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Russian Social Media Influence. Understanding Russian Propaganda in Eastern Europe

19.04.2018

One of the key recommendations of American analysts is the following: in order to successfully resist Russian informational influnce, alternative to Russian information should be secured by broadening and improving local content. Ryhor Kastusiou, the BPF Party chairman, commented on the conclusions and recommendations of American researchers: “I hope that people, who are now preparing amendments to the Belarusian law on media, will attentively read the paper. Imposing more and more new restrictions on Belarusian web-sites and media, these amendments, which are now being examined by the parliament, can make our country vulnerable to foreign informational attacks. Vice versa, liberation and improvement of local media will strengthen positions of Belarus and further informational security of our country”.

A new RAND Corporation report finds that Russia is waging a social media campaign in the Baltics, Ukraine and nearby states to sow dissent against neighboring governments, as well as NATO and the European Union.

In addition to employing a state-funded multi-lingual television network, operating various pro-government news websites and working through Russian-backed “civil society” organizations, Russia also employs a sophisticated social media campaign that includes news tweets, non-attributed comments on web pages, troll and bot social media accounts, and fake hashtag and Twitter campaigns.

“Nowhere is this threat more tangible than in Ukraine, which has been an active propaganda battleground since the 2014 Ukrainian revolution,” said Todd Helmus, lead author on the report and senior behavioral scientist at the RAND Corporation, a nonpartisan research organization. “Other countries in the region look at Russia’s actions and annexation of Crimea and recognize the need to pay careful attention to Russia’s propaganda campaign.”

In Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus, according to the RAND report, Russia aims to divide ethnic Russian or Russian-speaking populations and their host governments.

RAND researchers recommend that to counter the Russian campaign, Western countries need to strengthen and expand means to track, block and tag Russian propaganda more quickly, to offer alternative television, social media and other media to help displace the Russian narrative, and to develop more-compelling arguments for populations to align with the west and better understand NATO troop deployments in the region.

The report also recommends the training of local journalists and funding the creation of alternative media content to counteract Russia propaganda campaigns.

“We paid special attention to the role of nonattributed social media accounts, which are frequently, but not solely, employed on Twitter and Facebook,” said Elizabeth Bodine-Baron, an author on the report, engineer and co-director of the RAND Center for Applied Network Analysis and System Science. “Russia has established that during critical moments, such as during the Ukrainian conflict, it can flood news websites with tens of thousands of comments each day,”

The report finds that U.S., EU and NATO efforts to counter Russian influence in the region are complicated by the relatively high presence of historically marginalized Russian-speaking populations in the region, which gives Russia a unique opportunity to communicate with a sympathetic audience.

Host government policies giving priority to national languages have limited government outreach via the Russian language, thus complicating state outreach to Russian speakers. Furthermore, Russian broadcast media dominates in the region, particularly in the Baltics. Ukraine is the exception as it has censored Russian government broadcasting and social media platforms.

Finally, heavy-handed anti-Russian messaging may backfire given local skepticism of Western propaganda.

Key Findings

Russia’s goals in its near abroad differ from those for farther-flung states

  • In the Baltics, Ukraine, and other nearby states, the Kremlin aims to drive wedges between ethnic Russian or Russian-speaking populations and their host governments, NATO, and the European Union
  • Farther abroad, the Kremlin attempts to achieve policy paralysis by sowing confusion, stoking fears, and eroding trust in Western and democratic institutions.

Specific communities spread and discuss propaganda

  • RAND identified a Russian activist community on Twitter that consists of approximately 41,000 users who both consume and disseminate anti-Ukraine, pro-Russia propaganda.
  • An opposing Ukrainian activist Twitter community also exists and consists of nearly 39,000 users spreading pro-Ukraine, anti-Russia content.

Broader challenges affect counterpropaganda efforts in the region

  • The high presence of Russian-language populations in the region who descend from Soviet-era migrants and whose host countries have refused them citizenship gives Russia a sympathetic audience.
  • Government policies prioritizing national languages have limited government outreach via the Russian language.
  • Russian broadcast media dominate in the region. Ukraine, however, has censored Russian government broadcasting and a popular Russian social media platform.
  • Social media activists, websites, news sources, and others actively disseminate their own pro-Russia propaganda content without obvious direct support from the Russian state.
  • The panoply of European Union, U.S., and North Atlantic Treaty Organization actors engaged in counterpropaganda efforts challenges coordination and synchronization.
  • Heavy-handed anti-Russia messaging could backfire in the region, given local skepticism of Western propaganda.

Recommendations

  • Highlight and “block” Russian propaganda (RP).
  • Build the resilience of at-risk populations. Introduce media literacy training in the education system to help Russian colinguists and others in the region better identify fake news and other propagandist content. Consider launching a public information campaign that can more immediately teach media literacy to a mass audience.
  • Expand and improve local and original content to displace the Russian media narrative. Empower social media and other activists in the region by identifying key influencers and offering a series of programming geared to enhance their influence potential. Train journalists and fund the creation of alternative media content.
  • Better tell the U.S., North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and European Union (EU) story. The United States, NATO, and EU should offer a compelling argument for populations to align with the West or with individual nation-states. NATO should also better communicate the purpose and intent of its Enhanced Forward Presence units now stationed in the Baltics.
  • Track Russian media and develop analytic methods. Identify fake-news stories and their sources, understand Russian narrative themes and content, and understand the broader Russian strategy that underlies tactical propaganda messaging. In addition, use resonance analysis to track the impact and spread of RP and influence.

The report, “Russian Social Media Influence: Understanding Russian Propaganda in Eastern Europe,” is available at www.rand.org. Other authors of the report include Andrew RadinMadeline MagnusonJoshua MendelsohnBill Marcellino, Andriy Bega and Zev Winkelman.

The research was sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense’s Rapid Reaction Technology Office and conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Center of the RAND National Defense Research Institute, a federally funded research and development center sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, the Unified Combatant Commands, the Navy, the Marine Corps, the defense agencies, and the defense Intelligence Community.

Source: Russian Social Media Influence: Understanding Russian Propaganda in Eastern Europe, is available at www.rand.org.

 

 

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