On the trolls patrolling the Crimean conflict information front

Andrzej Szeptycki · 19 April 2014

The Ukrainian revolution, the annexing of Crimea by Russia and subsequent attempts at destabilising south-eastern Ukraine have led to the most severe crisis between the Russian Federation and the West for a quarter of a century. Andrzej Szeptycki describes the inner workings of the information war being waged by Russia.

Moscow’s Allies

The West – and I am here considering both the states and their people – is not speaking as one in response to the crisis in Ukraine. Russia can count on assistance from certain influential allies, who defend her interests in both political and media arenas.

There are a number of players in this political sphere. Firstly, these are the governments of various EU and NATO nations which, for a number of reasons, are on friendly terms with Russia. In one of their reports, The European Council on Foreign Relations named Greece and Cyprus as Russia’s “Trojan horses”. From a Polish perspective, however, Hungary is even more interesting. Viktor Orbán, who once again triumphed in recent parliamentary elections, does not support sanctions against Russia. Hungary, from the very start of the year, chose to develop their energy partnership with the Russian Federation (involving a loan to develop the atomic power station in Paks). Such a partnership benefits both parties – Orbán gains support, in spite of his isolation within the EU, while Russia can count on Hungary’s backing inside EU institutions. Of course, one can wonder whether Russian politics in relation to Hungary is not a form of “authoritarian export”, a strategy Moscow is becoming ever more keen to adapt in regions beyond former Soviet Bloc states.

Secondly, Russia can count on the support of European radicals – both from the extreme Right as well as the Left. It is worth remembering that during its “referendum”, an international observation mission was based in Crimea, its role to legitimise the process and outcomes. Poland sent Mateusz Piskorski, a former “Self-defence Party” representative. Members of this party had in the past looked favourably on the election processes in various Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), indicating that unions relating to this political formation do not have a balanced view of Russia. Piskorski was chosen to observe the referendum in Transnistria and South Ossetia, while also acting as an expert for the TV channel Russia Today. Serving alongside Piskorski, according to a certain online portal, were, among others: a former member of the Latvian Communist Party and an activist for its Russian speaking minority, alongside a Finnish neo-Stalinist and also a Catalan separatist. This rather colourful collective doesn’t play any sort of influential part in European politics. More worrying is the fact that even Britain’s Nigel Farage cannot contain his admiration for Vladimir Putin, in his role as leader of the UK Independence Party, a Euro-sceptic formation which could, according to recent surveys, win the right to represent Britain in the European Parliament.

Unions between European far-Right and other radicals could be cause for surprise; Russia is, after all, set against Fascism, especially in neighbouring countries, and is very proud of its conduct in WWII. In practice, cooperation with the aforementioned political forces brings Moscow twofold gains – it legitimises Russia’s activities, and in addition gives hope for the weakening of the EU from within.

Thirdly, we need to also be mindful of the position of the German SPD party in relation to Russia. Its politicians, close to retirement, are still being listened to at home and abroad due to their past standing. The former chancellor Helmut Schmidt considered the annexation of Crimea as wholly justifiable, while Western sanctions to be nonsensical. Gerard Schröder stated that Putin is feeling surrounded and has part-blamed the EU for the Ukrainian conflict, while at the same time pronouncing the annexation of Crimea a breach of international law. In addition, Günter Verheugen, the former EU Commissioner for Enlargement, claimed that the real challenge to European unity is not Moscow’s, but Kiev’s politics – the first 21st century government to include known fascists. The position taken up by Germany’s social-democrats emerges out of at least two causes – the traditionally tolerant SPD style of doing politics with regards to USSR and Russia, as well as personal interests (as in the case of Schröder, who went to work for Gazprom at the end of his time in politics).

Information front

In terms of media platforms, Russia’s main political instrument is Russia Today – their equivalent of CNN. Professionally organised, multilingual, RT reaches, according to some statistics, up to 650 million viewers around the world (including 85 million in the US). Satellite, internet – any which way is good. It is keen to show how bad things are around the world, say, in the United States (the phrase “and they beat blacks where you come from” seems terribly apt at present), but since November, it has been focusing on events in Ukraine. Their message is straightforward. “143,000 Ukrainians have asked for asylum in Russia in the course of a fortnight”, “In Easter Ukraine, thousands have gathered to protest against illegal government, by raising the Russian flag”, “Russia is warning the self-declared president of Ukraine that using force against the Ukrainian civilian population would amount to war crimes”, and so on.

Another media propaganda tool at Russia’s disposal are online discussion forums. A key number of posts written in support of Russian politics are produced by professional “trolls”. The Polish edition of Newsweek magazine has commissioned experts to produce a report on this phenomenon. In their opinion, the comments posted by Russians are different to those penned by pro-Russian Poles. They are longer than your “classic”, amateur entries; it is easy to spot in them a language tuned in terms of both form and content (trolls try to convince, rather than offend); they are published quickly, which, considering their refined form and sizeable content, arises suspicions that they were produced in advance and published “on demand”; and finally they appear mostly on mainstream media portals, such as gazeta.pl, rather than on right-wing or specialised forums.

Russia can also count on certain western media outlets. Handelsblatt, a renowned German economics newspaper, recently criticised Western policies regarding Russia, arguing that “Crimea belongs to Russia, the same as Vermont does to the USA”. Britain’s Daily Mail in turn argued that Russia is not a threat – it is simply “a regional empire which is tired of being put down. It could be a friend to the West, but has instead been provoked for the past quarter of a century”. Thomas Friedman expressed similar sentiments in the New York Times. In his opinion, the expansion of NATO was a mistake – it humiliated Russia, paradoxically aiding Putin’s growing popularity. The authors of these opinion pieces often act in good faith, led by their own convictions, though we must also suppose that some of these articles are penned to order and paid for with roubles.

Between unknowing and political realism

Attitudes of politicians, journalists and experts who come out in support Russia are caused by five key factors. The first of these is the ongoing strength, especially in Eastern Europe, of Russia’s soft power, recalling both Soviet traditions as well as the cult of the strong leader – Vladimir Putin. The second factor is the relative lack of widespread knowledge about Ukraine. Things in this regard have changed radically since the 1990s, although Western media still have no permanent on-site correspondents in Kiev. The third reason is potential economic benefits (such as for Schröder). The fourth – political benefits. Leftist journalists do after all want to criticise the US and NATO. The final cause is political realism, or else, if you like: cynicism – we have to honour Russia’s interests, because that is the nature of international realities; we can’t “save” Ukraine, while an aggressive stance against Russia could harm our own interests.

What sorts of steps can we take on the information front? Censorship, blocking Russian or pro-Russian media (such as Ukraine has done with Russian television broadcasts) does not seem like a good solution. It is, for one, a breach of Western European traditions of free speech. We need a different kind of approach. First and foremost, a pragmatic, objective (and hence not pro-Ukrainian) information campaign. Next: investigative journalism – in a free Poland, Mateusz Piskorski has the right, as a free citizen, to travel abroad and visit various referenda in the role of observer. It would be useful to know, however, whom is he representing and who finances his operations. And, finally, the development of one’s own media and analytical potential. Only in this way can we effectively realise the above objectives and effectively counteract Russia on the field of information battle.

Translated by Marek Kazmierski