Russian ‘dezinformatsiya’: the anatomy of Russian disinformation campaigns

As nations prepare for pivotal elections this year, many will be aware of the dangers posed by fake news and misleading narratives. Given the ease of accessing digital platforms across country borders, the topic is now a major concern – and not just to those countries facing electoral decisions. The phenomenon of disinformation has its roots in psychological warfare and has been used by most state and non-state actors to fulfil political, financial and societal agendas in order to coerce, deceive and manipulate public minds.

The history of disinformation in Russia

Russia’s dezinformatsiya campaigns since the Soviet era are known to be sophisticated and historically rich, curated by some of the best Russian minds. The KGB and other Soviet alphabet agencies mastered the art of ‘active measures’ – operations looking to influence perceptions and change the course of events overseas. Methods would include creating false narratives, issuing forged documents and covert infiltration of sympathetic groups to destabilise adversaries and endorse Soviet interests. A notorious dezinformatsiya campaign was Operation INFEKTION. It started in the 1980s and spread the baseless rumour that the USA had invented HIV/AIDS as part of a weapons program with the intention of sowing discord, mistrust and fear among people and governments.

Now in 2024, Russia has advanced these tactics, adapting them to the digital landscape by using social media, fake news platforms and cyber espionage. This has enabled the viral spread of information online, fundamentally altering global communication dynamics.

Anatomy of a disinformation campaign

When we analyse the anatomy of a dezinformatsiya campaign, we observe a complex web of strategic intentions, sophisticated methods and tools, and specifically selected targets devised to achieve a planned geopolitical objective.

At the centre of Russia’s use of dezinformatsiya is the country’s desire to extend its global influence, destabilise adversaries and cultivate an international narrative which serves its cause. In broader geopolitical terms, these campaigns set out to weaken alliances like NATO and the EU, create fractures within and between states, and of course support regimes and peoples that are sympathetic to Russia. Domestically, dezinformatsiya serves to enhance the government’s integrity, suppress any dissent and sustain narratives that present Russia as the underdog, under threat from hostile global foreign enemies.

False narratives are amplified across all digital media platforms exploiting algorithms that give preference to the length of engagement over legitimacy. State-controlled media such as Russia Today (RT) and Sputnik fulfil these roles, providing a veil of legitimacy to the messages that support Russia and casting doubt over Western media.

Cyberwarfare complements the effort, with expert computer hackers targeting government networks, political organisations and people to extract or leak information that can discredit or cause chaos. Online operations are supported and hidden by a multitude of proxies, bots and trolls that manipulate forum users, spread disinformation and produce an illusion of consensus or controversy.

The targets for these campaigns are selected for their potential to influence outcomes and public perception. Elections are a favourite, with efforts focused on sowing discord on race, ideology, religion or societal status. This dissatisfaction undermines confidence in election processes and makes governance challenging. Over time, trust in institutions, science communities and government bodies is discredited and undermined, leaving generations susceptible to manipulation and cynical of any information sources that counter Russian sentiment. These targeted campaigns have proven very effective in achieving a multitude of objectives – all enhancing Russia’s image and perception, while corroding those of their adversaries from within.

Notable dezinformatsiya case studies

The most well-publicised dezinformatsiya interference surrounded the 2016 US presidential elections. This involved the hacking and leaking of emails to and from key political figures and businesses. The ongoing spread of disinformation through social media attempted to compromise the entire state election system. The goal was threefold – to undermine confidence in the election process itself, to accentuate societal divisions and weaken the integrity of institutions in the eyes of the American people and surrounding global community.

Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, disinformation campaigns have been used to spread confusion and mistrust surrounding the virus, its origins and the safety of vaccines. Russian-linked actors have been implicated in spreading false narratives and conspiracy theories online, ranging from the virus being a bioweapon to vaccines being tools for global surveillance or control.

Dezinformatsiya also looked to influence operations in Europe by targeting Brexit and far-right movements. Efforts focused on frustrating political unity and aggravating issues like immigration and uncertainty about the future of the EU. Through covert support and media manipulation, attempts were made to influence public opinion and challenge Western institutions in a bid to align EU politics with that of pro-Russian agendas.

It was revealed this year that President Putin has implemented the revision of history textbooks to reflect and justify the Kremlin’s reasoning for invading Ukraine. This move has been met with both international criticism and disapproval of native Russian historians who have anonymously stated it is an outrage and blatant indoctrination.

Conclusion

Russian dezinformatsiya characterises a multifaceted threat to stability, democracy and public trust. Using a sophisticated mix of historical espionage psychology and delivery via modern digital networks, these operations have achieved much success in infiltrating many spheres of public life, including elections in the USA and health-related political movements in Europe. The mission statement has consistently been to destabilise, divide and distract.

A basic understanding of the scale and sophistication of Russian dezinformatsiya is a crucial collective step in upholding the importance of truth in an era saturated with propaganda.

‘Propaganda works best when those who are being manipulated are confident they are acting on their own free will.’ – Joseph Goebbels.

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