By DAVID KLEPPER – Associated Press
The Russian TikTok video has it all: a cat, puppies and a throbbing background beat. It’s cute, worth seeing, and hardly seems the stuff of government propaganda.
In 2014, Russia flooded the internet with fake accounts spreading disinformation about its takeover of Crimea. Eight years later, experts say Russia is making far more sophisticated efforts than invading Ukraine.
Armies of trolls and bots are fueling anti-Ukrainian sentiment. State-controlled media are trying to divide Western audiences. Clever TikTok videos serve up Russian nationalism with a dash of humor.
The effort amounts to an emerging part of the Russian war arsenal with opinion-forming through orchestrated disinformation battles alongside actual troops and weapons.
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In the cat video, a husky pup, identified by a digitally inserted US flag, swipes at the tail of a tabby, identified by a Russian flag. The cat responds with a wild jab that chases the hapless dog away. The clip, which has been viewed 775,000 times in two weeks, is the work of an account called Funrussianprezident, which has 310,000 followers. Almost all videos contain pro-Russian content.
“It could just be a patriotic Russian fighting the good fight from their point of view, or it could easily be something directly connected to the state,” said Nina Jankowicz, a disinformation researcher and expert on Eastern Europe at the Wilson Center in Washington. “Russia has perfected this tactic.”
Now bring them into play.
Analysts from several different research organizations contacted by The Associated Press said they are seeing a sharp increase in online activity by groups linked to the Russian state. That is consistent with Russia’s strategy of using social media and state channels to bolster domestic support while attempting to destabilize the Western alliance.
According to a report by Cyabra, an Israeli tech company working to uncover disinformation, there has been a rapid rise in suspicious accounts spreading anti-Ukrainian content online.
Cyabra analysts tracked thousands of Facebook and Twitter accounts that had recently posted about Ukraine. Researchers saw a sudden and dramatic increase in anti-Ukrainian content in the days immediately leading up to the invasion. For example, on Valentine’s Day, the number of anti-Ukrainian posts made by the sample of Twitter accounts increased by 11,000% compared to the previous days. Analysts believe a significant portion of the accounts are not authentic and are controlled by groups linked to the Russian government.
“When you see an 11,000% increase, you know something is happening,” said Dan Brahmy, CEO of Cyabra. “No one can know who is doing this behind the scenes. We can only guess.”
The work has been in progress for some time.
Researchers at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab analyzed 3,000 articles from 10 state-run Russian news outlets and found a large spike in unsubstantiated claims that Ukraine was poised to attack separatist groups. Overall, Russian media claims about Ukrainian aggression increased by 50% in January, according to the study.
“So they go to war; it’s a core part of Russian doctrine,” said Jim Ludes, a former US defense analyst who now directs the Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy at Salve Regina University. Ludes said Russian disinformation campaigns are designed to shake up Russian support while confusing and dividing the country’s opponents.
Russia tailors its propaganda message to specific audiences.
For Russians and pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine, the message is that Russia is trying to defend its own people against Western-fueled aggression and persecution in Ukraine. Similar tactics were used, including by Nazi Germany when it invaded Czechoslovakia under the guise of protecting ethnic Germans living there, Ludes noted.
“It’s not good guys who use that tactic,” said Ludes. “It is the language of conquest, not the language of democracy.”
In the west, Russia is trying to sow division and reduce the chances of a unified international response. This is done in part by a number of state-controlled outlets such as Sputnik and RT, which publish in English, Spanish and several other languages.
“The invasion is over,” read a headline in RT last week, just days before Russian troops moved into eastern Ukraine. “Tucker Carlson slams Biden for focusing on Putin, Ukraine, rather than US domestic issues,” reads another in Sputnik News, reflecting a common Russian practice: critics of the US government (like Fox News- Moderator Carlson) to indicate America’s leaders are out to touch.
Russia also used cyberattacks in its invasion of Ukraine, and while they pose a serious threat, online propaganda can do even more lasting damage if successful, according to retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Nagata, a former director of strategic operational planning at the US National Counterterrorism Center.
“What is far more dangerous is Russia’s ability to influence what people everywhere believe,” Nagata said. “Getting them to believe things useful to Russia’s strategic interests… If you’re able to change what an entire population believes, you might not have to attack anything.”
The European Union expressed concern about RT on Wednesday when it included RT’s editor-in-chief in a list of sanctions against Russian officials. The EU called RT chair Margarita Simonyan “a central figure in government propaganda”.
On Saturday, Facebook announced it would ban RT from showing ads on its site and said it would expand the use of labels to identify state-run media.
Ludes said he was pleased to see the US and its allies vigorously pushing back Russian disinformation, even trying to forestall it by publicly announcing Russia’s plans.
“The Biden administration has shown some creativity in using intelligence to respond,” he said. “We haven’t seen that in the West since the days of the Cold War.”
Associated Press writer Nathan Ellgren in Washington contributed to this report.
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