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How Western Media Spread Russian Propaganda onto European Audience

“If you repeat a lie many times, people are bound to start believing it.”

— A quote, misattributed to Joseph Goebbels just enough times for people to believe he said this.

Throughout many years everyone who sat on the Kremlin throne (be it Tzar or Communist Party leader or democratically elected president) aimed to turn the country into a monument to himself, to secure the control over all the spheres of life and to make his geopolitical ambitions true.

In modern world information became a main instrument of Kremlin’s aggressive foreign affairs. Or better say, disinformation, propaganda, manipulating with truth, spreading half-truths or intentionally fake stories, and finally, manipulations with public opinion. And when your consciousness is distorted with propaganda, it in turn distorts the reality.

We must note that all mentioned instruments of spreading the disinformation in European countries are virtually identical to the ones Russia uses in Ukraine.

Domestic propaganda is created with Russian internal channels of communication, which are controlled by Kremlin directly, or via the controlled, affiliated structures. And outer propaganda is created via media networks, non-governmental public organizations and experts — both those directly affiliated with Russian government and those which function thanks to affiliated organizations. Russia conducts its disinformation campaigns in countries of West in both open ways (through the using of so-called “official” channels of Russian propaganda, such as “Russia Today” channels in different languages, “Sputnik” media agency, etc.) and in covert ways, by usage of supposedly “independent” journalists, commentators, web projects, public persons, extremist groups, Internet trolls, and so on.

The main goal of Russian propaganda efforts in Europe is to confuse the audience, to twist the information and to deflect attention, to shake the support of Euro-Atlantic values by wide population. And though West exceeds Russia both military and economically, western democracies will never have the same amount of control over media, business and intellectuals as Russia has, because media institutions of West are much more developed, more independent and are less controlled by the governments than their Russian counterparts. More even, Russian media is an integral part of government power of Russian Federation, and is one of the pillars the Kremlin government relies on, along with law enforcement, military and administrative apparatus.

Disinformation campaign of Kremlin tweaks its messages for different audience, spreading the “”entertaining” and “emotionally attractive” disinformation, which fits the system of Russian propaganda disinformation narratives. Russia is completely ready to fabricate the whole stories, by using photo and video materials, to satisfy the needs of Kremlin. A full array of media, from movies to news programs to talk show to print media to social media engage in spreading Russian propaganda narratives.

Depending from the country, the messages of Russian propaganda vary, along with the main channels of spreading these messages. Furthermore, domestic issues of one country can be a topic of foreign relations in another country.

Let’s review some of the channels of Russian propaganda narratives spreading in some European countries.

In Poland pro-Kremlin propaganda spreads wide. The most common method of disinformation spreading in Polish media is using weblogs and commentary sections of news websites. As of web sites, the most powerful are:

  • Sputnik (directly controlled by Russian government and serves as a reference to many web sites).
  • dziennik-polityczny.com (has a high probability of being controlled by Russian security forces) — perhaps the most dis-informational source, which has the most destructive impact onto Polish elites and society in general. It has YouTube channel. The articles published on this websites are often shared and reprinted in other media, such as Neon24.pl and wiernipolsce1.wordpress.com, they are republished in weblogs and forums by anonymous authors and they appear in all kinds of media.
  • zmianynaziemi.pl, dzienniknarodowy.pl, alexjones.pl, wolna-polska.pl, pch24.pl — are managed directly in the country.

In accordance with national features, Russian Federation accounts for different methods of spreading of propaganda, and for different technologies. Facebook plays bigger and bigger role as an instrument of disinformation spreading, while Twitter doesn’t play a big role.

At this moment there is over 100 Internet webpages in Hungary, which spread Kremlin messages, though most of them do not have a significant impact.

A characteristic feature for Hungarian media space is an appearances of Russian propaganda in the Hungarian national mainstream media (mostly in the government-owned media, and those controlled by a government). Russian talking points appear in the government media agency MTI, which content is free, and thus it is quite an influential source throughout all Hungary. It must be pointed that we do not mean fake and falsified news, but rather quoting of Russian and pro-Russian politicians, which serves as a base for spreading the Russian point of view.

Aside from this, main weekly editions of Hungary constantly publish authors with openly disinformation propagandist articles directed against European Union and NATO, and those which are known for their sympathy for Russia.

Considering that over three million of retirees live in Hungary, Russian propaganda uses so called “happy letters” way of spreading the stories between the senior people. The effectiveness of disinformation source like this if much higher than any news portal, because personalized information raises a higher level of trust than an Internet source.

It is worth to note that a characteristic feature of pro-Russian propaganda in Hungary is a small amount of content directed onto Hungarian society, which might be explained by the lack of necessity of conducting of any large scale information operations, considering the fact that Hungarian population is a priori loyal to Russia.

In Czech Republic there is over 40 local web sources involved into Russian disinformation campaigns. In this propagandist context Russia is often painted being the victim of Western aggression. And in Czech-spoken segment of Facebook Putin is one of the handful of politicians mentioned positively.

In Slovakia Russian federation also uses a few channels of spreading its agenda:

  • web sites which host translations of articles from Russian media.
  • pro-Russian narratives also spread into mainstream media of Slovakia (though in limited amount), one example would be the news story from March 2017, about the collaboration between the main Slovak press agency TASR with the Russian government media agency “Sputnik”, though this agreement was cancelled due to a large social and media resonance.
  • some politicians of national level use rhetoric which is similar to rhetoric of Kremlin (especially if the topic would be NATO, US or the region’s security issues). Thus it is hard to distinguish between people who are directly affiliated with Kremlin from those whose views and actions are based on their own anti-American positions.

Speaking in general, Czech Republic, Bulgaria and Slovakia saw the appearance of dozens of web sites of anonymous origin, which spread the fusion of xenophobic, anti-American and anti-European (i. e. directed against European Union) views. In Poland most of disinformation is spread and quoted by Poles without any direct mention of Russia. The fact that they chose to spread that content (often without understanding that it is affiliated to Russia) is a proof that disinformation campaign of Russian Federation found a favorable media environment.

Moldova also can “brag” to have some powerful Russian disinfomation campaigns. Russian propagandist content is translated through the different array of informational channels, including few media holdings with offices in Moldova, also through the social media, first of all those of Russian origin, and also through some political pro-Russian groups which have their own media.

The most powerful propagandist web sources in Moldova are:

  • kp.md — web page of Russian newspaper ”Komsomolskaya Pravda”.
  • sputnik.md — a branch of international network of “Russia Today” holding, headed by propagandist Dmitry Kiselyov.
  • ntv.md — web page of NTV Moldova, a branch of Russian NTV channel.
  • pan.md — web page of newspaper “Panorama” published in Russian (the owner is Dmitry Chubashenko who is affiliated with pro-Russian political party of businessman and former Bălți city major Renato Usatîi who is currently located in Moscow and rules his party from there).
  • actualitati.md — web portal of Party of Socialists of the Republic of Moldova (PSRM), which is represented by an acting pro-Russian president of Moldova Igor Dodon.
  • gagauzinfo.md — web portal of Gagauzia, which has a powerful pro-Russian sentiments.

Pro-Russian Internet sources in Moldova support and actively advocate for political parties and groups which actions are directed onto condemnation of pro-European direction of the country, and who promote the idea of convergence with Russian Federation, which was especially notable during the election campaigns and presidential elections in Moldova in October-November of 2016.

A wave of Russian propaganda doesn’t bypass other European countries.

For example one of the most colorful examples of disinformation in Germany was a story about girl raped by migrants in Berlin. This “news story” was quickly shared not only by shady Russian media, but also by governmental media, including those with versions in German language. Later the call for protest actions was spread through SMS and Facebook posts. It is understandable why the German is a target for Russian disinformation campaign, that’s because of Angela Merkel’s ability to keep the EU unity in the question of anti-Russian sanctions. The estimate was to remove Merkel from the post of Chancellor on the premise of migration crisis, to weaken the positions of Germany in Europe, and then it will be easier to persuade other members of EU to cancel the sanctions.

Russian propagandist content is translated over Germany through the whole chain of so called “Putin translators” (Putin-Versteher), which are funded with Russian money, and keep argue for Russia to be good and nice, that’s why you need not only to cancel sanctions, but also to give it not only the Crimea but also anything they would like to annex.

One of the well-known pro-Putin mouthpiece is Gabriele Krone-Schmalz, a former correspondent of Deutsch ARD TV channel in Moscow, who even published a book about Russia and Putin, singing praise to a “great eastern neighbor”. Another famous publicist and political activist, famous for his xenophobic and pro-Putin statements, is Jürgen Elsässer, a publisher of a “Compact” magazine.

As of Great Britain, it is used by Russian TV channels as a hub for spreading Kremlin propaganda throughout the Europe. For example, Russian TV channels NTV and REN TV use licences issued by a British regulator Ofcom and are registered in offices in the middle of London.

Thousands of young Brits were following the Kremlin-financed YouTube channel, the Blue Peter of Russian propaganda , which aimed to create confusion around former Russian security forces colonel Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia poisoning in Salisbury.The scale of Russian disinformation campaign become clear after the analysis of over three millions of Tweets and other posts in social media, which were gathered by American investigators.

We need to make a separate notion about another way of spreading for Russia propaganda, a Russia-controlled organizations in Europe. Russian government institutions and foreign non-government organizations and activists financed by Russian Federation implement events and actions in EU countries which aim for justification of Vladimir Putin’s actions in third countries, gradual cancellation of international sanctions against Russia and restoring of substantive dialogue between Kremlin and Western countries.

For example, a Russian security forces controlled organization “Lap of common sense” acts on the French territory, acts as information support for Russian interests abroad, hosts propaganda events in different European countries, and spreads the messages and narratives which are favorable to Russian Federation. Aside from this, pro-Kremlin “French-Russian Dialogue” association constantly hosts conferences, discussions, round tables to show the tendencies of Russian economy growth as an effect from implementing sanctions against it, and to shape the modern day Russia image as a partner to realize the new model of two-way French-Russian collaboration.

Italian branch of pro-Russian European public organization «Panetteria Occupata» aims to form a positive image of Russia in the international media space.

In Germany the representatives of Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) and pro-Russian non-government organizations “German Atlantic Company” and “German-Russian Forum” hosts different events and discussions with the goal to prove that Russian Federation is an essential part of reliable European’s security system, and the necessity to cancel the international sanctions against Russia. All in all, some aspects of public activities of SPD allow to assert with a high degree of probability that the leadership of this political party at least coordinates some of its actions and plans with Kremlin, as in latest period of time the rhetoric and events of this party are similar to Putin regime controlled radical right party “Alternative for Germany”. Most of representatives of SDP leaders have pro-Russian position and they might have personal interest in the deeper economic cooperation with Russian Federation.

Open sources also have information about Putin regime supporting (also financially) Netherland radical right political parties, first of all it would be “Party for Freedom”, and ideologically affiliated political party “Forum for Democracy”, which strive hard to discredit the acting government and to promote the information to the benefit of Russia.

In Bulgaria the representatives of socialist and communist political parties created the non-government organization “Bulgarian Peace Committee”, the main course of action of which is consolidation of pro-Russian forces in Bulgaria, initiation of “public discussions” of whether the membership of Bulgaria in EU and NATO is advisable, and persuading of Bulgarian society in the “exceptional importance of cooperation with Russian Federation as a provider of security and the continuous economic growth of the country”.

In Serbia the public organization “Slavo-Serbia” exists, which aim is to preserve the memories of Serbian ethnic communities on the territory of modern day Lugansk region of Ukraine, where the Balkan peninsula residents migrated.

So, what’s the conclusion?

Modern day Russia uses anonymity, ambiguity, large scale dissemination and flexibility of the Internet, social media in particular. The main efforts of digital propaganda are: web bots (automated social media accounts), Internet trolls and fake pages (web sites or social media accounts which mimic for real people to confuse the social media users). “Troll factories”, international experts financed by Russian Federation, loyal politicians and non-government organizations spread pro-Kremlin messages in the Internet, attack the Russia opponents and suppress any constructive discussing.

All Western countries actively oppose the Russian propaganda and its specific manifestations. Wide public may be aware of such web sites which oppose the disinformation as: Ukrainian web site stopfake.org, Russian project noodleremover.news and the web site of EU foreign affair service та сайт euvsdisinfo.eu.

And even though at this moment not a single country has a clear and 100% effective mechanism to counter the fake news, most experts are unanimous in one thought: you may not counteract Russian propaganda with your own propaganda, but rather you need to create your own quality content which will strengthen a public’s trust to the local media. The content, together with efforts of increasing the awareness of population in media literacy, can become a proper antidote to Russian propaganda.

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