Russia: Master of information manipulation

President elections in Russia [@EPA-EFE/SERGEI CHIRIKOV / POOL]

Fake news is proliferating, carried by the virality of the internet and the crisis of confidence in democracies. However, nobody manipulates information as well as Russia does, according to a French study. EURACTIV France reports.

In 2015, channel Russia 1 filmed a report on islamisation in France. The report dived into the streets of the Barbès district of Paris where the Russian journalist claimed that “hardly anyone is speaking French. At the market, only halal meat is being sold […]. Every other woman is wearing a burka or a niqab. There are virtually no non-Muslims in the district any more”.

The journalist also listed a string of statistics, each more far-fetched than the last, reporting that there were 11 million Muslims in France, almost three times higher than the actual figure.

The video, which was widely picked up by the major French media outlets online to denounce the use of deception as a tool in the war of disinformation waged by the Kremlin, is mentioned in a report by two research institutes from the Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs (CAPS) and the Ministry for the Armed Forces (IRSEM).

The report, which is over 200 pages long, was prepared by researchers at the Centre for Analysis, Forecasting and Strategy (CAPS) and the Institute for Strategic Research. It reviews the causes, consequences and also the remedies to an information war which has taken on an unprecedented magnitude.

According to the researchers, the Kremlin’s supremacy in terms of information manipulation is conclusive.

Russia has been primarily responsible for the repeated interventions across various referenda and elections in Western democracies to have occurred since 2014, with the report citing Ukraine, the Bundestag elections, the Dutch referendum, Brexit, the American elections and finally the French elections with the Macron leaks.

Even the independence referendum in Catalonia, a region where Russia has no geopolitical interests, was the subject of a disinformation campaign as the vote represented an opportunity “to divide and therefore to weaken the European countries,” the report underlined.

“Our counterparts in the European institutions attribute 80% of the efforts to exert influence in Europe to Russia, with the rest originating from other states (mainly China and Iran) and non-state actors (jihadist groups, particularly ISIS),” the authors of the inter-ministerial report highlighted. Moreover, almost all of the report is devoted to the Kremlin’s influencing strategy.

“Moscow is certainly not the only state actor that uses these tactics but it is the one that has used them so well, for so long and who has established them as an official doctrine whose assumed strategy is to weaken the West,” the report said.

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The objective to divide

“The Kremlin will, as a matter of priority, target the divisive issues which play on people’s fears,” the report highlighted. “The objective of information manipulation is no longer to convince people of an alternative ideology. It is less a matter of convincing than weakening by dividing”.

Beyond the traditional means of influence, such as embassies, the report compiles a list of multiple tools of Russian influence:

Fake NGOs such as IDC, the Kremlin’s think tank which has offices in Paris, media such as Sputnik (which has published an article on the report which it describes as Russophobic), organisations such as the motorcycle club Notchnye Volki (“The wolves of the night”) and independent intermediaries in the fields of religion, politics and economics, which the report cites as including the orthodox church.

The use of Russian propaganda tools has dangerous consequences for European countries. “An indirect effect […] is to encourage governments to take measures which are contrary to their democratic and liberal values,” the report explained.

This includes countries “which seem to be sheltered from Russian propaganda, such as Poland, where 70 years of communism immunized the population against Russian propaganda,” the report underlined.

However, Moscow is targeting Poland as well as the Baltic countries by trying to create the impression that they are “hysterical paranoid Russophobes” in comparison with the more “moderate” states of Western Europe, the report asserted.

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