‘Falsehood flies, and the truth comes limping after it, so that when men come to be undeceived, it is too late; the jest is over, and the tale hath had its effect: like a man, who hath thought of a good repartee when the discourse is changed, or the company parted; or like a physician, who hath found out an infallible medicine, after the patient is dead.’
With the tremendous technological breakthroughs over the past decades, contemporary society has been successfully sliding into the information era followed by its post-information stage. Given the recent developments, which include but are not limited to the emergence of the so-called ‘Twitter diplomacy’, spreading conspiracy theories and propaganda-driven holy wars, the information space has been colonized by two camps: the first counterpart seeks to produce the information content while the second one keeps on consuming it. This envisages that the first camp producing the content will be aspiring to boost the toolkit for advertising the information product in order to make sure it is well-received by the target audience. The second camp will be seeking to get the latest content that fits into their customized information bubble. Even two years ago, when Covid-19 hit the planet, only few could have imagined that the modern world would plunge into a new reality – completely challenged, tearing apart the common social canvas. Likewise, the ongoing development of modern technology aimed at minimizing human labor and granting a great amount of management to Artificial Intelligence (AI) contributes to rethinking the political landscape.
The eternal fight between democracy and authoritarianism situates political security mainly within the information dimension, which becomes a new theater of real or perceived confrontation. Given that the tendency of reducing violence and blurring this category is already contested by some scholars like Steven Pinker in his book ‘The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined’, we can assume that modern wars are being waged in a different way – primarily not for territories but for minds and hearts of people. Russian mythology was only magnified with the emergence of technology-driven breakthroughs aimed at bringing more users to the political realm and bridging the gap between the electorate and the high echelons of power. The well-oiled machinery of Russian revisionism started imposing its core narratives through various communication channels, including but not limited to social media networks.
Walking Through Russia’s Conspiracy Dissemination Campaigns
Recalling how the scientific picture of the world has evolved from Plato to Hegel, one can recognize that carrying out a scientific process (doing magic) is quite a challenging path. A typical pattern of presenting scientifically justified findings may be described as follows: compiling a set of facts, separating the main facets, and eliminating their secondary counterparts. This logic might be abused for the sake of the malicious usage of AI. A startling example of which can be the case of numerous hostile intelligence operations launched by the main stakeholder of violence – Russia. The case of a fake journalist, Alice Donovan, became one of the most prominent FBI discoveries related to hacking the propagandist toolkit at the Kremlin’s disposal. The story began in 2016 when the supposedly freelance journalist reached out to the editing team of the leftist outlet CounterPunch to pitch a piece. The freelancer provided her social media accounts to ‘validate’ her identity. For more than one year, Alice Donovan had been pitching pieces unless the CounterPunch editors received a call from their colleagues at Washington Post informing them that the FBI indicated Alice Donovan as a fake person, whose ‘contributions’ were submitted by the Main Directorate of the Russian military intelligence service (GU). The editors took the message with a pinch of salt, so they decided to comb through Donovan’s materials on their own. Given the highly charged topics she covered such as Black Lives Matter, Syria, and the American political landscape, the editors discovered that Donovan’s pieces were plagiarized. Following the initial author of the plagiarized pieces, the editors discovered that this other female counterpart, Sofia Mangal, appeared to be another ‘fake’ journalist, this time linked to the so-called India Syria Media Centre.
After the scrupulous perusal of the India Syria Media Centre, the CounterPunch editors discovered that the outlet was completely fabricated. The non-existent journalists were plagiarizing three or four pieces per day from the New Yorker, Arab News, and other sources. This story became iconic for the Western intelligence services’ vigilance, which was manifested a year after the discovery when a team from the Stanford Senate Observatory revealed more fake journalists with stolen profiles and plagiarized articles. Moreover, some of these pieces were not only aimed at conveying a particular message, but they could also sow doubts and undermine the trust of users towards the credibility of sources. This social disappointment and trust unrest were fuelled by numerous bots on Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit. Using bot farms became one of the most effective AI-based tools for spreading fake news, propaganda, and conspiracy.
The main drawback of Russian intelligence was using existing texts along with stealing real profiles. These tactics can be easily revealed by OSINT practitioners. In this regard, the new frontier would be AI-based original content. Some platforms such as GPT-3, and PeaceData are able to produce original content. Based on the system, which precipitates taking the text patterns and guessing the following facets, these platforms are primed to make the information campaigns cheaper, faster, more far-reaching, and more effective. For instance, GPT-3 can swap facts, and numbers, playing with the names of famous people. It can also generate pieces, poems, tweets, essays, and even computer codes if such a request might come up.
Apart from being less expensive, AI-based tools make information campaigns more time-consuming and detrimental. The latter – damage – is quite tricky to measure, as even the fact of spreading propaganda-related pieces can trigger trust issues, information escapism, and passive engagement of politically and socially active users. Shadowing and silencing civil society are becoming more and more popular tools among authoritarian entities aspiring to preserve their regimes.
Revealing the Narrative Toolkit for Spreading Russian Mythology
In order to understand better how this Russian card is played in the digital world, which became the new frontier of politics, we should outline the metrics for exploring the corresponding topic. The methodological facet of this paper dwells on researching the relevant eco-chambers on Twitter. This research suggests two hashtags to be explored. The first hashtag relates to the affiliation of the accounts to Russia or the Russian agenda – #istandwithrussia. This hashtag does not exist in a vacuum, it is closely linked to other hashtags from the same cohort as #istandwithputin, #f*ckukraine, #notonato, #zelenskywarcriminal. The following visual figure shows the connections among the clusters related to the aforementioned hashtag. Given the limitations of the software version used for this paper (Basic), we can at least scratch the surface of the collected data by exploring accounts that get mostly referenced and accounts that reference others. For this purpose, we choose the variables called ‘in-degree’ (being referenced) and ‘out-degree’ (the accounts that make references). We sort the data in descending order to fish out the most popular accounts that allegedly become the main transmitters of the propaganda-heavy content. We choose the visualization of the clusters run by these accounts by adding their profile pictures to the image so that we could easily navigate among different eco-chambers.
The first eco-chamber suggests the distorted reality content. The active users of this cluster truly believe that it is not Russia that keeps shelling and bombing Ukrainian cities but Ukraine committing war crimes against its own people. The second cluster is spreading the conspiracy about ‘the external influence’, CIA and Soros standing behind the developments in Ukraine. This eco-chamber is advocating for the misleading idea that Ukraine is NATO’s proxy and ‘the decaying West’ is trying to bring on themselves the Third World War. According to the data collected by NodeXL, a lion’s share of tweets is sponsored by the Serbian population. From the geopolitical point of view, it is not the most astonishing observation, given the pro-Russian sentiments driven by similar colonial ambitions in the Balkans.
Another hashtag that relates to unpacking Russian revisionism comes as #naziukraine. This hashtag is used by Russian aficionados to spread the fakes about ‘neonazis’ in Ukraine. This common trope of Russian propaganda is closely interrelated with the far-right discourse monopolizing social platforms. It is paradoxical that while being one of the main stakeholders of the far-right agenda, Russia is trying to frame its position in an opposite way, changing the ontological modality of its fake-heavy content. Such a game being regularly played by Russia backs the statement that if one wants to find out what Russia is going to do next, one should keep an eye out for what Russia accuses others of.
According to Ravndal (2018) and Michael (2019), the current threat from the right wing in Europe is becoming not only more likely but even less manageable. Notwithstanding, Russia’s double-game, the witnesses of which we are (un)lucky to be, opens a floor to numerous speculations that the right-wing discourses seem not only to lose their ‘main stakeholder’ – Russia – but trigger the noticeable shift in rethinking its core principles and ideological facets.
In fact, the provisions of the Minsk agreements would have led to the loss of Ukrainian sovereignty through federalization. This would make the reintegrated regions of Donetsk and Luhansk an obstacle to conducting a truly independent foreign policy. They would have had the right to veto any attempts to join NATO and the EU. One could argue that Ukraine benefited from the agreement, as it allowed it to stop major fighting and gave time for Ukraine to rebuild its army and economy. But Russia also gained a benefit – it had an opportunity to escalate the situation within Ukraine whenever it wanted to push its own agenda without caring too much about its reputation. That is why the ceasefire was usually violated – Russia did not withdraw heavy weaponry and artillery systems according to the agreement. OSCE reports often indicated violations of the ceasefire hundreds or even thousands of times per day. I would also argue that the Minsk negotiations were primarily used by Russia to plan an all-out invasion and check the reaction of the collective West. As a result, the Minsk agreement at its core was designed in such a way that it could not resolve the conflict.
The main cluster (in the center) draws its ‘conclusions’ regarding the narrative of so-called Ukrainian nationalistic sentiments appealing to the fact of collaboration between the Ukrainian SS division and Nazis. This oversimplification coming from the top-ranked Russian propagandist channels is definitely a startling example of how the right-wing discourse causes a destructive effect on geopolitical and cultural norms (especially when it comes to forced co-existence with rogue states like Russia).
The narrative corresponds to the historical Ukrainian statecraft process of the XX century, when Ukrainians were driven to ally with Germans as they regarded German capabilities as a valuable asset to build a highly qualified professional army. This was the first step in renewing Ukrainian statehood.
In retrospect on Russian relations with Ukraine, we see that the question of Ukrainian statehood has been annoying Moscow for centuries, decades, and years. That’s why the modern ideologists of the ‘Russian world’ put much effort to persuade the whole world that Ukrainians fought for Nazi ideals during WWII.
However, according to three court rulings on war criminals, the Gestapo, the SD, and the SS, the Nuremberg trials have never convicted the whole organizations but certain groups. In the case of the SS, such a group included individuals officially admitted to the SS. For being accepted to the SS, the individuals were supposed to meet a bunch of criteria, and one of them was confirming the purity of the Aryan race up to the 5th generation. No wonder the 14th Grenadier Galician Division of the SS (composed of Ukrainians, whom the Nazis did not count as Aryans) was not even considered war criminals during the Nuremberg process as they could not get membership in the SS.
Granted, the selective Russian narration avoided mentioning the fact that there were some Russian SS divisions either (29 and 30 Divisions consisted of primarily Russians; even though few Belarus and Ukrainians participated in the 30th one as well). In the end, it was only the Ukrainian squad that joined the French Resistance later to fight the rest of Reich’s army. However, delving into this topic on Twitter (even if the user creates a thread) is almost impossible. The fact of collaboration is enough to create the eco-chamber with shared hatred against Ukrainians having fought on the Nazi’s side several decades ago.
Another common trope being pushed through these clusters fits into the ‘Self-Other’ metrics constructed by the Russian machinery. It refers to the external influence imposed on Ukraine depriving Kyiv of agency. Such a trope has been an alienable element of Russian propaganda, triggering numerous information campaigns aimed at discrediting the legitimate Ukrainian government. The manipulative nature of these messages seeks to identify the vulnerabilities of the collective West. For instance, numerous references to taxes spent to help Ukraine are primed to rock the boat in some European countries. The content is written in French, German, Italian, and Spanish. The topics related to sending weapons and humanitarian aid to Ukraine are converted by Russian aficionados into preaching for spreading a myth about highly corrupt Ukrainian authorities that might misuse the received arms. The very existence of such narratives is already enough for paving the way for Russian ideas. Even a pinch of salt, a grain of doubt, or a shadow of hesitance can be considered a small victory in such tense information wars for the hearts and minds of people.
To sum up, the information frontline became one of the most significant facets of manifesting Russian revisionism. Despite Russian sheer losses, tactical and strategic failures at the conventional war on Ukrainian soil, Solzhenitsyn’s macro-Slavic illusions are still prevailing within Russian vision and trying to make some inroads through various communication channels including the digital ones. The well-oiled machinery of Russian propaganda proved to be able to adjust to the modern communication conventions along with using the digital toolkit to identify the possible vulnerabilities of the hostile ‘Other’. Playing with narration and distorting hard evidence became key means being permanently applied by the Kremlin in pursuit of its delusional interests. Challenging the current status quo not only at the land, sea, and air battlefields but also at the field for winning people’s minds and hearts situates Russia at the ontologically opposite coordinate system to the liberal order aficionados. The sheer losses from the Russian side, its obnoxious violation of international law, and numerous war crimes pose a severe threat not only to the regional chessboard but to the current world order, which barely can be called ‘rules-based’ anymore.
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