New Disinformation Digest from the East StratCom Task Force
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Falling fig leaves

As the Disinformation Digest has been reporting, the corridor open for independent voices becomes increasingly narrow in Russia ahead of the 18 September parliamentary elections. After the media attack on the election observation NGO Golos, on Monday it was the turn of Russia’s leading independent polling institution: the Levada Centre was declared a ’foreign agent’. This step not only stigmatizes the internationally acknowledged institution as treacherous, but also makes operations de facto impossible thanks to the overwhelming documentation demands imposed by the law. Levada's managing director, Lev Gudkov, told Kommersant on Tuesday that the centre has been forced to immediately suspend its work. Both the EU and the US reacted with statements.
Wednesday saw an unannounced inspection of Memorial, a leading Russian human rights NGO, with the aim of looking into its international affiliations and a possible inclusion in the register of “foreign agents”, the NGO said in a statement. The pending case was described in a Facebook post by Memorial leader Sergei Parkhomenko under the headline THIRTY ONE THOUSAND TWO HUNDRED AND FIFTY - a reference to the number of pages Memorial was requested to submit by the authorities.
"There is something wrong with this beehive", says the Russian Winnie the Pooh when looking into a "2016 elections" ballot box. (Image: Sergey Elkin for RFE)
Columnist Kirill Rogov observed on Facebook: "Given that the Levada is now listed as a foreign agent, there can be no doubt about the outcome of the "Memorial" investigation. We can conclude that we are witnessing a new wave of assaults on independent organizations and civil society in Russia. [...] Both the Levada Center and Memorial are Russian NGOs that have achieved international fame. Are there now any forces left at all with the ability to speak up, convene, coordinate and oppose this crusade against what is certainly a national treasure of Russia - the real Russia, not the Russia that is based on stolen oil? Even in the Soviet times, gloomy and gray artists, scientists, people with a name would from time to time speak out against the destruction of the nation's treasures."

The imitation game

Influential Italian daily La Stampa reported last week that for the first time Italian well-established media outlets have been pirated to spread pro-Kremlin disinformation. A social media post bearing the logo of La Stampa – that quickly became viral – reported that 10.000 rescuers and a massive cargo were ready to be deployed by Russian President Putin to provide first aid to the Italian population affected by the earthquake; a second post, this time with a fake La Repubblica logo, referred to migrants volunteering in the rescue operations taking place in the territories affected by the earthquake, using a photo taken after an earthquake in Haiti. 

In May this year, a news article appeared with the header of leading Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter. A screenshot of the article circulated on Russian and English-language sites for several days. Whereas the layout looks real, the authors have a poor grasp of Swedish. The text claimed that former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt and other Swedish politicians intended to start a new international organisation "Endowment for United Europe" so as to keep ordinary Europeans from influencing EU policy. The article was publicly refuted both by Mr Bildt himself and the newspaper Dagens Nyheter.

"A threat to the EU and NATO"

Russian disinformation operations received significant coverage in another European secret service report. Last week, the Czech Bezpečnostní informační služba ("Security information service" working on counter-espionage) published its annual report and described the Russian intelligence services as the most active, alongside the Chinese.
"In 2015, Russian activities focused on the information war regarding the Ukrainian and Syrian conflicts and on political, scientific, technical and economic espionage," states the report. The BIS also described various tools used by the Russian intelligence, like infiltration of the media, information and disinformation overload, creating inter-societal and inter-political tensions, among others. "The above-mentioned activities pose a threat to the Czech Republic, EU and NATO not only in relation to the Ukrainian and Syrian conflicts. The infrastructure created for achieving these goals will not disappear with the end of the two conflicts. It can be used to destabilize or manipulate Czech society or the political environment at any time, if Russia wishes to do so."
Only this year, disinformation activities orchestrated by Russian authorities were covered e.g. by the UK House of Commons, by the Estonian security service KAPO, by the Lithuanian security service VSD, or by Swedish security service SÄPO, as well as by the NATO StratCom Centre of Excellence in Riga.

Nuclear weapons are complete madness

Earlier this week, President Vladimir Putin gave a rare interview to Bloomberg. Among other things, he talked about the (im)possibility of Russia using nuclear weapons. "I think all sober-minded people who really are involved in politics understand that the idea of a Russian threat to, for example, the Baltics is complete madness. (…) Yes, we’re the biggest nuclear power. But do you really think that we’re about to conquer the Baltics using nuclear weapons? What is this madness?"
This quote was quickly picked up - and compared to another statement of the Russian President from last March. Putin then said that he was prepared to use nuclear weapons in case anyone would militarily oppose the Russian illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014. CNN's report of an interview with President Putin in March 2015 reads: "Asked if Russia was prepared to bring its nuclear weapons into play, Putin said: "We were ready to do it. I talked with colleagues and told them that this (Crimea) is our historic territory, Russian people live there, they are in danger, we cannot leave them." 
Following the Bloomberg interview, Lithuanian academic and disinformation analyst Nerijus Maliukevičius turned to Facebook to provide some background reading about a Russian technique called "reflexive control", which is intended to "interfere with the decision-making process of an enemy commander" (see Timothy Thomas). 

UFOs over London

News outlet Sputnik, owned by the Russian state, "tells the untold" and brings Russian perspectives to audiences outside Russia. One of its most widely read recent articles brings us footage from London allegedly showing a UFO "mothership gliding over the city in preparation for a possible alien invasion." See for yourself.
The Disinformation Review collects examples of pro-Kremlin disinformation all around Europe and beyond. Every week, it exposes the breadth of this campaign, showing the countries and languages targeted. We're always looking for new partners to cooperate with us for that.
The Disinformation Digest analyses how pro-Kremlin media see the world and what independent Russian voices say. It follows key trends on Russian social media, so you can put pro-Kremlin narratives into their wider context. And finally… some Friday fun before the weekend!
DISCLAIMER: The Disinformation Digest is based on the analysis of the EU East StratCom Task Force; opinions and judgements expressed do not represent official EU positions.
Copyright © 09/09/2016 European External Action Service. All rights reserved.

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