Integrity Initiative in Hiding? Whitehall Launches Secret European ‘Disinformation Factory’
On 3rd April, Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) minister Alan Duncan revealed his department’s ‘Counter Disinformation and Media Development Programme’ — which bankrolls the Institute for Statecraft and its Integrity Initiative subsidiary — was funding a new endeavour, Open Information Partnership (OIP).
The announcement, buried in a response to a written parliamentary question, was supremely light on detail — Duncan merely said the effort would “respond to manipulated information in the news, social media and across the public space”. Official fanfare was also unforthcoming — there was no accompanying press release, briefing document, or even mention of the launch by any government minister or department via social media channels.
Similarly, virtually no information can be found online about OIP, and the organisation’s spartan single-page official website offers scant insight, consisting almost entirely of a 300-word-long burst of corporate jargon — although the initiative is said to be “a diverse network of established organisations and individuals across Europe working in open, independent, fact-based reporting”, comprised of “NGOs, charities, academics, thinktanks, journalists, factcheckers and activists”.
“We joined together in response to the rising tide of manipulated information — in the news, on social media and across our public discourse — which we believe to be an existential threat to democracy…We pool our resources to increase our individual and collective strength, through peer-to-peer learning, open information exchange and skill-sharing. We help each other to do what we already do — but more of it, and better,” the OIP’s mission statement begins.
“Democracy cannot thrive without honest, accurate and freely available information about the world around us…We need to know where our information is coming from, we need to know the motives (good, bad or neither) of those providing the information, and be in the habit of thinking critically about everything we read and hear. Every one of us has the right to be properly informed — that knowledge gives us strength. Every one of us shares responsibility for informed engagement and critical thinking, to challenge the powerful and uncover the truth…An engaged population, equipped with clarity and the truth, is the foundation for a world where we can all enjoy greater equality and greater peace.”
So far, so unilluminating — but things get interesting when one scrolls further down, for nestled beneath the text are the logos of four “OIP Partners”; Bellingcat, the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Lab, Media Diversity Institute, and Zinc Network.
The involvement of these organisations in the project raises further and graver questions about precisely what OIP intends to do, where, and how — but clarity from Whitehall on the Partnership’s activities, modus operandi, sphere of operations and budget remains largely unforthcoming almost three months after its ostensible launch.
Indeed, the public would be almost entirely in the dark on these key points and many others were it not for a suspiciously serendipitous leak of classified documents 10 days prior to Duncan’s understated pronouncement.
On 25th March a fresh batch of internal Institute for Statecraft files was dumped on the web. It was difficult to know what to make of the trove at first for it was quite unlike previous releases, consisting exclusively of documents relating to ‘EXPOSE’ — a worldwide “network of NGOs” the FCO wished to construct under the auspices of its aforementioned ‘Counter Disinformation and Media Development Programme’. The project was “expected to start in the summer of 2018 and be completed by March 2021”, and had a proposed budget of £9,750,000.
“The Foreign & Commonwealth Office is looking for a consortium of contractors to build a network of actors who expose disinformation across Europe, provide core funding to NGOs with the most potential for impact…A scoping study has identified 56 organisations from Georgia to Spain who research, identify and expose state disinformation activity in a variety of ways…The project is overt, no attempt should be made to disguise activity,” a ‘terms of reference’ document states.
It’s unclear when the document was circulated, but on 7th August 2018 CDMD chief Andy Pryce — a close associate of Integrity Initiative — met with a number of potential contractors. Despite the tender’s cautions against “disguising activity”, attendees were compelled to sign non-disclosure agreements, obliging them among other things to adhere to the stringent confidentiality requirements of the 1911 and 1989 Official Secrets Acts, thus forbidding them from discussing the meeting or any arrangement arising therefrom with anyone.
One such nominee, Zinc Network, subsequently submitted a ‘technical proposal’ to the FCO 31st August, offering to “bring together” a consortium comprised of itself, Bellingcat, the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Lab, the Media Diversity Institute, the Institute for Statecraft, and Aktis Strategy — in other words, the exact same players involved in OIP, bar the Institute and Aktis.
In the document’s “executive summary”, Zinc sets out a terrifying vision of the threat posed to the Western world by “state-backed disinformation”, claiming the Kremlin manipulates “the information environment” to further “anti-democratic objectives, such as undermining the credibility of mainstream media, growing cynicism and distrust towards democratic institutions and processes, increasing polarisation between communities, or destabilising international alliances”.
“We must therefore deploy a broad suite of approaches which go beyond fact checking or myth busting, and use audience-centric communications to undermine the credibility of disinformation sources for specific target audiences whilst building their resilience in the long term,” the summary concludes.
In order to achieve these lofty goals, the consortium pledged to unite “disparate organisations around Europe, training and supporting them across key areas to increase their ability to deliver effective counter-disinformation activities, anchored in research and data” — this “ecosystem of credible voices” would then “continue to grow, exposing the actors and networks behind Kremlin-backed disinformation, reducing unwitting multipliers of disinformation, and building resilience amongst key target audiences across Europe”.
“Our proposal offers; deep geopolitical and practical understanding of Kremlin’s disinformation activities across Europe; both in-house teams and existing networks of CSOs [Civil Society Organisations], activists, media organisations and practitioners able to effectively counter disinformation at pace and scale; an operating model that adapts to local contexts and iterates strategy and tactics based on insights from ongoing monitoring and evaluation; a proven approach to building and managing networks in a way that optimises delivery whilst sustainably building their capacity through co-creation and embedded learning and focused core funding; a robust approach to risk management and safeguarding based on experience delivering discreet high-security, high-value projects for government clients including the FCO and the Home Office,” the file states.
While a stultifying master-class in inscrutable management speak, the wording has clear echoes of OIP’s online manifesto — and indeed seems to be describing exactly the same operation as OIP.
Beyond that resemblance however, Roman Shutov, program director of Kiev-based NGO Detector Media (formerly Telekritika), is named as ‘EaP [European Partnership] Network Manager’ in the proposal — on his Facebook page, he lists his current job as ‘EaP Network Manager at Open Information Partnership’.
Christiaan Triebert, a former Bellingcat ‘Digital Forensics Specialist’ named as part of EXPOSE’s ‘Training Support’ team, also made some revealing disclosures when quizzed about the document on Twitter by Dutch journalist Eric van de Beek.
Triebert claimed he was “surprised” to see his name in the file given it hadn’t been discussed with him previously, but his enquiries to Bellingcat revealed the proposal was merely a “draft version” — he went on to imply the proposal or something very similar to it was green-lit, as he revealed Bellingcat had been “subcontracted by Zinc Network to give workshops to journalists in the Baltic States and Balkans” on the FCO’s dime. Training journalists in these countries and others to conduct ‘open source investigations’ — Bellingcat’s stock-in-trade — was a key facet of the EXPOSE proposal.
Where Art Thou?
If OIP is EXPOSE, why is it missing some players? That Aktis is no longer involved is understandable — the firm mysteriously went bust in March, despite trousering vast amounts of FCO cash for running a wide range of security and development programs in countries including Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Tunisia.
The reason for the Institute for Statecraft’s apparent absence is less clear. While the organisation essentially went to ground in January, closing the Initiative website and its own (“pending an investigation into the theft of data” from its servers) and removing videos from its YouTube channel, the pair continue to publish content via online blog platform Medium, and the Initiative’s Twitter remains active, although its posts are overwhelmingly retweets with little or no editorialising.
It can only be speculation, but it seems almost certain the Institute remains involved, and its role is being concealed. Indeed it’s somewhat inconceivable the organisation isn’t — its operatives, structures and contacts are absolutely fundamental to the EXPOSE proposal.
Among Institute staff named in the document is corporate and commercial lawyer James Wilson, listed as a potential legal advisor to EXPOSE — his accompanying biography states he’s assisted the Institute on a number of legal issues, including scouring “articles, blogs and other publications to assess liability for libel”.
Intriguingly, the resume variously refers to Integrity Initiative as an “FCO programme” and “FCO project”, confirming what many have long-suspected — far from being merely government funded, the Initiative is in fact a secret UK government operation.
The reason for the Initiative’s actual nature being obscured is implied in another document, which sets out the terms of a proposal to “understand and counter Russian active measures”. At its conclusion, the author states the project is “best undertaken outside direct government control to minimise the inevitable accusation of being part of an orchestrated state-sponsored active measure”.
“Using the IfS extensive and trusted network, including its existing Integrity Initiative, can keep the project somewhat under the radar while still accessing state and non-state actors that may not be so open with central government approaches in this area,” the file states.
Similarly, there would be obvious reasons for obscuring the Institute’s attachment to OIP — any endeavour the organisation is publicly involved in now will be subject to intense scrutiny, and reasonably assumed to be a state disinformation operation or military intelligence front from the off.
This is attention OIP clearly wishes to avoid, so hiding the Institute’s role in the effort would be understandable. One palpable difference between EXPOSE and its apparent OIP alter ego is the former was intended to have a “public profile” and “attract media attention” — conversely, OIP’s government funders and ‘partners’ seem bizarrely keen to sweep the new venture under the rug.
Astoundingly, as of 4th July OIP’s launch has only been reported by a single mainstream media outlet — Sky News, in an article published 23rd May, which sparingly stated the venture would “give grants, training and other forms of support to think tanks, academics and media outlets involved in fact-checking, investigative journalism and exposing fake news”.
Coincidentally, the article was written by Deborah Haynes, who has demonstrably written a great many articles based on meetings arranged and/or convened by the Institute, information — or perhaps disinformation — it has provided to her, and featuring comments from its staff and/or cluster members.
“The UK is thought to be the only European country building this kind of grassroots network against false information…Some three dozen organisations in 13 countries largely in central and eastern Europe have already signed up to the initiative,” she wrote.
Likewise, the only truly public promotion of OIP by an individual involved to date has been provided by Bellingcat chief Eliot Higgins, who tweeted 4th April he was “looking forward to getting things rolling with the Open Information Partnership”, tagging his accomplices in the post.
If we are to take EXPOSE as an at least rough blueprint for OIP, then the endeavour is troubling in the absolute extreme.
The consortium offered to construct a “high impact” global network to “counter disinformation in target countries”, providing participants with “core funding” and helping them access “third-party funding opportunities”, along the way putting in place “governance structures, operating procedures, risk management approaches and basic legal and insurance requirements to increase organisational sustainability”.
It would also ensure members are “upskilled and mentored in best practice in exposing and countering disinformation” across a gamut of methods, from “open source research through to viral video production and digital targeting as well as cyber security, libel and data compliance”.
Participating entities would be able to increase the “pace, scale and quality” of their outputs and target “vulnerable audiences” through a process of “campaign co-creation”, in order to “link the organisations across borders” — the network would then “feed learnings to wider stakeholders”, including policy-makers.
If the reference to “vulnerable audiences” sounds alarming, that’s because it is. A section further on in the file discusses the importance of securing an “understanding of the drivers (psychological, sociopolitical, cultural and environmental)” underpinning those audiences, and assessing “what attitudinal groupings exist, and what kinds of messages are important to them”, grouping individuals “by attitudes, overlaid with traits (e.g. demographics, lifestyles, media consumption, cultural context), to create ‘personas’”.
This understanding will be “enhanced with behavioural insights gathered from qualitative research and/or linguistic analysis of online conversations”, in order to provide a “360 picture” of; “the individual context — who the person is: values, attitudes, beliefs; self and social identity”; “the cultural context — who’s around them, what do they hear: community, influencers, social norms”; “the environmental context — what do they experience around them, where are they in life: politics, economics, geography, media, comms/messaging, education/knowledge”.
In other words, Zinc et al seek to target not merely vulnerable groups but vulnerable people, understand their innermost thoughts, drives and desires, then exploit those values to convert targets to their way of thinking. The proposal also suggests expanding the project’s scope beyond mere organisations to “the wider population, including small groups that may not be official organisations, individual activists, and concerned citizens”. This would provide participating organisations with a “larger pool of volunteers”, who could further be used to establish an online public platform that would lend bogus popular legitimacy to Whitehall’s project.
“This could look [emphasis added] like the creation of a neutral fact-checking and disinformation de-bunking hub available in multiple languages…Having a neutral, ad-free news and information platform available in multiple languages would be a unique opportunity for the FCO to amplify and harness the power of the voices that audiences trust most: people like themselves [emphasis added],” the author suggests.
Participating NGOs are divided into three tiers, based on “the FCO’s regional focus” and “impact factor” (defined as “potential to influence target audiences”). The first — “High Impact, Priority Countries” — comprises 30 percent of organisations involved, drawn from the Baltic States, Moldova, Georgia, Ukraine, Belarus, “the Visegrad Four” (Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia) and Western Balkans. The second — “High Impact, Rest of Europe” — comprises 40 percent of organisations involved, the third 30 percent.
A ‘Project Board’ — comprised of Institute for Statecraft founder and director Chris Donnelly, Aktis Strategy ‘Behavioural Communications Expert’ Amil Khan and Zinc Network Managing Director Louis Brooke — is proposed to oversee the activities of the individual NGOs and wider network, with the assistance of a six-strong ‘Advisory Panel’ (featuring among others former Institute staffer and current Atlantic Council Digital Forensics Lab Senior Fellow Ben Nimmo, and Peter Pomerantsev, member of the Integrity Initiative’s UK cluster).
Together, they were to identify “opportunities and threats” and set “an overall strategy for the project”. This will be communicated to network managers (such as Roman Shutov), the project’s local ‘cutouts’, who in turn will “assess individual members, identify their needs and design and commission bespoke packages of support for them from the project Hub”, develop relationships with “governmental stakeholders” and “work with locally-active donors” such as the EU and US, “to understand their strategic priorities…identifying potential areas for collaboration and/or co-funding”.
Connecting with and assessing the 56 organisations identified by the FCO is projected to be extremely easy, given the consortium’s “existing relationships with every organisation identified” — the collective is said to be able to “immediately onboard” the groups in question. These “existing relationships” seem to have arisen primarily via the Integrity Initiative’s “pre-existing pool of contacts”, but also the coalition working with the groups directly — several case studies in the document refer to projects already conducted by the consortium, including an effort earlier in 2018 to increase the “reach and resonance” of a number of “independent media outlets” in Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus.
It’s unclear who or what funded this effort, and what it entailed — but as a result the consortium is “uniquely well-positioned” to expand the international network by identifying and working with organisations beyond those already selected by the FCO.
“Gaining access to additional geographies, sectors and tactics by adding to the network is a key way the consortium will add value…we have pioneered network-building as a strategic approach to disinformation and communications challenges,” the proposal explains.
If those strategies and techniques aren’t suitably suspect, some portions of the document are entirely overt in framing the operation as an insidious tool for achieving Whitehall’s global policy objectives.
For instance, a section titled ‘election focus’ discusses how the project intends to influence “elections taking place in countries of particular interest [emphasis added] to the FCO”.
“The network would…monitor online communications around the election three months ahead of the event, identifying key trends and flashpoints in activity or narratives. This activity could be intensified six weeks prior to the election itself, accompanied with the training of network members operating in the country…The team could test different approaches to engage targeted audiences…We could also build some network members into a longer-term election cluster of organisations who prioritise this in their routine activity,” the proposal states.
Examples offered of the consortium’s work to date are by implication similarly unnerving. For instance, in Ukraine the coalition collaborated with a 12-strong group of online ‘influencers’ “to counter Kremlin-backed messaging through innovative editorial strategies, audience segmentation, and production models that reflected the complex and sensitive political environment”, in the process allowing them to “reach wider audiences with compelling content that received over four million views”.
Another case study outlines how the consortium established a covert network of “YouTubers” in Russia and Central Asia, working with them to create videos “promoting media integrity and democratic values”. Participants were also taught how to “make and receive international payments without being registered as external sources of funding” and “develop editorial strategies to deliver key messages”, while the consortium minimised their “risk of prosecution” and managed “project communications” to ensure the existence of the network, and indeed the consortium’s role, were kept “confidential”.
Reading between the lines, it’s surely not much of a leap to suggest these were textbook ‘astroturfing’ initiatives, in which the consortium covertly ‘helped’ the organisations and individuals involved craft slick, Whitehall-funded propaganda surreptitiously extolling the UK government’s own “key messages” while masquerading as independent citizen journalism, which was then amplified globally via the consortium’s “pool of contacts” and other channels.
Reinforcing this interpretation, at the conclusion of the proposal is a section titled ‘Risk Management’, which makes clear the consortium were acutely aware of the many operational and reputational hazards inherent in pursuing the project — a table (dubbed “indicative risk register”) names potential dangers, rates their impact and likelihood (low — high), then sets out “mitigation” strategies and techniques.
Key among these risks is the project “[being] interpreted as a UK-sponsored disinformation or ‘troll factory’”, a prospect that would “seriously [undermine] the UK’s reputation and agenda in this space”.
The impact is considered high, likelihood medium — to mitigate the danger, the consortium proposes to “position the project externally [emphasis added] as being within the established and accepted sector of media development and pluralism and fact checking” and make “explicit” its members are “independent”.
That OIP is a “disinformation factory” should be obvious from the players involved, and I’ll be publishing extensive analyses of OIP’s four ‘partners’ and select NGOs in its expansive web in weeks to come.
Still, despite all my digging, and all those words, as ever with Integrity Initiative we’re left with little resolution, but a great many questions. One thing’s clear though — OIP and its Whitehall backers have no interest whatsoever in openness, democracy, truth, accuracy, equality or peace. In reality, they seek to operate in the shadows, contorting the public mind into shapes befitting Britain’s financial, political, military and ideological interests, using manipulation, distortion, indoctrination, defamation, propaganda and lies.
It’s anyone’s guess what toxic agitprop will travel and has already travelled round the world and back as a result of the Partnership‘s efforts, infecting and influencing perceptions, actions, legislation and policy every step of the way — but I’m determined to find out.