda, but on the contrary, at identifying and studying it.
“Once again, answering the main question of the report: why is Putin ‘lying,’ the British summarize: because of power and wealth, as well as the exploitation of Western freedom of speech. According to them, power and wealth are the reasons why Putin ‘bombarded’ the West with disinformation,” reports one of the Russian propaganda websites, thus showing that the Integrity Initiative’s activities fully meet the stated goals: to understand the causes of misinformation in order to realize how to confront it.
5. When the analytical work is done, and misinformation is revealed and refuted, spreading the truth in the media space becomes a completely natural next step. It is also important to inform the public about the ties of this or that official or politician with Russia since Russia behaves in relation to the countries involved in the project like a hostile state. At the same time, the participants of the British project, unlike the Kremlin, spread the truth, not lies, do not use stolen names and fake data and do not violate the law.
Participation of Russian dissidents in the project is also quite understandable – they understand in-depth propaganda techniques and the mentality of certain parts of the Russian population that can be indoctrinated.
Thus, the Russian “active measures” and the activities of The Integrity Initiative aimed to counter them relate roughly in the same way as the activities of criminals and the police designed to counteract them. In fact, the “people’s militia” is not able to resist organized crime. To combat the mafia, government funding, professional staff, good coordination, high-quality analytical and research work are needed. The police also needs international coordination – Interpol (just recently Moscow unsuccessfully tried to gain control over it using the standard “active measure”: winning the election for the position of its president.) At the same time, not all police activities are publicized: secrecy is needed to protect sources and continue to investigate and prevent criminals from “covering their tracks.”
The hacker attack on The Integrity Initiative and the scandal that followed is an attempt by Russian propaganda to swap the criminal for the one who is trying to investigate his crimes. But the difference between those spreading lies to destroy other countries and those spreading the truth to protect their own countries is equal to that between an aggressor and a victim. Even if the way of organizing their activities seems similar at first glance.