The Use of the Russian Troll During Crimea
By Dr. Sarah Morrison
Swinburne University of Technology, Melbourne Australia
The Russian government controls the spread of information, propaganda and disinformation through a repetitive narrative supported by experts and propagated by trusted sources. This paper will examine Russia’s use of conspiracy theories to run information warfare campaigns. An underlining theme in Russian conspiracy theories examined in this paper is a plot by the West, particularly the US, to undermine Russian values. In this sense, the US and the West are seen as the dangerous ‘other’, polluting Russia’s way of life while trying to wrench away from Russian countries with a large Russian population and a long connection to Russia, such as the former Soviet Union states. The use of conspiracy theory to drive a political agenda in Russia, as will be demonstrated, dates back to the mid 18th century, with anti-Western conspiracy theories being amongst the “most popular instruments of social cohesion used by the political elites to maintain control over the county” (Yablokov, 2018: 48). Examples of anti-Western conspiracy theories include the anti-Semitic conspiracy that appeared in the Soviet Union period, which claimed that the US created a virtual state within Israel to dominate the Middle East. Another more recent example may be seen in the colour revolutions, where Moscow accused the West of orchestrating events to start a revolution in Russia.
In 2013 when a wave of demonstrations and civil unrest spread across Ukraine in what would be dubbed Euromaidan, the Russian government saw this as a direct assault from the West (Mankoff, 2014). Ukraine is a former state of the Soviet Union and a neighbour of Russia. Any dependency on the EU would lead Ukraine closer to NATO and the UN and, in turn, would push Ukraine further away from Russia. In what appears to be in response to Euromaidan and an attempt to damage the relationship between Ukraine and the US, NATO and the UN, Russia undertook both a kinetic and information warfare campaign against Ukraine, resulting in the annexure of Crimea, as well as the Eastern regions of the country. As will be demonstrated, the information warfare campaign was sophisticated, relentless, and successful. The information campaign was carried out via multiple channels, including the social media network (SMN) Twitter. The final section of this paper will examine the Russian troll farm, Internet Research Agency, and its campaign on Twitter during the annexure of Crimea. In so doing, demonstrating a repetitive narrative supported by experts and propagated by trusted sources. In many cases, the narrative falls under the definition of conspiracy theory.
On the 17th October 2018, Twitter released an extensive dataset consisting of accounts and "related content associated with potential information operations" (Gadde and Roth, 2018) to enable independent research. The primary source of data used throughout the research project were tweets and Twitter accounts propagated by the Russian troll farm, Internet Research Agency (IRA), that Twitter compiled and released for research purposes. This paper will also draw on secondary sources and political commentary.
Russia’s Post-Soviet Union Disinformation, Propaganda and Conspiracy Campaigns
Conspiracy theory in Russia may be dated back to at least the mid 18th century (Zorin, 2001), with fears regarding masonic plots emerging in the upper echelons of Russian society. By the late 1800s, the conspiracy theory had become a mechanism of the Soviet ruling party to interpret domestic and foreign policies to suit their agenda. "This understanding of the Soviet Union as a besieged nation became a norm in Soviet life, especially in the 1930s when the active search for public enemies and wreckers began" (Yablokov, 2018:20). An early example of this is seen in a 1937 newspaper article in the Soviet's main paper at the time, Pravda: "We know that engines do not stop by themselves, machine tools do not break down on their own, boilers do not explode on their own. Someone's hand is hidden behind these events" (qtd in Rittersporn, 2014: 34). Conspiracy theory was used to explain away dysfunctions in the Soviet industry and economy (Yablokov, 2018). By 1923, the Russian government had institutionalised disinformation and propaganda as a tool for the ruling elite with the establishment of the Ru. Dezinfobiuro / dezbiuro [The Bureau of Sabotage, Misinformation and Special Propaganda] by Joźef Unszlicht within the Soviet Union's secret police. This was followed in 1959 by Russia's Department D, for Деза [Disinformation], which was founded under the KGB. The Soviet Union's military intelligenceis also suspected of operating a disinformation department.
Although the military intelligence operations were not confirmed, the success of the KGB's Department D meant that by 1963 it was promoted to a Service A of the 1st Directorate of the KGB, A standing for aktika [active measures] (Darcezewska & Zochowski, 2017, p. 26). With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the US requested the dissolution of the Soviet Union’s active measures department. However, reports in 2002 by Colonel Sergei Tretiakov, a Russian defector, suggest that rather than being dissolved, Service A was transformed to Ру. Мероприятия содейсвия, [facilitation assistance unit] within the Рус. Служба внешней разведки, [Foreign Intelligence Service (FIS)] (Darczewska and Zochowski, 2017). In 1999, the FSB created the Directorate for Support Programmers, a parallel structure to Ру. Мероприятия содейсвия (Soldatov and Borogan, 2015).
Euromaidan and the Annexation of Crimea
The Russian compatriot policy offers financial, social, and cultural support to ethnic Russians living outside of Russia’s borders after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It has also been described as a way for the Russian government to maintain a grip over its neighbours (Pezard and Rhoades, 2020). Former President of Russia Dmitry Medvedev referred to these countries as the ‘zone of privileged interests, including Russia’s neighbouring countries and former Soviet Union states, whose populations have ethnic ties and varying degrees of loyalty towards Russia. The Russian government has demonstrated an uneasiness with the ‘zone of privileged interests’ adopting a Western orientation since the collapse of the Soviet Union (Pezard and Rhoades, 2020). This is particularly discernible regarding Ukraine and Georgia; the Euromaidan revolution of 2013-2014 prompted “both Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its initiation of a violent conflict in Eastern Ukraine” (Pezard and Rhoades, 2020: 5). Any attempt to pull a country in the ‘zone of privileged interest’ away from Russia’s influence may be seen as stepping over Russia’s line of tolerance (Pezard and Rhoades, 2020).
Ukraine has been the object of 200 invasions over the last thousand years, leaving Ukrainians sensitive to border conflicts (Magocsi, 2010). On the collapse of the USSR in 1991, President Leonid Kravchuk announced, “Ukraine will defend its integrity, sovereignty in line with the Constitution, by all means, available to it” (Marples and Duke, 1995: 279). Recognition for Ukraine’s borders was a foreign policy priority for Ukraine, with the Ukrainian government seeking recognition for its borders in both international laws and by its neighbours. In 2013, when Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych opted for a Russian loan to assist the Ukrainian economy in place of an Association Agreement with the European Union, the Ukrainian population protested for the Ukrainian government to turn to Europe for assistance rather than become an ally with Russia once more (Diuk, 2014). On the 21st of November 2013, Ukrainian journalist Mustafa Nayyem posted on Facebook, “we are meeting at 22:30 under the Monument of Independence. Dress warm, bring umbrellas, tea, coffee, good mood, and friends. Reposts are highly encouraged!” (Bohdanova, 2014). The post requesting Ukrainians to meet at Independence Square led to Euromaidan or European Square, an uprising by the Ukrainian population against President Yanukovych, involving hundreds of thousands of people and lasting three months.
Euromaidan was not the first time the Ukrainian population had protested for Ukraine’s independence from Russia. In 1990, Lenin Square, the former name for Independence Square, saw thousands of people coming together to support Ukrainian sovereignty, which resulted in Ukraine’s independence from Russia a year later in a referendum. Then, five months before Euromaidan, a movement inspired by Ukraine’s opposition party saw 20,000 to 30,000 demonstrators protesting in what was dubbed “Rise Up, Ukraine” against the Ukrainian government, but the movement did not gain traction. In comparison, Euromaidan, aided by social media, mobilised 100,000 people within days (Steinzova and Oliynyk, 2018). Although Facebook was only the tenth most popular website in late 2013, it was the leading platform for discussing political views in Ukraine. Facebook was also the primary source of information for Ukrainian independent online media sources.
Mustafa Nayyem was a trusted source, a famous journalist whose views, according to Bohdanova (2014), resonated with many Ukrainian SMN users. As a result, Nayyem’s message was shared repeatedly. As Bohdanova (2014: 135) writes, “when it comes to protests, online social networks mobilise people in the same way that offline social networks do: users are most motivated to join when someone from their circle of friends decides to participate”. Facebook facilitated the real-time mobilisation of the first Euromaidan gathering, with users changing their Facebook status as going to Maidan, or reporting in real-time, that they had arrived at the square. Euromaidan resulted in Yanukovych fleeing Ukraine to Russia, with Oleksandr Turchynov taking on the acting role of President of Ukraine on the 23rd of February 2014. Russia refused recognition of Turchynov and Ukraine’s new government, with Putin stating in an interview on the 4th March 2014 that Turchynov’s position as President was illegitimate (The Embassy of the Russian Federation in Canada, 2014). Twelve days later, on the 16th March 2014, in a referendum in Crimea, 95.5% of Crimean voters voted to re-join Russia (BBC, 2014).
In a statement made by Putin after the annexation of Crimea, Putin accused the West of having a history of interfering in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, examples which included the colour revolutions and Kosovo; Putin described how the US assisted in the annexation of a new President in Kosovo with the support of the UN and how protestors, struck with poverty and tyranny, were taken advantage of by the West during the colour revolutions. "Instead of democracy and freedom, there was chaos, outbreaks in violence and a series of upheavals. The Arab Spring turned into the Arab Winter" (Putin, 2014). Putin also spoke about Russia's persistent efforts to build trust and cooperation with the US, yet "we saw no reciprocal steps" (Putin, 2014). Using the example of the Coordinating Committee for Multilateral Export Controls list developed by the West to control the export of technology to the USSR, Putin argued that it was still in existence today to control Russia and Russia's development.
Crimea’s Information Operations
Before Crimea, the Russian government had intervened in territories occupied by Russian troops through political and military means. However, it had never deposed a local government, nor had it annexed the region of one of these territories. The annexation of Crimea saw the Russian government depart from these previous tactics, raising the stakes significantly (Mankoff, 2014). During the colour revolutions, Russia reacted by increasing Georgia’s gas prices by nearly 500% in 2005 and then, in 2006, applied similar measures against Ukraine (Pezard and Rhoades, 2020). Why Moscow changed tactics cannot be known for sure; however, Mankoff (2014) suggests that the annexure of Crimea in 2014 may be perceived as a direct assault against the West (Mankoff, 2014). Over the past four years, post-Soviet states, such as Georgia and Ukraine, had expressed an intention to cooperate with Western organisations like NATO, the European Union (EU) and the World Trade Organization (WTO), and such intentions were perceived as a threat to Russia's geopolitical power (Mankoff, 2014; Roslycky, 2011). Georgia’s five-day war with Russia in 2008 led to the end of any discussions between Georgia and NATO (Morrison, 2021). Crimea, therefore, may be seen as the finale to almost three decades of the Russian government fine-tuning its information warfare techniques.
Russia's campaign in Crimea saw four strategies in play during the conflict. These were: kinetic violence, economic and energy disruption, and information and political influence operations (Jonsson and Seely, 2015). According to Jaitner and Mattsson (2015), information extended throughout events that conspired in Crimea; Russia's end goal was to control the flow of information. Russian information operations extended into both the cyber and non-cyber domains. In 2015, a year after the annexation of Crimea, Checkinov and Bogdanov (2015), two prominent Russian military authors, wrote about the power of information as demonstrated in the destabilisation of Ukraine. Primarily, information may be used to delude adversaries, influence public opinion, disorganise governments and organise anti-government protests.
Crimea saw a shift in Russian operations, where previously Russia had attempted straightforward destruction through kinetic warfare, as seen in the Chechen wars, to an active campaign of influence (Bērziņš, 2014). Disinformation campaigns were used to distract from military operations and justify Moscow's actions during the annexure (Darczewska, 2014). For example, Russia's inaccurate media reported Ukrainian atrocities toward its Russian-speaking population, distracting Russia’s atrocities. Reports claimed that the Russian-speaking population sought refuge in Russia, with media outlets providing video and photo evidence of en masse crossing over the Ukraine border (Jaitner and Mattsson, 2015). The photos and video footage were discovered to be of the Ukrainian-Polish border and not of the Ukrainian-Russian border, as was reported (Jaitner and Mattsson, 2015). The Russian government also relentlessly portrayed Ukrainian soldiers as criminals, murderers, and Nazi perpetrators across various media channels. The Russian military strategy was to destroy the morale of Ukrainian soldiers while simultaneously causing a divide amongst the Ukrainian population concerning regional, religious, political, and ethnic identities. As Veebel (2015: 2) wrote, "false stories of crucified children and raped women were created and replicated to discredit the Ukrainian army", with a longstanding target of Russian disinformation campaigns being the mass consciousness (Giles, 2019). The Russian government also targeted Ukrainian soldiers directly, using geographically targeted data on the smartphones of Ukrainian soldiers as the soldiers arrived on the front line and before Russia’s artillery began firing at the soldiers, with messages such as “They’ll find your bodies when the snow melts” (Singer and Brooking, 2018: 59).
It was not just Ukrainian soldiers who were targeted using technology. Russian citizens were also targeted. For example, after posting negative stories regarding Ukraine's invasion, a Russian woman was given 320 hours of hard labour “for discrediting the political disorder” (Singer and Brooking, 2018: 94) after posting negative stories about Ukraine’s invasion. Singer and Brooking (2018) suggest that acts like the imprisonment of the Russian woman, in turn, lead to a ‘spiral of silence, a theory formed by the German political scientist Noelle-Neumann, which suggests that people have a fear of isolation and, therefore will prefer to keep their opinions to themselves, rather than voicing their opinions and being rejected and isolated from the society they are a part of. In this scenario, according to Singer and Brooking (2018), the spiral of silence led to people who had similar or like-minded views to the women imprisoned not wanting to speak up for fear of retribution by Russian authorities.
The Russian government’s campaign in Crimea also utilised online communities to conduct information operations. For example, in what appears to be a coordinated response, pro-Kremlin groups began to engage in online political debates by discrediting the Ukrainian opposition leader and disrupting the organisation of protests against the Russian government over various SMNs. The name given to these pro-Kremlin online groups was "Kremlin trolls" (Jaitner and Geers, 2015). However, the Kremlin trolls did not replace the more traditional channels of propaganda and disinformation. Instead, trolls complemented the Kremlin's more traditional means of disinformation. For example, TV channels in Russia and Ukraine, controlled by the Russian government and pro-Russian oligarchs, such as LifeNews and Ukraina 24, were used to spread content favourable to the Russian government. Russian and Ukrainian newspapers such as Komsomolskaya Pravda v Ukraine, web pages such as LiveJournal, and Russian radio, such as Radio Majak, were also part of the Russian government's toolkit (Veebel, 2015). As Nissen (2015: 56) explains, “at an operational or conceptual level, the weaponization of social media also entails adopting a cross-media communication approach to planning how the target audience should experience the multimedia content and be encouraged to participate in the conversations through exposure to several interlined media and platforms”.
To be successful, the Russian government had to flood the media with their intended narrative and customise the narrative to fit the audience of the selected media. This strategy was seen throughout the Crimea campaign (Nissen, 2015). As Darczewska (2014, p. 5) wrote, Crimea "served as an occasion for Russia to demonstrate to the entire world the capabilities and the potential of information warfare". For example, Russian malware designed to generate revenue via clickbaitand Russian-owned Finnish language Twitter accounts with official-sounding Finnish names intended to generate an income through clickbait were in a coordinated move repurposed to spread disinformation and links to RT (Bērziņš, 2014). During the Crimea campaign, Russia displayed effective information operations; this included engagement with local and regional areas and cyberattacks leading up to and during the conflict. Russia also engaged in cyber espionage leading up to, throughout, and after Crimea's annexure (Iasiello, 2017). Such activity would have provided Russia with a strategic advantage concerning military tactics and insight into how Ukrainian media would report the campaign. Information operations were also carried out against the US by Russia, which included Russia’s denial of the presence of the Russian military in Ukraine and blaming the West for undertaking information warfare against Russia (Iasiello, 2017).
An example of Russia’s use of multiple channels may be seen in what would come to be known as the “Fuck the EU” quote. In 2014 a conversation between Victoria Nuland, Assistant Secretary of State in the US, and US Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt was intercepted, recorded, and dispersed via SMNs. While there was no direct proof, Russia was the most likely culprit (BBC News, 2014). In the conversation, Nuland and Pyatt indicate that contrary to the USA’s advertised position at the time, that it was up to the Ukrainian people to decide their fate with the upcoming election, the US had agreed on what the outcome of the election should be and was working towards these goals. About the EU’s participation in the conflict, Nuland states, “Fuck the EU”. The incident has been described as a damaging episode and an embarrassment to the US, given the ease of the hack (BBC News, 2014). A review of Twitter in May 2020 revealed a mere 28 instances in 2014 where the hashtag #FucktheEu had been used, suggesting that, in the Twitterverse at least, the attempt to discredit the US and Nuland did not appear to work.
The Internet Research Agency in 2014
Social media networks (SMNs) have increasingly been used strategically by many actors, which has affected international power relations. As Nissen (2015: 9) writes, “the increasing strategic uses of social network media, and the effects achievable in and through the use of them, empower a multitude of actors and have a re-distributive effect on international power relations”. Russia’s weaponization of SMNs can be dated back to 2009 (Morrison, 2021). By 2014 and the annexation of Crimea, Russia had laid solid foundations and established online networks and communities. In 2014 the Internet Research Agency (IRA) alone produced 2,329,674 individual tweets via 2,100 distinct accounts in 47 different languages. An analysis of the IRA’s use of Twitter demonstrates an exponential growth, with tweets heavily laden with information on Ukraine and Crimea in 2014 compared to 2013
The search demonstrated a significant increase from 2013, which only revealed a combined 350 tweets compared to the 288,297 tweets in 2014.
Successful propaganda campaigns rest on a repetitive narrative supported by experts and propagated by trusted sources. Experts are often defined as SMNs through the number of followers they have, people with a high number of followers are seen as experts, and therefore users will turn to these accounts when they are unsure of the answer. Finally, users are more likely to trust the people they follow than individuals they do not follow. To demonstrate whether or not the IRA were using the tactics described above, analysis was undertaken on the 2014 twitter data in three stages.
The analysis demonstrated that 76.1% or 4,054 tweets of the 5,325 tweets were linked to the conflict in Ukraine. While 42 of the tweets referred to the shooting down of the Malaysian Airliner MH-17 over Ukrainian air space, the tweets were part of a disinformation campaign to discredit Ukraine and push the blame for the attack away from Russia.
The Twitter data was also reviewed to identify any repetitive narratives. Two such narratives can be seen in the claim that the Ukrainian government was responsible for the armed response in Ukraine and that Ukrainian soldiers were fighting Ukrainian rebels and citizens. The second repetitive narrative was that the US and West were conspiring with Ukraine against Russia. There are also several tweets blaming the US and the West for the events in Ukraine and accusing the US of attempting to stifle Russia’s greatness. A review of the top ten most retweeted tweets from the Ukraine conflict data set demonstrates Russia’s reliance on conspiracy theory, as seen in Table 1.3 below.
Key Word Search Analysis
As discussed, the second stage of the analysis involved examining each keyword search demonstrated in Table 1.2 above. In all cases, the highest number of tweets were retreats via only a few users. The account creation year was also reviewed to identify whether the creation date of a Twitter account influenced the number of followers and responses. The data has been captured in Table 1.3 below.
Table 1.3 – IRA Account Creation Year
Interestingly, most tweets came from accounts created in 2014, with 2014 also seeing the number of accounts created almost doubling, the high number of accounts created indicating that the attack was coordinated. A review of the account creation dates of the top ten most followed accounts demonstrates that most of these accounts were also created in 2014, as shown in Table 1.2. The results suggest no correlation between trusted accounts and account creation dates.
A review of the use of hashtags was also taken across the whole data set, and 11,740 tweets in total had utilised the tool, often using multiple hashtags at once. In total, there were 861 unique hashtags and hashtag combinations used. All but two of the tweets referred to the Ukraine conflict, with three tweets using the hashtag #UkrainianLies/#UkrainianLie, which was related to the conspiracy theory that Russia had invaded Ukraine and was the cause of the conflict.
Conspiracies, propaganda, and disinformation have long been weaponised in Russia and, as demonstrated in 2014 in Ukraine, by the Russian government as an information warfare tool. An example of this is Russia’s placement of the West as a dangerous other determined to undermine Russian values and the Russian way of life. This is prevalent in the recent Russian information campaigns around the colour revolutions, which suggest that the revolutions themselves were part of a Western plot to destabilise Russia. Russian authorities stated outright that the West sponsored the colour revolutions, hoping that they would spur a revolution in Russia. In 2014, when Ukrainians protested the Ukrainian government’s decision to seek financial assistance from Russia, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych fled to Russia. Putin’s response was to deny recognition of Oleksandr Turchynov as the acting president and to blame the West for interfering. A few days later, Russia annexed Crimea, including a central naval base for Russia, of the peninsular of Ukraine.
Russia’s campaign to annex Crimea involved four strategic moves, the most substantial of which was the information warfare campaign. Russia’s information campaign extended to both the cyber and non-cyber domains to influence public opinion, disorganise governments, confuse adversaries and organise protests. Combined with traditional forms of media such as television and radio, in 2014, Russian information operations were a formidable force. The information operations demonstrated repetitive messages by trusted sources, as evidenced in the IRA Twitter data, which exhibited a hefty information campaign centred around the conflict in Ukraine and the annexure of Crimea. The IRA used a deluge of accounts to disperse a repetitive narrative, which included the message that Russia was not involved in the conflict in Ukraine and that Russia’s involvement was the construction of Ukraine, that the West intended to discredit Russia; that Russia was a saviour to Ukrainian people who identified as Russian; and that the sanctions against Russia were an attempt by the West to control Russia.
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