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Alternative news: from Russia with lies

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An E&T investigation into online disinformation campaigns that seek to undermine the truth about the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus suggests fake news will continue to emerge from Russia even without the Kremlin’s backing.

Would you believe a news report claiming Covid-19 is an orchestrated attempt to bring down the world’s governments? For those who believe in conspiracy theories, this kind of fabricated coronavirus disinformation may be just the right thing. For most others, it is a nuisance at best.

A Russian outlet called News Front that boasts nearly half a million subscribers published a video in March comparing the spread of coronavirus to the part that technology plays in so-called ‘colour revolutions’, a term often used to describe civil resistance against government. The video plays on viewers’ fears, claiming: “The goal is not to change only one country but the world order to suit someone’s interests... We are faced with a new type of weapon of mass destruction, a psychological weapon that affects hundreds of millions of people. It doesn’t affect lungs, it affects the brain and makes people an ordinary dumb herd.”

Of course, this is nonsense. There’s no evidence that Covid-19 is a biological weapon or that it was developed as an instrument to provoke revolution. Yet fabricated news like this is an example of how the public aren’t just fighting the virus and the problems associated with lockdown, but also have to endure a virus of disinformation.

Official data points to a significant level of involvement by pro-Kremlin Russian groups in spreading false pandemic stories. Many of the fake articles E&T reviewed suggested a government culprit behind the outbreak.

The East StratCom Task Force, part of the European External Action Service, is one organisation looking at who is behind these articles. It located a vast number of fake stories on Covid-19 in recent weeks. Experts say these phoney articles attempt to create a power vacuum that can be filled by Vladimir Putin and by the Kremlin.

Sam Woolley of the University of Texas at Austin, author of ‘The Reality Game’, says it is obvious: “It is pulled straight out of the Cold War handbook. It is very much the types of tactics being used by the Russian government for the better part of the last century.”

Why are some people susceptible to these fabricated narratives? “Conspiracy theorists are often getting off an exit too soon on the road to critical thinking. It is easy to think those who back these Russian disinformation campaigns do think in depth about these issues such as Covid-19,” says Woolley. “[but] there is a complete absence of any empirical information or evidence to say it’s true.”

Using digital technology to create panic and confusion when around a fifth of the world’s population is under strict lockdown seems easy and effective. Injecting half-​truths is especially dangerous and potent when even experts are finding it hard to keep up with emerging medical developments.

With people uncertain and confined to their homes, many are looking to the internet for answers. Pro-Kremlin disinformers appear to have jumped at the opportunity.

E&T analysed data from EUvsDisinfo, a European Union database maintained by the East StratCom Task Force, and found that roughly 76 per cent of coronavirus-related fake news reviews mention pro-Kremlin disinformation in the summary.

Distinctive patterns emerge. Targets and the type of media outlets that support pro-Kremlin disinformation are similar to those seen in previous campaigns and easily spottable. Many sources are already known for spreading fake news. Among 165 articles fitting the description of Covid-19 pro-Kremlin disinformation, 90 mentioned the USA as a target and a vast number mentioned the EU or European countries. Five mentioned Nato, while ‘biological weapons’ or ‘biological war’ showed up 19 times in headlines.

Agnieszka Legucka at the Polish Institute of International Affairs in Warsaw says that fake pro-Kremlin stories often surface when there is something else going on that the narrative tries to shift attention away from.

British writer and security specialist Edward Lucas explains: “[Vladimir] Putin is trying to exploit the situation domestically to deflect criticism away from his constitutional changes, which are not popular in Russia.” News reports suggest Putin is determined to hold on to plans of an ‘all-people vote’, foreseeing a constitutional change that will keep him in power indefinitely. Despite the pandemic, the vote is expected go ahead. Yet, as new cases and deaths pile up, there are questions about how well Russia will cope.

So far, says Lucas, the Covid-19 crisis is a boon for Putin, who is exploiting the opportunities it offers. Is the Kremlin itself really behind all this? There are strong signs it is not, says Mark Galeotti, a Russia expert, lecturer and writer on crime and Russian security affairs. He told E&T that having built this propaganda and disinformation capability, “the machine grinds on pretty much regardless of whether the Kremlin is turning the handle”.

The domestic coronavirus situation in Russia bears similarities to suspected deception campaigns run by nations like North Korea. In both cases, experts believe cases are under-reported. Observers point to an unexplained spike in Russian pneumonia death cases likely to be related to Covid-19. But Galeotti doesn’t think the government is necessarily hiding cases. Instead, “the Kremlin gets screwed by its own system”, he argues. Russia’s track record in deceiving the public does not help its credibility.

Some disinformation on Covid-19 picks up on the Chernobyl disaster and claims: “Coronavirus will become for Nato and the EU what Chernobyl became for the Soviet Union. It will cause their dissolution.” Projecting the demise of multilateral organisations is a typical characteristic of pro-Kremlin campaigns and highlights one of their secondary goals: to weaken trust in western organisations.

E&T found most of the fake stories on Covid-19 were concerned with undermining public trust, whether in the NHS or Public Health England, or in the police to keep the public safe. Philip Howard, director of the Oxford Internet Institute, says: “One consistent tactic for the Russians and Chinese is to say the media is not telling the whole truth. They try to tease people with ‘the real knowledge’, which just happens to sit on a website nobody’s ever heard of.” In his book ‘Lie Machines’, Howard describes how Russian trolls promote disinformation using highly automated ‘bot’ accounts and fake users.

E&T found that many of the sites pushing fake news have a long track record. SouthFront.org, for example, which has published 18 separate pro-Kremlin Covid-19 deception stories identified by EUvsDisinfo, was uncovered as a Kremlin-backed propaganda platform in 2016 by a Finnish journalist. Sputnik News Agency accounted for nearly a fifth of articles. Nine are from Geopolitica.ru and 12 stories from RT (formerly Russia Today), a Kremlin-funded international television network.

Disinformation graph 2

Image credit: E&T

According to Howard, the starting point for a disinformation campaign is the decision to polarise opinion on a particular issue. Somebody in the Russian government decides, say, that public health is an issue to focus on. Their communications teams then create a couple of different angles, and these stories get planted in far-right communities in the US or in Britain, on Reddit or by state-run media.

However, Galeotti thinks the notion the Russian government is directly in control of Covid-19 misinformation is outdated and probably misleading. Much of the activity is outsourced and continues regardless of state input, through an array of autonomous agents, TV pundits and pet writers whose job is “to come up with all this rubbish,” he says. This means the Kremlin has difficulty ramping content down that it didn’t create directly. The lack of support is reflected in the fact that it doesn’t do much to magnify these stories, he adds.

Both Sputnik and RT act as central channels to reach audiences outside Russia. Both are effective. A leaked report by the EU diplomatic service placed RT’s Spanish service as the 12th most popular source of information on coronavirus on social media. An article it ran claiming the pandemic is a “rehearsal to measure the capability of the reaction of health state systems, of how societies react and how far humans can go in highly stressful situations, as well as the intensity of a potential backlash if one army decides to launch a biological attack” was widely shared and covered in both Russian and international publications.

How many users RT or Sputnik actually reach is unclear, although UK figures collated by the Broadcasters’ Audience Research Board estimate audiences of nearly a million during the week of the Brexit referendum in 2016.

RT also covers tech, sometimes relying on questionable sources. In what appears to be an attempt to discredit American 5G communications projects, for example, articles have spread the idea that 5G could cause cancer, infertility, autism, heart tumours and Alzheimer’s disease. Although Russia is now charging ahead with developments in its own 5G infrastructure, for a long time it was lagging behind.

The 5G angle has also been used for Covid-19 coverage, though not by pro-​Kremlin outlets. One video claiming 5G phone signals cause coronavirus symptoms has been viewed seven million times, according to the Center for Countering Digital Hate. As others began to appear, YouTube was quick to implement a ban, but the theme has been picked up more widely.

In the US, anti-​vaccine lobbying group Children’s Health Defense petitioned the Federal Communications Commission about ‘harmful radiation’ released via the deployment of 5G. In January, the group’s 5G director was invited by RT America to share her experiences.

Moreover, the sheer volume of news RT and Sputnik have run on Covid-19 makes it easier for disinformation to hide among the truth and means many readers and viewers will give it the benefit of the doubt. Between 22 and 27 March 2020, RT’s English-speaking service posted more than 300 coronavirus-related news articles a day. Similarly, Sputnik produced 1,744 Covid-19-related articles up to 27 March, equivalent to around 38 a day.

The increasing volume of news with which the public are bombarded, combined with the growth of social media, makes it harder for people to think critically about it, says Marshall Gunter of cyber-security firm Datametrex. There is estimated to be more news content related to coronavirus than to any other topic in history. Propaganda works because people are often only reading the headline and the first paragraph of a story.

A report published by Datametrex last year claimed that Russian attempts to undermine foreign democracies by increasing the divisions between citizens with opposing views are effective. “While the people of that country are busy fighting each other, Russia is able to move with greater freedom with less scrutiny,” it says. The theory of remediation – the repetition of content in the age of social media – composed by American new-media scholar Richard Grusin applies to the spread of both genuine and fake news.

When challenged, the Kremlin consistently denies all responsibility for coronavirus disinformation. And with so much nonsense about Covid-19 in circulation, Galeotti finds it hard to see how a Russian contribution is really going to make much of a difference anyway.

Journalist Jane Lytvynenko at Buzzfeed News has investigated all kinds of coronavirus hoaxes and found that those which spread most rapidly fall into three categories: those causing panic, those that give bad health advice and those which are concerned with selling products. Other cyber-security experts confirm that Covid-19 scams have escalated on a scale at which a Russian state contribution would not be likely to make a significant difference.

Howard’s research suggests that more than 70 countries have established social media misinformation teams, compared with 25 four years ago. Peter Stano, European Commission spokesperson on foreign and security policy, notes that organisations in the Middle East involved in Covid-19 campaigns range from political actors to terrorist groups like Daesh. His team also found a lot of anti-Iranian sentiment linked to Covid-19.

As other groups become more involved, Galeotti wonders why the Kremlin, unusually, has made a point of refraining from “hinting about terrible foreign plots”. He believes Russia faces a dilemma as it uses the pandemic to try and claw back influence in the West. Having reportedly sent aid to Italy and the US, Putin used a recent virtual G20 meeting to call for a moratorium on sanctions, suggesting an attempt to use the shared plight to improve relations.

Even so, Russian-language sites offer easy buying options for disinformation-as-a-service campaigns. A project by Insikt Group, a research arm of Recorded Future, tested it. It bought disinformation from Russian-speaking underground forums and let two fake companies collide by spending $6,000 to smear competition. It has never been easier to buy such campaigns. They are highly customisable in scope and budget. Fake articles could be published on dubious websites as well as on more reputable news outlets and fake social accounts will eschew triggering content moderation controls.

‘People will still share things they feel strongly about even if they know it’s not completely true.’

Charity Wright, IntSights

Such examples raise questions as to whether social media companies do enough to fight disinformation. For Covid-19 coverage, firms such as Facebook have done a fairly good job, says cyber-crime expert Charity Wright from IntSights. But, she stresses, “people will still share things they feel strongly about even if they know it’s not completely true”.

Arguably, pro-Kremlin tactics have evolved. A new report by Reuters Institute and Oxford University found reconfiguration – in which true information is spun, twisted and re-contextualised – is now more common than straight-out fake stories. Also, creation of fake news is outsourced. A Russian-led professional troll network employing Ghanaian and Nigerian operatives produced hundreds of messages mentioning Covid-19 during January and early February, though Facebook and Twitter were quick to respond.

Woolley calls for drastic measures by tech companies, such as a $10bn investment by tech giants to counteract disinformation. Despite commendable work on Covid-19 in the past weeks, they have an inconsistent track record, he argues. Previous efforts to clamp down on fake news through regulation have largely fizzled out, he says.

Lucas argues that “it is not really [tech companies’] job”. Woolley agrees that “it is the government’s job to deter specific threat actors” if the sentiment of fabricated articles – such as ‘Covid-19 used by China as a weapon against other nations’ – is repeated by government leaders. US President Donald Trump calling the coronavirus “the Chinese virus”, for example, or predicting that anti-​malarial drug chloroquine would be a gamechanger in fighting the coronavirus, prompting hoarding and cases of overdoses.

So far, all attempts to find a way of halting the spread of fake news seem to have failed. There is also criticism of the East StratCom Task Force, whose EUvsDisinfo database was created specifically to “challenge Russia’s ongoing disinformation campaigns”. Galeotti says: “When you have organisations whose job it is to identify and push back against Russian disinformation, well, they will find Russian disinformation.”

Remedies include fact-checking and education. Also, basic cyber hygiene and cyber innoculation can help, as can encouraging the study of fake news to spot patterns. Initiatives like the World Health Organization’s interactive chatbot tool can help too.

Experts agree on one thing – the world hasn’t seen the end of pro-Kremlin disinformation, even though Covid-19 efforts have been low-key compared to previous campaigns like the 2016 US election.

Meanwhile, however, disinformation is bubbling away inside Russia itself, leading the country – worried about “toxic nonsense” – to introduce criminal penalties for spreading misinformation about coronavirus, Galeotti says. A more threatening concern is how the state could use similar measures to silence its critics, he adds. Either way, the propaganda machine will keep grinding on.

Disinformation graph XL

Image credit: E&T

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