Coordinating the Kremlin’s disinfo machine

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Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid’s 16 October interview with the BBC received mixed reviews in the Kremlin-linked media. The interview got positive coverage in newspaper articles, but online commentators emphasized the “conflict” between Estonia and Russia. This contradiction suggests that even if the Kremlin wanted to change the narrative in its messages, it might not be able to control its web brigade.

In October the Kremlin-linked Russian-language website Vzglyad posted two articles based on an excerpt from the Kaljulaid interview. Both articles, which concentrated on Western sanctions against Russia, were written in a positive, appreciative manner, stating that Estonia wants good relations with Russia and even naming Estonia as part of Europe’s “pro-Russian belt.”

Two things about the articles are surprising. First, it is rare for Kremlin-linked media to show Estonia in a positive light. Very few Estonian politicians have received positive coverage by such outlets, and then mostly when they were needed to confirm Kremlin narratives. Estonia is seldom portrayed as a possible Kremlin ally. Estonian-related news in Kremlin-linked or pro-Kremlin media are usually critical or even hostile. They criticize Estonia for discriminating against and brainwashing Estonian Russians, violating their freedom of expression, poisoning Russia-friendly politicians, keeping Estonian Russians as hostages, and even being an anti-Russian buffer zone. Considering that, the appreciative manner of the Vzglyad articles is surprising and the turn from “anti-Russian buffer zone” to “pro-Russian belt” is too radical to ignore.

The second surprise is the contradiction between the articles and the online comments. Despite the articles’ unexpected positive tone, the comment section largely reflects the commentators’ hostile sentiment towards Estonia, repeating the pro-Kremlin media’s most frequent narratives: Estonia is not a real country but belongs to Russia; it is not democratic; it discriminates against ethnic Russians; it is an economic failure; it’s occupied by the United States, etc.

Even though the Kremlin’s use of paid online commentators is proven, there is no way to tell for sure whether the comments on these two particular articles were genuine or coordinated. If all or most of the 500-plus the comments were spontaneous, it shows that disinformation has had its effect and that ordinary Russians sincerely consider Estonia an enemy. A few positive articles will not change that. 

Still, there are reasons to doubt this is the case. A 2016 a survey conducted in Russia found that only 16 percent of respondents consider Estonia to be unfriendly or hostile towards Russia; in contrast, 72 percent of Russians think that of the United States. So it could be expected that average Russians have little reason to be hostile or express it online. Also, some patterns give reasons to doubt the spontaneity of the comments, such as high activity on articles that mention Western sanctions, and commentators’ unexpectedly good knowledge about the Kremlin’s main false narratives on Estonia.

The next few months will show whether this change in attitude is a one-off—an irregularity caused by ill-informed journalists—or a more permanent trend in Kremlin policy. Even though Moscow is looking for allies in Europe, the idea it would make a U-turn on Estonia is unlikely. Still, if that is Moscow’s intention, the contradiction between Kremlin-linked media outlets and its web brigade would be interesting.

A 2013 study showed that readers consider the comment section part of an article; that would influence how they perceive and interpret that particular article. Hostile comments may sour readers’ reaction toward the article in general. If so, the inertia of online commentators—used by the Kremlin for many years to push its anti-Western agenda—will now work against Moscow, making any change in course difficult.

Photo: “Cyrillic - German” by Kecko under CC BY-ND 2.0