.
A

head of America’s mid-terms the New York Times published a piece warning that Russia had reactivated its trolls and bots. Undoubtedly for those on the receiving end of Moscow’s information warfare, it was news that Moscow’s online minions ever went offline. As Russia’s expanded invasion of Ukraine sucked up all the metaphorical oxygen in the policy space, less attention was certainly paid to the broader context of Moscow’s online efforts. By contrast, greater focus was and remains paid to its ham-fisted efforts (to Western eyes) to sell the war at home and abroad. The “Z” moniker, breathless propaganda about Ukrainian biolabs and pending dirty bomb attacks, accusations of NATO orchestration, and other narratives spewed forth from President Vladimir Putin’s political propagandists and technologists. 

Putin’s Trolls | Jessikka Aro | Ig Publishing

That increased focus was unsurprising—it was and remains, after all, an active war. Accompanying this focus was, however, a misguided assumption (at least by those not paying close attention) that Russia’s other efforts to discredit opponents and shape global narratives had either ebbed or stopped entirely. If Ukraine has proven anything, it is that Putin’s propaganda, bots and trolls, and information warfare will not stop, they will only shift direction and targets, and adapt to evolving mediums.   

Jessikka Aro, a journalist from Finland, offers a frightening first-hand account of the real-world impact of Russia’s information warfare efforts in her book “Putin’s Trolls,” A journalistic account of the backlash of her investigation into Russian propaganda networks in Finland, Aro weaves in the personal accounts of other targets of Moscow’s wrath, from Finland to the United States, Lithuania to the United Kingdom. 

Aro’s very personal experience with Russia’s trolls and their broader constellation of minions is harrowing. The level of harassment, stalking, threats, and personal attacks that made her not only feel unsafe online, but in her own community to the degree that she fled her native Finland, is staggering. It is one thing to read about trolling online and Russia’s information warfare in the abstract, but another entirely to see the real-world consequences of these campaigns on the lives of individuals. 

Putin’s Trolls” is a welcome addition to the growing mosaic of efforts to understand and contextualize Russia’s information warfare. It is a very personal account of not only her experiences investigating Russian trolls and their retaliation against her, but also of those individuals whose stories she relates in vivid detail. Some of the narratives she writes about have been covered at length in their own right, such as Bill Browder’s efforts to pass the Magnitsky Act and Eliot Higgin’s experiences at the helm of the open source research outfit, Bellingcat. These nonetheless help build a picture of the complexity, breadth, and depth of Russia’s efforts to discredit those it sees as threats and to undermine narratives that it sees as running counter to the Kremlin’s interests.  

Of particular note is Aro’s recounting of the former RT America anchor Liz Wahl’s experiences at the network, experiences that eventually led to her on-air resignation. Wahl found herself unable to continue working for the “news” channel as it gradually descended into pure propaganda for the Russian state. She describes how the channel would take moldable (young and inexperienced) journalists and skew their training and experience. Few would learn the art of sourcing, fact-checking, or the basics of journalistic ethics. Those that showed a proclivity toward independent thought—that is thought outside of the Russian narrative—did not last in Wahl’s telling. While the channel had at one point the flimsiest fig leaf of independence, it was for all intents and purposes an state propaganda outlet in the end, when Wahl decided to leave. 

What is striking in Aro’s personal account, and those on whom she reports, is the near continuous and deafening silence from the social media companies through whom this information war is waged. Meta (née Facebook), Twitter, and YouTube, in her reporting, were content to allow the information to transit through their channels, and rarely if ever responded to requests for the removal of harassing or false materials. Even content that was clearly in violation of the tech giants’ own policies remained in place, despite Aro and others flagging the content for review. If they received anything at all in response, it was an auto-generated rebuttal saying the content in question was not in violation of the terms and conditions.   

The missing piece—not from Aro’s book, but from that mosaic—is an overarching frame to pull it all together, a grand unified theory of Russian information warfare that brings together the history of Thomas Rid’s “Active Measures,” the bureaucratic and strategic context of Mark Gaelotti’s “Russian Political War” monograph, the cyber aspects of Dr. Bilyana Lilly’s “Russian Information War,” and works like Nina Jankowicz’s “How to Lose the Information War,” and now Aro’s book. Each book individually is a glimpse at a piece of this complex challenge, but reading them together provides a far richer and more holistic understanding of how the Kremlin operated and indeed operates today. 

Aro’s book is a superb work of journalism and it would have benefited from a bit more of the contextualization of how Russia sees and executes information warfare. Though certainly not her intent, there is a risk of seeing the cases she presents as part of a monolithic, centrally-guided operation from the top of the Kremlin’s power vertical straight through to the hacker at the keyboard. While Russia does certainly operate according to a coherent strategy, the execution of that strategy is done in a highly competitive and entrepreneurial environment. The FSB (state security), SVR (foreign intelligence), GRU (military intelligence), and others such as Yvgeny Prigozhin’s Internet Research Agency, all compete with one another to execute what they infer to be Putin’s desires. 

Assuming that there is a linear path from top to bottom obscures much of the complexity inherent in Russia’s information operations and avenues for its interruption and interdiction. Here, for example, Aro’s exploration of the constellation of “useful idiots,” (as Lenin would say) in the target countries is particularly instructive. In each of the stories Aro describes, there is an alarmingly willing contingent that echoes and enables the Russian propaganda to spread and the trolls to achieve success. Whether it is the far-right or conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones in the United States (although an increasing amount of more “mainstream” conservatives, too), the Nordic Resistance Movement in Sweden, or a local variety of trolls in her native Finland, the Kremlin can and indeed does rely upon a group predisposed to support Russian propaganda.  

This is the underlying truth of Aro’s book and about Russian information warfare writ large—for as talented as Moscow is at exploiting divisions, it is far less capable at creating them from scratch. One could argue Russia does not need to worry about creating these schisms—it is far more efficient and effective to seize upon ready-made narratives and exploit them for their own designs. While the Kremlin may have provided seed funding here or there, or provided a measure of encouragement behind (and not-so behind) the scenes, these groups and individuals were already present in the target countries. 

This complexity and diversity of actors makes addressing information warfare that much more challenging. As Aro experienced, the law is barely a guarantor of her physical safety against online threats and their real-world machinations. Having a more information-savvy population will help the general population, but it will do little for those inclined to supporting extremist narratives—indeed those are the very people most inclined to act. Closing off social media platforms to extremist content, and dis- and mis-information will merely shift the bots to a different medium and raise innumerable questions of free speech. This also assumes that the tech giants will be inclined to act without state intervention or pressure from users—the long-term impact of the popular reaction of Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter remains to be seen. 

There are no upsides to what Aro,or those about whom she writes experienced. Their lives were disrupted, their safety jeopardized, their careers stalled, and relationships altered. Their experiences are, however, illuminating for the complexity of the challenge of responding to Russia’s information warfare and tactics—tactics that are increasingly being adopted by other countries such as China and Iran. 

Aro’s journalism and book are worthy of note, especially in light of the horrific targeting she experienced at the hands of Russian and Finnish trolls. Indeed, she was slated to receive the International Women of Courage Award from the United States for her journalism. Yet, the award was rescinded by the Trump administration after it emerged she had Tweeted negatively about the president. As the Washington Post editorial board wrote, “Ms. Aro deserved the award. She should hold her head high for courage, unlike those who denied her the honor.” Social media sensitivities seem to abound.  

Accounts like Aro’s offer deep insights into the broader constellation of “activists” on which Russia’s efforts rely—insights which are critical if the West is to combat this insidious threat. Despite the New York Times’ insinuation, bots and trolls do not and will not go offline, certainly not without concerted action.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Diplomatic Courier's Book Reviewer and Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

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www.diplomaticourier.com

The Real World Consequences of Putin’s Propaganda

Photo by Max Muselmann on Unsplash


December 3, 2022

The West largely believes that Russia spins up its disinformation machine to interfere in major geopolitical incidents. But Jessikka Aro in her latest book shows how Russia's information warfare has long-lasting impacts regardless of what else is happening, writes Joshua Huminski.

A

head of America’s mid-terms the New York Times published a piece warning that Russia had reactivated its trolls and bots. Undoubtedly for those on the receiving end of Moscow’s information warfare, it was news that Moscow’s online minions ever went offline. As Russia’s expanded invasion of Ukraine sucked up all the metaphorical oxygen in the policy space, less attention was certainly paid to the broader context of Moscow’s online efforts. By contrast, greater focus was and remains paid to its ham-fisted efforts (to Western eyes) to sell the war at home and abroad. The “Z” moniker, breathless propaganda about Ukrainian biolabs and pending dirty bomb attacks, accusations of NATO orchestration, and other narratives spewed forth from President Vladimir Putin’s political propagandists and technologists. 

Putin’s Trolls | Jessikka Aro | Ig Publishing

That increased focus was unsurprising—it was and remains, after all, an active war. Accompanying this focus was, however, a misguided assumption (at least by those not paying close attention) that Russia’s other efforts to discredit opponents and shape global narratives had either ebbed or stopped entirely. If Ukraine has proven anything, it is that Putin’s propaganda, bots and trolls, and information warfare will not stop, they will only shift direction and targets, and adapt to evolving mediums.   

Jessikka Aro, a journalist from Finland, offers a frightening first-hand account of the real-world impact of Russia’s information warfare efforts in her book “Putin’s Trolls,” A journalistic account of the backlash of her investigation into Russian propaganda networks in Finland, Aro weaves in the personal accounts of other targets of Moscow’s wrath, from Finland to the United States, Lithuania to the United Kingdom. 

Aro’s very personal experience with Russia’s trolls and their broader constellation of minions is harrowing. The level of harassment, stalking, threats, and personal attacks that made her not only feel unsafe online, but in her own community to the degree that she fled her native Finland, is staggering. It is one thing to read about trolling online and Russia’s information warfare in the abstract, but another entirely to see the real-world consequences of these campaigns on the lives of individuals. 

Putin’s Trolls” is a welcome addition to the growing mosaic of efforts to understand and contextualize Russia’s information warfare. It is a very personal account of not only her experiences investigating Russian trolls and their retaliation against her, but also of those individuals whose stories she relates in vivid detail. Some of the narratives she writes about have been covered at length in their own right, such as Bill Browder’s efforts to pass the Magnitsky Act and Eliot Higgin’s experiences at the helm of the open source research outfit, Bellingcat. These nonetheless help build a picture of the complexity, breadth, and depth of Russia’s efforts to discredit those it sees as threats and to undermine narratives that it sees as running counter to the Kremlin’s interests.  

Of particular note is Aro’s recounting of the former RT America anchor Liz Wahl’s experiences at the network, experiences that eventually led to her on-air resignation. Wahl found herself unable to continue working for the “news” channel as it gradually descended into pure propaganda for the Russian state. She describes how the channel would take moldable (young and inexperienced) journalists and skew their training and experience. Few would learn the art of sourcing, fact-checking, or the basics of journalistic ethics. Those that showed a proclivity toward independent thought—that is thought outside of the Russian narrative—did not last in Wahl’s telling. While the channel had at one point the flimsiest fig leaf of independence, it was for all intents and purposes an state propaganda outlet in the end, when Wahl decided to leave. 

What is striking in Aro’s personal account, and those on whom she reports, is the near continuous and deafening silence from the social media companies through whom this information war is waged. Meta (née Facebook), Twitter, and YouTube, in her reporting, were content to allow the information to transit through their channels, and rarely if ever responded to requests for the removal of harassing or false materials. Even content that was clearly in violation of the tech giants’ own policies remained in place, despite Aro and others flagging the content for review. If they received anything at all in response, it was an auto-generated rebuttal saying the content in question was not in violation of the terms and conditions.   

The missing piece—not from Aro’s book, but from that mosaic—is an overarching frame to pull it all together, a grand unified theory of Russian information warfare that brings together the history of Thomas Rid’s “Active Measures,” the bureaucratic and strategic context of Mark Gaelotti’s “Russian Political War” monograph, the cyber aspects of Dr. Bilyana Lilly’s “Russian Information War,” and works like Nina Jankowicz’s “How to Lose the Information War,” and now Aro’s book. Each book individually is a glimpse at a piece of this complex challenge, but reading them together provides a far richer and more holistic understanding of how the Kremlin operated and indeed operates today. 

Aro’s book is a superb work of journalism and it would have benefited from a bit more of the contextualization of how Russia sees and executes information warfare. Though certainly not her intent, there is a risk of seeing the cases she presents as part of a monolithic, centrally-guided operation from the top of the Kremlin’s power vertical straight through to the hacker at the keyboard. While Russia does certainly operate according to a coherent strategy, the execution of that strategy is done in a highly competitive and entrepreneurial environment. The FSB (state security), SVR (foreign intelligence), GRU (military intelligence), and others such as Yvgeny Prigozhin’s Internet Research Agency, all compete with one another to execute what they infer to be Putin’s desires. 

Assuming that there is a linear path from top to bottom obscures much of the complexity inherent in Russia’s information operations and avenues for its interruption and interdiction. Here, for example, Aro’s exploration of the constellation of “useful idiots,” (as Lenin would say) in the target countries is particularly instructive. In each of the stories Aro describes, there is an alarmingly willing contingent that echoes and enables the Russian propaganda to spread and the trolls to achieve success. Whether it is the far-right or conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones in the United States (although an increasing amount of more “mainstream” conservatives, too), the Nordic Resistance Movement in Sweden, or a local variety of trolls in her native Finland, the Kremlin can and indeed does rely upon a group predisposed to support Russian propaganda.  

This is the underlying truth of Aro’s book and about Russian information warfare writ large—for as talented as Moscow is at exploiting divisions, it is far less capable at creating them from scratch. One could argue Russia does not need to worry about creating these schisms—it is far more efficient and effective to seize upon ready-made narratives and exploit them for their own designs. While the Kremlin may have provided seed funding here or there, or provided a measure of encouragement behind (and not-so behind) the scenes, these groups and individuals were already present in the target countries. 

This complexity and diversity of actors makes addressing information warfare that much more challenging. As Aro experienced, the law is barely a guarantor of her physical safety against online threats and their real-world machinations. Having a more information-savvy population will help the general population, but it will do little for those inclined to supporting extremist narratives—indeed those are the very people most inclined to act. Closing off social media platforms to extremist content, and dis- and mis-information will merely shift the bots to a different medium and raise innumerable questions of free speech. This also assumes that the tech giants will be inclined to act without state intervention or pressure from users—the long-term impact of the popular reaction of Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter remains to be seen. 

There are no upsides to what Aro,or those about whom she writes experienced. Their lives were disrupted, their safety jeopardized, their careers stalled, and relationships altered. Their experiences are, however, illuminating for the complexity of the challenge of responding to Russia’s information warfare and tactics—tactics that are increasingly being adopted by other countries such as China and Iran. 

Aro’s journalism and book are worthy of note, especially in light of the horrific targeting she experienced at the hands of Russian and Finnish trolls. Indeed, she was slated to receive the International Women of Courage Award from the United States for her journalism. Yet, the award was rescinded by the Trump administration after it emerged she had Tweeted negatively about the president. As the Washington Post editorial board wrote, “Ms. Aro deserved the award. She should hold her head high for courage, unlike those who denied her the honor.” Social media sensitivities seem to abound.  

Accounts like Aro’s offer deep insights into the broader constellation of “activists” on which Russia’s efforts rely—insights which are critical if the West is to combat this insidious threat. Despite the New York Times’ insinuation, bots and trolls do not and will not go offline, certainly not without concerted action.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Diplomatic Courier's Book Reviewer and Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.