Emil Filtenborg and Stefan Weichert are independent journalists based in Ukraine. In a weekly series for IranWire, they examine the landscape of disinformation in Russia and some of the false information that has emanated from the country since the outbreak of coronavirus.
The current demonstrations and riots in the United States are providing Russia with yet another possibility – alongside the pandemic – to exploit the increasing polarization among American citizens, to destabilize the country.
The killing of George Floyd's has sparked unrest across the US by people demanding justice. There are increased tensions between the demonstrators and those advocating for law and order, both on the ground and in the political sphere, where President Donald Trump and the Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden are handling the issue very differently indeed. The US is also dealing with Covid-19, and both aspects are something that Russia is trying to exploit to propel divisions between Americans.
Brian Fonseca, director of the Jack D. Gordon Institute for Public Policy at Florida International University's (FIU) and a researcher of Russian disinformation in North and South America, says: "We have seen with Covid-19 how Russia is playing on both sides of the argument to fuel both sides and make the divisions between Americans more vivid. Russia manipulates both sides, and the case of George Floyd gives Russia a chance to also play on the race question.”
Kate Cox is a senior analyst at the global policy think-tank Rand Europe, and points out that Russia is becoming more sophisticated in its message, using new technology.
"Russian-sponsored trolls typically use social media to aggravate both sides of a controversy, stoking discord by highlighting emotive issues for each side through the use of repeated rhetorical patterns," she write in an email to IranWire, also noting that Russian activity during the US 2016 election was a precursor of what we are seeing at the moment.
“Disinformation has become a central feature of the Covid-19 crisis,” Cox adds. “This may be linked to the global scale of the pandemic, which is incentivizing more actors to use disinformation to further their political agendas.
"Advances in machine learning also fuel this problem, as AI-powered disinformation campaigns extend the reach of malign information on social media platforms.”
Memes: A Powerful Tool for Russia
It is easy to envisage Russian disinformation as the content state-controlled media outlets such as RT and Sputnik. But in the US, Russia mostly relies on the almost unlimited possibilities offered by social media, which enable government-linked sources to send out messages while concealing their precise origin. This was evident during the 2016 presidential election, and is also visible now.
"Memes with inflammatory language are often used the most by Russia,” says Fonseca. “They are extremely good at using images, and they capitalize on the big race divisions in the United States.
"They use memes and images to inspire anger and make discords among communities. It is something which we see going on right now with both George Floyd and Covid-19.”
Fonseca says Russia relies on both technical experts with knowledge of which is the most effective social media platform to use, and psychiatrists who can design specific memes to appeal to the target audience.
So far, Fonseca says, it is hard to provide verified evidence of the use of specific memes during the Covid-19 pandemic and the US unrest – precisely because Russian memes look so much like others, and it takes time to establish where they come from.
But he surmises that Russia is very active at the moment. The US Senate Intelligence Committee published a report documenting how Russia used disinformation and memes during the election, and how it emerged from the Russian Internet Research Agency – often nicknamed the “Russian Troll Farm” by the West. The American media outlet Wired has pointed out how the Agency tried to fuel arguments on both sides to sow division in the US.
"It is clear that this is an instrument of warfare,” Fonseca says, “and Russia is the best in class.”
What Messages are Being Put Forward Now?
The US-based Institute of Propaganda Analysis was active from 1937 to 1942. It consisted of independent researchers and was one of the first to point out specific techniques used in disinformation. The institute identified seven techniques that we can pinpoint today in Russian disinformation during the pandemic and the demonstrations, Fonseca says.
Among them is a technique called the “Bandwagon”, whereby the aim is to make the audience convinced that an opinion is mainstream and they should follow the crowd. Social media is perfect for this, Fonseca says, because a government entity can create fake profiles and by appearing as an ordinary citizen – indeed, as lots of them – create an environment in which an opinion is rapidly accepted.
"It is a powerful tool and makes it more appealing and accepted to have such opinions and share them, which then makes it likely that others will do the same," he says. "We see this right now with conspiracy theories about George Floyd. They might seem crazy at first, but when more and more people share them, it becomes more likely that people trust them."
Russia is also using a “Name Calling” technique identified by the Institute, whereby it shares demeaning phrases or nicknames previously used in the US about a particular group.
"President Trump often gives people nicknames and Russia helps them get stuck by sharing them and creating memes about them,” says Fonseca. “One group will laugh at them, and others will find them degrading. But both help create a divide in the United States, which is the larger aim of Russia.”
Also in this series: