March 15, 2019

Canadian report details extent of Russian disinformation


Canada’s prestigious non-partisan think-tank the MacDonald-Laurier Institute (MLI) has recently come out with a scathing, but comprehensive, report outlining the full extent and threat of Russian propaganda. Although it was written primarily for the benefit of a Canadian readership, its findings and recommendations are worthy of attention by the world as a whole, Americans in particular.

Titled “Stemming the Virus: Understanding and Responding to the Threat of Russian Disinformation,” the 64-page report, written by MLI Senior Fellow Marcus Kolga, a leading Canadian expert on Russian and Central and Eastern European issues, terms the Russian Federation’s cyberwarfare a virus “infecting and then replicating itself independently within Western societies.” Its objective, he notes, is to “tear apart our society and undermine our trust in our government, media institutions, and each other.” 

“Truth is a mere nuisance in today’s world of Kremlin propaganda. In the course of its conflict against Ukraine, Russian state news has boldly fabricated facts and evidence to support its positions, including fake interviews and even images. During the 2013-2014 Euro-Maidan uprisings in Ukraine, Russian television broadcast interviews with people who were secretly actors, alleging that Ukrainian ‘fascists’ had committed atrocities, including the crucifixion of a child by Ukrainian forces. In the case of the 2014 downing of a civilian aircraft, Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17, U.K. investigative collective Bellingcat discovered that Kremlin agents manufactured evidence to cover up Russian state involvement in the crime,” it states.

It also notes that “the distortion and falsification of history is a critical component of Vladimir Putin’s domestic and foreign strategy.”

The report says: “The Putin regime’s legitimacy depends on the presence of powerful enemies that, they claim, are seeking to undermine and destroy Russia; Putin is presented as the only Russian leader capable of protecting his country and its people.

“A classic Soviet tactic was to label all Western adversaries as ‘fascists,’ a propaganda tradition revived and expanded by the Putin regime. The fascist label is an extremely useful tool. Russians see it as synonymous with ‘enemy.’ When applied by the state, it requires little in the way of explanation and is simply accepted. In the West, the term has been used interchangeably with ‘Nazi’ to better inflict the greatest amount of propaganda damage. … 

“Today, the term is applied liberally to anyone who disagrees with the Putin regime. Ukraine’s Euro-Maidan uprising has been characterized as a western-supported ‘fascist’ coup (and simultaneously as a Jewish and gay conspiracy). Defending Russians against fascists was also used to justify the Kremlin’s illegal annexation of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine.”

Mr. Kolga focuses quite a bit on the 2016 U.S. presidential election, noting how Kremlin disinformation focused not only on the far-right, but also on the far-left, Green Party Candidate Jill Stein in particular. He also details Russian hacking procedures:

“In June 2017, Vladimir Putin told reporters that a child could have easily hacked the U.S. presidential campaign. We now know that he was fully aware of how his GRU agents performed the hack, and that the process was indeed remarkably uncomplicated. In essence, the Russians used some easily created online tools to trick Democratic Party and Clinton campaign officials into giving up their e-mail passwords in a process called phishing. This information was then used to access and steal e-mails from their accounts and access other systems, including analytics and voter data. E-mails were stolen and passed to Wikileaks, who released them on behalf of Kremlin agents. Stolen voter data were used to suppress votes in key battleground states, Wisconsin and Michigan.”

In terms of concrete action, Mr. Kolga recommends that the government create a dedicated office for safeguarding Canadian democracy against manipulation by disinformation, foreign intelligence active measures, cyberattacks and influence campaigns. This office, which Mr. Kolga coins as the National Center for Strategic Communications and Digital Democracy, would be responsible for five primary actions:

• Monitor, detect and identify disinformation and influence campaigns;

• Develop strategies to combat and disarm disinformation and influence campaigns;

• Increase cyber literacy and security awareness for personal, corporate and political use;

• Work with social media and other tech companies to curb the spread of disinformation, identify bots and trolls, ensure privacy is protected, etc.;

• Expand existing and develop new international partnerships with various domestic and international organizations to help carry out monitoring, detection and counter-disinformation activities.

The conclusion of the report is most perceptive and applies to the United States, just as much as it does to Canada: “As long as Vladimir Putin remains in power, so too does the menace of information warfare and the escalating danger of allowing our own democracies to spin into the venomous political dysfunction that we have seen in the U.S. and elsewhere. Canada’s response must be robust and take into account all sources and methods of how foreign information warfare and democratic interference are conducted. Most importantly, we must be prepared for a very long fight.”