This Week in Info War

Editor’s Note: 9 January 2017

A key feature of the 6 January 2017 report by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence on Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections was its profile of RT America, the Kremlin-financed television channel that regularly criticizes alleged shortcomings in democracy and civil liberties in the United States (the profile appears to have been written in 2012).

The rapid expansion of RT’s operations and budget and recent candid statements by RT’s leadership point to the channel’s importance to the Kremlin as a messaging tool and indicate a Kremlin-directed campaign to undermine faith in the U.S. government and fuel political protest,” reads the report. DNI, citing a “reliable” British source, says “RT recently was the most-watched foreign news channel in the UK.” It concludes that RT America “has positioned itself as a domestic U.S. channel and has deliberately sought to obscure any legal ties to the Russian government.” In recent months, the CEPA Information Warfare Initiative has often discussed RT.

For all the attention given to RT, however, a case study this week by the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Lab reminds us that anti-Western messages can also be spread via an insidious global network of conspiracy sites—and not just in media directly controlled by the Kremlin.  

The facts are straightforward and easy to verify. In early January, the Pentagon began reinforcing its armored units in Europe as part of its Atlantic Resolve Strategy. According to an official account published by U.S. Army Europe and widely reported by Western media, the effort involved 2,003 vehicles of all types, including 446 tracked vehicles, 907 wheeled vehicles and 650 trailers. Among the heavy armor were 87 tanks, 18 self-propelled howitzers and 144 infantry fighting vehicles. Likewise, roughly 1,600 vehicles were slated for storage in the Netherlands.

On 4 January, a small new website based in Donetsk, Ukraine, and linked to the unrecognized Donetsk People’s Republic posted an article distorting these facts, claiming that the United States was sending 3,600 tanks to Europe as part of “the NATO war preparation against Russia.”  Within three days the false story had been repeated by dozens of U.S., Canadian and European websites, and shared 40,000 times. Russian state news agency RIA Novosti quoted the story, unchallenged, and many Russian-language websites picked it up.

Media expert Ben Nimmo described this pattern as a “classic case of information laundering” in which a small, dubious site launches a fake story, which is then spread by conspiracy-minded fringe sites in the West. In this case, RIA Novosti used such sites to embed it into the Russian-language space. “It is an object lesson in how even fake stories can spread,” Nimmo said, “if they suit the agendas of the websites that share them.”

This week’s Estonia brief is another example of how an anti-NATO message can be disseminated outside the RT network—in this case, via a pro-Kremlin website.