WASHINGTON (CN) – Against the documented evidence of Russia’s use of cyberhacking to manipulate the 2016 U.S. presidential election, another technique called disinformation has proved more difficult to track.
In modern American discourse the concept is new ground, but European think tanks and government agencies have been tracking Russian disinformation for years.
"The ultimate goal of Kremlin hostile influence and disinformation operations is to weaken its opponents' will to resist,” Jakub Janda, deputy director of nonpartisan think tank European Values, explained in an email from Prague. “Simply to manipulate the West, its politicians and its societies to stop resisting invasions of the Russian Federation to foreign countries.
In Europe, the East StratCom Task Force issues a "Disinformation Review" every week, giving a round-up of pro-Kremlin disinformation in Europe and beyond.
And months before the Brexit vote, in which Great Britain voted to leave the European Union, the UK-based Institute for Statecraft documented a pro-Brexit campaign led by Russian state-run television channel RT and the Russian propaganda Sputnik newswire.
RT, formerly known as Russia Today, is a major focus of an unclassified summary released Friday of the intelligence community report from the CIA, NSA and FBI on Russia’s interference in U.S. politics.
Russia for its part denies the allegations that it hacked into the Democratic National Convention, and also denies that it interferes in democracies in Europe.
But Friday’s report says RT airs anti-U.S. messaging with the goal of undermining trust in American democratic procedures and undercut "U.S. criticism of Russia's political system.”
Janda at European Values explained that disinformation practices have a similar objective: “to disintegrate the U.S. and drive a wedge between Europe and the U.S.”
In addition to legitimizing Russian policies domestically and abroad, Janda said these efforts boost Kremlin-friendly politicians and denigrate politicians who resist Kremlin aggression - like German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Ben O'Loughlin, professor of politics and international relations at Royal Halloway University of London, said in an email that RT is one component of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “hybrid-war model of using all means available to extend Russia's power and influence.”
Because Russia lacks the resources to transform RT into the equivalent of CNN or the BBC, however, O’Laughlin said it instead “turned to a strategy of undermining our attachment to the idea there are facts.”
“RT mocks Western media for trying to offer news that is 'objective' or 'factual,'” O’Laughlin continued. “All news is from some perspective so why believe any news organization is giving you the whole truth?”
Western policymakers initially laughed at RT, but O'Loughlin said Russia has been ramping up that strategy since 2015.
Sarah Oates, a journalism professor who studies Russian media at Maryland University, called RT a propaganda outlet.