New Disinformation Digest from the East StratCom Task Force
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Information warfare uncovered

The annexation of Crimea and related Russian activities were described by NATO's military commander Philip Breedlove as "the most amazing information warfare blitzkrieg we have ever seen in the history of information warfare." Russian authorities including Vladimir Putin were denying any Russian interference in the matters of Ukraine for a long time, only to recently admit that there was quite some influence from the Russian side, including military support for "separatists" fighting against the Kyiv government.
At the end of August, the Ukrainian authorities published further evidence of the Kremlin's actions in Ukraine in 2014. The Prosecutor General's Office has published audio tapes of telephone conversations with top Kremlin advisor Sergei Glazyev, where the latter is heard organizing the illegitimate "referendum" in Crimea, or unrest in Donetsk, Odessa and Kharkiv as a pretext for Russian military intervention. As independent Russian media Meduza summarized, according to Kyiv the recordings prove that the Kremlin is guilty of “encroaching on the territorial integrity of Ukraine and unleashing a war of aggression”. The recordings are available with English subtitles here:
Mr Glazyev responded to the accusations of the Ukrainian Prosecutor General in a manner that reminds the well-known tactic of "whataboutism". He did not respond to any of the claims, but accused the Ukrainian government of illegitimacy and of supporting fascism.
"We always suspected - and even assumed - that the hand of Moscow was behind the unrest in eastern Ukraine and that it hoped to seize what the Kremlin called Novorossiya. But it is one thing to suspect and assume this, and another entirely to hear a top Kremlin aide orchestrating the details to proxies on the ground," reporter Brian Whitmore from Radio Free Europe commented.
(Image: Presidential adviser Sergey Glazyev,

Being prepared

Ahead of the parliamentary elections in Russia on 18 September, Kremlin-loyal media have sharpened their tone. Not only the opposition is targeted, but also neutral election observers from the Russian civil society.

Last Friday, Kremlin-loyal TV station NTV aired a “documentary” entitled “The Secret of Golos”, aimed at discrediting the internationally acknowledged independent election observing NGO “Golos”. In the broadcast, a young man from Golos plays the role of a whistle blower, telling how Golos is allegedly financed from abroad and instructed by its foreign masters to undermine the Russian government’s legitimacy. 
In a statement published immediately after the broadcast, Golos said that while the "whistle blower" interviewee had indeed been involved in the NGO’s work, he had been blackmailed and used as a "hostage" to make false claims because of a pending criminal case, unrelated to his work. Golos also claimed that the “documentary” presented material that could only have been obtained from Russia’s secret services.
The special “documentary" genre, where Russian state-owned or Kremlin-loyal TV stations produce systematic discreditation of those who question the government, had its first major success in 2012 with NTV’s "documentary" series “Anatomy of Protest” which used disinformation and undercover techniques to discredit the leaders of the 2011-2012 protests in Moscow. Since then, the genre has been picked up by other Russian national TVs, most importantly by government-owned “Rossiya-24”. It is difficult not to see NTV's latest production as an expression of the Russian government’s need to protect itself from criticism of the elections - even before the elections will take place. (Image: NTV on YouTube)

More clicks, please

There is nothing more embarrassing for a news agency than having to recall a story which has already been published. Last Thursday, this happened to Interfax when the agency was forced to publish this message:
Please cancel message with keywords US - TRUMP - RUSSIA PARALYMPICS and headline “Trump condemns decision not to admit Russia to Paralympic Games in Rio”, appearing on the wire at 18:50:40 Moscow time as released by mistake. We apologize to subscribers.
By the time Interfax published the cancellation, however, the story had been picked up by almost all major Russian media. Alexey Kovalev, author of the Noodleremover blog that investigates disinformation stories, has looked into the question how this fake story found its way to Interfax’s wire. Kovalev discovered that the story came from a marginal website,

He also found that many of Russia’s leading media had not removed the news story after Interfax’s cancellation. Among those were the state media whose website, a week later, still features the story on Trump’s supposed support of the Russian athletes. Also the Russian government’s online outlet still runs the news, however, with an updated headline: “Trump’s criticism of Paralympic Committee could be fantasy”.
On Thursday, still featured the original story despite the cancellation by Interfax.
The fact that media still keep the cancelled story alive underlines the tie that exists between the propaganda value in spreading disinformation stories and the media’s own interest in “clickbait”. A story that mixes a controversial US presidential candidate with wounded Russian national pride and the sensitive topic of Paralympic athletes, is bound to attract the clicks that online media live off.

Interestingly, Interfax was also criticized this week for two questionable news stories from Syria. On Monday, the US special envoy for Syria, Michael Ratney, said in a statement that “there is no truth to the Interfax reports about a Russia-US agreement to target fighters in Aleppo or to evacuate fighters from the city”. On Wednesday, an Interfax report claiming that Russian forces had killed IS leader Adnani in an air strike was called into question, again by the US State Department (see the full story on BBC). In both cases, Interfax supported the Russian government’s narrative that the country’s efforts in Syria are successful and that this success is internationally acknowledged, even by the super power whose failed foreign policy, according to the Russian narrative, is responsible for the war in Syria.

Scaring Assad

There are those who say that Russia supports Donald Trump's candidacy in the US presidential elections. Is there any truth to this? The Digest looked for evidence in Russian state media, in this instance the Twitter feed of Sputnik, Russia's state-funded outlet for international audiences. Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton do indeed fare very differently in the messages posted to Sputnik's 143.000-strong Twitter audience.

In the last four weeks, tweets about Hillary Clinton are sometimes neutral, but mainly negative. The controversy about her emails and questions about her campaign finances figure very prominently as well as her "secret illness". At the same time, the images and GIFs used for her are unflattering and in particular, the only tweet speculating about her likely winning the elections comes with an unflattering GIF using footage from 1996. Personal attacks are also included: A tweet quotes a former advisor alleging Mrs Clinton is "beholden to scumbags" and another one suggests to "use a picture of @HillaryClinton to scare Assad".
Recent Sputnik tweets referring to Donald Trump, on the other hand, spread optimism about his candidacy: Mr Trump is "doing better than polls suggest", Sputnik posts while another tweet debunks "myths that Donald Trump has no chance" of winning. Several recent tweets also announce that he "surges ahead of Hillary in the polls" and suggest that US media deliberately hide this fact. Media bias also serves to explain Mr Trump's lagging behind in the polls: On 14 August, Sputnik highlights that he could beat Mrs Clinton by a 20% margin "in proper coverage conditions". On 9 August, a commentator likens the "fierce media crossfire" for Donald Trump to a "political assassination". Tweets about Mr Trump also contain accusations of racism and antisemitism against his staffers, but in the period analysed, the only negative message about Mr Trump concerns the debts of his companies.
On the candidates' attitudes towards Russia, Sputnik quotes how Donald Trump calls Russia a "natural ally" and says Hillary wants "something worse than the cold war". At the same time, Clinton is accused of blaming "Putin, Russia for everything bad, ever" and conducting a campaign of "anti-Russia hysteria".
Sputnik also has a view on the question which outside powers support presidential candidates. On 23 August, it asks rhetorically: "If @realDonaldTrump is 'Russia's candidate', is @HillaryClinton the #Saudis' pick?".

I'm the one who loves him most caricatures the Russian parliamentary elections. The leaders of the three opposition parties in the State Duma are pictured: Vladimir Zhirinovsky, leader of the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party says: "I'm the one who loves Putin most." Leader of the Communist Party, Gennady Zyuganov, responds: "No, I'm the one who loves him most." Sergey Mironov, who heads the "A Just Russia" faction in the Russian Parliament, insists: "No, that's me! He is my favourite president and I said it first."
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 © 02/09/2016 European External Action Service. All rights reserved.

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