Arrest stirs disinfo maelstrom in Estonia

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On 4 November, the Estonian Internal Security Service announced it had detained a suspected FSB agent, 20-year-old information technology student Aleksei Vassilyev, in the border town of Narva, for attempting to access the computer networks of Estonian state authorities. The news triggered a cluster narrative attack by Kremlin media—a massive response from several different channels with 10 distinct narratives—all targeted to send a single message: “We didn’t do it.”

In the ensuing weeks, Russian media published dozens of articles and offered nonstop massive TV coverage of the arrest, presenting 10 distinct narratives attempting to prove that the accusation is false. Some of these narratives are factually wrong; others  are based on no proof, or are simply misleading.

According to the first narrative, Vassilyev is too young to be an FSB agent, so “it is simply impossible to find a more inappropriate person for the role of an ominous agent of the FSB.” In fact, most of the seven FSB or GRU agents recently captured in Estonia were recruited either in their teenage years or their early 20s.

The second narrative holds that FSB employees and agents are generally forbidden to have social media accounts. Since Vassilyev had an account with VKontakte—the Russian version of Facebook—he therefore cannot be an FSB agent. Yet there’s no proof that FSB forbids its employees to have social media accounts. If it does, it is doubtful that this rule would apply to agents. Part of being an agent is to not to look like one. More than 60 percent of Estonians use one or more social media services, a percentage likely to be much higher for 20-year-olds. In such an environment, not being on social media would make someone stand out. 

The third narrative was meant to ridicule the concept of Estonia as a country known for its IT capacity. It asked what harm could a 20-year-old do to the famous e-Stonia? Are Estonian IT specialists so weak that they see an IT student as a threat? In fact, capturing a FSB agent has nothing to do with a country’s IT capacity. Acting as a foreign agent is a crime that requires the authorities’ response, regardless of how capable the government or the private sector is in this particular field. 

The fourth narrative offered an alternative explanation for Vassileyv’s capture: he was not an agent, but rather the victim of a provocation by Estonian special services. This explanation was part of a fifth narrative offered by another media channel, which claimed that Estonia arrested Vassilyev, intending to exchange him for an unknown Estonian spy detained in Russia.

The sixth narrative claimed that Vassilyev was detained to cover up a hypothetical vulnerability with Estonian ID cards that was announced by the Estonian government on 5 September and fixed a few months later. Vassilyev, an IT student, was simply a convenient target. 

The seventh narrative suggested that, since the threat of “Kremlin hackers” is a current popular concern, Estonia needed the publicity derived from a “detained FSB agent” to justify its spending on cyber security. 

The eight narrative says Vassilyev’s arrest was simply Estonian revenge for the 2007 cyber attacks. However, given that Estonia ranks first in the Freedom House 2016 Democratic Development Index among 29 post-communist nations (Russia ranked 23rd on that same list), it would be unusual for Estonia—which observes the rule of law—to use its law enforcement agencies to extract revenge.

The ninth narrative says Vassilyev’s arrest was part of the wider Western conspiracy against Russia. This unlikely narrative fits with the Kremlin view that Estonia lacks any independent decision-making capacity.  

The 10th narrative suggests that since the detained 20-year-old is under strong psychological pressure, even if he admitted to being an FSB or Mossad agent—or even assassinating Kennedy—it would prove nothing. Yet this narrative contains two highly unlikely claims: first, that Estonia’s special services use strong-arm psychological tactics to force their victims to admit crimes they did not commit, and second, that the accusation of being FSB agent is as ridiculous as are conspiracy theories surrounding JFK’s assassination.

As mentioned above, all 10 narratives are either false or misleading. But more interesting is how these narratives are used simultaneously to send one concrete message: Russia did not do it, and anyone who claims differently is not trustworthy. 

This technique is known as a cluster narrative, which is defined by three elements: a quantity of sometimes conflicting narratives, one well-targeted message, and the capacity to create confusion. A cluster narrative is a massive response from multiple media channels, containing several different—sometimes even controversial—narratives all targeted to deliver one message, usually in the form of a denial.

Russia often employs the cluster narrative when something big is at stake and must be fought back in every possible way. Cluster narratives were used after Russia shot down Flight MH17 over Ukraine; Kremlin-backed media outlets suggested various possible explanations ranging from a CIA conspiracy and a NATO attempt to assassinate Russian President Vladimir Putin to the claim that the airplane was filled with corpses. A more recent example is from July 2017, when U.S. Vice President Mike Pence visited Estonia. The cluster narrative used then contained five different narratives, all meant to send one message: Estonia should not trust NATO or the United States.

The Kremlin’s reaction to the detention of numerous other FSB and GRU agents in Estonia in the past few years was mild by comparison to the Vassilyev case. It is unclear why pro-Kremlin media considered his detention important enough to warrant reliance on a cluster narrative this time. Whether it reflects poor coordination by Moscow, a change of circumstances or other factors may become clearer in coming months.

Photo: “Ford Transit police van in Tallinn” by Raf24 under CC BY-SA 4.0