Fake news and botnets: how Russia weaponised the web
The digital attack that brought Estonia to a standstill 10 years ago was the first shot in a cyberwar that has been raging between Moscow and the west ever since
It began at exactly 10pm on 26 April, 2007, when a Russian-speaking mob began rioting in the streets of Tallinn, the capital city of Estonia, killing one person and wounding dozens of others. That incident resonates powerfully in some of the recent conflicts in the US. In 2007, the Estonian government had announced that a bronze statue of a heroic second world war Soviet soldier was to be removed from a central city square. For ethnic Estonians, the statue had less to do with the war than with the Soviet occupation that followed it, which lasted until independence in 1991. For the country’s Russian-speaking minority – 25% of Estonia’s 1.3 million people – the removal of the memorial was another sign of ethnic discrimination.
That evening, Jaan Priisalu – a former risk manager for Estonia’s largest bank, Hansabank, who was working closely with the government on its cybersecurity infrastructure – was at home in Tallinn with his girlfriend when his phone rang. On the line was Hillar Aarelaid, the chief of Estonia’s cybercrime police.
“It’s going down,” Aarelaid declared. Alongside the street fighting, reports of digital attacks were beginning to filter in. The websites of the parliament, major universities, and national newspapers were crashing. Priisalu and Aarelaid had suspected something like this could happen one day. A digital attack on Estoniahad begun.
“The Russian theory of war allows you to defeat the enemy without ever having to touch him,” says Peter Pomerantsev, author of Nothing is True and Everything is Possible. “Estonia was an early experiment in that theory.”
Since then, Russia has only developed, and codified, these strategies. The techniques pioneered in Estonia are known as the “Gerasimov doctrine,” named after Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the general staff of the Russian military. In 2013, Gerasimov published an article in the Russian journal Military-Industrial Courier, articulating the strategy of what is now called “hybrid” or “nonlinear” warfare. “The lines between war and peace are blurred,” he wrote. New forms of antagonism, as seen in 2010’s Arab spring and the “colour revolutions” of the early 2000s, could transform a “perfectly thriving state, in a matter of months, and even days, into an arena of fierce armed conflict”.
Russia has deployed these strategies around the globe. Its 2008 war with Georgia, another former Soviet republic, relied on a mix of both conventional and cyber-attacks, as did the 2014 invasion of Crimea. Both began with civil unrest sparked via digital and social media – followed by tanks. Finland and Sweden have experienced near-constant Russian information operations. Russian hacks and social media operations have also occurred during recent elections in Holland, Germany, and France. Most recently, Spain’s leading daily, El País, reported on Russian meddling in the Catalonian independence referendum. Russian-supported hackers had allegedly worked with separatist groups, presumably with a mind to further undermining the EU in the wake of the Brexit vote.
The Kremlin has used the same strategies against its own people. Domestically, history books, school lessons, and media are manipulated, while laws are passed blocking foreign access to the Russian population’s online data from foreign companies – an essential resource in today’s global information-sharing culture. According to British military researcher Keir Giles, author of Nato’s Handbook of Russian Information Warfare, the Russian government, or actors that it supports, has even captured the social media accounts of celebrities in order to spread provocative messages under their names but without their knowledge. The goal, both at home and abroad, is to sever outside lines of communication so that people get their information only through controlled channels.
24-hour Putin people: my week watching Kremlin ‘propaganda channel’ RT
Tim Dowling Wednesday 29 November 2017 12.39 EST
According to its detractors, RT is Vladimir Putin’s global disinformation service, countering one version of the truth with another in a bid to undermine the whole notion of empirical truth. And yet influential people from all walks of public life appear on it, or take its money. You can’t criticise RT’s standards, they say, if you don’t watch it. So I watched it. For a week.
Suchet, the son of former ITV newsreader John Suchet and the nephew of actor David Suchet, has been working for RT since 2009. The offspring of well-known people feature often on RT. Sophie Shevardnadze, who presents Sophie & Co, is the granddaughter of former Georgian president and Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze. Tyrel Ventura, who presents Watching the Hawks on RT America, is the son of wrestler-turned-politician Jesse Ventura. His co-host is Oliver Stone’s son Sean.
My note; so this is why Oliver Stone in his “documentary” went gentle on Putin, so his son can have a job. #Nepotism #FakeNews
RT’s stated mission is to offer an “alternative perspective on major global events”, but the world according to RT is often downright surreal.
Peter Pomerantsev, author of Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible, about Putin’s Russia, and now a senior visiting fellow in global affairs at the London School of Economics, was in Moscow working in television when Russia Today first started hiring graduates from Britain and the US. “The people were really bright, they were being paid well,” he says. But they soon found they were being ordered to change their copy, or instructed how to cover certain stories to reflect well on the Kremlin. “Everyone had their own moment when they first twigged that this wasn’t like the BBC,” he says. “That, actually, this is being dictated from above.” The coverage of Russia’s war with Georgia in 2008 was a lightbulb moment for many, he says. They quit.
more on Russian bots, trolls:
more on state propaganda in this IMS blog