Tag Archives: disinformation

A special report by the EEAS on Coronavirus Disinformation offers a thorough analysis of tactics, strategies and vectors of effort by  Kremlin-controlled media on the issue of Coronavirus. During the past three months, the agency has documented over 110 instances of disinformation (i.e. excluding reposts and secondary materials citing them). Such a significant volume suggests that the Kremlin has a strategy and a plan on how to use the pandemic to advance its political agenda in Europe.

How is this strategy manifested and executed in Germany? And who are the prime targets for the Kremlin-controlled media in Germany?

In Germany, there are in essence two main target audiences – the German-speakers and the Russian-speakers. A great volume of German-language materials is generated by outfits such as RT Deutschland и Sputnik DE. Their level of activity is so massive (for RT Deutschland, for example, – up to 10 new videos per day and for Sputnik DE up to 30 published stories per day) that the German law enforcement now has several formal efforts dedicated to addressing their challenge. In March 24, 2020, the Federal Criminal Police and the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution announced the start of programs to monitor fake news materials “whose spread may pose a threat to the societal order and security.”

Organic audiences (in German Top-100 in social nets) cultivated by RT and Sputnik as part of Russian campaigns to interfere in the EU in 2019 and German Parliamentary elections in 2017, today are used to spread the coronavirus disinformation throughout the German society. For the most part, they are people with far-right political orientations, those who support populist leaders, harbor anti-American sentiments and embrace conspiracy theories of various sorts.  Many of them have voted for the AfD party. This is not surprising, given that RT served as a de-facto party channel during the 2017 Bundestag elections campaign – it provided AfD candidates unrestricted publicity with an opportunity to discuss any issue, while completely ignoring all other parties and candidates.

Germany’s Russian-speaking community, of course, is also an important audience for the Kremlin propaganda outlets.  According to various statistics, Germany is home to between 3-5 mln Russian-speakers:

– About 3 mln arrived through the repatriation programs for Soviet Germans;
– About 300,000— are refugees of Jewish ethnic origins;
– About 300,000 ethnic Ukrainians;
– According to the official information published by the Russian Embassy in Germany — 500,000 remain citizens of the Russian Federation;
– Additionally, citizens from various former Soviet republics such as Moldova, Latvia, etc.

This amounts to a sizeable audience for whom Russian is the primary language used at home, as well as the main language for receiving important information and the news.

In addition to the Russian-language media outlets, the Kremlin aggressively employs social media platforms to shape opinion among the Russian-speaking audience in Germany. The Russian Odnoklassniki (translates as “classmates”) has at least 2.6 mln accounts based from Germany;  an online group “Russian Germans for AfD” has over 20,000 members; and the pro-AfD and pro-Putin group “Russian Germany” has more than 60,000 members.

Four narratives dominate within the continuous barrage of coronavirus-related disinformation and manipulation advanced by the Kremlin-controlled media in Germany:

1. Lack of unity in Europe and the absence of collective support and plan dealing with the coronavirus among the EU states.

In a weekly program Vesti Nedeli (which has about 5.7 mln viewers) broadcast by Russia’s First Channel on March 22, 2020, Dmitry Kiselev is speculating on the geostrategic ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic: 

“The Schengen Area regime was the first one to collapse.  Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Poland and Lithuania have reinstated control of their national borders. That means that the Schengen Area with the freedom of movement between its 26 members states no longer exists. Those are just the first few steps in the direction of giving up the spoils of civilization in favor of reinstating sovereign nation-states. In fact, this is the crash of the European Idea and transition to a new political culture with a different value system.

All the lip-service to solidarity, collective assistance, shared values, human rights and humanism, has gone with the wind the moment when Italy, who lost more people to coronavirus than China, asked the EU for help, and was rebuffed. Italy requested personal protection items and medical equipment, specifically lung ventilators. In response, Germany and France curbed their exports of medical masks.”

One would be hard-pressed to find “analysis” with a comparable concentration of lies.  Firstly, the Schengen agreements include clauses governing possible limitations and temporary moratoriums on travel, as well as governing the travel of non-EU citizens. Secondly, the European Commission urgently appropriated 50 million euros to help Italy.  Finally, France and Germany limited their national exports of medical masks due to their domestic deficits.

Similar materials and reports surfaced on the German-language Sputnik DE on March 19, 2020 and RT Deutschland on March 30, 2020. Some outlets have gone further and proclaimed the end of the European Union.

Alexander Nosovich commented in his March 13, 2020 editorial published by RuBaltic.Ru: “The Coronavirus response has demonstrated that the European Union does not exist in the minds of Europeans. When it is time to act, the Union ceases to exists as a political reality.”

VestiFM (ВестиFM) went even further and in all seriousness discussed the inevitable exit of Italy and Germany from the EU.

The nexus between the German right populists politicians and the Russian medical envoy to Italy deserve a special mention, as it played a key role in Putin’s decision to do so.

Turns out, the impetus was the March 20, 2020 letter penned by the Bundestag AfD member Ulrich Oehme (infamous for his pro-Russian stance and his travel to the occupied Crimea) and his Italian colleague, ultra-right populist from the Lega Nord party Paolo Grimoldi (who founded a “Friends of Putin” Caucus in the Italian Parliament) addressed to Roman Babayan (a Moscow City Duma Deputy and an anchorman of the NTV show “Your Own Truth”) and to Leonid Slutskiy (Chair of the Duma Foreign Affairs Committee, PACE delegate, member of the Russian right-wing Liberal-Democratic Partyparty, and named on the international list of sanctions adopted by the US, EU and Canada for his official legislative role in the Russian annexation of Crimea).

Babayan read the letter during a live broadcast of his show, which received wide coverage throughout the Russian media. For the Russian audience, a spectacle was played out where a teary plea from the Europeans was met with an immediate and gracious response from Russia.  It’s important to acknowledge that this narrative may be aimed more at the Russian domestic audience, as opposed to the Russian diaspora in Europe, though it permeates both.

2. Germany moves to rescind sanctions against Russia due to the pandemic.

Calls by three marginal Bundestag Members – Robby Schlund, AfD (who became famous for his effort to open an AfD office in Russia), Anton Friesen, AfD, and Alexander Noy, Left – are presented by the Kremlin media as the onset of a serious discussion to end sanctions against Russia. It has been peddled most actively by RIA News and Izvestia (and then reprinted by dozens of less prominent outlets such as regnum.ru, Rossiyskaya Gazeta, gazeta.ru and among the German-language outlets, such as  Sputnik, RT and Junge Welt who also touted that the tiny German Communist Party called to end sanctions against Cuba, Venezuela and Russia. It is important to clarify that such statements and calls are made by individual members of the Bundestag and fractions several times a day and do not amount to a formal legislative discussion or movement.

Against this backdrop, a significant reactivation of the Nord Stream 2 lobbying efforts have taken place. The pretext of this campaign was the publication of survey results prepared by Forsa, a leading German market research and opinion poll agency, and dealing with German attitudes on energy policy issues. Rossiyskaya Gazeta, whose editorial focus usually echoes the sentiments inside the Kremlin, immediately reported on the study: “Against the difficult economic situation related to coronavirus, the support for construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline has grown. Three quarters of respondents (77%) support the most expedient completion of the Russian-European project, despite the limitations announced by the United States.”

In Germany itself, however, this information has been ignored by prime outlets and only featured only by marginal portals covering economic beats (such as finanzen.net.)

3. German lack of preparedness for the Coronavirus pandemic and shortage of doctors.

One would assume that the Kremlin propaganda machine would not waste time on spreading lies that are easily factchecked and quickly dismissed as disinformation. Nevertheless, an entire program on Vesti FM on February 29, 2020, did exactly that. Other peddled themes include the so-called “negative pandemic scenario” projecting that 50 million Germans will inevitably become infected and 1 million will die, which at this point is a mere hypothesis. Some Russian outlets such as Nezavisimaya Gazeta engage in despicable speculation on the circumstances of the suicide of a German state minister with headlines such as “The German Hysteria”.  Again, here, it is the Russian domestic audience that may have been the primary target, though the Russian-language audiences in Europe have been also been affected.

While most Kremlin-controlled media outlets have advanced the narrative of the German panic, Alexander Rahr, the darling of the Russian propaganda and an expert on all possible issues, offered an extensive commentary: “ It is improper to say that one does not feel the panic here.”

4. Refugees and Quarantine.

Russian disinformation outlets have been pushing a narrative that refugees in Europe violate quarantine.  Komsomolskaya Pravda has hired an AfD activist  Eugen Schmidt who has churned out several reports supporting this theme. Such narratives target Russian audiences with anti-migrant and racists views.

An anti-migrant publication germania.one is also advancing a similar line. On the other hand, Sputnik DE is vocal in its criticism of the failure of the German government to sustain safety and enforce quarantine measures inside refugee camps and asylum-seekers’ housing.

What are some of the preliminary conclusions and observations that could be made from the review of the fake, half-truth and misleading materials?

It is clear that the Kremlin-controlled outlets seek to sow uncertainty, fear of the future and distrust among the German population toward its government. At the same time, materials aired and published frequently contradict each other.  RT Deutschland, for example, is criticizing the German government for harsh restrictions, while Sputnik DE is criticizing it for lack of preparedness and inability to enforce quarantine. However, this is precisely the mechanism used by the Kremlin to execute its strategy of sowing uncertainty and even panic. Once the environment is right, it aims to push for the removal of sanctions under the pretext of helping the German economy recover. To shift attention away from its own fake news, RT Deutschland is claiming  that prominent Western outlets such as Tagesspiegel , FAZ, AFP  и DW  are spreading fake news against RT Deutschland.

Despite all of these efforts by the Kremlin-controlled media, the rating of the ruling coalition continues to grow, and the majority of Germans approve of measures taken by state and federal governments. According to a recent poll conducted by ARD-Deutschlandtrend (02.04.2020), 72% are satisfied with the crisis management measures adopted by the government in response to coronavirus pandemic. Likewise, the support is strong for the overall performance of the ruling coalition of parties (government): 63% are satisfied with its work (which is a 28% from a similar poll 02.03.2020)

Free Russia Foundation recently hosted Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan, two investigative journalists from Russia who specialize in security services and internet surveillance, and sat down to talk about control over the internet in Russia, and whether independent media and civil society can prosper in an environment of growing censorship.


You have written a book about electronic surveillance in Soviet times and in modern Russia, and during the internet era. How widespread is government surveillance of the public today?

Andrei: Surveillance carried out by the Russian security services has not ever been intended for monitoring the entire population. The idea of using surveillance, the very fact of its existence, is to intimidate the public. Surveillance is only employed on people who the Kremlin perceives as dangerous – political activists, journalists, experts, people who express an independent opinion. These people may indeed be under surveillance and materials intercepted by the security services can then be used as kompromat. We’ve seen this in the case of Boris Nemtsov, Alexei Navalny and many others. But the very fact that they are being watched becomes public and later people who have no connection to the opposition or political movements will feel limited in expressing their opinion, including on the internet. As in the old days over the phone, now people are afraid to express their opinions online.

Irina: We can say that, in technical terms, the Russian security services have fallen behind, relatively speaking, compared with their American counterparts, for example. They do not have the technical capability to intercept everyone simultaneously and store this data. But since the Russian security services are not bound by oversight, the possibilities of using intercepted information for their own purposes, including that which is obtained illegally, are unlimited. Therefore, people know that if they are under surveillance – their communications are being intercepted and they are being watched – it means that some kind of repression will follow. It’s not like how the NSA gathers information on you and puts the data on hold until they might need it. In Russia, if you’re in the sights of the security services, it is very bad.

So, the SORM system* is not pervasive?

Andrei: No, we don’t have mass surveillance.

Irina: Although, they would love to have it.

Andrei: They are currently trying to create it, for example by forcing all Internet providers and operators to store data so that security services can have access to it. But there are problems with that since the country is so large that data is not stored in one place, but in different regions. It is not technically possible to analyze the whole country’s data at the same time. Therefore, they rely on targeted surveillance of people identified as potential troublemakers. But it does not work in reverse order, like how American intelligence agencies can analyze data and identify people who speak on a particular topic and then create a circle of suspects.

The Russian authorities have been successful in suppressing independent media, including through online censorship. Strict regulation of bloggers has been introduced, and the regulator Roskomnadzor can close down any online platforms on the basis of extremism and so on. But at the same time there are websites like Meduza, Alexei Navalny’s website, YouTube channel and social media available. The authorities have not been very successfully in blocking the messenger service Telegram. How do you see the Kremlin’s struggle to establish censorship of independent media and the readers’ efforts to bypass it?

Andrei: The Kremlin is bad enough in inventing ways to restrict access to information. But in general it’s very difficult to close access to opposition resources by technical means – readers can use VPN, proxies and still get access to what they want to read or see. The problem lies in the fact that for the majority of people – who do not actively seek out alternative information – the Kremlin creates technical difficulties around accessing that information. A good example of this is what happened to Telegram. People who really want to use Telegram use VPN. But a large number of people who used Telegram, but were not motivated to make a special effort to keep using it, they have left Telegram. According to some findings, up to 70% of the Telegram audience left after the service was officially restricted.

Irina: The internet is too big a challenge for the Kremlin, because it is not traditional media, where you can simply control the media owner or repress the editor in chief. This cannot be done with the internet because it is an environment where information is shared instantly and it is very difficult to control. If something happens, some kind of crisis, and people begin to share information, then it is difficult to control 1,000 users at once; it is almost impossible. The tragic college shooting in Kerch is an example of this. At first, the authorities as always began to promote a narrative that a gas explosion had occurred and that was the cause of the deaths. But the authorities did not even have time to react, as videos from the scene began to appear and it quickly became clear there was no gas explosion. The Kremlin could not stop the flow of information. This gives reason for optimism.

But if we talk about the ability of independent media to operate online, to what extent is it possible? The majority of independent initiatives seem to be based abroad.

Andrei: It’s not just that. The fact is that if you want to establish an independent media platform, you must have independent sources of funding. We now have an increase in investigative journalism. We see a lot of projects, small projects, that do very important work and they really do great investigations on very important topics. But their audiences are very small, or if they are large and considered a threat to the Kremlin, advertisers will not go to them. If you do not receive advertising revenue, what is your alternative? Subscriptions? Subscribing involves identifying users and people fear that they can be identified via the surveillance system and it can be used against them. Therefore, the problem here is not technical; it lies outside the internet. We simply cannot find a business model that would allow us to create truly independent media. So far, we Russian journalists have learned to create media outlets that provide an alternative point of view, but we have not invented models for truly independent media.

What is your prediction about whether civil society will gain strength or somehow change the situation in Russia, particularly in the context of the internet?

Irina: Russian civil society, unlike political parties, is strengthening every day. In addition to the huge number of people participating in the Navalny movement – which is not yet a political party but rather a broad movement of resistance to the Kremlin and the current government – there are a lot of volunteer movements. We have not seen volunteer movements in Russia before; this is new and the movements are coordinated via the internet. There are people helping in many areas, like organizations that help prisoners, women in trouble, disabled people, and so on. All this is civil society activity and if they didn’t have the opportunity to coordinate through the internet, there would be nothing at all. The Kremlin does not like this civic activity, but it cannot do much because it is made up of masses of people. It’s not hundreds or thousands anymore – it’s already in the tens of thousands of people.

Andrei: One of the ways the Kremlin can control the situation is to convince people that they should not engage in political and social activities. The Kremlin has always created the perception that if you have problems with the state, then you will be absolutely alone. There will be a huge Leviathan state that will simply crush you. And that indeed was the case for many years in Russia. If you were an ordinary activist – not a famous journalist or writer – and you had problems with the state, then the state would most likely crush you. What is changing now – and this is thanks to the internet – is that civil society has removed this stigma from so many topics and has created a sense of support. If a person now finds himself or herself in a difficult situation, for example by being detained by the police, there are organizations like OVD-info and dozens of others that will help you. If a person goes to prison – it is no longer as scary as it was 10 years ago because the person will not be left on their own. Even if a person does not have money for a good lawyer, there are already organizations that will find one and help him. And this is something new. It removes the stigma from so many topics, it’s not so scary anymore. It’s still scary, but not so terrible and not so final. And it does not necessarily give confidence in the future, but at least some kind of hope.

Irina: Internet spreads hope.

So despite targeted surveillance as well as self-censorship, the Russian authorities still cannot control the internet as they would like to and that gives hope for some change in terms of strengthening civil society.

Andrei: Yes, the changes are already underway.
Irina: Absolutely.
Andrei: As Irina said, civil society is growing and this cannot be stopped.
Irina: If it were a totalitarian regime, they could stop it. But an authoritarian one cannot. The regime in Russia, thank God, is not totalitarian.

*SORM – Soviet and Russian electronic surveillance system (Sistema Operativno-Rozysknikh Meropriyatiy, or System of Operative Search Measures). Russian legislation requires all of Russia’s internet service and phone providers to install a device in their lines, a black box that connects the lines to the Federal Security Services, the FSB. The FSB is then able to intercept and store communication and data.