As details of Russia’s 2016/2017 influence operations continue to be uncovered, the liberal democracies of Europe and North America face an ongoing barrage of disinformation and active influence campaigns directed from Moscow. The reaction has been shock and confusion, though now some counter-measures are belatedly beginning to take shape. To date, these consist of plans to resist and expose Russian operations in the information space, or attempts to punish Putin’s allies and supporters through sanctions. Both are necessary and should see increasing success over time, but they are slow, reactive, and leave the liberal democracies at an ongoing disadvantage.
In this series of short articles, I want to make the case that these countries urgently need to find a clear and cohesive strategy that can form a credible deterrence against what is, in effect, an existential threat to their systems. In the next section, I argue that we should not be concerned about a strong response worsening Putin’s opinions of the West, given the corrosive nature of his regime and his political outlook and fears. The following sections will briefly summarize why such a deterrence is absolutely necessary — highlighting how Russia’s disinformation apparatus developed during Putin’s hybrid wars in Syria and the Ukraine, and providing a summary of how this influence machine has been deployed with startling effect against the USA as well as member states of the EU.
Finding such a deterrence strategy however is not easy, given the asymmetric nature of the information space, confusion over the methods and measures deployed by Russia, and domestic political divisions in key democratic states — divisions often encouraged and widened by Russia. Responses to date have either been ineffective or will require time and space to gain traction. However, there are other actions that could be taken alongside these defensive and longer-term measures, if the advanced democracies can rally the political will necessary to act.
My own experience with state-backed online information campaigns (albeit in a much more primitive form) goes back more than ten years to 2006. Sharing an interest in any coverage of China, a flat mate and I used to spend some evenings in Beijing — often while watching DVDs of The OC(!) — engaging in debate in the comment threads on one of the few English language sites at that time that frequently covered China: the Asia Times. As the years passed, I moved most of my online discussion to the Financial Times (FT). These sites both provided comment sections under articles.
We quickly identified that there was a group of users, mostly with western-sounding names or English language nicknames, who had subtle telltale signs of grammatical usage suggesting they were not native English speakers. They would always fanatically defend China, and engage anyone raising any criticisms of the country’s history or contemporary policies. It was also soon obvious that they deployed a set “stable” of techniques, such as “whataboutisms”, to distract users from real discussion, provoke anger, and generally ruin any constructive debate or discussion.
It also became apparent that these users would come up with eerily similar arguments on the same day, sometimes with the exact same phrasing; only ever engage under China-related articles; and often didn’t seem interested in understanding the issues. This was especially obvious on the FT, where topics are a bit more specialized and require some grounding in economics, finance, or history.
I also gradually realized that these users would be active at the beginning of the workday China time, to the end of the workday, around 5:30 p.m. This was the biggest sign that they were not “normal” internet users — most people heavily invested in an online debate carry on (wisely or not!) in the evenings and during weekends.
Around this time the phrase wu mao dang 五毛党 (“50 cent party”) emerged in China. This wasn’t about rap music; it was a derogatory term for Chinese state-funded trolls being positioned online, domestically at first, to spread positive news, shout down negative news, distract from embarrassments, and blame any criticism as being “anti-China bias” or the work of a western conspiracy. The name came from the rumor that these trolls were paid five mao (50 cents in Chinese currency terms) for each post they made. As the financial crisis took hold, these Chinese trolls pushed hard on the “Beijing Consensus” and China’s superior economic model and political system.
In 2009, while gearing up to study international relations, I also began focusing on Russia topics. It soon became clear that the Russians had started doing the same thing as the Chinese. These users shared all the characteristics — western names, disruptive (infuriating) communication styles etc. — but this group only focused on Russia, and mostly held to a posting schedule that matched Moscow (I now realize, probably St Petersburg) work times.
These trolls often lost any given argument, but they didn’t seem to care; they would deploy the same points and techniques again and again in different threads. They were always happy to waste people’s time and disrupt the conversation, filling the threads with their often incoherent messages — sometimes with varying English abilities apparent in different paragraphs of the same post. They were actually very successful at this disruption and made it tiring and annoying to use these comment threads constructively. Many “real” commenters just quit, although a few masochists continued to engage the trolls for fun.
This was happening on many of the main English-language news sites, including the BBC, CNN, and the FT. The BBC and CNN eventually closed their comment threads — in part because of trolls. The FT reacted by launching an “invite only” discussion area called the Long Room. I arranged an invite — I was writing on international finance and economics elsewhere by this time — and found that none of the trolls were inside, and there was some actual decent discussion. However, with significantly fewer users, this forum was quiet, with many dormant discussion threads.
Years later, in August 2015, I noticed an extraordinary story about a court case won by a former Russian ‘troll’. Lyudmila Savchuk had successfully sued her former employer, a St Petersburg company named in the report as Internet Research. Lyudmila had quit her job after deliberately setting out to expose the activities of the company. In court, she sued her former employers for labor law infringements, and demanded symbolic damages of just one ruble, and demanded that Internet Research be closed. However, the main aim of the case was to prove and highlight the fact that Kremlin trolls were flooding the domestic and foreign internet with pro-Putin commentary. The Petrogradsky district court granted her damages, but refused to close down Internet Research — who Lyudmila claimed still employed hundreds of people, mostly students.
No one really paid much attention to this news. For me, it was simply an interesting confirmation of a theory that these annoying Russia-focused users on the FT were indeed state-backed trolls. Internet Research wouldn’t cross my mind again for a couple of years, when it returned to the news (in a much larger way) as the Internet Research Agency — a key entity used in Putin’s attack on the societies and democratic systems of multiple EU and NATO countries.
Although we are no longer thinking too much about China (whatever is left of the 50 cent party hardly seems relevant when faced with the current Russian influence operation), there may still be a very significant Chinese part to the future of this story.
Why? Well, failure to deter Russia from its aggressive information warfare will signal an open door for other actors, such as a better-funded, more technically proficient China, to start their own foreign campaigns designed to subvert the political systems of not only the EU and NATO members, but also countries all across the world. With China’s ever-growing global footprint, they could well take a special interest in the littoral states of the Indian Ocean, members of ASEAN, or the states of South America. And China is already a world leader at deploying cutting-edge technology to control its own people, but that is a story for another time.
In the next piece, I shall consider whether or not the adoption of strong deterrence to Russian influence opertaions risks jeopardizing potential better relations between Putin’s regime and the EU, NATO, and USA.