Most Western discussions about countering Russian disinformation have focused exclusively on unmasking the ever-growing number of lies and other forms of obfuscation Russian government propagandists and their surrogates are putting out and identifying the chief sources of such duplicity.
But it is important to recognize and then think about how to counter not just these lies and the propensity of some journalists to report them in their confusion of “balance” with “objectivity” but also to combat these other measures lest the Kremlin pick up new victories in this area even as it is losing elsewhere.
The past week highlighted three of these Moscow measures that go beyond mere lying but that must be countered: plans by the Russian government to create “a human rights group” for the post-Soviet states; undermining or purging those in international organizations that challenge Moscow; and discussions about creating a Russian version of Wikipedia.
Because each of these involves issues other than just lying to the world and to the Russian people, it is important to view all of them in the context of the Kremlin’s disinformation effort, its calculated tactic of sowing confusion and undermining the belief that there is such a thing as objective truth.
The first of these projects is a “Eurasian Human Rights Group,” which its organizers say will be “styled” on groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. The group intends to seek accreditation from the United Nations and other international bodies, and will provide an “objective” picture of human rights in the post-Soviet states (izvestia.ru/news/629573 and themoscowtimes.com/news/russia-to-found-human-rights-group-for-post-soviet-countries-55172).
Given that Moscow doesn’t like and often disputes the findings of these other groups – see for example its handling of one last week on Chechnya (kavkaz-uzel.eu/articles/288551/) – it should be obvious that the Russian government will ensure that its agency reports what the Kremlin wants regardless of its accuracy.
That may please some of the thuggish regimes in Russia’s neighborhood and thuggish rulers in various parts of the Russian Federation as well, but it constitutes a clear and present danger to other rights groups, who may find it even more difficult to work there and whose findings will now be subject to yet another kind of Russian-organized dissent.
The second concerns Moscow’s efforts to purge from international organizations anyone who contradicts what the Kremlin believes to be the case. The Helsinki-based newspaper Hufyudstadsbladet reported on August 30 that Russian objections to Astrid Thors has prompted her not to seek another term as the high commissioner for national minorities at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
Although she had unanimous support when she was elected, Ms. Thors ran afoul of the Russians when she issued a statement in 2014 that she disputed Russian contentions that ethnic Russians had been victimized in Crimea earlier (yle.fi/uutiset/daily_russia_blocks_re-appointment_of_finn_as_osce_minorities_high_commissioner/9131135).
Ms. Thors had been widely expected to run again and has the support of many delegations. Russia’s intervention in this case is clearly intended to send a signal to others via a form of disinformation that is harder but perhaps even more important to combat.
And the third, as Igor Yakovenko points out in Yezhednevny Zhurnal, involves Moscow’s “opening of a new front in the information war – one involving an encyclopedia” that is intended to replace Wikipedia with a Russian-specific electronic collection of articles on a wide variety of subjects reflecting Moscow’s viewpoint (ej.ru/?a=note&id=30115).
What makes this new effort especially worrisome, he suggests, is that the quality of those compiling it is far lower than was the case with the Bolshaya Sovietskaya Entsiklopedia (Great Soviet Encyclopedia), an indication of how political it will be, and that the existence of such an online publication may become the occasion for the Russian government to block access to Wikipedia in Russia.
The new online encyclopedia will have one advantage over the “Bolshaya” is that it will be far easier for those who responsible for it to cope with the rise of new “unpersons.” They won’t have to send out articles about the Bering Straits to replace those about Lavrentiy Beria. They’ll only have to paste electronic versions of new “correct” entries, deleting the “incorrect” ones as they do.
Paul Goble is a long-time specialist on ethnic and religious questions in Eurasia who has served in various capacities in the U.S. State Department, the Central Intelligence Agency and the International Broadcasting Bureau, as well as at the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The article above is reprinted with permission from his blog called “Window on Eurasia” (http://windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/).