June 4, 2021
The Wall Street Journal
In May, a mysterious marketing agency contacted French influencer Léo Grasset and made a strange request.
The agency told Grasset, a popular science blogger, that it would pay him a “colossal” amount of money if he publicly cast doubt on the effectiveness of Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine.
The agency, Fazze, asked Grasset to publish videos to his social media channels suggesting, falsely, that the western-made vaccine had caused over 1,000 deaths. The deal required that Grasset not reveal any sponsorship for the posts and would not ask who the client was making the request.
The Wall Street Journal later reported that Fazze — which contacted at least two other influencers — had ties with Russia. French counterintelligence authorities believe the campaign may have had Russian involvement, according to the report.
While claims of links to Moscow have not yet been proven, there is a distinctly Russian-style pattern in the attempt to use disinformation to sow division and doubt among people living in western democracies, which dates back decades.
Russia’s use of disinformation for such purposes dates back to the Soviet era. In the 1970s, the KGB ran a disinformation campaign to plant the idea that the United States had invented HIV/AIDS in a laboratory as a biological weapon.
Since the 1970s, it has continued to spread disinformation in the west, sowing division and doubt among its populations and undermining faith in democracy.
The major thing that has changed since the 1980s is the arrival of a new weapon in Russia’s disinformation arsenal: social media.
“The big difference is that in the last 10 to 15 years, [Russia’s disinformation efforts] have bled into mainstream life – political life, news, media, particularly social media,” said Christopher Steele — the author of the infamous Trump dossier — in a rare interview in November on the Infotagion podcast.
The sheer scale of Moscow’s disinformation efforts through social media is remarkable. A Facebook report published last week found that Russia remains the largest peddler of disinformation around the world. It was responsible not just for large-scale efforts during the 2016 election of Donald Trump and during the UK’s Brexit referendum campaign.
Facebook said that Russia had run disinformation campaigns in more than 50 countries since 2017.
The report said that Russian military intelligence would create networks of increasingly sophisticated fake profiles which operated across multiple social media networks and blog platforms to try and avoid detection, peddling disinformation about topics including Russia’s proxy war against eastern Ukraine, Facebook said.
“It’s become a much more encompassing approach to trying to achieve your political and socio-economic objectives,” Steele said.
In one typical instance, Russian military intelligence created fake profiles that operated across blogs and multiple social media platforms to target Ukraine and neighboring countries. Some accounts posed as citizen journalists and tried to contact officials and other public figures, and others published blogs picked up by other journalists, Facebook said.
The objectives of these disinformation campaigns are not neatly defined. But they broadly represent attempts to undermine people’s faith in democracy and create partisanship and division, said Steele.
“What it does is undermine people’s faith in democracy, and people’s faith in democracy, as I’ve said before, should be the apogee of our democracy, not the weak point of it,” Steele said.
“The other thing I think it’s designed to do in its modern form is to create great polarity, great partisanship, and divisions.”
Disinformation is not the only decades-old Russian tactic gaining traction in the west in the social media era.
So-called “Dark PR” or “Black PR” is broadly defined as the practice of ruining reputations through dishonest public relations tactics, court battles, and other highly shady tactics. It first emerged in post-Soviet 1990s Russia as a means for political operators acting on behalf of state actors to destroy their opponents’ reputations.
However, the Kremlin, other state-owned entities, and Russian oligarchs with links to the state are now increasingly using those tactics in the west and using the power of social media to spread them further than ever before, according to a report by Dr. Andrew Foxall for the Henry Jackson Society.
“A lot of the time now, black PR campaigns tend to be on social media,” said Jade McGlynn, director of research at the Henry Jackson Society.
One example is the Bitkov family, who owned the highly successful North-West Timber Company in St Petersburg. Igor Bitkov, who built the company, made an enemy of Putin and was forced to flee the country with his wife and daughter after Russian state banks called in loans they had issued his company.
They sought refuge in Guatemala, but there was an intense and vitriolic social media campaign in Spanish against the family. “They were accused of all sorts of crimes — in that sense, it was a more typical disinformation campaign,” said McGlynn.
Whether the social media element to Russia’s disinformation efforts is actually effective is another question. In terms of Russia’s Black PR efforts, the accompanying efforts to prosecute individuals through the court systems appear to have been most effective.
The Bitkovs, for instance, were arrested and imprisoned in Guatemala in 2018, more than a decade after they fled Russia, on what they said were trumped-up charges following a decade of persecution from Russia — which had seen their daughter kidnapped. While Igor’s conviction was overturned, a Guatemalan appeals court upheld 14-year sentences against his wife and daughter only last year.
In the case of Russia’s more general disinformation campaigns, the effectiveness of its social media efforts has also been called into question, along with similar disinformation attempts backed by Iran’s government.
“Despite their relatively sophisticated nature, both of these operations reveal one of the fundamental challenges of “retail” [targeted] IO [information operations] — without a lucky break, they go nowhere,” Facebook’s report last week said. Russia’s disinformation effort in Ukraine, the company said, gained no significant traction or attention.