TSG IntelBrief: Russian Disinformation Operations in the West
January 10, 2017

Russian Disinformation Operations in the West

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Bottom Line Up Front: 

• The assessment by the U.S. intelligence community that Russia engaged in a concerted disinformation campaign during the 2016 presidential election is only the latest of similar assessments in other Western democracies.

• Intelligence services in the UK, Sweden, and Germany have warned of Russian propaganda efforts aimed at undermining faith in democratic institutions.

• In December 2016, the head of Germany’s domestic intelligence agency warned of Russian interference in upcoming German elections.

• The interference reportedly includes ‘propaganda and disinformation, cyber-attacks, cyber-espionage and cyber-sabotage’.

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The ongoing controversy over the U.S. intelligence community’s recent assessment that Russia engaged in a systematic campaign to influence the U.S. presidential election highlights a serious issue affecting numerous Western democracies. From the UK to Sweden, intelligence officials have warned that Russia is engaged in activities designed to destabilize democratic institutions, as well as influence upcoming elections. The consequences of these disinformation and cyber-espionage efforts have the potential to be extremely significant.

The strengthening trends of dissatisfaction with globalization, fears of mass immigration, and a growing mistrust in international institutions and constructs such as the UN and the EU have already prompted shifts in electoral and societal attitudes in Western democracies. Russia appears to be attempting to tap into these trends and amplify them through incessant creation and propagation of false or misleading news stories—with notable success. According to press reports, Moscow is also engaged in an extensive online effort aimed at shaping sentiment through ‘trolls’ on Twitter and the comment boards of mainstream media outlets. 

In the unclassified version of its assessment of Russian efforts to influence the U.S. election, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) highlighted the ostensible news network RT—formally known as Russia Today—as a Russian propaganda outlet aimed at influencing Western audiences. While there is nothing new about government-sponsored propaganda outlets and campaigns—the West itself has a long history of such efforts—the scale of the current Russian campaign is unprecedented in scope and brazenness

In December 2016, the head of Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz (BfV), warned that Russia was engaging in a campaign of cyber-espionage against politicians and political candidates. The BfV framed the campaign as part of a ‘hybrid threat’ not just to Germany, but all Western democracies. In the same month, Alex Younger—head of MI6—made a rare public statement in which he warned of state-sponsored propaganda and well-funded ‘active measures’ against Western interests. While he did not mention Russia, it was widely believed that Younger was talking about the extensive efforts directed by Moscow. In July 2016, the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency (MSB) stated that Sweden was the target of a persistent disinformation campaign by Russia. The aim of the campaign was both to shape positive sentiment towards Russia, as well as negative sentiment towards Sweden, NATO, and Western institutions. 

The politicized controversy in the U.S. over Russia’s activities has become confused over semantics and the overly-broad use of the term ‘hacking’. According to the ODNI report, Russian operatives—or those acting on their orders—did indeed hack several databases and emails (though in the case of some email accounts, the tactic was ‘spear-phishing’, not an actual coding hack); the information obtained from these efforts was then used to generate endless stories of so-called ‘fake news’. Stories were then generated over the outrage arising from these reports, creating a cycle of increasingly aggressive disinformation and sentiment-shaping. Through propaganda outlets such as RT, as well as ubiquitous online trolling and retweeting, Russia effectively socially engineered electoral sentiment—though the degree to which this impacted the election is impossible to know. The successful Russian campaign in the U.S. will likely be replicated across Western Europe, as the West experiences a period of comparatively high societal instability in the midst of important elections.

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