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Estonian Defense Forces neutralize disinfo attack

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The Estonian Defense Forces prevented a Sputnik disinformation attack on 15 March by informing Estonian media about a possibly false story before it was written. This illustrated one of CEPA’s four steps in fighting information attacks. That such an approach was successful in Estonia shows that the West is not as defenseless against the Kremlin’s asymmetrical disinformation campaigns as it sometimes appears.

On 13 March, Estonian media reported on an incident within the Estonian Defense Forces: a conscript had shot himself in the shoulder, he said, to “get a cool scar.” According to the investigation, as reported by the media, the conscript – who had served as a driver at the Kuperjanov Infantry Battalion (a unit of the Estonian Land Forces) – stole a cartridge for his AK4 rifle and, when no one was near, pulled the trigger. According to the medical report, the conscript lost a lot of blood, but no critical organs were injured and he is recovering under medical supervision. Military police discovered no evidence that the shooting was caused by anything other than what the soldier claimed: the conscript was well trained, his relationships with his comrades were good, and he had earlier told his friends that he wanted a bullet scar.

On 15 March, Estonian Sputnik, a branch of the Kremlin-financed media channel, sent an inquiry to the Estonian Defense Forces asking it to confirm the channel’s supposed information that the conscript was a Russian speaker, that he was shot during an escape attempt sparked by tensions on base between Estonians and Russians, and that military doctors deny medical care to conscripts who do not speak Estonian. Instead of answering Sputnik directly, the Force sent the channel’s inquiry to the Estonian media to publicize Sputnik’s attempt to inflame conflict between ethnic Estonians and Russians and to neutralize any disinformation that Sputnik might try to spread. The neutralization was successful; Sputnik never wrote the story. The Kremlin-financed channel did answer with an article claiming that by giving out Sputnik’s questions to journalists, the Estonian Defense Forces was itself spreading disinformation. In Russia, Sputnik’s article on how the Estonian Defense Forces went on the counterattack by giving Sputnik’s questions to Estonian media reached RIA Novosti, the state-operated domestic Russian-language news agency. But because of the Force’s proactive release of Sputnik’s inquiry, Estonians were already informed about the facts and the article did not cause any significant public reaction.

Neutralizing disinformation attacks is the fourth step of CEPA’s strategy on fighting disinformation and propaganda, introduced in testimony about Russian disinformation aims before the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs on 9 March 2017. This strategy calls for a “4D” approach – detect, debunk, defend, and disarm – and is based on the presumption that disinformation should be treated not as an ordinary military threat, but like a “man-created virus.” Disinformation, like a virus, transcends distance and borders and therefore requires specific countermeasures.

The approach is based on two assumptions: first, that Russia itself sees information warfare as a virus-spreading process; and second, that disinformation attacks are asymmetrical in nature. In 1998, Sergey Rastorguev, a Russian expert, wrote Informatsionnaya Voyna (“Information War”), in which he showed how to manipulate the human mind. He claimed that human beings are like computers and can have information “viruses” inserted into their reasoning process.

The second reason that disinformation should be treated not as an ordinary military attack, but rather like a virus, is that information attacks are always asymmetrical: the West cannot emulate the Kremlin and respond with disinformation and propaganda. First, to respond this way would corrupt the concept of the truth and prove Russia’s claim that there is no difference between propaganda and journalism. Second, this response would be useless: disinformation attacks will not work against a country where the majority of the media is state-controlled.

If disinformation is like a virus, it should be treated like a virus, needing diagnosis, cure, education, and a vaccine. In the three Baltic States, CEPA’s 4D approach – detect, debunk, defend, and disarm – has proven successful. Local monitors, local voluntary activists, and local media have successfully used three of the four: detecting disinformation by diagnosing it; curing by debunking it; and defending people by educating them. By neutralizing Sputnik’s disinformation, the Estonian Defense Forces tried the fourth defense, disarming the disinformation. It worked – at least with regard to Estonian society.

With regard to the wider Russian media space, the success of the 4D approach was not so obvious. Sputnik’s article on the Estonian Defense Forces releasing its inquiry to Estonian media reached RIA Novosti, which means that Sputnik at least partly accomplished its mission. In the complex and loosely guided Russian media network, Estonian local Sputnik, together with Baltnews (three Russian-language news sites in Baltic States linked to RIA Novosti and Rossiya Segodnya) and Rubalitic (a Russian-language news site in Baltic States), are part of the Kremlin’s Baltic disinformation machine, described by Latvian security services as “one of the tools of Russian information influence.” They are so-called gathering channels, whose task is not only to present the Kremlin’s perspective to Estonian audiences, but also to identify local news that can be used by the wider Russian and international media to serve the Kremlin’s purposes. Often these stories are meant to discredit Estonia as Russophobic, morally corrupt, and a financial basketcase. The Kremlin’s message that Estonia is Russophobic – a main Kremlin narrative – was in this case successfully delivered.