Issues

Russia Co-opts Western Media, Internet Companies to Spread Propaganda

Authoritarian states turn to “social media hacking” after failure to stifle online communication

Vladimir Putin
Vladimir Putin / AP

Russia and other authoritarian states are attempting to co-opt Western social media websites and news outlets to disseminate their own propaganda after unsuccessful efforts to shut them down, according to a new report.

Author and journalist David Patrikarakos wrote in a report for the Legatum Institute, a pro-democracy think tank, that autocratic governments initially tried to block their citizens from using social media sites and Internet services amid fears that they would express their discontent and mobilize against the state. China is reported to have denied access to Google’s email service and search function last December, while Russia briefly banned Wikipedia in August due to a drug-related post.

Still, people have found ways to communicate online and bypass government censors, Patrikarakos wrote.

"Such methods have mostly proved ineffective in stifling social media-based interaction and the dissent that invariably comes with it," he said. "The truly effective option left open to the authoritarian state is therefore to counteract unauthorized information flows with propaganda of its own—most usefully within the same medium."

Patrikarakos referred to this technique as "social media hacking," in which governments appropriate social media sites and Internet search algorithms to spread disinformation and shape a favorable narrative.

The report cites two recent examples of Russia’s manipulation of Western media sites to circulate propaganda related to the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL).

Russian state media paid for a poll last August showing that, while large majorities of major European countries opposed the Islamic State, 16 percent of French respondents said they had a "favorable" view of the terrorist group. RT, an outlet funded by the Kremlin, immediately reported the survey’s results, which were also picked up by French sites. The Kremlin has continually sought to discredit Europe and NATO countries in its propaganda.

"That such a large number of people—around 10 million—could actively support ISIS would seem to be odd, and so it proved," Patrikarakos said. "What had in fact happened was that Russian news agency Rossiya Segodnya commissioned British company ICM to conduct an essentially flawed polling of people’s views on issues such as Ukraine and Georgia, with the ISIS issue a poorly phrased secondary question: the published statistic in no way bore any relation to reality."

The flawed poll gained more traction after U.S. news site Vox published a piece titled, "One in six French people say they support ISIS." Vox reported that "the poll was commissioned by Russian state media, almost certainly to tar and/or troll Western countries, but that doesn't make the findings any less disturbing."

Ezra Klein, editor-in-chief of Vox, also tweeted out the story, enabling it to reach a wider audience.

As a result, Russia "hacked" Western news sites and Google by using them as a medium to mold its preferred narrative, Patrikarakos said.

"Google was infiltrated to the degree that if you typed ‘ISIS France’ into it, the first recommendation was ‘ISIS France Support,’" he said.

Other Russian attempts at "media hacking" have been less successful. On the anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks last year, a variety of social media platforms claimed that the Islamic State had caused an explosion at the Columbian Chemicals plant in Centerville, Louisiana, an alleged incident that was later deemed a hoax. The Facebook page for Louisiana News, a fake outlet, posted fabricated Youtube videos of the explosion and the terrorist group claiming responsibility. State residents also received text messages about a potential chemical threat.

The Louisiana News page can still be accessed on Facebook and has more than 5,000 likes.

The Columbian Chemicals hoax "appeared to be of Russian origin," Patrikarakos said, and did not convince many online users because "the profiles that were used were fake and so hard to embed within a network of true users." However, the Kremlin is likely developing methods of embedding messages in trusted media networks that will have a broader impact, he said.

Patrikarakos called for the creation of a non-government organization specifically devoted to combating online propaganda and, if necessary, delivering "rapid reaction" responses. Some sites, such as StopFake.org, are already working to counter Russian propaganda about the conflict in Ukraine.