Moscow's digital army

  • Share on Facebook
  • Share on Twitter
  • Anonüümsed kommentaarid muutuvad olulisemaks kanaliks väärteabe levitamisel  Artiklit saab lugeda ka eesti keeles
Urve Eslas explores Moscow’s latest information warfare testing grounds: the comment section

The burst of anonymous, pro-Kremlin narratives in the Estonian media after the hearing on Russian disinformation in the U.S. House of Representatives on 9 March shows the challenges to free speech posed by online commenting. Rather than relying solely on national media to spread hostile narratives, anonymous comments also can be used by the Kremlin effectively.

The influence such anonymous comments have on public opinion is threefold: they give a platform to people who want to spread disinformation, confusion and fear; they multiply the false narratives, creating new social reality that shows its influence on shaping the public opinion and elections results; and they shut down sensible conversation via personal attacks on individuals.

The hearings, at which former Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves and CEPA Executive Vice President Peter B. Doran participated, concluded that Russia is aggressively seeking to undermine Western democracies. They urged the West to be as effective as possible in resisting Russia’s efforts to do so, including taking steps to reform international broadcasting in order to confront inaccurate information with accurate information.

The posted comments in reaction to the hearings on the independent Estonian-language news web site showed the strong influence of recent Kremlin-promoted narratives. The Estonian news website live blogged the hearing on 9 March and published an overview on President Ilves’ answers to Congressman Dana Rohrabacher the next day.  These two articles gathered more than 700 comments, mostly anonymous ones. A large number comments were critical of the idea of discussing the countermeasures to Kremlin disinformation and/or were targeted to discredit the testimony.

Two specific narratives were prominent in the comments: first that the U.S. exacerbates tensions with Russia – there is no such thing as a “Russian threat” and if the U.S. keeps provoking Russia, Russia will be reacting accordingly. Second, it argued that the U.S. itself is as “bad” as Russia, and that by talking about Russian disinformation, the U.S. itself spreads disinformation. These narratives are very similar to the ones that spread actively by Kremlin in last few months and have been described in previous CEPA briefs, for example on November 27, January 1, January 9, January 15, and February 27.

Who were these anonymous commentators who spread these narratives? There is a chance that some of them sincerely believe what they say about the Congressional hearings. Since we are not able to track down the source of their beliefs it would be unfair to categorize them as victims of Kremlin disinformation even if they repeat its narratives. At the same time, based on an investigation by the Estonian media a few years ago into the sources of online commentaries, it may well be that a significant amount of anonymous comments were posted deliberately by a single originator – the Kremlin -- to shape public opinion about the discussion.

In 2013, a few months before Estonian local elections, the Estonian news site Delfi and the weekly newspaper Eesti Ekspress ran an investigation and tracked down the location of the computers used for anonymous commenting. The findings were illuminating: a remarkable amount of anonymous comments were made from the office of Tallinn City Government, ruled by Estonian Center Party (a party with formal ties with Russian ruling party United Russia). Delfi also discovered that the anonymous commentators from the Tallinn City Government produced approximately 100 comments per hour, mostly promoting the Center Party and discrediting its opponents. Eesti Ekspress also uncovered that Tallinn City government workers who were commenting acted accordingly to set rules, a schedule and that they were obligated to provide weekly reports about commenting. This Center Party internet army may have succeeded in influencing public opinion before the local elections -- it retained its majority in Tallinn by taking 46 of the 79 seats. Based on this experience, it is probable that the comments on the Congressional hearings were orchestrated as well.

Since recent concern in the West about the impact of Russian mainstream disinformation channels such as RT may lead to government restrictions on their activity, the Kremlin may instead turn to greater reliance on anonymous comments on news websites and on social media as tools to spread disinformation. To minimize the influence of this, more attention should be paid to monitoring online comments; people should be taught how to recognize internet trolls; news web sites should consider making IP addresses public or limiting anonymous commenting. In response to anticipated criticism that such steps would violate free speech, Western commentators noted in 2014 that human rights, including the right to freedom of expression, should belong to real human beings, and not to anonymous trolls. This is even more relevant today.