Kremlin propaganda is a risk to public security
According to the European Commission (EC), the Kremlin’s ongoing disinformation campaign not only forms an integral part of Russia’s military agenda, but also causes risks to public security, fundamental rights and electoral processes inside the European Union. The EC’s Directorate-General for Communications Networks, Content and Technology, together with nonprofit analysis group Reset, which advocates for greater oversight of digital platforms, prepared a study on the Kremlin’s disinformation campaign.The goal of the study was to develop methodologies for risk assessments and risk mitigation under the Digital Services Act (DSA) framework and then to apply them to the Kremlin’s activities on online platforms.
The DSA, which went into effect for the biggest social media companies on 25 August 2023, requires them to assess the risk of false information, stop it from being boosted by algorithms and subject their performance to auditing.
In the study titled ‘The Digital Services Act: Application of the Risk Management Framework to Russian disinformation campaigns’ its authors wrote that allowing disinformation and hate speech to spread without limits would have violated the DSA.
The findings of the EC study show that “during the first year of Russia’s illegal war in Ukraine, social media companies enabled the Kremlin to run a large-scale disinformation campaign targeting the European Union and its allies. It reached an audience of at least 165 million and generated at least 16 billion views.”
The EC stressed that “the so-called information warfare doctrine goes back to early Soviet time—it builds on ‘reflexive control.’ The idea is to shape how adversaries think about an issue, while concealing the activities of manipulation so that the targets remain unaware.”
Since the 1950s, the Soviet security agency (KGB) hosted a department dedicated to spreading disinformation in other countries, including antisemitic, racist narratives designed to deepen socio-political divides. In FakeHunter’s report ‘Information War 2022-2023. Course and conclusions’ a short history of Kremlin propaganda from the Soviet era can be found. At that time, “the KGB tried to launch its disinformation campaign in media operating in Asia or Africa, where journalists were easier to manipulate or bribe. The success of their fake news was that, after a period of wandering around the world media, it was uncritically repeated by the largest media outlets,” the authors of the FakeHunter report wrote.
The EC and Reset evaluated more than two thousand accounts across all social media platforms. The accounts published 50,000 YouTube videos, 17,500 TikTok videos, 1.7 million tweets, and 1 million Facebook posts. The YouTube videos had more than 3 billion views, while the Facebook posts had at least 227 million engagements.
The accounts were divided into three groups:
1. Accounts that have direct links with the Russian state, such as Russian government institutions or state media outlets
2. Accounts with proximity to the Russian state—they are not directly connected with the Russian state, but are associated with Russian government institutions or state media outlets.
3. Accounts ideologically aligned with the Russian state that post content similar or identical to the content posted by accounts affiliated with or in close proximity to Russian government institutions or state media.
According the EC, all these accounts are “pro-Kremlin”—they are either controlled by the Kremlin or are closely aligned with state-sponsored information operations.
The authors added that all “pro-Kremlin” accounts that regularly disseminate disinformation or propaganda had an audience of at least 220 million across online platforms. Accounts affiliated with Russian state media maintained an audience of over 160 million across platforms in December 2022. “Additionally, other Kremlin-backed accounts, such as government accounts and the personal accounts of Kremlin staffers, had an audience of at least 60 million,” they added.
The EC has no doubt that the Kremlin’s disinformation campaign accompanying the illegal war in Ukraine is a risk to public security within the European Union (EU). In the study the EC stressed that “Kremlin operatives have repeatedly and explicitly positioned disinformation as a weapon in the Kremlin’s arsenal along with other hybrid, as well as conventional, military capabilities.”
In fact, the objective of the Russian state propaganda apparatus is to “conduct information war against the whole Western world”, and to “conquer” and “grow” audiences in order to access those audiences in “critical moments.” The documented aim of the Kremlin propaganda is to legitimise and promote violence, and to weaken public institutions inside the European Union.
According to the EC, the Kremlin’s disinformation strategy, both inside and outside Russia, followed two tactical objectives: suppressing the truth about the war and amplifying lies about an alleged “special operation” to free Ukraine from “Nazism”. The findings of the FakeHunter report are the same.
In the study, the EC listed key operatives behind Russia’s disinformation apparatus. They are linked with the Ministry of Defence, Russian Armed Forces and its intelligence arm, the GRU.
But the Russian disinformation campaign also “poses significant risks to the exercise of fundamental rights. It propagates discriminatory content at scale, denigrating and often dehumanizing particular groups or individuals on the basis of protected characteristics such as nationality, sex, gender or religion.”
The authors added that women leaders prominent in the opposition to the Russian war of aggression were particular targets – including the First Lady of Ukraine, Olena Zelenska, the President of Moldova, Maia Sandu, and the former prime minister of Moldova, Natalia Gavrilița.
The Kremlin’s disinformation campaign on social media platforms creates, according to the EC, a risk for the freedom and pluralism of the media. The authors of the study collected evidence of abusive notification campaigns that resulted in the shutting down social media accounts of independent media outlets in Ukraine and other countries.
“This happens when malicious actors bombard legitimate accounts with user-notifications falsely flagging the account as spam or as engaged in activity that violates the platform’s Terms and Conditions. Ukrainian media outlets have lost significant shares of their Facebook traffic since the beginning of the war,” they wrote.
The Kremlin uses different tools to achieve its propaganda goals, many of them described in detail in the FakeHunter report. The EC study also mentioned that the Kremlin’s disinformation content often exploits legal grey areas. “It is apparently tailored and targeted so as to mobilise both offline and online violence, and thus poses a strong indirect risk of increasing the dissemination of illegal content by others,” the authors wrote.
The reach of Kremlin-sponsored disinformation inside the EU has grown since February 2022 when Russia attacked Ukraine. But its reach increased between January and May of 2023, with average engagement rising by 22 percent across online platforms. “However, this increased reach was largely driven by Twitter, where engagement grew by 36 percent after CEO Elon Musk decided to lift mitigation measures on Kremlin-backed accounts, arguing that all news is to some degree propaganda,” the study read.
“The largest social media platforms made commitments to mitigate the reach and influence of Kremlin-sponsored disinformation… and none of social media applied its terms of service in repeated tests of user notification systems in several Central and Eastern European languages,” the EC and Reset wrote.
Despite the transparency of the social media platforms’ policies, “the companies did not have the resources (technical, human or financial) deployed to apply them consistently, even when they were present,” the authors added.