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The Info War & Russia's Troll Army


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This article hits so many points - Russia, Putin, Ukraine, Infotainment, Media Bias, shaping perception, sowing confusion.....  It had to have a thread of its own.

Russia and the Menace of Unreality
How Vladimir Putin is revolutionizing information warfare

SEP 9 2014, 3:42 PM ET

At the NATO summit in Wales last week, General Philip Breedlove, the military alliance’s top commander, made a bold declaration. Russia, he said, is waging “the most amazing information warfare blitzkrieg we have ever seen in the history of information warfare.”

It was something of an underestimation. The new Russia doesn’t just deal in the petty disinformation, forgeries, lies, leaks, and cyber-sabotage usually associated with information warfare. It reinvents reality, creating mass hallucinations that then translate into political action. Take Novorossiya, the name Vladimir Putin has given to the huge wedge of southeastern Ukraine he might, or might not, consider annexing. The term is plucked from tsarist history, when it represented a different geographical space. Nobody who lives in that part of the world today ever thought of themselves as living in Novorossiya and bearing allegiance to it—at least until several months ago. Now, Novorossiya is being imagined into being: Russian media are showing maps of its ‘geography,’ while Kremlin-backed politicians are writing its ‘history’ into school textbooks. There’s a flag and even a news agency (in English and Russian). There are several Twitter feeds. It’s like something out of a Borges story—except for the very real casualties of the war conducted in its name.

The invention of Novorossiya is a sign of Russia’s domestic system of information manipulation going global. Today’s Russia has been shaped by political technologists—the viziers of the system who, like so many post-modern Prosperos, conjure up puppet political parties and the simulacra of civic movements to keep the nation distracted as Putin’s clique consolidates power. In the philosophy of these political technologists, information precedes essence. “I remember creating the idea of the ‘Putin majority’ and hey, presto, it appeared in real life,” Gleb Pavlovsky, a political technologist who worked on Putin's election campaigns but has since left the Kremlin, told me recently. “Or the idea that ‘there is no alternative to Putin.’ We invented that. And suddenly there really was no alternative.”

The Kremlin's Troll Army

“If previous authoritarian regimes were three parts violence and one part propaganda,” argues Igor Yakovenko, a professor of journalism at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, “this one is virtually all propaganda and relatively little violence. Putin only needs to make a few arrests—and then amplify the message through his total control of television.”

We saw a similar dynamic at work on the international stage in the final days of August, when an apparent Russian military incursion into Ukraine—and a relatively minor one at that—was made to feel momentously threatening. Putin invoked the need for talks on the statehood of southeastern Ukraine (with language that seemed almost purposefully ambiguous), leaving NATO stunned and Kiev intimidated enough to agree to a ceasefire. Once again, the term ‘Novorossiya’ made its way into Putin’s remarks, creating the sense that large territories were ready to secede from Ukraine when, in reality, the insurgents hold only a sliver of land. (For an earlier example of these geopolitical tricks, see Dmitry Medvedev’s presidency from 2008 to 2012, when Russia’s decoy leader inspired American faith in the possibility of a westward-facing Russia while giving the Kremlin time to cement power at home and entrench its networks abroad.)

* * *

The belief in the absolute power of propaganda has roots in Soviet thinking. Jacques Ellul, in his classic 1965 study of the subject, wrote, “The Communists, who do not believe in human nature but only in the human condition, believe that propaganda is all-powerful, legitimate (whenever they employ it), and instrumental in creating a new type of man.”

But there is one great difference between Soviet propaganda and the latest Russian variety. For the Soviets, the idea of truth was important—even when they were lying. Soviet propaganda went to great lengths to ‘prove’ that the Kremlin’s theories or bits of disinformation were fact. When the U.S. government accused the Soviets of spreading disinformation—such as the story that the CIA invented AIDS as a weapon—it would cause howls of outrage from top Russian figures, including General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev.

"The idea that 'there is no alternative to Putin.' We invented that. And suddenly there really was no alternative."

In today’s Russia, by contrast, the idea of truth is irrelevant. On Russian ‘news’ broadcasts, the borders between fact and fiction have become utterly blurred. Russian current-affairs programs feature apparent actors posing as refugees from eastern Ukraine, crying for the cameras about invented threats from imagined fascist gangs. During one Russian news broadcast, a woman related how Ukrainian nationalists had crucified a child in the eastern Ukrainian city of Sloviansk. When Alexei Volin, Russia’s deputy minister of communications, was confronted with the fact that the crucifixion story was a fabrication, he showed no embarrassment, instead suggesting that all that mattered were ratings. “The public likes how our main TV channels present material, the tone of our programs,” he said. “The share of viewers for news programs on Russian TV has doubled over the last two months.” The Kremlin tells its stories well, having mastered the mixture of authoritarianism and entertainment culture. The notion of ‘journalism,’ in the sense of reporting ‘facts’ or ‘truth,’ has been wiped out. In a lecture last year to journalism students at Moscow State University, Volin suggested that students forget about making the world a better place. “We should give students a clear understanding: They are going to work for The Man, and The Man will tell them what to write, what not to write, and how this or that thing should be written,” he said. “And The Man has the right to do it, because he pays them.”

The point of this new propaganda is not to persuade anyone, but to keep the viewer hooked and distracted—to disrupt Western narratives rather than provide a counternarrative. It is the perfect genre for conspiracy theories, which are all over Russian TV. When the Kremlin and its affiliated media outlets spat out outlandish stories about the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine in July—reports that characterized the crash as everything from an assault by Ukrainian fighter jets following U.S. instructions, to an attempted NATO attack on Putin’s private jet—they were trying not so much to convince viewers of any one version of events, but rather to leave them confused, paranoid, and passive—living in a Kremlin-controlled virtual reality that can no longer be mediated or debated by any appeal to ‘truth.’

Now Russia is exporting its reality-reinventing model through the hundreds of millions of dollars that it spends on international broadcasters like the rolling, multilingual news channel RT (Russia Today). Domestically, RT helps convince Russians that their government is strong enough to compete with the CNNs of the world. In the United States, RT isn’t taken too seriously (if the channel manages to sow some doubt among Americans, all the better in Moscow's view). But in Europe, Russian propaganda is more potent, working alongside the Kremlin’s influence over local media as well as economic and energy pressures.

The situation is tensest in the Baltic countries, whose large Russian populations are serviced by Russian-language TV channels like the Latvia-based PBK, which receives Kremlin programs at very low rates. ‘‘Huge parts of our population live in a separate reality created by Russian media,” says Raul Rebane, an expert on propaganda in Estonia, where a quarter of the population is ethnic Russian. “This makes consensual politics impossible.” In his research on how Bulgarian media covered the conflict in Ukraine, Christo Grozev, of the Bulgaria-based Risk Management Lab, found that the majority of the country’s newspapers followed Russian rather than Ukrainian narratives about events such as the downing of Flight MH17. “It’s not merely a case of sympathy or language,” Grozev says. “The Russian media just tell more and better stories, and that’s what gets reprinted.” Organizations like the Ukraine-based StopFake.org have been working hard to expose disinformation in Russian and foreign media. But for every ‘fake’ they catch, Kremlin-allied news outlets produce a thousand more. These news organizations don’t care if they’re caught in a lie. They care only about clicks and being compelling.

As the Kremlin’s propaganda campaign intensifies, the West is having its own crisis of faith in the idea of ‘truth.’
Like its domestic equivalents, RT also focuses on conspiracy theories—from 9/11 truthers to the hidden Zionist hand in Syria’s civil war. Western critics often snigger at these claims, but the coverage has a receptive audience. In a recent paper, “The Conspiratorial Mindset in the Age of Transition,” which examined conspiracy theories in France, Hungary, and Slovakia, a team of researchers from leading European think tanks reported that supporters of far-right parties tend to be more likely than supporters of other parties to believe in conspiracies. And right-wing nationalist parties, which are often allied ideologically and financially with the Kremlin, are rising. In Hungary, Jobbik is now the second-largest political party. In France, Marine Le Pen’s National Front recently won 25 percent of the vote in elections for the European parliament.

“Is there more interest in conspiracy theories because far-right parties are growing, or are far-right parties growing because more conspiracy thinking is being pumped into the information space?” asks Gleb Pavlovsky, a little wickedly.

The United States, meanwhile, is struggling with its messaging to the outside world. America is in an “information war and we are losing that war,” Hillary Clinton told Congress in 2011, citing the success of Russian and Chinese media.

* * *

Just as the Kremlin’s international propaganda campaign intensifies, the West is having its own crisis of faith in the idea of ‘truth.’ It’s been a long time coming. Back in 1962, Daniel Boorstin, who would later serve as librarian of the U.S. Congress, wrote in The Image about how advances in advertising and television meant, “The question, ‘Is it real?’ is less important than, ‘Is it newsworthy?’ ... We are threatened by a new and a peculiarly American menace … the menace of unreality.” By the 2000s, this idea had moved from the realm of commerce to the realm of high politics, captured in the now-legendary quote from an unnamed George W. Bush aide in The New York Times: “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

The pressure on reality from capitalism and Capitol Hill coincides with an anti-establishment drive in the U.S. that likewise claims that all truth is relative. In a Prospect magazine review of Glenn Greenwald’s No Place to Hide, for instance, George Packer writes, “Greenwald has no use for the norms of journalism. He rejects objectivity, as a reality and an ideal.” (Similarly, RT’s managing director once told me that “there is no such thing as objective reporting.”) Examining the sins of omission, biased value judgments, and half-truths in Greenwald’s book, Packer concludes that “they reveal a mind that has liberated itself from the basic claims of fairness. Once the norms of journalism are dismissed, a number of constraints and assumptions fall away.” The ties that bind Greenwald and the Kremlin consist of more than a shared desire to ensure Edward Snowden’s safety. In some dark, ideological wood, Putin the authoritarian gay-basher and Greenwald the gay, leftist-libertarian meet and agree. And as the consensus for reality-based politics fractures, that space becomes ripe for exploitation. It’s precisely this trend that the Kremlin hopes to exploit.

Ultimately, many people in Russia and around the world understand that Russian political parties are hollow and Russian news outlets are churning out fantasies. But insisting on the lie, the Kremlin intimidates others by showing that it is in control of defining ‘reality.’ This is why it’s so important for Moscow to do away with truth. If nothing is true, then anything is possible. We are left with the sense that we don’t know what Putin will do next—that he’s unpredictable and thus dangerous. We’re rendered stunned, spun, and flummoxed by the Kremlin’s weaponization of absurdity and unreality.


A primer for PAOs everywhere?  Or is it more applicable to All-Source Information gathering?


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Kirkhill said:
This article hits so many points - Russia, Putin, Ukraine, Infotainment, Media Bias, shaping perception, sowing confusion.....  It had to have a thread of its own.


A primer for PAOs everywhere?  Or is it more applicable to All-Source Information gathering?

Info Ops, Media Ops, Influence Activities, Cyber Ops, etc. etc.

One takeaway (for me anyway) is this sort of thing needs to be coordinated at the highest level. A "Narrative" for Canada needs to be created at the PCO level, and government departments and their subunits (including DND and its component parts) need to be able to perform "mission analysis" and extract whatever parts of the "narrative" which apply to them and that they can support with their own efforts and activities.

In the end, this is what the former Soviet Union did and Russia is doing now; establishing a (Soviet) Russian narrative and using dezinformatsiia and maskirovka to sow confusion and doubt into enemy decision makers and the public perceptions of the Western democracies (and anyone else who could be induced to listen). Even the most rank and obvious falsehoods would be pushed out, since there is:

a: plenty of people gullible enough to believe; and,
b. not enough  time and resources to "clear" channels and push out our own messaging when they are being flooded with Soviet/Russian nonsense.

It is ironic that I began my career in the twilight of the Cold War training to fight the Red Army, and am now in the twilight of my own career preparing for the second Cold War.....


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A look behind the curtain at the "Troll factory"


Russians Get Glimpse of Internet ‘Troll Factory’
Doug Bernard
July 04, 2015 9:53 AM

A secretive Russian agency designed to flood the Internet with pro-Kremlin and anti-U.S. comments and posts has been brought into the public eye as a result of a lawsuit brought by a former employee.

In a Russian court, Lyudmila Savchuk sued the Agency for Internet Studies, or AIS, on a variety of charges, including labor violations and lack of payment.

In her suit, Savchuck said she worked at AIS for two months before quitting in March. She alleged she wasn’t paid for her work, was forced to work over-long hours, and is now on a campaign to shed light on AIS activities.

In a surprise move, the suit was quickly settled in late June when lawyers for AIS offered Savchuk a payment of 10,000 rubles.

'Troll factory'

Savchuk accepted the settlement, telling the French news agency: “I am very pleased. They pretended they don't exist at all and now they have come out of the shadows for the first time.”

Savchuck also said she will only feel she fully won “after the troll factory closes completely."

Based in a non-descript warehouse in St. Petersburg, the AIS is a round-the-clock operation that reportedly employs more than 300 workers.

AIS employees create fake accounts on social media and news websites, and then use those accounts to post thousands of comments and posts in accordance with the daily pro-Kremlin talking points, creating the illusion of widespread support for Vladimir Putin’s government.

In her suit, the 34-year-old Savchuk called the AIS a “troll factory,” a reference to the 30,000 comments produced daily by AIS employees.

Many of those comments, she said, are inflammatory in hopes of luring out, or “trolling,” even harsher replies. Those caustic arguments can then be used by the Kremlin as an excuse to ban anti-Putin or pro-Ukranian bloggers and websites.

Authorities in Moscow have declined to comment on the agency.

AIS operations remain shadowy, as do its funding and control.


Officially, AIS is run by Mikhail Bystrov, a retired police colonel.

But RFE/RL has reported that AIS is financed through a holding company headed by Evgeny Prigozhin.

Officially Putin’s “personal chef,” Prigozhin has previously been implicated by the newspaper Novaya Gazeta in another media scandal: this time an elaborate conspiracy to plant false information in different Russian newspapers, disguised as advertisements.

The Kremlin has long operated propaganda campaigns, but since the conflict in Ukraine, Russian authorities appear to have kicked their online efforts into higher gear.

Savchuk said she and others in her department routinely worked 12-hour shifts, banging out as many as 150 blog posts per shift. Others swamped the Web with phony images and fake, pro-Putin “news” stories created to turn up in Web news searches.

Another trolling tactic employed by AIS is the posting of conspiracy theories, designed to muddy facts and leave readers feeling confused.

Conspiracy theories

A few examples were the many conspiracy comments implicating the U.S. in the recent murder of Boris Nemtsov, the ouster of former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, and the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 over rebel-held territories in Ukraine.

“Lena N”, another former AIS employee, recently told RFE/FL that she quit her job after refusing to tow the company line about Nemtsov’s murder.

"It was necessary to bring people to believe that the killing of Boris Nemtsov was a provocation before the march, and [that it was] a murder carried out by his own [supporters]," she said.

And even though her suit was dismissed once she accepted the settlement, Savchuk said she’s committed to shining a light on AIS and other similar operations.

Speaking through her attorney, Ivan Pavlov, Savchuk said she hoped to meet with AIS officials in July for “another chance to make their activities transparent.”


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One theory on dealing with the Russian troll army is to use the same technique the same as dealing with any other troll: don't feed them.  :troll: :troll:

How to Defeat Putin’s Internet Trolls
08 Jun 2015


Sometimes they hit below the belt; other times they’re easy to swat away and ignore. Either way, a troll’s purpose is inherently ethereal—its raison d’être can be shattered by the click of a “block” button.

Much ado has been made about the psychology of trolling—and for good reason. We store a lot of our lives online—photos, private correspondence, biometric data, tax returns. We spend the rest of our time in spaces that we have collectively designated as a digital commons. These virtual public spaces are governed by rules, explicit or otherwise, of their own.

Like any crowded physical space, these regions can be noisy, confusing and easily subjected to disruption. It’s the ideal space for getting your message out so long as you don’t particularly care about being heard. Think of it as like screaming at a rock concert: It’s annoying for those people nearby, but completely ineffective if you want to convince the crowd to do anything.

Those endeavors may be largely fruitless, but they have gained a great deal of ground in one country: Russia. Here, the troll as an agent of information warfare on behalf of the state has garnered a great deal of attention since Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. If recent revelations are any indication, the well-oiled, Kremlin-sponsored troll machine has no intentions of closing up shop anytime soon.

State-sponsored or state-sanctioned Internet trolls are nothing new on the Russian Internet—or RuNet, as it is often called. In 2012, a series of emails published by a Russian hacktivist group showed a youth group with ties to the Kremlin was paying bloggers and journalists to post pro-Putin content online. Activists were also paid to down-vote YouTube videos posted by the opposition and to even leave hundreds of comments on news articles with an anti-Putin spin.

The leak was huge, but the practice was nothing new. Indeed, a Freedom House report in 2013 noted that “Russia [has] been at the forefront of this practice for several years.”

But the practice became even more critical to the Kremlin’s informational warfare strategy during the invasion of Ukraine in 2014. One firm, called the Internet Research Agency, garnered a great deal of mainstream media attention last year after a major document leak exposed the agency’s operations.

In June 2014, Buzzfeed reported that the Kremlin had poured millions into the agency so as to fund a veritable army of trolls to post pro-Putin commentary on English-language media sites. Commenters were also expected to balance several Twitter and Facebook accounts while posting over 50 comments on various news articles throughout the day.

A more recent account described a heavier workload: Over the period of two 12-hour shifts, one employee was expected to draft 15 posts and leave 150 to 200 comments.

“We don’t talk too much, because everyone is busy. You have to just sit there and type and type, endlessly,” one former Russian troll told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty a couple of months ago.

“We don’t talk, because we can see for ourselves what the others are writing, but in fact you don’t even have to really read it, because it’s all nonsense. The news gets written, someone else comments on it, but I think real people don’t bother reading any of it at all.”

If they were only trolling comment threads, that’s likely true. Many readers (and writers, sorry) skip the comments. Head over to your favorite mainstream media news site and read the comments on any given article. On occasion you’ll find some gems among the weeds of trolls and spam bots, but they can be few and far between. A paid Russian troll would be just one voice among many.

The new age of information warfare may have started out on comment threads, but its biggest battles won’t be fought there. If recent events are any indication that shift has already begun.

According to a recent account by reporter Adrian Chen in The New York Times, the Internet Research Agency may be behind several larger hoaxes throughout the United States. The first engineered a fake chemical spill in St. Mary Parish, Louisiana, through a coordinated social media campaign and text message alerts. This “airborne toxic event” of sorts had media coverage and eyewitness testimony. None of it, investigators soon realized, was real.

Months later, many of the same accounts used to spread the news of the fictional chemical spill reported an Ebola outbreak in Atlanta. Others told of a shooting of an unarmed black woman, again in Atlanta.

At first glance, none of these three events appeared to be related, although two videos—the first one documented the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria’s (ISIS) apparent involvement in the chemical spill and the other the shooting of the unarmed woman—appeared to have the same narrator.

Chen’s account should be read in full, not summarized. Nevertheless, it does raise a few important questions. For one, are these hoaxes the new face of the 21st century information war? It would appear so, if only in for the short term.

Will technological developments in image manipulation make conning easier? What about an increase in the number of social media users? Probably. In the latter case, though, it could swing either way.

In the end, the most important question is one that we need to continuously ask ourselves: What am I, as a responsible Internet user and media consumer, doing to protect the integrity of the Web?

Ignoring the troll(s) screaming in the crowd is a start.