Reinventing the Information War: Strategic Reasoning and Objectives of Russian State-sponsored Disinformation Campaigns

By: Lowik Weltje

Photo credits: Pride1979 via Pixabay.

Introduction

Recently, the concept of state-sponsored disinformation is becoming more prominent and widely discussed in the context of international politics. However, there is still a large degree of uncertainty in regard to the effectiveness and prevalence of the practice. Historically, one of the nation states that relied on disinformation campaigns to a relatively large extent to achieve domestic and foreign policy goals was the USSR. Taking on a slightly different form, this trend continues in Russia today. Globalisation and the internet are two factors that have massively contributed to the reach and effectiveness of disinformation campaigns. These developments have made disinformation a more secure investment with more likely returns. This article briefly explores the core of the Russian disinformation industry, with a focus on the underlying reasoning and political objectives of the Russian regime.

Contextual background

States have always had a political interest in manipulating public opinion abroad. As such, state-sponsored disinformation campaigns are not novel phenomena. One of the best known historical examples to illustrate their potential impact is the Cold War, during which the US and the USSR were in a decade-long ideological competition of information warfare on a global scale. Needless to say, the internet landscape as it exists today was not around back then. From an operational point of view this made it significantly more challenging to spread false narratives to international audiences. Instead of utilising digital platforms, disinformation was disseminated through physical news publications, educational indoctrination, and popular culture such as radio, cinema, and art. The technological advances of the past three decades have completely changed the information landscape, and have propelled the effectiveness of the Russian disinformation industry to new heights. The possibilities for the dissemination of disinformation and the potential reach of overarching disinformation campaigns have increased tremendously. Access to the World Wide Web is now globally commonplace, and the entry barrier for consuming internet content is at an all-time low. 

The term ‘disinformation’ is characterised by the concept of intentionality. Disinformation is defined as factually inaccurate information that is purposefully spread in order to advance political goals. This sets it apart from misinformation, which is also factually inaccurate, but spread without malicious intent. Successful manifestation of disinformation is largely dependent on psychological factors. On social media platforms, falsehoods spread six times more quickly than objective and factual news due to novelty and emotional reactions, and many people are not sufficiently media literate to be able to differentiate between reliable and unreliable sources. Social media companies’ revenue models are largely based on generating clicks and gathering user data to improve algorithms and sell to advertisers. The development of this industry has skyrocketed the sophistication of the ability of algorithms to find and target groups of individuals that are interested in certain information based on their personality, social circles, and political preferences. This leads to an environment that facilitates the cognitive processes that lead to the belief in disinformation; the ‘echo chamber’, where individuals only encounter beliefs similar to their own, thus reinforcing the notion that their assessments are correct through cognitive bias. In other words, these algorithms are highly efficient tools that can be used to effectively spread disinformation to susceptible target groups.

The concrete methods and institutional mechanisms that are used to spread disinformation are not unique to Russia, but rather a recognisable pattern in authoritarian regimes. These regimes finance institutions to hire individuals who post fake news stories or provocative political comments on social media platforms from doctored accounts. Organisations like these are often referred to as ‘troll factories’. A Russian company in St. Petersburg called the Internet Research Agency has been linked to 826 Twitter accounts with over 6,300 collective posts between 2012 and 2017. The types of accounts managed by the organisation during this time range from openly pro-Russian profiles to impersonation accounts of news outlets and activists. This spread signifies that the aim is to strategically influence different groups through tailored objectives. This makes sense, considering that the nature of disinformation content is usually designed to amplify already existing grievances within the system that they target.

Countering disinformation is not always a top priority for democratic regimes that are targeted; they are usually preoccupied with more concrete and discernable manifestations of power in times of conflict, such as showcasing military capabilities and economic status. Nevertheless, high levels of democratic press freedom do correlate with more effective and broader approaches to countering disinformation. Less established democracies, such as those on the African continent, are also targeted by Russian disinformation. It appears that these novel regimes, by comparison, are even more susceptible to disinformation.

Why does Russia engage in disinformation campaigns?

‘To divide’ or ‘to sow chaos’; these are reasons one often hears when discussing the objectives of Russian disinformation. Although not necessarily untrue, these are oversimplifications. The reasons are more strategic and nuanced than they may seem at first glance.

The zero-sum global rivalry

One of the broader, long-term objectives that the Russian state hopes to achieve through disinformation is the restoration of their global ‘great power’ status. On paper, Russia is still an actor with considerable political and material capital. It has a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, an abundance of natural resources to export, and a large nuclear weapons arsenal. However, in the context of the global reputational zero-sum game that Russian political philosophy is often described through, they are certainly behind. The rivalry between Russia and the West — particularly the United States — is still very much alive, perhaps especially so within the sphere of Russian politics. Through this lens, Russia views diminishing the global reputation of the United States as virtually synonymous with bolstering its own. The decade after the Cold War and the collapse of the USSR was detrimental to the Russian economy and its international reputation. In the meantime, the United States was making major strides in fostering a global community centred around democratic capitalism and strengthening a transatlantic military alliance that — as it was perceived in Russia — threatened the Russian claim on post-Soviet states, especially after the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact. Discord generated by disinformation campaigns could play an important role in closing this perceived reputational gap. The polarised political landscape inherent to US society serves as a hotbed for disinformation on divisive societal issues such as abortion rights, gun control, and racial tensions.

Exerting domestic control

Disinformation is also a critical tool for the Russian regime in maintaining its domestic sphere of influence. In light of the authoritarian and imperialist tendencies of the Russian state, it is logical that the propagation of democratic ideals — which are intimately tied to NATO and EU membership — is perceived as a large threat. The fear of these democratic ideals spreading to the Russian population to the point of sparking significant civil disorder or even revolution is another core motivation of the Russian state. This is made evident by the disinformation campaigns launched by the Russian regime that target their own population. A potent example of this is the narrative that was deployed as one of the main justifications for the invasion of Ukraine in 2022: the claim that Neo-Nazism was on the rise and had taken over high positions within the Ukrainian government. Recycling the narrative that the Russian state is a champion in the fight against Nazism is a strategic choice, as it hearkens back to the large contribution that the Soviet Union made to the Second World War victory, a major point of Russian pride. The only reason why such a narrative had any chance of garnering widespread national support for the war is the complete lack of independent media outlets within Russia. Although freedom of speech is technically a part of the Russian government’s constitution, the state controls all national television networks and most radio stations, print outlets, and media advertising through vague laws and state-owned companies. Additionally, the government monitors and censors internet activity based on arbitrary definitions of ‘illegal’ content. The spreading of ‘false news’ is punishable by up to 15 years in prison under the criminal code revised in March 2022. 

Disrupting democratic unity

Democratic governance systems are especially susceptible to disinformation due to the influence of the general public over government bodies through electoral mechanisms, media scrutiny, and free speech. Although these are some of the core pillars of functioning democracies, they can be used to undermine the system. Empirical research shows that Russian disinformation is more prominent in democracies around the time of elections. It is very challenging to determine to what extent disinformation concretely contributed to election results in the past, but its effects are certainly not negligible. Much of the discord surrounding Clinton in the 2016 US presidential election was sparked by Russian leaks and disinformation. From that point onwards, the commercial and extremely polarised media landscape of the US essentially did the rest of the work. But why was Russia invested in a Trump win? And why will they be again in 2024? Trump is clearly not a run-of-the-mill conservative. He actively undermines democratic institutions and is especially critical of the disproportional US financing of NATO, threatening to step back from the role of international responsibility in Europe that the US has tried to assume for decades. This political trend of democratic regimes turning inward is not solely a North American issue. Right-wing populist parties sceptical of international integration are also on the rise within EU member states. This could have serious implications for EU policy and its long-term resilience. The less unity is projected by the Western international community, the higher the chances that the Russian regime will make uncontested future strides towards advancing its military capabilities and bolstering its authoritarian regime.

Conclusion

State-sponsored disinformation is a widely applicable tool that can be used to manipulate both domestic and foreign audiences. For democratic systems that are targeted by disinformation campaigns from foreign adversaries, one of the core lessons that can be drawn from studying state-sponsored Russian disinformation is the following: the undermining of liberal democracies through disinformation often takes the form of catalysts that simply highlight already existing problems prevalent within that democracy. This suggests that the strengthening of democratic principles and institutions is a means to combat disinformation in and of itself. However, as long as social media algorithms remain largely unregulated and structured towards profit maximisation, objective and reliable news will fall to the wayside in favour of disinformation and polarising narratives. It is certain that the near future will provide technological developments that will enable the disinformation industry to flourish further; AI generated content, deep fakes, and the continued societal integration of social media platforms will greatly increase the volume and ostensible validity of future disinformation. Effectively monitoring these trends and equipping democratic institutions and citizens with a level of resilience against the negative impact of some of these technologies will be increasingly imperative to ensure the proper functioning of democratic systems. 

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