A cluster of so-called “independent” websites have been singled out for criticism in a scathing report by the US State Department for being part of Russia’s disinformation “ecosystem”.
After months of back-and-forth on what proportion of online claptrap can fairly be attributed to the Kremlin during the Covid-19 pandemic, this report, compiled by members of the Department’s Global Engagement Center, is one of the most useful breakdowns of the “ecosystem” to date.
Researchers lay out what they term the “five pillars” of Russian disinformation and propaganda: a long-standing mode of political warfare that they surmise is intended to destabilize democracies and undermine Russia’s perceived competitors or enemies.
“Russia’s disinformation and propaganda ecosystem,” the report summarizes, “is the collection of official, proxy, and unattributed communication channels and platforms that Russia uses to create and amplify false narratives.”
The report also sheds light on a handful of websites it accuses of acting as proxies for the Russian government, despite the outward appearance – and perhaps aim – of independence.
What Are the ‘Five Pillars’ of the Russian Disinformation Ecosystem?
According to the report, there are five key strands to the disinformation and propaganda that is – in good faith or bad – touted on behalf of the Kremlin. These include:
Official government communications: The most obvious and easily-linked to the Russian state itself, these sources include statements from the Kremlin, its ministries or embassies, social media posts from official Russian government accounts, and statements or quotes from Russian officials.
State-funded global messaging: These are media outlets directly and openly funded by the Kremlin, both those aimed at domestic Russian audiences and foreign-facing outlets, most famously Russia Today (RT) and Sputnik.
Proxy Sources: Third-party news and analysis outlets that present as independent, with their own geographies and target audiences, that proliferate Russia’s disinformation and propaganda and in some cases have less direct links to the Russian state.
Weaponization of Social Media: Using social media campaigns, including “bot” accounts, to infiltrate and influence other countries’ domestic conversations and affairs. This includes attempts to exert influence in foreign elections and exacerbate protests, upheavals and civil discord.
Cyber-Enabled Disinformation: This includes “hack and release” tactics such as those seen before the 2016 US presidential election, cyber-attacks, using cloned websites for the purposes of cyber-espionage, and creating forgeries such as fake satellite imagery.
Who Are the Proxies?
Proxy sources or outlets present themselves as independent media but essentially amplify Russian disinformation and propaganda. This is often in undisguised fashion, by lifting content directly from channels like RT and Sputnik, or by employing writers and academics who will repeat the same narratives with their own distinctive spin to suit the target audience.
Some of these “proxies” obviously benefit from a close relationship with the Kremlin, including Russian state funding. Most notable among these, and cited in the report, is the Strategic Culture Foundation (SCF): an online journal directed by Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) and closely tied to the Foreign Ministry. There is no mention of this link on its website. Its president Yuri Profokiev is also an ex-Moscow Party Chief and a Soviet Politburo. The journal, which is aimed at Western audiences, often gives a platform to Western conspiracy theorists whose views are in line with those the Kremlin seeks to promote, while appearing to be “an organic voice within its target audience of Westerners”.
Katehon, a Moscow-based think-tank aimed at mostly European audiences, was founded by the pro-Putin oligarch Konstantin Malofayev, whose pro-Kremlin Tsargrad TV calls itself the “voice of the Russian orthodox majority” and who was sanctioned by the US and EU in 2014 for funding Russian forces in Ukraine. Katehon’s supervisory board includes several individuals with ties to either the Russian state or Russian intelligence services, and it similarly publishes what the report calls “virulent” anti-Western propaganda in five languages. Katehon has promoted such claims as “The United States created coronavirus in 2015”, “Pope Francis is a servant of George Soros” and “The fire at Notre Dame was a Satanic ritual”.
There are also some outlets, researchers say, that try to maintain a veneer of separation but end up serving no real purpose except to push pro-Kremlin content. The report zeroes in on such publications as News Front, a Crimea-based network aiming to provide an “alternative source of information” for Western audiences but mostly focused on supporting Russia-backed forces in Ukraine. News Front has also republished many of the most outrageous Covid-19 conspiracy theories. When its YouTube channel was removed in May, followed by its Twitter account, the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement condemning the decision.
Another website, Geopolitica.ru, positions itself as caught in the middle of an information war but effectively, researchers say, serves “as a platform for Russian ultra-nationalists” and republishes many of the same conspiracy theories that have gained currency thanks to RT and Sputnik in English, Russian, Spanish, Italian, Serbian, French, Polish, Arabic, and Urdu. By means of one telling example of the site’s ultimate non-independence, it published no fewer than 21 articles written by “Adomas Abromaitis”: a fake persona attributed by Facebook to Russian Military Intelligence (GRU).
Many of the websites named in the report, researchers note, have shared writing “talent” and directors over the years and regularly repost one another’s content, as well as that of official Russian government communications and state-backed media – hence the idea of an “ecosystem”. Unfortunately, the US State Department's list is not an exhaustive one.
One Approach, Different Messages
The US State Department’s report stresses that uniformity of message, for the Russian disinformation “ecosystem”, is not the point; rather, as they see it, it is confusion and discord.
“The perpetual conflict that Russia sees in the information environment,” it states, “means that officials and state media may take one side of an issue, while outlets with a measure of independence will adopt their own variations on similar overarching false narratives.
“The ecosystem approach is fitting for this dynamic because it does not require harmonization among the different pillars. By simultaneously furthering multiple versions of a given story, these actors muddy the waters of the information environment in order to confuse those trying to discern the truth.”
Also in this series: