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Struggle against fake information about events in Ukraine
Updated: 34 min 45 sec ago

New Laboratory for Russia’s Internet Censors

Sat, 10/14/2017 - 00:11

By Coda Staff

Russia’s internet censor is building its own digital laboratory to test and develop its own methods for blocking websites and other online activity, according to Izvestia. A new subdivision of the communications watchdog, Roskomnadzor, will run the laboratory, as well as organize online exercise drills to prepare staff to enforce new internet regulations coming into force next month.

A key concern is to find ways to block internet users who have found ways to circumvent Roskomnadzor’s existing restrictions.

In July, President Vladimir Putin signed new legislation prohibiting owners of virtual private network (VPN) services and internet anonymizers from allowing users to access content blocked in Russia. The new law also grants Roskomnadzor the power to bar websites that offer instructions on how to get round internet restrictions.

Roskomnadzor director Alexander Zharov told Izvestia that the new subdivision is targeting users who “violate the logic of the blocking system.” He said the agency is also “cooperating” with Russian internet security companies to monitor suspected violators.

It is the latest sign of Roskomnadzor’s growing importance to the Kremlin’s information control strategy, as Coda Story reported last month. The agency now blocks tens of thousands of websites, including opposition sites that call for demonstrations.

And under a law currently being discussed in the Russian parliament, Roskomnadzor will also be able to censor any material produced by so-called “undesirable” foreign entities.

By Coda Staff

Categories: World News

Fake: Crimea Hosts International Ukrainian Diaspora Congress

Fri, 10/13/2017 - 14:51

Russian and Crimean media reported last week that an international congress of Ukrainian diaspora organizations was held on the Russian occupied Crimea peninsula. The congress declared that it wanted to collaborate with what they called “constructive segments of Ukraine’s population”. Organizers claimed representatives from several European countries attended the gathering, including from the Ukrainian mainland, but these were not named for security reasons, RIA Novosti reported.

Website screenshot crimea.ria.ru

Website screenshot 1tvcrimea.ru

Real Ukrainian diaspora organizations condemned the congress as yet another Russian serving disinformation exercise.

One of the Russian players in this fake, Zaur Smirnov, chairman of the so-called Crimean State Committee for Interethnic Relations and Deported Citizens of the Crimea, wrote on his Facebook page that “Ukrainian diasporas are ready to declare to the entire world that the Kyiv regime has no right to speak on behalf of the entire Ukrainian people”.

Lenta.ru, Krym.net, Russian Defense Ministry television channel Zvezda, REN TV,Vzglyad, Argumenty i Fakty, Kerch.FM, Pravda.ru, Voyennoye Obozrenie among others wrote about the fake congress.

Screenshot @ ukroobchina

Screenshot ru.krymr.com

Russian controlled Crimean television station TRK Krym covered the so-called congress by broadcasting the gathering’s highlight, a round table entitled  Cooperation of the Ukrainian national-cultural autonomy of Crimea with compatriots abroad. Among the participants were well known Russia vassals and Ukraine haters. One of those, former Regions Party MP Vadim Kolesnichenko, during his parliamentary tenure spearheaded legislation curtailing the Ukrainian language and expanding the Russian language. Mr. Kolesnichenko fled Ukraine in 2014 and lives comfortably in Moscow. Other participants were Mikhail Kushakov, deputy education minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic and journalist Rostyslav Ishchenko, who writes for several pro-Kremlin publications and regularly represents a Ukrainian pro-Kremlin view on Russian television programs.

Website screenshot ukrinfrom.ua

Website screenshot ukrainianworldcongress.org

The Ukrainian Community of Crimea, another group dreamed up by Kremlin fakers, whose chairman Oleg Usyk is a local MP from the current ruling United Russia Party featured prominently in the congress.

Russian media reported that members of the Union of Ukrainians in Poland attended the meeting, which Union chairman Petro Tyma vehemently denied. “Nobody from the Ukrainian community in Poland went to that so-called congress” Tyma said and called the event an example of “typical Kremlin disinformation”.

Meanwhile the World Congress of Ukrainians, a global body representing Ukrainian diaspora communities throughout the world had never even heard of the Crimea gathering and most certainly was not asked to participate in the fake congress. The organization did however express support for the recent EU-Ukraine Parliamentary Association Committee statement on the territorial integrity of Ukraine and its European integration process.

The statement condemns attempts by Russian authorities and forces controlled by them to forcibly incorporate into the Russian Federation areas of Ukraine they control and criticizes increasing human

 

Categories: World News

Does Russia interfere in Czech, Austrian and Hungarian elections?

Thu, 10/12/2017 - 17:41

By Political Capital

The French and the German elections clearly proved two things about Russian meddling efforts. First, there were obvious attempts to interfere in both cases. Second, that these efforts can be easily pushed back if there is a political will to do so. In this piece, we aim to examine both the interference opportunities for Russia in the upcoming elections in Central Eastern Europe (Austria, Czech Republic, and Hungary), countries that have a long history of Russian influence efforts of different kinds, by drawing parallels between Western meddling attempts, and Eastern countries’ recently revealed vulnerabilities towards Russia.

The main difference between Western, and Eastern meddling opportunities for the Kremlin is the regionally distinct modus operandi in Russian influence. While, the West proved to be a breeding ground for state of the art information warfare utilizing “bots,” the East has a multitude of local mainstream political, economic and disinformation actors in the pockets of the Kremlin.

Read the complete analysis here.

By Political Capital

(Teaser photo: Damian Entwistle, http://bit.ly/2gtSBIn)

Categories: World News

Time for the ninth MH17 disinformation round

Thu, 10/12/2017 - 16:51

By EU vs Disinfo

In the pro-Kremlin disinformation news cycle, timing is everything.  Every occasion can be used to amplify and strengthen the false message.

This week’s opportunity occurred when the separatist officials of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic handed over “human remains and debris” from the MH17 to the Dutch investigators. One may say with good reason it took some time: Malaysian Airlines flight was shot down over Eastern Ukraine three years ago, killing all 298 passengers and crew.

As we have noticed, Russian media and state officials have spread at least eight different versions of the catastrophe, all pointing away from the Russian liability which has been clearly stated by the Dutch-led Joint Investigation Team.

Now we see a ninth falsehood. It was published by the Russian Ministry of Defense TV channel Zvezda, claiming “a former major of the Ukrainian army”, Yuri Baturin, witnessed the plane shot down by a Ukrainian Buk. Later Zvezda removed the report but it’s easily available cached. The job was done – the story was spread by dozens of news websites both in Russian and in English.

Another report on TV channel Rossiya 1 – that was not deleted – consolidated the false narrative that the BUK was launched from an area under the Ukrainian Army’s control. For debunks, see here.

Fictitious organ trade

Just like the false theories on MH17, some of the most absurd lies on Ukraine have a multi-year track-record in the pro-Kremlin disinformation operation.

So we heard that Ukraine’s Health Ministry allows dead Ukrainians to be sold for organs; that the country is to be turned into an international black market transplant centre for wealthy foreigners; and, once again, that there is no evidence of Russian tanks in Ukraine.

Last but not least we heard that tens of thousands of Ukrainian weapons are smuggled into Poland with the purpose of building an underground Ukrainian army.

False fight for the right values

Circumstances in Georgia give a solid example of how pro-Kremlin messaging can be customized to local audiences across Europe. Here, the disinformation machine focuses on the conspiracies of the “rotten” Western values. This week we heard that homosexuality is dispersed throughout Georgia, that it is comparable to cannibalism, and that a range of different techniques are used to bestialise Georgian citizens. For debunk see here.

Georgia and the World accompanied its conspiratory article with a photo illustration of a children’s book “Daddy’s Roommate” by the American writer Michael Wilhoite. Debunked by Myth Detector.

Also in Georgia appeared a new version of an old narrative. The story goes that when Carl Bildt was Foreign Minister of Sweden, he said that Orthodoxy was the main enemy of the West “as it tries to regulate family relations and does not recognise gays and transgenders”. Just like with the case of disinformation on Ukraine, this fabrication was first debunked already three years ago.

Finally, Russian TV’s conspiracy campaign claiming that the US is not fighting Daesh but supporting it show no signs of stopping. We learned that Daesh is a project of the United States; that Daesh fighters are the mercenaries of the US; and that the all-mighty West and the US have created the Islamist ideology and Islamist networks.

While the Russian speaking TV audience is kept occupied with accusations against the US, the Russian Ministry of Defense has not made too much noise with its announcement that there have been no Russian air strikes targeting Syrian Democratic Forces or civilians. Reports from human rights monitors in any case suggest the opposite.

By EU vs Disinfo

Categories: World News

The Only Thing Catalonia and Crimea Have in Common Is the Letter C

Wed, 10/11/2017 - 17:57

People wait to watch the delayed session of the Catalan regional parliament on a giant screen at a pro-independence rally in Barcelona, Spain, October 10, 2017. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes

By By Diane Francis, for Atlantic Council

A Bloomberg piece in October titled “Why Catalonia Will Fail Where Crimea Succeeded” by Russian writer Leonid Bershidsky is an example of moral equivalence run amok.

He compares two completely unrelated events—referenda in Crimea and Catalonia—as though they bear any similarity, and as though they carry the same moral weight.

“The Catalan situation draws comparisons with that in Crimea in 2014, and they are not as easy to dismiss as Catalan independence supporters might think,” he wrote.

Yes they are.

The only link is that questionable votes were staged in both jurisdictions. Any further comparisons conflate two historical events as dissimilar as the leadership styles of Stalin and Gandhi.

The inconvenient backdrop to Crimea’s referendum in favor of joining Russia was violence. Its institutions had just been occupied, its federal government was being dismembered by the Russian military, opponents were murdered, its local press was shut down, and its populace was intimidated by the presence of soldiers with Kalashnikovs on every street corner.

Even so, Bershidsky writes: “Ukraine contends that the March 16 referendum, in which Crimea voted to secede from Ukraine and join Russia, took place at gunpoint,” he wrote. “That bit, however, is untrue. Neither the ‘little green men’ nor uniformed Russian soldiers were present at polling stations during the vote. There was no armed pressure on Crimeans, not even on the indigenous Crimean Tatars, who didn’t back the secession and mostly abstained from voting, to show up or to fill in ballots a certain way.”

This statement, concludes Jakub Janda with the European Values Think Tank in Prague, shows that “the author supports pro-Kremlin talking points, then lies.”

Bershidsky also repeats Russian propaganda as though it were fact. “In Crimea, 95.6 percent of those who cast votes backed joining Russia. In Catalonia, some 90 percent did, according to local authorities,” he wrote. “In Crimea, the official turnout topped 83 percent while in Catalonia it reached about half that.”

Such figures were disputed by a report posted on a Russian government website for an agency called Russia’s Council on Civil Society and Human Rights which said the voter turnout was a maximum of 30 percent and of these, only half voted for annexation, meaning only 15 percent of Crimean citizens voted to join Russia. The report was taken down quickly after it was posted.

Bershidsky cites Crimea figures that are “simply false,” said John Herbst, a former US ambassador to Ukraine. “The gold standard of disinformation work is to have one’s artifice passing as fact in major Western media,” he wrote. “Someone in the Kremlin must have been knocking down a vodka or two when reading Bershidsky’s column on Crimea and Catalonia.”

Throughout the piece, Bershidsky deploys another disinformation technique which consists of making outrageous assertions, then walking them back as if to provide the appearance of balance.

For instance, after trotting out unsupportable voting facts in both cases he then writes “but these numbers are equally meaningless because there was no way to ascertain the voting was being held according to any sensible rules.”

In addition, he maintains that a non-violent vote was why Crimea went to Russia then states that the main reason was because the Ukrainian government, unlike Spain, was too weak in Crimea and couldn’t keep secessionists in its eastern region in line.

But Herbst says that’s untrue. “Ukraine had no problem administering its laws in Crimea until Russian troops intervened. And in August of 2014, Ukraine was on the verge of taking back the entire Donbas from the Kremlin-run revolt when Russian troops entered Ukraine and dealt Kyiv’s forces a decisive defeat.”

For these and other reasons, Bloomberg should walk back the entire article.

Crimea was conquered. Period.

Catalonia’s vote was about a cultural and aspirational movement inside Spain.

Clearly, the only linkage between Crimea and Catalonia may be the invisible hand of the Kremlin and its confederates who broke up Ukraine and are interested in destabilizing and atomizing Spain and other western nations.

Bershidsky’s piece is fallacious and confuses cultural ambition with violent acquisition, and bullets with ballots.

That’s what this piece is all about. It’s about misrepresenting what Russia did to Ukraine to bolster a bogus comparison.

Its publication insults Ukrainians and represents another example of Russia’s assault on its neighbors, western values, institutions, and media as well as on truth itself.

By By Diane Francis, for Atlantic Council

Diane Francis is a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center, Editor at Large with the National Post in Canada, a Distinguished Professor at Ryerson University’s Ted Rogers School of Management, and author of ten books.

Categories: World News

Kremlin Watch Briefing. 10 October 2017

Tue, 10/10/2017 - 16:40

Topics of the Week

Federica Mogherini now claims that the EU is using sufficient means and resources and cannot take the Russian threat more seriously. As we stated in the Open Letter of European security experts, the EEAS East STRATCOM Team must be at least tripled in size and receive a budget in the single millions of EUR, so it can start fulfilling its mandate in real terms. Only three experts in the EEAS East STRATCOM Team are tasked with countering pro-Kremlin disinformation, which means that Federica Mogherini still doesn’t take this threat seriously.

Even if there is no language variant of Sputnik in your country, fringe groups and “alternative” media can do even more damage than official Russian channels. It should be part of each country’s basic hygiene and self-defence to investigate the possible links, whether financial or ideological, of such entities to the Kremlin. Groups like the Baltic Elves are a good way to go.

In context of the US investigation regarding the role of social media in the Russian-linked election meddling, we should start looking into regulation for public advertising. Google recently removed RT (formerly Russia Today) from Google Preferred, “a package of premium YouTube video inventory that the company sells to advertisers”. But we cannot expect social media companies to do all the work and then place RT advertisement on the walls of every tube station in London and other capitals. Detailed public scrutiny of RT’s activities, as well as those of other Russian media and proxies, must start happening now.   

Good Old Soviet Joke

This is Armenian Radio; our listeners asked us: “Why did butter disappear from the stores’ shelves?”

We’re answering: “It all has melted under the sun of the Soviet Constitution.”

US Developments Big Tech in the spotlight: Updates on the Russia election probe

Congressional investigators are drawing the conclusion that the pathway “to understanding Russia’s election meddling runs through the technology industry”. Facebook, Twitter, and Google – companies that retain enormous power over users and information – are facing growing scrutiny about their role in enabling Russia’s disinformation efforts during the election. New reports detail how Russia faked ‘black activism’  and organized protests to seed discontent in the US, while a roundup of the ads purchased by Russia-linked groups identifies a focus on topics related to Black Lives Matter, LGBT, Muslims, immigration, and militancy. (This article explains how simple it is to buy a Facebook ad just like the troll operatives at the St Petersburg troll factory.) It has also been determined that Wisconsin and Michigan – two crucial swing states that went to Trump – were the key targets of the Facebook ads.

Facing the pressure of impending public hearings, the Big Tech platforms are scrambling to conduct internal examinations and demonstrate cooperation with lawmakers. Google is undertaking a broad internal investigation of Russian-linked entities using its ads or services to manipulate voters whilst simultaneously speaking with congressional officials. In addition, Google recently removed RT (formerly Russia Today) from Google Preferred, “a package of premium YouTube video inventory that the company sells to advertisers”.

Twitter’s policy chief has also briefed Congress about Russia’s exploitation of the platform; however, Senator Mark Warner (D-VA) of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence criticized the presentation as “inadequate on almost every level”, implying that the company failed to understand the extent of the threat to American democracy. Meanwhile, Mark Zuckerberg expressed regret for having dismissed as ‘crazy’ the notion that Facebook was used as a channel for fake news to sway the election.

The fight isn’t over…

The heads of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Richard Burr (R-NC) and Mark Warner (D-VA) have jointly declared that Russia’s disinformation campaign is not over, and warned  that further manipulation efforts should be expected in the upcoming November and 2018 congressional elections.

The Kremlin’s Current Narrative Future of Europe

Our favourite online journal Vzglyad analysed the current state of play in Europe after the German elections and the Catalonian referendum, concluding that Europe is effectively entering a new stage in its history. European integration is going to destroy nation states if the main engine of the process, Germany, does not stop it. Vzglyad predicts the integration process will speed up and the EU will become more centralized.  The only possible alternative is an exchange of elites and, above all, active rejection of the path of violent integration. Who promotes these ideas? Of course, the National Front and AfD! So yes, Vzglyad, loudspeaker of the Russian governmental institutions, predicts that these parties will save Europe. Happy times ahead of us.

Adoption of the “Canadian Magnitsky Act”

Russia is profoundly disappointed by the adoption of the Justice for Victims of Corrupt Foreign Officials Act by the Canadian Parliament on October 2. This act, inspired by the American Magnitsky Act, will, according to Russia, further undermine Russian-Canadian relations, as it is explicitly designed to introduce sanctions against Russian citizens. Russia has warned Canada that this action will not go unanswered, meaning Moscow will expand the list of Canadian officials banned from entering Russia. But Moscow is trying to be the bigger person here and still hopes that common sense will prevail in Ottawa.

The Russian narrative has not changed over the past years as Moscow claims that attempts to isolate Russia have failed and that the West is likewise trying to isolate itself from Russia (big question mark about this logic). And here is the favourite line of all – this policy is actually harming the interests of the West, in particular by obstructing joint efforts to combat terrorism, bilateral cooperation in the Arctic and other areas. However, we are not convinced that Russia is genuinely interested in joint efforts to combat terrorism as Moscow continues to criticize its allies on Syria.

Clash with BBC and double standards

Moscow has been complaining about Simon Reeve’s documentary film about Russia, recently aired on BBC Two, which addresses the journey of British journalists to the Russian Far East and is timed for the centenary of the Russian Revolution. Moscow had a lot to say about the poor quality and politicization of the topic and dismissed the crew’s statements about their experiences of harassment and detention by the Russian security agencies. Moscow not only downplayed these claims but accused the BBC of broadcasting Russophobic stereotypes instead of reality. Indeed, that story made it into the Russian Foreign Ministry’s fake news section. This story, meanwhile, goes into our fake news section.

PUTIN’S CHAMPION AWARD

Our Expert Jury consisting of Jessikka Aro, Peter Kreko, Nerijus Maliukevičius, Anton Shekhovtsov and John Schindler, regularly votes on the dangerousness of several candidates you can nominate via e-mail or Twitter.

The 20th Putin’s Champion Award Recipient Is:

Steven Seagal

for effectively acting as Putin’s puppet.

K Zhestovskaya/(CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Expert Jury ranked his Putin-supportive job with

3,7

(of out 5) mark.

Policy & Research News The Kremlin’s little helpers in Romania

The Kremlin’s disinformation campaign operates in variety of ways. It is not always sufficient to be aware of official channels like Sputnik or RT. In many countries, the propaganda machine consists of many little helpers, like radical and fringe movements or the so-called “alternative” media. Due to economic interests, desire for popularity, or pure adoration of Putin and/or the Russian machine, these proxies can help amplify the Kremlin’s messages without citizens noticing that they are being manipulated.

In an article for CEPA’s StratCom Program, Corina Rebegea noticed that such a case recently happened in Romania. The result was a petition to declare Hans Klemm, the U.S. ambassador to Bucharest, persona non-grata.

Germany’s AfD and United Russia in subtle symbiosis

The Institute for Strategic Dialogue and the Institute of Global Affairs at the London School of Economics published the preliminary results of their monitoring of the attempts to influence German elections. After continuous rapprochement between Germany’s AfD and Russia’s United Russia over the last year, perhaps their report presents no real surprise. It describes mutual assistance between the AfD and pro-Kremlin actors via media coverage and Twitter bots. Also worrying is the assertion that even CDU politicians sometimes helped amplify and spread disinformation messaging originating in Russian tabloids.

Finnish COE established, Mogherini responds

The Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats became operational in the beginning of the month. It has been established by the Finnish government. Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, Poland, Spain, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States are currently participating in its activities.

The EU High Representative Federica Mogherini welcomed the establishment of the Center at the conference in Brussels dedicated to hybrid threats and the EU. She stated that “We are all affected, in Europe and beyond, and we all need to mobilise with the means and the resources at our disposal. This is what the European Union is doing already and we couldn’t take this issue more seriously.”

Unfortunately, her statements mostly highlight her shallow understanding of the problem and avoidance of real action. During her speech, she praised the activities of the Hybrid Fusion Cell, a low-key body within the EU, which is tasked with analysing hybrid threats. In comparison, she mentions the EEAS StratCom Task Force, which is doing the most tough but potentially game-changing job, only once. When it comes to the main culprit of the whole problem, the Russian Federation, the number of mentions is – unsurprisingly – zero.

Kremlin Watch Reading Suggestion Russian think tanks and soft power

Russia uses many different tools to boost its international influence; some of them, like disinformation or the use of cyber warfare, attract a lot of attention, while others are largely overlooked. One of these latter mechanisms is trying to influence expert communities and wider public opinion in the West using the help of think tanks and similar government-organized non-governmental organizations (GONGOs), which is exactly what this report by the Swedish Defence Research Agency focuses on. The report offers  a comprehensive overview of this issue and also contains nine case studies of specific think tanks.

What is remarkable about Russian think tanks is their high dependency on the Russian government. Although it is normal for think tanks in the West to cooperate with or receive funding from their respective governments, the independence of think tanks in Russia is much more limited. All of the think tanks examined in the report also seek in varying degrees to promote the country’s official message. Moreover, it is evident in various Russian security documents that the Russian government wants to use think tanks and GONGOs to achieve its foreign policy goals.

Overall, the extent to which the think tanks and GONGOs tend to promote the country’s official agenda varies, with the ones that have the widest interface with reputable Western researchers being less propagandistic. The ones that convey the Russian official message more obviously often create networks with less mainstream (and sometimes more extremist) organizations in the West. To find out about specific think tanks and more, have a look at the report.

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

 

Categories: World News

Six Features of the Disinformation Age

Mon, 10/09/2017 - 18:54

By Kelly Born, for Project Syndicate

We are living in a brave new world of disinformation and propaganda, and as long as only its purveyors have the data needed to understand it, the responses we craft will remain inadequate. Because they are also likely to be poorly targeted, they may even end up doing more harm than good.

Concern about the proliferation of disinformation, misinformation, and propaganda has reached the point where many governments are proposing new legislation. But the solutions on offer reflect an inadequate understanding of the problem – and could have negative unintended consequences.

This past June, Germany’s parliament adopted a law that includes a provision for fines of up to €50 million ($59 million) on popular sites like Facebook and YouTube, if they fail to remove “obviously illegal” content, such as hate speech and incitements to violence, within 24 hours. Singapore has announced plans to introduce similar legislation next year to tackle “fake news.”

In July, the US Congress approved sweeping sanctions against Russia, partly in response to its alleged sponsorship of disinformation campaigns aiming to influence US elections. Dialogue between the US Congress and Facebook, Twitter, and Google has intensified in the last few weeks, as clear evidence of campaign-ad purchases by Russian entities has emerged.

Such action is vital if we are to break the vicious circle of disinformation and political polarization that undermines democracies’ ability to function. But while these legislative interventions all target digital platforms, they often fail to account for at least six ways in which today’s disinformation and propaganda differ from yesterday’s.

First, there is the democratization of information creation and distribution. As Rand Waltzman, formerly of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, recently noted, any individual or group can now communicate with – and thereby influence – large numbers of others online. This has its benefits, but it also carries serious risks – beginning with the loss of journalistic standards of excellence, like those typically enforced within established media organizations. Without traditional institutional media gatekeepers, political discourse is no longer based on a common set of facts.

The second feature of the digital information age – a direct byproduct of democratization – is information socialization. Rather than receiving our information directly from institutional gatekeepers, who, despite often-flawed execution, were fundamentally committed to meeting editorial standards, today we acquire it via peer-to-peer sharing.

Such peer networks may elevate content based on factors like clicks or engagement among friends, rather than accuracy or importance. Moreover, information that is filtered through networks of friends can result in an echo chamber of news that reinforces one’s own biases (though there is considerable uncertainty about how serious a problem this represents). It also means that people who otherwise might consume news in moderation are being inundated with political polemic and debate, including extreme positions and falsehoods, which heighten the risk of misinforming or polarizing wider swaths of the public.

The third element of today’s information landscape is atomization – the divorce of individual news stories from brand or source. Previously, readers could easily distinguish between non-credible sources, like the colorful and sensational tabloids in the checkout line at the supermarket, and credible ones, such as longstanding local or national newspapers. Now, by contrast, an article shared by a friend or family member from The New York Times may not look all that different than one from a conspiracy theorist’s blog. And, as a recent study from the American Press Institute found, the original source of an article matters less to readers than who in their network shares the link.

The fourth element that must inform the fight against disinformation is anonymity in information creation and distribution. Online news often lacks not only a brand, but also a byline. This obscures potential conflicts of interest, creates plausible deniability for state actors intervening in foreign information environments, and creates fertile ground for bots to thrive.

One 2015 study found that bots generate around 50% of all web traffic, with as many as 50 million Twitter users and 137 million Facebook users exhibiting non-human behaviors. Of course there are “good” bots, say, providing customer service or real-time weather updates. But there are also plenty of bad actors “gaming” online information systems to promote extreme views and inaccurate information, lending them the appearance of mainstream popularity and acceptance.

Fifth, today’s information environment is characterized by personalization. Unlike their print, radio, or even television counterparts, Internet content creators can A/B test and adapt micro-targeted messages in real-time.

“By leveraging automated emotional manipulation alongside swarms of bots, Facebook dark posts, A/B testing, and fake news networks,” according to a recent exposé, groups like Cambridge Analytica can create personalized, adaptive, and ultimately addictive propaganda. Donald Trump’s campaign was measuring responses to 40-50,000 variants of ads every day, then tailoring and targeting their messaging accordingly.

The final element separating today’s information ecosystem from that of the past, as Stanford law professor Nate Persily has observed, is sovereignty. Unlike television, print, and radio, social-media platforms like Facebook or Twitter are self-regulating – and are not very good at it. Despite the US campaign-ad controversies of the last few weeks, neither platform has yet consulted leading experts, instead seeking to solve problems in-house. It was not until mid-September that Facebook even agreed to disclose information about political campaign ads; it still refuses to offer data on other forms of disinformation.

It is this lack of data that is undermining responses to the proliferation of disinformation and propaganda, not to mention the political polarization and tribalism that they fuel. Facebook is the chief culprit: with an average of 1.32 billion daily active users, its impact is massive, yet the company refuses to give outside researchers access to the information needed to understand the most fundamental questions at the intersection of the Internet and politics. (Twitter does share data with researchers, but it remains an exception.)

We are living in a brave new world of disinformation. As long as only its purveyors have the data we need to understand it, the responses we craft will remain inadequate. And, to the extent that they are poorly targeted, they may even end up doing more harm than good.

By Kelly Born, for Project Syndicate

Kelly Born is a program officer for the Madison Initiative at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

Categories: World News

Facebook Is Starting a New Test to Provide Context About Articles

Mon, 10/09/2017 - 18:36

By Andrew Anker, Sara Su, and Jeff Smith, Facebook

Today we are starting a new test to give people additional context on the articles they see in News Feed. This new feature is designed to provide people some of the tools they need to make an informed decision about which stories to read, share, and trust. It reflects feedback from our community, including many publishers who collaborated on its development as part of our work through the Facebook Journalism Project.

For links to articles shared in News Feed, we are testing a button that people can tap to easily access additional information without needing to go elsewhere. The additional contextual information is pulled from across Facebook and other sources, such as information from the publisher’s Wikipedia entry, a button to follow their Page, trending articles or related articles about the topic, and information about how the article is being shared by people on Facebook. In some cases, if that information is unavailable, we will let people know, which can also be helpful context.

Helping people access this important contextual information can help them evaluate if articles are from a publisher they trust, and if the story itself is credible. This is just the beginning of the test. We’ll continue to listen to people’s feedback and work with publishers to provide people easy access to the contextual information that helps people decide which stories to read, share, and trust, and to improve the experiences people have on Facebook.

How will this impact my page?

We anticipate that most Pages won’t see any significant changes to their distribution in News Feed as a result of this test. As always, Pages should refer to our publishing best practices and continue to post stories that are relevant to their audiences and that their readers find informative.

By Andrew Anker, Sara Su, and Jeff Smith, Facebook

Categories: World News

StopFake #152 with Irena Chalupa

Mon, 10/09/2017 - 14:24

The latest edition of StopFake News with Irena Chalupa. Among the disinformation debunked this week: Ukrainian arms flood into Poland, Ukraine to be become a black market for organ transplants, droves of Ukrainian vacationers flood into Crimea.

 

Categories: World News

Russia abducts activist from Ukraine, charges him with involvement in Ukrainian organization

Mon, 10/09/2017 - 12:51

Oleksandr Shumkov

By Halya Coynash, Human Rights in Ukraine

Oleksandr Shumkov has become the latest Ukrainian to be abducted to Russia and imprisoned.  There is a major question mark over how the 28-year-old civic activist came to be in Russia, but it would be difficult to dispute the surreal nature of the charges.  The Ukrainian is accused of involvement in a Ukrainian organization that only Russia calls ‘extremist’, and that is entirely legal in Ukraine.

Shumkov disappeared towards the end of August, however it was only on September 26 that Larisa Shumkova received a letter from the Russian FSB for the Bryansk oblast informing her that her son was held in the Bryansk SIZO or remand prison.  The letter states that Oleksandr was detained on September 6 on suspicion of “committing a crime” under Article 282 § 2 of the Russian criminal code – ‘involvement in an extremist organization’.

Larisa Shumkova told Ukrainska Pravda that she had learned, from a Kherson separatist”, of Oleksandr’s imprisonment in Russia back at the beginning of September “.  She was frightened to harm her son by making the news public, and she and members of the right-wing movement he is close to tried to find out what had happened.

Larisa Shumkova is convinced that her son would not have voluntarily crossed into Russia and it is certainly clear that he had every reason to believe he could be in danger.  Shumkov is a former Maidan activist, a member of the Kherson branch of the Union of Ukrainian Youth in Ukraine and a contracted military servicemen for the Ukrainian Armed Forces.  All of this is sufficient in Vladimir Putin’s Russia to put the young man at risk, however there is more.  Shumkov is a ex-security guard to Dmytro Yarosh, who is now an MP, but was the leader of Right Sector.  This right-wing Ukrainian nationalist movement has long been demonized by the current Russian regime, and has been officially outlawed in Russia since early 2015.

Ukrainska Pravda cites its own sources within the Border Guard Service as saying that they “have information that the young man legally crossed the Ukrainian-Russian border, apparently by car”.

Kherson activists have now initiated a civic campaign to #FreeShumkov, since Ukraine’s SBU [Security Service] has said that this is not their business, and the Interior Ministry have done no more than promise to try to find out what has happened.  The activists have provided a bank account to help pay for a lawyer for Shumkov.

Tyzhden.ua reports that the Ukrainian consul was finally able to see Shumkov at the beginning of October, with a brief meeting soon after with an independent lawyer.  Shumkov has managed to pass on that he “ended up in Russia as the result of a provocation”.

Shumkov has clearly long taken an active civic position, with this becoming even more active during the Revolution of Dignity, or Euromaidan.  While formally part of a military unit, he was apparently deployed as a person with a higher legal education in searching for and carrying out initial probes of deserters.

It is possible that the ‘provocation’ and seizure of Shumkov is linked in some way with the earlier arrest of Denis Bakholdin, the Moscow activist and Kremlin critic who is also being held in the Bryansk SIZO.  His whereabouts were only discovered three months after he disappeared after leaving Kyiv, where he had been living, to visit his mother who was in ill-health.

Nadezhda Bakholdina has reported that her son was subjected to torture – chained with handcuffs to a radiator, beaten and kicked to get him to ‘confess’ to being a member of Right Sector (details here).

Russia began abducting and / or prosecuting Ukrainians soon after its invasion of Crimea and military aggression in Donbas.  One of the first men to be tricked into entering Russian territory, held incommunicado for 18 months and brutally tortured was Ukrainian nationalist Mykola Karpyuk, who was also linked with Yarosh.  He is serving a huge sentence on grotesquely fabricated charges, as are Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov and civic activist Oleksandr Kolchenko.  The latter were supposed to have been part of a ‘Right Sector terrorist plot’ in occupied Crimea, with the FSB totally impervious to the lack of any evidence and the total implausibility of their ‘plot’, given Kolchenko’s extreme left-wing views.

There has been a disturbing increase over recent months of cases involving direct abduction of Ukrainians.  There is every reason to assume that Oleksiy Sizonovych, a 61-year-old pensioner was first captured by Kremlin-backed militants in the so-called ‘Luhansk people’s republic’ and taken by force to Russia.  There he was clearly put under pressure to refuse a proper lawyer and ‘confess’.  He was sentenced in July 2017 to 12 years’ imprisonment (details here).

It has long been clear that Ukrainians may be at risk of such treatment in Russian-occupied Crimea, Donbas, as well as in Russia.  The recent abduction of 19-year-old Pavlo Hryb from Belarus has extended the danger zone. Hryb was taken by force to Krasnodar where he is being held in detention without urgently needed medication.  He is facing ‘terrorism’ charges, although the lad had never once set foot in Russia, with the charges apparently over strongly critical opinions expressed in private correspondence with a young Russian girl (details here).

By Halya Coynash, Human Rights in Ukraine

Categories: World News

Fake: Ukrainians Visiting Crimea in Droves

Sun, 10/08/2017 - 13:32

According to the Russian Security Service (FSB) Crimea border control, well after the end of the vacation season Ukrainians are pouring into the annexed peninsula in droves. Russia’s official news agency RIA Novosti and other publications featured several stories about this alleged late season vacation rush.

Website screenshot ria.ru

Website screenshot antifashist.com

Official Ukrainian agencies meanwhile present a somewhat different picture, as do recent sociological polls.

Tens of thousands of Ukrainians heading to Crimea, Huge tourist flow from Ukraine into Crimea, Large hotels all booked up in Crimea, 8-9 thousand Ukrainians enter Crimea daily – such were the headlines of these fake stories in such newspapers as Argumenty I Fakty, Sputnik, Rossiyskaya Gazeta, Ukraina.ru, Zvezda, RIA Novosti Ukraina, Vzglyad, Antifascist, Kharkiv News Agency and other publications.

Website screenshot mtur.rk.gov.ru

At the beginning of August Crimea’s Tourism Ministry reported that nearly 3 million people visited Crimea (2,859,000) in 2017. In September that number suddenly grew to 4.5 million. Meanwhile Russia’s federal Tourism Agency reported that as of August 30, 3.7 million people had vacationed in Crimea.

Website screenshot mtot.gov.ua

According to official Ukrainian border controls, in August 2014, 194 thousand people left Crimea and 166 thousand entered.

Many Ukrainians have property in Crimea and want to check what state that property is in, so they head to Crimea in the summer, says Deputy Minister for the Occupied Territories Yusuf Kurkchi. Furthermore, Crimea residents who are studying in Ukrainian universities return home during the summer break and head back to the Ukrainian mainland at the beginning of the school year.

Former Ukrainian Crimean Tourism Minister Alexander Liev paints a different picture of Crimea’s tourist popularity, he says that only 100 thousand Ukrainians visited Crimea in the first half of 2017. Prior to Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, up to 6 million tourists visited the peninsula, 4 million of whom hailed from Ukraine.

On the eve of the summer season the Kyiv International Sociology Institute conducted a poll about Ukrainians’ summer holiday plans. Only one percent said they planned to vacation in Crimea.

 

Categories: World News

Russian TV’s view on Catalonia referendum: Europe falling apart and Spain compared to Ukraine

Sun, 10/08/2017 - 07:55

Screenshot from talk show Vesti Nedeli on Sunday 1 October 2017

By EU vs Disinfo

  • This is our weekly summary of the main topics on Russia’s most watched TV news channels. This week, we concentrate on the referendum in Catalonia.
  • The news shows’ agenda in Russia is carefully attuned to serve the Kremlin’s needs.
  • Therefore, following Russian state controlled media sheds light on our understanding of how the Kremlin seeks to influence the Russian-speaking audience in Russia and beyond. Read our story here.
  • Our monitoring of pro-Kremlin disinformation also reveals that many of the themes set out in Russia’s most popular state TV news programmes find their way into European outlets.

Officially, Russia’s stance on the referendum in Catalonia 1 October was that it is an “internal matter”for Spain. But Russia’s state TV delivered several other messages to the audience.

  1. Message: the threat that Europe will fall apart

Talk shows raised the alert, claiming that there is a threat that all of Europe might “break up into small states” and that the world will “collapse” when both Iraqi Kurds and Catalans in Spain seek independence.

Vesti Nedeli underlined the clashes between police and independence supporters. It described the Spanish authorities’ policies towards Catalonia as “suicidal”. There is “a whiff of civil war”, claims the presenter on Rossiya 1, and one of the guests goes even further, saying “Spain stands at the beginning of a real civil, not even conflict, but war.”

Madrid was accused of creating an artificial conflict and the police actions were portrayed as “brutal” and “absolutely pointless”.

  1. Message: Europe follows double standards and democracy has failed

“Spanish democracy has failed,” the presenter of the talk show Voskresnoye Vremya stated. Europe was portrayed as denying “liberal Catalonians” the right to independence: “One can’t understand Europe any more. One feels sorry for Europe which has lost its way.”

One of the talk shows speculated around the conspiracy that Brussels would be interested in regional separatism to “weaken the power centres” of the EU states, and another one accused the EU of being a generator of conflicts.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova praised Russia’s freedom of expression on Sunday 1 October 2017 on TV channel Rossiya 1. In the latest 2017 World Press Freedom Index Russia ranks 148 out of 180 countries. Source for quote: Grani.ru.

  1. Message: putting Catalonia in the Ukrainian context

TV reports made repeated parallels between the Catalonian referendum and the situation in Ukraine. The emphasis was on criticising the Spanish authorities’ and the EU’s response to the referendum, making the parallel with blaming Ukraine for the war in the East of Ukraine.

“Is Spain repeating Ukraine’s mistakes?” a talk show on Rossiya 1 asked.

Although the usual “dissident” voices were allowed – this time, rejecting the comparison of Catalonia to Ukraine and saying that there was no history of separate identity in Donbas before the conflict – the majority of voices supported the claim that the Madrid government has failed to learn the lesson of what “happens when you try to impose a political choice by force”.

The likelihood of the Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk breaking away from Ukraine was also discussed.  “If Russia recognises the republics, this will be the end because Ukraine will never have a chance to get them back”, one of the guests stated.

“There is a serious danger that Catalonia will become Europe’s Donbas and for the first time since 1945 a real civil war and real violence can break out” another talk show warned its audience.

  1. Message: the Russian context carefully avoided

According to Russian law, it’s illegal to publicly call for actions violating the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation. Hence, the possible parallels with Russia’s domestic issues were mostly absent.

One talk show allowed the question about referenda: If they are such a good thing why not hold them in places like Tatarstan or Chechnya? The presenter recalled immediately that the official Russian position is that the referendum in Catalonia is an internal matter for Spain.

The comparison with Chechnya was heard also on another talk show, where the guests rejected it, stating that “there was a civil war in Chechnya” and explaining that there is a difference between a large nation attempting to become independent and “a gang of terrorists proclaiming themselves independent.”

The media reports on Russia’s support for the Catalan movement were covered shortly and ridiculed on Russian TV.

By EU vs Disinfo

Categories: World News

Fake: Ukrainian Arms Flood into Poland

Sat, 10/07/2017 - 15:00

Polish-Ukrainian relations are a frequent target of disinformation generated not only by Russian but also by Polish media. This is the case with an opinion piece published in the Polska Niepodlegla portal about the alleged flood of weapons from Ukraine into Poland seemingly for the purpose of building an underground Ukrainian army.

Website screenshot polskaniepodlegla.pl

Entitled Why are Ukrainians bringing arms to Poland? Just last year tens of thousands of weapons were smuggled into Poland, this emotionally charged text by Lukasz Pawelski is filled with factual errors, sweeping generalizations and disinformation.

Not a month goes by without an attempt to smuggle arms into Poland, this year is especially active for arms trafficking, Poland’s Central Police Investigation Office seized 552 illegal firearms, twice as much as was seized in 2014 and the reason is the flood of weapons from Ukraine, claims Pawelski.

His opinion piece is filled with references to anonymous sources who declare that Polish officials are benefiting from arms smuggling, claims that the Polish Ukrainian border is an unsecured sieve and quotes from anonymous sources in the ABW – Agencja Bezpieczeństwa Wewnętrznego Poland’s domestic intelligence agency who claim that there is a deliberate ongoing illegal transfer of weapons to Poland from Ukraine.

StopFake reached out to Poland’s Ministry of the Interior and Administration to ascertain how much, if any illegal arms are coming into Poland from Ukraine. The number of illegal weapons confiscated by police over the last few years has remained at a similar level, a representative of the Ministry said. In 2014 Polish authorities confiscated 14 weapons on the Ukraine-Poland border, 26 items in 2015 and 30 in 2016. In 2017 Polish authorities confiscated 49 smuggled weapons. On its website  Poland’s Border Service provides comprehensive information on all arms confiscated on its borders.

While attempts to bring arms into Poland from Ukraine are a reality, the numbers are a far cry from the flood that Pawelski writes about.

Pawelski however makes even more outlandish claims. He writes about an incident when five T-64 tanks crossed the border from Ukraine without any supervision, it was only after they had entered well into Polish territory that Polish police became interested in this convoy. According to Pawelski, the tanks could have dumped weapons in Poland before the police intercepted them.

Poland’s Interior Ministry informed StopFake that on May 2 of this year a military equipment convoy crossed the Ukrainian Polish border with the knowledge and permission of Poland’s Defense Ministry. The convoy crossed the border at the town of Dorohust and was escorted by police from the city of Chełm. There was nothing illegal or suspicious about this transport and Polish authorities were well aware of its movements and purpose.

Original story was published by StopFake Polish service and cab be found here.

Categories: World News

German aftermath

Fri, 10/06/2017 - 23:13

By EU vs Disinfo

Less than two weeks ago, elections were held in Germany. And although the election campaigning is over, the disinformation campaign is still ongoing. We have written about the narratives used about Germany and especially Angela Merkel several times before and during the last week we could notice some echoing of those familiar stories, as well as a couple of new disinformation inventions. For example, Germany was again accused of establishing a fascist regime in Ukraine and again we saw disinformation about the amounts paid to refugees in the country.

Among the newcomers in the disinformation spectra, we noticed false claims that the German secret service will carry out surveillance of the 13% of the German population that voted for the AfD, that Angela Merkel won’t be able to cooperate with the Greens and FDP since they are Eurosceptic, and that representatives of Russia have never spoken to representatives of the AfD (clearly not true).

And although we still can’t say anything about the impact, as shown by the DFRLab, some of the messaging in the countdown to the German elections was amplified by Russian-language bots; and on Russian social media platform VKontakte, 90 percent of the most popular posts concerning the German election supported the AfD.

Pizza gate, Daesh, Nazis and genocide

What are some of the worst things you can think of? The most evil atrocity perpetrated by mankind, the unthinkable? Is it the actions of the self-proclaimed Islamic State? Or the actions by Nazi Germany during WWII? Maybe it is genocide, or paedophilia? Those are all atrocities that any sane person would object to. This week we saw pro-Kremlin disinformation accusing the US and Ukraine of all of them.

The method of accusing your enemy of the worst imaginable without providing any proof is nothing new in the disinformation universe. It is indeed a well-known tactic, and one that has considerable impact but will cost almost nothing. The logic goes that all you have to do is sow some doubt, plant an idea – and once it is out there, it will be popping up in people’s minds. “No smoke without fire.” But this kind of disinformation is just that – all smoke, no fire.

So, when a Russian state controlled TV show brings up the infamous “pizza gate” case – a conspiracy theory that was debunked and proven false about a year ago – and suggest that the theory should in fact be taken seriously in the light of new “revelations” of US politicians in a paedophilia network (again, no evidence of any network), they are creating smoke. Or when Russian state owned TV accuses Ukraine of planning a genocide of the Russian population of the country and establishing a Nazi regime – again, there is no evidence, only a lot of smoke.

A lot of smoke, but no fire

Or, when TV Zvezda claims that the Syrian military has found a Ukrainian ISIS camp in Syria and another Russian state TV show claims that Ukraine provided resorts in Crimea to Daesh battalions before Russia annexed the peninsula, again – there is no evidence.

The US was also accused of creating Daesh, leading Daesh, supporting terrorism in Syria and doing everything to stop the elimination of Daesh. No mention of the Global Coalition against Daesh; instead Russia was presented as the only country that fights terrorism.

All smoke. The problem is that we can be sure that the smoke will cloud the minds of some.

By EU vs Disinfo

Categories: World News

Russia’s New ‘Useful Idiots’?

Fri, 10/06/2017 - 07:38

There are echoes of Soviet times in the way Russia has been courting far-right activists in the West. A new book looks at how and why it does it.

By Bradley Jardine, for Codastory

Remember Richard Spencer, the U.S. white supremacist whose “alt-right” followers celebrated Donald Trump’s presidential election victory with a show of Nazi salutes?

Back in 2011, Spencer was appearing in another guise, as an expert on Libya, on Russia’s English-language propaganda channel RT. Deriding the West’s strategy, he accused NATO of siding with the “thugs” who killed the Libyan dictator — and erstwhile Western ally — Muammar Gaddafi.

Given the chaos in Libya since, Spencer’s argument hardly looks controversial now. But that’s not why RT and other Russian state-controlled outlets have been so keen to book him and other Western far-right activists as guests.

For the Kremlin’s information machine, these activists serve a bigger purpose, to help promote the narrative of the West in chaos — and thereby also boost the idea of Russia as the alternative global power.

In effect, they are a new version of the “useful idiots” — the term coined for Western supporters of the early communist regime, whom Lenin, and then later Stalin, happily exploited.

But is Russia’s reach-out to the far right actually effective? And how has the Kremlin cultivated the relationship? “Tango Noir: Russia and the Western Far Right,” a new book by Anton Shekhovtsov, who is a specialist on extremist networks, provides some of the answers.

Swastikas on Synagogues

The dance begins between the two world wars, when the Bolsheviks tried and failed to exploit unrest in Germany, then hobbled by reparations demands. But it was with the onset of the Cold War that Moscow really stepped up efforts to use far-right elements abroad — with the nascent West Germany as its initial target.

The KGB ordered its agents to paint swastikas on synagogues. And it worked, according to Shekhovtsov, as West German officials began to question the country’s membership of NATO, in fear of a Nazi resurgence. There was an added bonus. International attitudes towards Soviet-backed East Germany (the German Democratic Republic) improved.

Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 was an international public relations disaster. Putin cried conspiracy. “The West has a powerful propaganda machine” he complained

The reality was more complex. Germany’s leaders had been taking a more lenient approach to former Nazis at the time, or so people thought. Many had been given state jobs. But the KGB saw the opportunity, looking for institutional weaknesses and apparent policy contradictions to exploit — much as its successor, the FSB, does today.

This early history of Russia’s dalliance with the Western far right is fascinating, but Shekhovtsov’s main interest is rightly in how it has played out under Vladimir Putin.

Information War Watershed

And in his chronology, 2008 was the watershed moment — when the Kremlin decided to adopt a full-scale information war strategy towards the West.

Russia’s invasion of Georgia that year was an international public relations disaster. Moscow may have won militarily, but it lost the battle for global hearts and minds. Condemnation was so severe that Putin cried conspiracy. “The West has a powerful propaganda machine” he complained.

To fight back, the Russian leadership decided it needed a new approach —- to undermine the West’s faith in its own political system. The spearhead was Russia Today. Created in 2005, the channel’s name was shortened to RT in 2009 as its controllers aimed for a global audience. And the disruptive message of the Western far-right was a perfect fit for the narrative it wanted to propagate.

Shekhovtsov identifies three main elements in the Russian disinformation strategy that has evolved. The first is “nudge propaganda,” using fringe activists from the far-right and other groups to promote Russian interests.

‘Narrative Laundering’

The second is “narrative laundering,” in effect creating and spreading fake news, with the original source obscured. When it works, conspiracy theories are “laundered” into mainstream discourse.

The third main tactic is selective sourcing. RT’s coverage of riots that broke out in the Swedish capital, Stockholm, in 2013, were a case in point. Its reports focused on the story of a man wielding a machete who was not of Swedish origin, which the country’s far right turned into a signature cause. And more than half the people RT interviewed for a segment entitled “They Don’t Want to Integrate” turned out to have far-right links.

Far right groups have also helped give a veneer of legitimacy to Russia’s annexation of Crimea by sending observer missions to monitor elections there. And Shekhkovtsov shows how these missions have helped build deeper ties between far-right activists and the Kremlin officials of today.

It is surprising though that the author does not consider Brexit and the claims of shadowy Russian involvement with the ultra-nationalist UK Independence Party (UKIP), which led the campaign to take Britain out of the European Union. And he seems to have published too soon to consider the allegations of widespread Russian interference in the US presidential election, including linkages with America’s “alt-right.”

Putin’s Power Marketplace

But what the author does do is shed more light on the inner workings of Putin’s power structure and how Russia’s disinformation offensive has developed from that. He argues that it is a conglomerate of clans competing for attention and resources from the center — Putin — in a complex marketplace. With this constantly shifting flow of ideas, perhaps this explains why the Russian leader is often seen as a better tactician than strategist.

Beneath Putin’s inner court Shekhovtsov describes six interconnecting nodes he calls “operators.” These include foreign individuals and groups sympathetic to Russia, as well as local far right activists who network with like-minded counterparts in Europe. Then there are think tanks which promote a Russian perspective on international affairs, loyalist oligarchs, Russia’s diplomatic missions in the West and key players in the ruling United Russia party. And the author shows how these “operators” have worked together to try to influence politics in Austria, Italy and France.

They are a new version of the “useful idiots” — the term coined for Western supporter soft he early communist regime, whom Lenin, and then later Stalin, happily exploited.

Yet he concludes that the Kremlin has not got much to show for all this effort. Its interventions in the French elections, including assisting and meeting with the National Front leader Marine Le Pen, backfired spectacularly when Emmanuel Macron stormed through to victory.

Moscow may have had some success though more recently in its old hunting ground of Germany — where evidence emerged of concerted Russian intervention behind the scenes — after recent elections there gave the far right a huge boost.

But Putin is stuck with the same problems. Russia still places near the bottom in global favorability indexes. Western sanctions imposed after its invasion of Ukraine remain in place, with the economy stuck in decline. And hopes that Trump’s election would lead to better relations with the US have faded.

But as Shekhovtsov makes clear in this valuable, if not complete book, Russian tactics are constantly evolving, always with one eye on the future. Looking ahead, one concern he highlights is emerging evidence of Russian paramilitary groups giving assistance to the European far-right, encouraging them to take a more violent road. It could turn out to be an even more potent weapon in the Kremlin’s arsenal of disruption.

By Bradley Jardine, for Codastory

Illustration by Alessandra Cugno.

Bradley Jardine is a journalist based in Moscow covering the post-Soviet region and China.
Categories: World News

Getting Kicked Off Premium YouTube Won’t Hurt Revenues, Says RT Editor

Fri, 10/06/2017 - 00:11

By The Moscow Times

The Kremlin-backed RT television channel’s removal from YouTube’s premium advertising service is unacceptable, but will not affect the broadcaster’s profits, RT said on Thursday.

A spokesperson for Google’s parent company Alphabet Inc. told Bloomberg news this week that it removed RT from YouTube’s ad package that charges premium rates. The move comes after RT’s editor-in-chief said the channel might have to leave the U.S. market over demands to register the outlet as a foreign agent.

Its deputy editor-in-chief Kirill Karnovich-Valua said on Thursday that RT’s removal from YouTube’s premium package was unacceptable. He criticized a lack of prior notice and an apparent leak of “internal info” to Bloomberg.

“This speaks to the unprecedented political pressure increasingly applied to all RT partners and relationships in a concerted effort to push our channel out of the U.S. market entirely,” he said.

However, the state-run outlet with 2.2 million YouTube subscribers will not be seriously hampered in distribution and monetization on the platform, Karnovich-Valua added.

U.S. lawmakers invited Google to testify on Nov. 1 as part of an ongoing multi-pronged investigation into Russia’s alleged interference in the 2016 presidential election.

The internet giant faces increased scrutiny alongside Facebook and Twitter over claims that it may have been used as a staging ground for Russian influence during the U.S. campaign.

RT and RT America are among 20 of YouTube’s “Google Preferred News Lineup,” billed as a list that provides a “broad picture of breaking news.”

By The Moscow Times

Categories: World News

Fake: Ukraine’s Health Ministry Allows Ukrainians to be sold for Organs

Thu, 10/05/2017 - 21:00

Ukraine’s Health Ministry plans to introduce a pilot kidney donor transplant program in 2018. The program has yet to be approved by parliament but it is already being hailed by Russian media as one that “will turn Ukraine into a supplier of organs from corpses”. Russian newspaper Moskovskyi Komsomolets predicts that the transplant program will “not only destroy public health, but turn Ukraine into a black market transplant center”.

Website screenshot МК

Ukraine’s  Deputy Health Minister Oleksander Lynchevskyi  told StopFake that such claims are part and parcel of a larger Russian disinformation narrative, that Ukraine is establishing an organ transplant black market.

Linchevsky points out that according to proposed Ukrainian legislation, individuals can donate their organs after death. That information will be registered in a central donor data base. If there is no record of a deceased individual’s agreement in that data base and if his or her immediate relatives have not given their consent, it is illegal to remove organs for transplant from such a person.

The legislation also calls for the establishment of ethics committees to record the needs of the recipients and monitor the medical community to ensure transparency and good will. The bill also establishes much tougher criminal liability for violation of organ transplant protocols.

Oleksander Linchevsky says that a black market in illegal organ transplant is technically impossible in Ukraine as both the donor and the recipient must undergo extensive tests to find the proper match. Such tests are recorded and leave a trail. Without this data organ transplants are impossible to carry out.

Moskovskyi Komsomolets also claims that rich foreigners will come to Ukraine in search of organs. The new organ transplant bill stipulates that if a recipient is not found in Ukraine, information about the available organ or tissue is forwarded to relevant institutions in other countries, but only those with whom Ukraine has signed appropriate agreements on organ and tissue transplants.

Ukraine’s Health Ministry points out that in countries where transplantation of organs is well developed and regulated, there are some 14-39 deceased donors per million people, whereas in Ukraine, it is less than 0.2 percent. Last year Ukrainian doctors carried out 126 organ transplant operations, 119 of those were kidney transplants, 5 liver and one lung transplant.

According to a recent poll conducted by the Ratings group, support for organ and tissue transplants is growing Ukrainian society. 63% of Ukrainian believe that people have the right to donate their organs to save another person’s life.

 

Categories: World News

This is what earns Emmys in Russia

Thu, 10/05/2017 - 07:56

Actors walk the red carpet at Russia’s annual TEFI awards ceremony in Moscow, October 3, 2017
Mladen Antonov / AFP / Scanpix / LETA

By Kevin Rothrock, for Meduza

The Russian Academy of Television announced the winners of its “TEFI” awards this Tuesday, October 3, in a ceremony that resembles the Emmys in the United States. Unlike the Emmys, where winners get statuettes depicting a winged woman holding an atom, taking home a TEFI means pocketing a certificate and a statuette showing Greek mythology’s Orpheus kneeling and tearing at his chest in agony. That sentiment captured a lot of people’s feelings when they heard about this year’s TEFI winners — especially the trophy for “best educational program” that went to Igor Prokopenko, who hosts a TV show that just last week spent 45 minutes exploring the “Flat-Earth Theory.” Writing for the website The Insider, Anna Krasnoperova pointed out that the TEFI winners for “best evening news program” and “best analytical review program” also have a lot to answer for. Meduza summarizes Krasnoperova’s report here.

If you don’t watch Russian television, perhaps you’ve never heard of Pervyi Kanal’s evening news broadcast “Vremya” or Rossiya-1’s weekend review show “Vesti Nedeli,” but they’re two of the most watched and influential news programs in the country. This year, the Russian Academy of Sciences awarded TEFIs to both these largely pro-government TV shows, which air on state-owned networks. As a kind of retrospective, Anna Krasnoperova at The Insider reviewed five of the most notorious fake stories these programs reported in recent years.

1: Alexey Navalny works for the CIA

In April 2016, Dmitry Kiselyov’s “Vesti Nedeli” show aired a report accusing oppositionist and anti-corruption activist Alexey Navalny of cooperating with British and American intelligence agencies. The report was littered with oddities that raise serious questions about its credibility: supposed intelligence agents wrote in poor, bizarre English; an audiotape didn’t match Navalny’s real voice; and, on two occasions, Navalny apparently time traveled, based on the timestamps found on “secret correspondence.”

The report also featured comments by three notoriously unreliable figures: Pavel Karpov, the police investigator who opened the criminal case that was ultimately used to arrest Sergey Magnitsky; Oleg Lurye, a journalist previously imprisoned for blackmailing the wife of a senator; and Alexander Mercouris, a disgraced, disbarred British lawyer who frequently appears in pro-Kremlin media, sometimes identified as a “Greek political analyst” or an “international affairs expert.”

2: The “rape” of Little Lisa

On January 11, 2016, Pervyi Kanal reported a fake story that would later be used in case studies of “Russian disinformation.” When a 13-year-old Russian-German girl named Lisa F. reappeared in Berlin after going missing for three days, she initially claimed that she’d been kidnapped and raped by three Arab migrants. Further investigation debunked this story, however, and Lisa later admitted that she went hiding voluntarily and wasn’t raped.

Even after police refuted the rumors about Lisa’s case, Pervyi Kanal continued airing news segments about her supposed rape. Apparently reacting to the coverage on Russian television, some Russian Germans even staged demonstrations in several parts of Germany to protest what Russian Foreign Ministry Sergey Lavrov called the German authorities’ tendency “to paint over reality in a politically correct manner for domestic reasons.”

A magazine run by NATO later called the Russian media’s coverage of the “Lisa case” a “wake up call for German political elites.”

3: Germany’s Syrian refugee welfare king

Pervyi Kanal was one of many media outlets to report the fake story of a Syrian refugee named “Ghazia A.” living in Germany with his four wives and 23 kids, supposedly pulling down almost half a million bucks in welfare checks. In this same news report, Pervyi Kanal also recycled phony claims (later deleted from its website) that Austria’s Supreme Court acquitted an Iraqi refugee for raping a 10-year-old boy. (In fact, the man was sentenced to several years in prison.)

The report about Ghazia A., which first appeared in the German newspaper Rhein-Zeitung, was based on mostly false information. No German government official ever verified that a Syrian refugee was collecting so much money in benefits, and the “360,000 euros” figure actually comes from a financial expert named Hubert Königsstein, who merely speculated that a man in Ghazia A.’s situation could claim such benefits.

A municipality spokesperson told the German news service Deutsche Welle, however, that this isn’t how benefits work in Germany, where polygamy is prohibited, meaning that the Syrian refugee would have had to select one wife and claim her respective children for any social assistance.

At the end of the segment, Pervyi Kanal’s reporter even intentionally mispronounced Ghazia A.’s name to make a joke.

4: Refugees terrorize the Swedish city of Malmö

On February 19, Pervyi Kanal aired a report from Malmö, describing Sweden’s third biggest city as a “remote corner” of the country transformed into a dystopian hellhole by a “criminal wave” of Arab migrants. The report claimed incorrectly that Muslim immigrants make up 43 percent of the city’s population (in fact, only 32 percent of the city’s residents were born abroad, and far from all of them are Muslim).

Pervyi Kanal also presented Fridhem, a neighborhood in Malmö, as a particularly dangerous area, though local sources told The Insider that it’s actually a generally peaceful place. According to the crowd-sourced global database Numbeo, Malmö’s overall level of crime is “moderate,” scoring it significantly higher than American metropolises like Baltimore and Chicago.

Crime in Baltimore, MD, versus Malmö, Sweden Numbeo.com

As it happens, a day before Pervyi Kanal‘s report on Malmö, U.S. President Donald Trump made headlines by alluding to a nonexistent terrorist attack in Sweden. “Sweden, who would believe this?” Trump asked a crowd of supporters in Florida.

Did Trump make up a terrorist attack in Sweden? USA TODAY

The president later explained that he was referring to a segment aired on Fox News, where filmmaker Ami Horowitz claimed that migrants in Sweden are responsible for a new crime wave. Two Swedish police officers interviewed in Horowitz’s documentary later told reporters that their comments were edited selectively and taken out of context.

5: Creative dubbing in France

On May 15, “Vesti Nedeli” aired a segment about “the political situation in Europe,” focusing on the “growing Euroskeptic movement in France.” The show’s correspondent interviewed several activists who demonstrated against a new labor law, but the Russian dubbing completely changed their comments, rewriting what they said from start to finish as a rant against immigrants.

Needless to say, French television ridiculed the news report, and even tracked down the protesters interviewed by “Vesti Nedeli,” who were horrified to learn how their comments had been mistranslated for Russian viewers.

By Kevin Rothrock, for Meduza

Categories: World News

The Daily Vertical: True Extremism (Transcript)

Thu, 10/05/2017 - 00:53

Brian Whitmore

By Brian Whitmore, for RFE/RL

It could happen if you say true things.

Like that Russia’s forceful annexation of Crimea was a violation of international law.

Or that the conflict in Donbas is not a civil war, but a war of aggression carried out by Russia against Ukraine.

Or that Moscow should decentralize more power to its regions and give ethnic groups like the Tatars greater autonomy.

Or that Russian officials are often corrupt.

It can even happen if you like or share posts on social media that make such claims.

In Vladimir Putin’s Russia, if you say, post, share, like, or publish something the Kremlin doesn’t like, then you could be prosecuted for extremism.

In fact, all of the things I just cited come from actual criminal cases in which actual Russian citizens were actually prosecuted for extremism.

But guess what? The European Court for Human Rights has just weighed in. The court has just ruled on a Russian extremism case — and the Kremlin will not be happy with the verdict.

Back in 2006, Nizhny Novgorod-based human rights activist Stanislav Dmitriyevsky was convicted of inciting extremism and sentenced to two years’ probation for publishing speeches of Chechen separatist leaders Akhmed Zakayev and Aslan Maskhadov.

The European Court ruled this week that the speeches were not extremist and simply contained criticism of the Russian authorities, that the conviction violated Dmitriyevsky’s rights, and ordered Moscow to pay him 13,615 euros in compensation.

Now Russia, of course, has passed legislation allowing it to ignore rulings of the European Court of Human Rights that it doesn’t like.

And this, of course, violates Moscow’s treaty obligations to the Council of Europe.

So one has to wonder what happens now.

Perhaps the Kremlin will simply declare the European Court to be extremist.

By Brian Whitmore, for RFE/RL

Categories: World News

History as a Weapon in Russia’s War on Ukraine

Thu, 10/05/2017 - 00:31

People light and place candles during a commemoration ceremony marking the 83rd anniversary of Holodomor, the famine of 1932-33 in which millions died of hunger, in Kyiv, Ukraine, November 26, 2016. REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko

Bу Peter Dickinson, for Atlantic Council

The international media will embrace all things Bolshevik this autumn as the world marks the centenary of the Russian Revolution. Audiences can expect everything from gushing feature articles about early Soviet cinematography to edgy op-eds on the place of propaganda posters in twentieth century art. Amid this deluge of Communist kitsch, we are unlikely to see a serious analysis of Ukraine’s 1917-21 statehood bid and its considerable relevance to the geopolitical tensions of today. Instead, the Ukrainian independence struggle looks set to be airbrushed out of the Bolshevik spectacular, much as it has been for the past hundred years. Ukrainian history will remain the great unknown of the European narrative.

This is both an error and a missed opportunity. It is an error because events in Ukraine decisively shaped the outcome of the Russian Revolution. The Ukrainian theater played a central role in the fighting that engulfed the Russian Empire after 1917, while Bolshevik opposition to Ukraine’s independence bid exposed the old-school imperial instincts behind all the sexy Soviet sloganeering. Despite its taste for proletarian platitudes, the USSR was a colonial power from the moment its troops first crossed into Ukraine.

It is a missed opportunity because the international community would clearly benefit from a greater awareness of Ukrainian history. The current confrontation over Ukraine has driven the world to the brink of a new Cold War, yet the underlying historical currents at work in Ukraine remain widely misinterpreted and misunderstood. This lack of context leaves global audiences vulnerable to deliberate distortions and disinformation. With little prior knowledge about Ukraine, people have tended to accept Kremlin narratives at face value. For example, many did not think twice when seeing Russian-speaking Ukrainians casually depicted as default Putin supporters, and swallowed arguments that Crimea was “historically Russian” with equally little protest. A more nuanced appreciation of Ukrainian history would have alerted audiences to the paucity of these claims.

Even now, after three and a half years of intensive coverage, numerous commentators continue to view Ukraine’s Revolution of Dignity and the Kremlin’s subsequent hybrid invasion primarily as part of a wider geopolitical struggle between Russia and the West, with Ukraine often cast in the role of hapless pawn. Such thinking not only denies Ukrainians agency. It also diminishes one of Europe’s long-running independence struggles and perpetuates what is arguably the continent’s most glaring historical oversight.

Ukraine’s low historical profile is the product of a troubled past. As a nation divided among competing empires, for centuries the Ukrainian story was a footnote in other people’s histories. There is nothing surprising or unusual about this. After all, history is written by the winners, and even the country’s biggest supporters would hesitate before placing Ukraine in that category. Nevertheless, ignorance of Ukraine’s history is one of the reasons we find ourselves talking once again about the distant but vague possibility of nuclear warfare, so now might be a good time to start paying attention.

One of the biggest barriers to a better understanding of Ukraine’s place in the broader European historical narrative is the habit of treating Russia as a country rather than an empire. For many years, it has been common practice for Western journalists and historians to speak of “Russians” when they are actually referring to the diverse nationalities of the Tsarist Empire and the Soviet Union. Everything goes by the convenient but inaccurate but convenient shorthand of “Russia,” with no room left for complex explanations of the imperial national minority policies or Ukraine’s own claims to statehood.

Accounts of World War II are a particularly good example of this practice. Western histories of the war routinely refer to Soviet forces collectively as “the Russians.” We learn that “the Russians” suffered twenty-seven million losses before taking Berlin. Meanwhile, there is scant reference to the fact Ukraine saw far more of the actual fighting than Russia, nor to the millions of Ukrainians who fought in the Red Army. The scale of Ukraine’s human and material losses during the conflict defies comprehension, but the country barely gets a mention. This staggering omission demonstrates the sheer size of Europe’s Ukraine-shaped blind spot.

Some historians are already fighting back on Ukraine’s behalf. Yale’s Timothy Snyder, who has long led the field in the study of Ukraine’s blood-drenched twentieth century history, argues that from Hitler’s point of view, the purpose of World War II was the conquest of Ukraine and this emphasis on Ukraine should be central to our understanding of the war. Instead, we learn exclusively about the wartime experience of “the Russians,” while Germans are encouraged to feel a moral obligation toward the modern Russian state. As if to add insult to injury, the few specific references to Ukrainians in standard Western histories of World War II tend to focus on collaboration with the Nazis.

Another historian providing fresh insight into Ukrainian history is Anne Applebaum, whose latest book focuses on the horrors of the manufactured famine that served as the centerpiece of Stalin’s genocidal 1930s “War on Ukraine.” Applebaum’s book is a timely addition that places the famine within the broader context of the Soviet campaign to crush the Ukrainian peasantry and intelligentsia. However, it is noteworthy that even the most favorable reviews have treated the book’s contents as revelatory in nature, highlighting just how obscure this apocalyptic episode remains. If they had known more about the famine, global audiences would probably not have been so unprepared for the fake news epidemic unleashed by the Kremlin since 2014. They would have been familiar with the dark power of Kremlin fakery thanks to an awareness of way the Soviets covered up the 1930s famine in Ukraine, which remains the most elaborate and successful fake news operation in world history. Instead, this well-worn Kremlin strategy has been hailed as an entirely new form of warfare altogether.

Ukraine’s rise to global prominence since 2014 has taken many by surprise and exposed gaping holes in the accepted orthodoxies of European history. This has created significant challenges. Ukraine is simply too large and too much of an unknown quantity to slip seamlessly into the existing European narrative. Instead, it will inevitably take time for popular perceptions of Europe to accommodate these changes. For the time being, there is modest progress. International audiences are belatedly beginning to recognize that Ukraine is not Russia, but there is still considerable resistance to the idea of Ukraine as a fully-fledged member of the European community. Eventually, Ukraine’s European credentials will become self-evident, even in Russia itself. However, until we reach that point, Europe will struggle to formulate a coherent policy toward a country whose awkward emergence poses important questions for the continent’s understanding of its own past.

Bу Peter Dickinson, for Atlantic Council

Peter Dickinson is a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council and publisher of Business Ukraine and Lviv Today magazines. He tweets @Biz_Ukraine_Mag.

Categories: World News