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Russia is turning its diplomats into disinformation fighters – POLITICO

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Get moving, RT. There’s a new Russian disinformation player in town.

After the European Union banned Kremlin-backed media and social media giants downgraded their posts for spreading untruths about the war in Ukraine, Moscow has turned to its cadre of diplomats, government spokesmen and ministers – many of whom are major Having a following on social media – to encourage disinformation about the conflict in Eastern Europe, according to four EU and US officials.

The officials spoke to Digital Bridge, POLITICO’s transatlantic newsletter, on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about how Western governments are tracking Kremlin narratives about the war.

Before Russia invaded Ukraine, the country’s officials left outright disinformation tactics to Kremlin-owned media outlets like RT and Sputnik, whose multilingual operations helped spread false narratives to audiences from Latin America to Africa. Instead, Russian officials promoted a positive vision of the country, formulated in diplomatic language within the rules of the existing international political order.

But the gloves have been off since the end of February.

The Russian Embassy in Spain posted a video taken from the now-sanctioned RT, which showed alleged Ukrainian attacks on civilians in the country’s breakaway republics. The country’s representations in Paris and Geneva promoted untruths about the Russian executions of civilians in the city of Bucha. Moscow’s official Facebook account for its Ministry of Foreign Affairs repeatedly shared links to a Russian-language Telegram channel and website that allegedly debunked Ukrainian lies about the ongoing conflict.

Since Russia invaded its western neighbor on February 24, combined Twitter posts from Russian diplomatic accounts have increased by 26 percent compared to the same period before the war. But the level of engagement — in terms of likes and shares — for the same material has increased more than 200 percent since the war began, with those accounts becoming increasingly aggressive in how they spread disinformation, according to the German Marshall Fund of the U.S. Alliance to securing democracy.

“As long as Russian state media continues to be either banned, downgraded, or compromised in some way, they will want to fill this news gap,” said Bret Schafer, head of the Alliance for Securing Democracy’s information manipulation team, which tracks state-backed disinformation. “The best way to do this, to control the narrative, is through their diplomatic reports.”

Russia’s Own “Wolf Warriors”

In times of war, it is not surprising that Russian officials and diplomats gather behind the Kremlin.

But the scale of the disinformation, including the promotion of Russian state media and possibly manipulated images, now being shared by Moscow’s official reports, represents a paradigm shift in the way Russia is promoting its false narratives, according to two EU and US officials .

In many ways Moscow is now leaning heavily on Beijing’s own foreign policy playbook, which focuses on so-called wolf warrior Western-facing social media accounts used by Chinese diplomats to spread their messages around the world. These officials are quick to jump on any perceived insult to China, often spreading false messages about the country’s actions around the world.

The switch was quick and dramatic, coinciding with EU sanctions on RT and Sputnik, and decisions by social media companies to restrict how these state-backed media outlets can share their content online. With the end of the war in Ukraine unclear – and Russia’s isolation on the world stage likely to continue – Western officials said this new use of diplomatic accounts to aggressively spread disinformation was likely to become the new normal.

Shortly after conspiracy theories about a potential American bioweapons laboratory in Ukraine surfaced on the internet, the Russian embassy in the UK got in touch jumped on this train, including sharing alleged satellite imagery of these facilities scattered across the country. other messages posted viral videos of alleged war crimes against Russian-speaking civilians, while the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Twitter account published documents and images — along with the hashtag #DonbassTragedy — similarly accusing Kyiv of committing genocide between 2014 and 2022.

Western governments are starting to hit back. French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said on Thursday he had called the Russian ambassador on the “indecency and provocation” of the embassy’s repeated sharing of untruths via social media about the Bucha executions, which Ukraine said were carried out by Russian forces.

Twitter also said it would not promote Accounts of Russian state officials on its platform, in part because these diplomats and politicians used the social network to spread disinformation. Facebook also said it was considering further action against Kremlin-affiliated sites that spread falsehoods about the war in Ukraine.

“We are actively reviewing other actions we should take, particularly in relation to misinformation and hoaxes coming from Russian government sites,” Nathaniel Gleicher, head of security policy at Meta, Facebook’s parent company, told reporters on Wednesday.

Fake Accounts and Warfakes

Russia is reaching into its bag of tricks to advance its new disinformation strategy.

For example, a significant proportion of Twitter users who interact with this content, created since February, repeatedly share diplomats’ posts – a sign that these users are either fake or created as part of a broader influence scheme, according to an insider EU -Report on Russian disinformation obtained by POLITICO.

A newly created account has posted nearly 100 times since the war began, using Kremlin-linked hashtags like #See4Yourself, while another user has shared 41 of the most engaged posts by Russian officials, almost all of which were untruths about Ukraine.

“That [social media] The reach isn’t the same as Russian state media, but they’re trying to replicate what RT and Sputnik did,” said an EU official involved in prosecuting Russian disinformation. “It’s a coordinated effort that goes beyond social media and includes specific websites. “

At the heart of this broader online playbook is a Telegram channel called Warfakes and an affiliated website. Since the conflict began, this social media channel has gained more than 725,000 members and repeatedly disseminates alleged fact-checks aimed at debunking Ukrainian narratives, using language similar to western-style fact-check channels. The affiliated website, hosted in Russia and registered on March 1, also spreads pro-Russian disinformation and untruths in multiple languages.

Russian diplomats were among the bulk of this content — including dismissing allegations of Russian war crimes and blaming Ukraine for disinformation — loudly research by scientists from the University of Amsterdam. Researchers found that among those who shared warfake content, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, 23 of the country’s embassies from Bulgaria to Kazakhstan, and at least 10 Russians “houses of culture,” mainly within Europe.

“There was this deliberate attempt to keep reposting warfakes [content]. That seems like government sponsorship to me,” he said Marc Tuters, a professor at the University of Amsterdam who helped oversee the research. “It seems more than a coincidence that all of these accounts are promoting this one thing.”

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Russia’s tactics for spreading disinformation about the war in Ukraine are part of a broader transatlantic playbook that includes right-wing extremists and anti-vaccination conspiracy theorists. I’m Mark Scott, POLITICO’s Chief Tech Correspondent, and if you enjoyed this story, check out Digital Bridge, my weekly newsletter on EU-US digital politics.

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