Hybrid CoE researcher Jakub Kalenský has said that Disinformation is for Russia a non-military measure how to achieve military goals.
During an interview with The Geopost, Kalenský added that hundreds of Russian pseudo-journalists received medals from Vladimir Putin for “objective” coverage of the Crimean events.
“Disinformation is for Russia a non-military measure how to achieve military goals. The Russian state is making it clear that so-called journalists, pseudo-journalists are part of the Russian military, are helping Russian military goals, and I don’t think this is fully appreciated in European countries yet “, said Kalenský.
According to him, Ukraine remains the number one topic for Russian propaganda.
Kalenský adds that Russia’s influence on so-called “white propaganda” is over 1.5 billion dollars a year.
“Estimates of how much Russia is putting into this disinformation influence are somewhere around $1.5 billion a year, but we’re only talking about these so-called ‘white propaganda,’ white sources, those sources that don’t hide their attribution to Russia. But then you have sources who will tell you, we are the only independent alternative to the lying mainstream media, but they are still spreading the same Russian propaganda, they just don’t say, they don’t admit that they are funded by Russia,” he adds.
The analyst from Hybrid CoE points out that the purpose of Russian disinformation in the Balkans is to try to divide society.
“The goal of Russian disinformation will always be to try to play on the divisions in society, and unfortunately, thanks to everything that happened in this region, there are a lot of divisions to play with, ethnic divisions, religious divisions, , some of the historical grievances where almost every family has something they can grieve over of what happened in history,” he emphasizes.
In this interview, Kalenský also spoke about the media’s point of view to combat Russian propaganda and disinformation.
TheGeopost: As an expert on anti-disinformation field, what is your comment on Russian propaganda in EU in general?
I fear that the topic of Russian propaganda is still, despite everything that happened since February, I think it is still sometimes is underestimated, the scope of the problem, how big the problem is, how many people it influences. I still think we are not exactly doing enough about the problem.
Disinformation is for Russia a non-military measure how to achieve military goals. For example, 300 Russian pseudo journalists received medals from Vladimir Putin for “objective” coverage of Crimean events, meaning, for lying that there is no Russian army in Crimea, that this is no annexation, or when 60 Russian journalists received medals from the Ministry of Defense for participating in the war in Syria, not for reporting, not for journalistic, but for participating in the war.
The Russian state is making clear that the so called journalists, the pseudo journalists are part of the Russian military, they are helping Russian military goals, and I don’t think that this is still fully appreciated in European countries, currently we are talking situation where the EU has sanctioned some of the Russian propaganda outlets like “Russia Today” and “Sputnik”, certainly not all of them, many are still allowed, and still already here in some of the European countries the discussions like, maybe we should already lifted. There is still not enough understanding how dangerous these channels can be and big an influence they can get. When some of the opinion polls measure how effective Russian disinformation is, it is truly quite scary, about 30% of Slovaks believe in that the west is to blame for the war in Ukraine, not the country that mass dozens of thousands of soldiers around Ukraine, not the country that is bombing civilians, bombing maternity wards, raping children, that is somehow the west to blame for these atrocities, which is ridicules.
There was an opinion poll in Germany, and if you put together the answers “YES” and “Partly-YES”, it is again around 30% of people believing that is the west to blame. So, unfortunately Russian propaganda can still achieve significant successes, and I am afraid that the reaction is still not enough, it’s not proportional, Russians are still putting more resources into this battle than Europe is.
TheGeopost: Which EU state is more attacked from Russian propaganda and hybrid war?
The number one topic for Russian propaganda is by far Ukraine, this is really head and shoulders above the rest. When we were compiling the EU versus disinfo database, my previous team in Brussels, you could see that Ukraine is like majority of it and the number two topic would be probably the United States, so the Europe is probably somewhere in the third place.
The disinformation is always trying to be very targeted, so when you are trying to discredit the US, you are trying to discredit Barack Obama for example, or when the KGB tried to the Catholic Church, they were discrediting the Pope during World War II, Pope Pius the XII-th.
So, even when you are trying to discredit some of the western countries, they are trying to find specific figures, so what we saw when I was in Brussels with the “EU vs Disinfo”, immediately when the Barack Obama left the office and Donald Trump came, suddenly you could not use Barack Obama as a number one scape goat, so it became Angela Merkel, Angela Merkel as a symbol of the west. So, I’m not sure they were trying to target Germany as a country, I think they were rather trying to target Angela Merkel as a representative of the unified west in response towards Russian disinformation or Russian aggression in general, not just disinformation.
Currently, I’m not even sure whether some of the EU countries get more “heat” then the others, obviously Baltic countries are always very high on agenda, but it’s not that different from how they are targeting the others, so called enemies of Russia. So, I’m not really sure we could single out like one or two European countries, maybe the worst situation is for the Baltics.
TheGeopost: Does the EU institutions have capacity to do more about Russian influence in Europe?
This was, or still is one of my biggest concerns that Russians are still outspending us in this particular domain, not just with money, but also the human resources. The estimates how much Russia is putting in this disinformation influence are somewhere around 1.5 billion dollars per year, but we are talking just about these so called “white propaganda”, white sources, those sources that do not hide their attribution to Russia. But then you have sources that will tell you, we are the only independent alternative to the lying mainstream media, but they are still spreading the same Russian propaganda, they just don’t say, they don’t admit they are financed by Russia. Then you have social media trolls, the famous troll factory, so all that is not in the sum of 1.5 billion dollars, and all the work of the Embassies, all the work of secret services, so the figure is likely much, much higher. And now let’s compare it to the EU response, my team “EU vs Disinfo”, my previous team, “EU vs Disinfo”, in the first three years the budget was zero, then the budget was something like one million, so, Russia was outspending us 1,500:1. Currently the budget for the whole STRATCOM division which deals not only with Russian disinformation, but also with Chinese and other actors is something like 12 million, so still we are talking about 100/150:1, so, Russia is still heavily outspending us. They are not beating us with having a better message, their message is not more attractive, they are not beating us because they would be so sophisticated about delivering the message, it is just sheer numbers, it is the brute force, it is the old Stalinist approach, quantity is the quality of its own, that’s it.
So, I do not want to say that the EU is not doing anything, the EU is doing a lot, the trouble is that many of the initiatives are simply not big enough, they don’t have enough people, they don’t have enough money. I think it’s like we are going in the right direction, we are just not moving fast enough, and Russia is still moving much, much faster, so we still have to do some catching up, so I think we are in the right track, we just need to really speed up, I’m afraid that we are little bit slow.
TheGeopost: Do you have any information about Russian influence and propaganda in Balkans?
Let me just state very clearly that unfortunately I’m not an expert on the region, however I read about it. Let’s start with general aim of Russian propaganda. it’s this constant weakening of the enemy, whatever they perceive as the enemy, so that might be the west in general, that might be the EU, NATO, it might be the United States, United Kingdom, but it also might some of the countries in the region that they perceive as “too” pro-western and not pro-Russian enough. So, I can imagine a lot of the “heat” is consumed by Montenegro, because they are NATO member, I can imagine a lot of the “heat” will be targeted at Slovenia or Croatia because they are in NATO and I presume a lot of it will be targeted at Kosovo, because they are perceived as probably the biggest enemy of Serbia.
The aim of Russian disinformation will always be to try and play out the divisions in the society, and unfortunately, thanks to everything that happened in this region, there are many divisions you could be playing into, the ethnic divisions, the religious divisions, some of the historical grievances where almost every family has something they can grieve over of what happened in history. So, unfortunately, there are like many aspects that Russia can target, significantly more than in countries that have lived in peace and prosperity in the past 7 decades. These societies will be in the information domain, they will be more resilient, whereas the societies that these traumas, they will be unfortunately less resilient and it is unfortunately a bit easier for Russians to play into these grievances. What I also think is that Russia definitely has cultivated more local actors, local agents that will be helping them with their disinformation campaigns. This is something that Russia is trying to do in every country, but whereas, for example in Finland, they will probably not be as successful, or in Estonia they will probably not be as successful, I’m a bit afraid they might be more successful here in the Balkans. It will probably have to do with the ethnic socio-economic divisions in the society.
TheGeopost: What is your message for media and journalists for disinformation and Russian propaganda?
Just a few months ago, I published this report on countering disinformation, what needs to be done in order to effectively counter disinformation campaigns, and I came up with this concept of four lines of defense that we need to be better at documenting what is happening in the information space, we need to be better at repairing the weaknesses in the information space, raising awareness about disinformation campaigns and finally in limiting, punishing and deterring of the information aggressors. If I take it from the point of view of the media, the media can help documenting what is happening in the information space, how many disinformation channels are there, what are the messages they are spreading. You can also try and document how many people they persuade, this is a very interesting question, and sometimes when you start looking into the answers, it can be quite surprising. In Ukraine a brilliant NGO “Detector Media”, they did this opinion poll back in 2017, three years after the annexation of the Crimea, started with the question; Do you trust Russian media? Three years after the invasion you would have 99% of the Ukrainians telling you, No, we don’t! But, then they started measuring whether people believe in the messages that are being spread by the Russian media, for example that Maidan revolution was an illegal “coup d’état”, and suddenly you would have 1/3 of the population believing in this narrative. It’s little bit like people telling you that we don’t read tabloids, but then everybody knows what’s in the tabloids, it’s a little bit similar mechanism.
So, measuring how many people believe in what disinformation’s narratives, this gives you a very important information about how big trouble are you facing, then the raising awareness, again, very crucial the media can really help here explaining to the audiences, what is disinformation, what is it look like, what is it trying to achieve and who is helping it, who are the local facilitators of the disinformation campaigns, that is important, then repairing some of the weaknesses, unfortunately what we have seen even in some of western media is that despite everything that happened, you would still see some of the western media portraying Russian version of events as somehow equal to what the Ukrainians are saying, so this “he says, she says journalism”, Ukrainians say this, Russians say this and you the reader decide what is true, which is horrible in my opinion. If you present the Russian version of the events and you don’t remind the reader that these are the people who lied about annexation of Crimea, they lied about shooting down MH17, they lied about poisoning Skripal and Navalny, they lied about state sponsored doping, they lied about the massacre of Bucha. If you don’t remind the reader about that, you are misleading the reader, that is a bad job. You really have to remind the reader abot the credibility, or the lack of, of these particular speakers, so I think the media could still be doing little bit better job.
When it comes to the final line of defense, this limiting, punishing and deterring, it’s probably not that much up to the media, I think this is mainly up to authorities to come up with the sanctions against the disinformers, for example to try and limit the influx of money, for example the western media would stop financing the anti-western propaganda and Russian channels, so this is probably not up to media, but maybe one element the media can at least name and shame those who are spreading Russian disinformation for the local audiences, and this is something that is probably better done by media and civil society rather than the government. When the government does that, it looks like a “witch hunt” against political opponents or something, but here the media and the civil society have probably a bit free hands. I think this is something where the media could help as well./TheGeopost/