The Grey War of Our Time: Information Warfare and the Kremlin's Weaponization of Digital Russian-Language News

May 4, 2017

Logo of Sputnik multimedia news agency via Wikimedia.

On May 3, 2017, Miranda Lupion's paper on the Kremlin's weaponization of digital Russian-language news was selected as the winner of the Council's third annual Student Research Conference. Afterwards, Carnegie Council Senior Fellow Devin Stewart, who organized the conference, conducted this email interview with her.

DEVIN STEWART: What was the topic of the research you presented at Carnegie Council?

MIRANDA LUPION: My research studied the Kremlin's ability to weaponize digital Russian-language news in order to garner support for Moscow's interventions in the near abroad. Specifically, I compared state-backed news outlets' coverage of the 2008 Russian-Georgian War to their reporting on the 2014 Crimean annexation. I sought to quantify the terms through which articles framed these events and to understand how shifts in thematic framing might indicate improvements in Russia's information warfare capabilities.

DEVIN STEWART: Why did you select that topic? What was the process of doing the research?

MIRANDA LUPION: I spent summer 2016 interning in the Press Office of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, where I focused specifically on digital media. It was a complete blast, and I was fortunate to work under a dynamic team of American Foreign Service officers and local Russian staff members who are integrating technology and analytics into both the Embassy's social media strategies and their study of Russian social media and digital news.

While I relished the hands-on fast-paced work of the Embassy Press Office, I knew I wanted to delve more deeply into the study of Russia's digital media landscape and the potential that new media has to serve as a soft-power tool. While the majority of Russians still turn to television as their primary news source, an increasing portion are looking to online news sites, news aggregators, and social media for updates. This is a trend that experts expect will continue. Accordingly, the Kremlin has responded by asserting more control over the "RuNet" (a loving term for the Russian internet) and has integrated digital information strategies into its military doctrines.

In light of these developments, Russia's weaponization of digital news is an increasingly relevant subject—especially in the context of the rise of hybrid/grey/non-linear warfare. However, there hasn't been much academic work on the topic. My project seeks to fill a very small part of that gap. There is a pressing need for research on the Kremlin's foreign language digital news outlets, such as Sputnik and RT, as well as on Moscow's use of social media and the infamous "trolls."

My own study used quantitative and qualitative content analysis. I used a randomization process to select around 30 articles per case (ten per outlet per case) for a total of around 60 articles in the sample. I then coded for over a 130 specific keywords, each of which corresponded to one of six thematic perspectives. This technique allowed me to focus on the broad themes the coverage represented. After compiling the numerical results, I read the articles and translated certain excerpts into English for further analysis.

DEVIN STEWART: What were your findings?

MIRANDA LUPION:  I found that from 2008 to 2014, coverage became increasingly more pro-Kremlin in word and narrative choice. Additionally, while all three outlets in my study portrayed the 2008 conflict in overwhelmingly humanitarian terms, the same three outlets covered the 2014 annexation through varying thematic perspectives. This decline in thematic consistency across outlets corresponded to a rise in the thematic diversity of coverage—what I call sophistication—of the Crimean case. Specifically, I learned that four themes dominated coverage of Ukraine: legal, chaotic/aggressive, western interventionist, and historical/cultural. News articles in this sample questioned the legality of the political changes in Kyiv while celebrating the legitimacy of the referendum in Crimea. They emphasized the chaos allegedly fueled by protesters in Western Ukraine and supposedly backed by the EU and the U.S. Finally, outlets effectively drew on Russian national memory, comparing Poroshenko's supporters to Nazis and using historically charged vocabulary, typically employed to describe the Great Patriotic War (WWII), to narrate the present-day conflict.

Based on these findings, I argue that from 2008 to 2014, Moscow improved its ability to capitalize on the benefits of digital news—namely the unlimited publication space of digital media—to increase the thematic reach and persuasiveness of its coverage.

DEVIN STEWART: How have your findings been received?

MIRANDA LUPION: I completed this study a little less than a month ago, and I am currently working with my advisor, Dr. Sara McGuire, to get it published. However, so far readers are surprised to learn that these state-backed outlets aren't publishing the same stories in the same terms, but rather they're drawing on a variety of perspectives and using more nuanced techniques to convey pro-Kremlin positions. This strategy obviously contrasts with what we think of when we consider "typical" Soviet-era propaganda—the repetition of slogans, the seemingly simplistic and singular thematic line on any given event.

I think people are also starting to realize that the "digital" isn't necessarily a democratizing force. The internet can offer a greater variety of perspectives and may aid in breaking hybrid or authoritarian regimes' hold on the population. However, for savvy governments who can successfully regulate the net, the digital sphere affords states another avenue for influence. 

One of the most valuable critiques of these findings is that we can't really measure the impact this news has on consumers' behaviors and thoughts. At this point, all I can do is speculate on the impact, using anecdotal evidence, historical context, and the existing academic literature. It is tricky to accurately measure page views and readership for these outlets—let alone to connect page views to reliable polls and control for other factors. But that's where I'd like to go next with this project.

Americans also try to connect my research to the "fake news" phenomenon in our own digital media. However, I would caution against that. The Russian articles I studied aren't fake per se. Rather, they're heavily biased or slanted coverage of a particular real event. I think this sophisticated and sometimes subtle slanting makes them more potent than outright "fake news" stories, which can be verified against other sources and deemed categorically "false". That stuff is black-and-white. On the contrary, Russian digital news isn't entirely false, and so it exists in this hard-to-verify grey area.

To be fair, in Russia, there is the occasional reporting of outright fake stories, but that seems to be more the exception than the norm.

DEVIN STEWART: What do you plan to do in the future about Russian information warfare?

MIRANDA LUPION: I'm graduating this May, and hopefully I'll be using my Russian-language skills to work on policy related to this issue.

DEVIN STEWART: Why are you so passionate about this issue?

MIRANDA LUPION: Among many causes, Carnegie actively supports media freedom, and that's something that, as the daughter of a former journalist, I am particularly passionate about. I also believe that the web has enormous educational potential, but that this potential requires a environment that fosters independent journalism and is a platform for multiple viewpoints. Biased or slanted reporting will always exist, but the presence of other outlets and perspectives dull its impact. The Kremlin's crackdown on independent media stifles dissenting voices, undermining the country's development as a whole. More generally, it discourages creative or independent thought.

I also have a deep appreciation for classic nineteenth and twentieth century Russian literature. In these works, authors often grapple with the question of legitimate truth and, in some cases, an institution's monopoly on truth. Isaac Babel's Red Cavalry can be read as a study in the breakdown of Soviet or ideological truth in the face of experienced truth during the Russian civil war. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago uses prose-like language, sarcasm, and irony, in part, to disrupt the monotony of bookish authoritarian language. Symbolist poet Aleksandr Blok once even wrote that the highest truth can be found in wine. I think Russian literature's preoccupation with truth speaks both to the perennial challenge of censorship and mankind's almost innate desire to know the truth.

And so for me, this issue touches on both larger abstract questions surrounding to the human condition and practical governance and policy concerns.

Thanks!

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