The topic of disinformation is ubiquitous, and has been a widely discussed theme especially after the U.S. elections. The so called ‘Fake News’ spread in no time throughout Facebook and Twitter and are even adopted by mainstream media. It influences the way our societies think in a decisive way. Jakub Janda, Head of Kremlin Watch Program and Deputy Director at the European Values Think-Tank based in Prague,explains in an Interview how this form of manipulation works and how ‘fake news’ could potentially occur in the upcoming German elections.
Jakub, you are leading the European Values Think Tank’s program Kremlin Watch, which is analysing the growing influence of Russian propaganda. How does the Russian propaganda exactly work? What are the main tools and actors?
Let me slightly clarify what we focus on. There are generally accepted tools of legitimate influence on other states, such as diplomacy, culture or economic interdependence. States use these to sway other countries towards their interests and policies.
Then, there are also other tools. One of these tools the Kremlin uses, are massive disinformation operations which aim at weakening the targeted societies. There are dozens of examples across Europe. You can find them in the weekly Disinformation Review compiled by East STRATCOM Team of the European External Action Service.
From our point of view, being based in a Central European democracy, we can see the Russian Federation using these campaigns from Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, through Germany to the US, the presidential elections being the latest example. This Kremlin playbook is easy to adjust and based on what works where.
The ultimate goal of Kremlin hostile influence and disinformation operations is to weaken its opponent’s will to resist. To put it simple: to manipulate the West, its politicians and its societies. This overarching aim has collateral and sub goals – such as trying to disintegrate the US, drive a wedge between Europe and the US, help Kremlin-friendly politicians to get into power, attack politicians who stand up to Kremlins aggression, or to legitimize Russian policies – domestically and internationally.
Is Russia actually successful in achieving its goals?
Yes, the Kremlin is pretty successful. The West is currently implementing almost zero response to the hostile influence threat. The Russian Federation has successfully infiltrated and manipulated parts of the national public debates on e.g. the Ukraine Association Agreement referendum in the Netherlands, on Brexit, or during the US election campaign. And they are aiming for more – the Dutch, French or German elections in 2017. It is a zero-sum game. If Western democracies don’t adopt counter-policies to push illegitimate hostile influence out of their countries, they will see manipulation of their public debates, policies and decision-making.
What can be done to prevent the damage? What shall be done on the EU level, on MS level, what is the role of civil society?
With several dozens of European experts, we have published a 50-measure full-scale strategy. This year, we have consulted in twelve countries on how to set up national policy response. Every time, I have to dare to ask one simple question – outside of your intelligence agencies, how many full-time professionals does your government task with looking into Kremlin disinformation operations?
Most of the European governments outside of Poland, the Baltics and Scandinavian countries have dedicated very limited resources to countering disinformation propaganda. That is why their policies are usually virtually non-existent or weak at most. So one thing is easily said – as a government, you need to recognize hostile foreign influences as a standard item of your security agenda – alongside traditional threats such as extremism or terrorism. Then, the governments need to dedicate resources to create a complex multi-level policy response. Some governments call them hybrid threat centres, STRATCOM teams, or security hubs. No matter how you call it, this is a first step. Without it, it will be only think-tanks and journalists looking into the threat, which means the state is not defending itself yet.
Europe will mark a series of very important parliament elections in 2017. Given the hypothetical attacks of Russia on the US election, what do you expect to happen?
The election of main interest will be held in Germany in 2017, with a focus on Chancellor Merkel, as she has a principled position standing up to Putin. There are several options the Kremlin might take:
First, massive disinformation operations concerning migrants in Germany can be expected, with a focus on wrongdoings by refugees. The campaigns might create stories with false victims to develop a narrative that Germany is simply. Moreover, Putin could use his influence on Erdogan, to ensure the opening of the flows of migrants from Turkey to Europe. Even if the Balkan route stays closed, the humanitarian disaster in Greece would again demand a response. Another point might be cyber-attacks to portray the chancellor and party members as a corrupt American puppet and a cold war warmonger against Russians. Also Russians living in Germany can be a relevant tool for Putin, as the case “Lisa” in 2016 showed, when thousands of German Russian demonstrated against Merkel. The influence of the Kremlin towards far-right groups could be used during the election period to create chaos. For example, mosques could be attacked which might mark the start of violence during the election campaign.
Questions posed by Václav Bacovsky, FNF Europe, Prague Office