How Effective is Russia’s Disinformation?

A new report by the State Department highlights Russia’s proxy network, but the sites are bit players in the information marketplace.

Earlier this month, the State Department’s Global Engagement Center (GEC) released a report documenting Russia’s efforts to spread disinformation online. As a descriptive analysis, it is well worth reading. The report is filled with references to shady characters. The GEC finds that Vladimir Putin’s minions and supporters rely on an “ecosystem” that “consists of five main pillars: official government communications, state-funded global messaging, cultivation of proxy sources, weaponization of social media, and cyber-enabled disinformation.”  

Much of the report focuses on that middle piece—a network of seven alleged “proxy” websites: the Strategic Culture Foundation (which is run by Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, known as the SVR), Global Research (a conspiracy site operating out of Canada), New Eastern Outlook (a publication of the Russian Academy of Science’s Institute of Oriental Studies), News Front (a site that supports the Kremlin’s agenda in Crimea), SouthFront (a site for military and security enthusiasts), Katehon (a “quasi-think-tank” based in Moscow), and (a site for Russian ultra-nationalists). These sites often obscure their links to Russian state actors and to one another, meaning readers could be duped into thinking they’ve accessed independent work.  

The content on these sites is about what you’d expect. They are deeply anti-American and conspiratorial. Some of the more prominent themes include pieces that: question al-Qaeda’s responsibility for the 9/11 hijackings, obfuscate Russia’s culpability for the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 (MH-17) in eastern Ukraine in 2014, and deny Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons in Syria. All of these are standard motifs in the Russian disinformation playbook. Since the beginning of the year, these outlets have also blamed the U.S. government for spreading COVID-19. Logical inconsistencies rarely bother the conspiracy-minded, so these sites simultaneously claim that COVID-19 is a “hoax.” Obviously, that is at odds with the idea that the coronavirus is a devastating American invention. 

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