The Hybrid War: Russia’s disinformation campaign and the New Cold War

The banner of the East Stratcom website.

Lianne Arentsen

Today, the chance of a “calamity” occurring between the East and the West is higher than during the Cold War, states ex-Pentagon chief William Perry. Russian historian Alexey Fenenko is of the same opinion. Fenenki believes that “over the past years a limited armed conflict between Russia and NATO has become more probable than during the Cold War.”

On 12 October 2016, at a seminar hosted by The Netherlands Atlantic Association, a group of presenters outlined the clear evolution in Russia’s methods for extending its sphere of influence, when compared to earlier decades. A key element of this new method, as elaborated on by Jakub Kalensky, of the European External Action Service (EEAS), Aivar Jaeski, of NATO and Mark Laity of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) is that Russia uses disinformation as an important element in its foreign policy. This type of disinformation campaign is also known as hybrid warfare. A good example of this is the developments around the investigation into the shooting down of flight MH-17 in Ukraine airspace. Almost three hundred people died, of which nearly two hundred were Dutch citizens.  Investigations have shown that the plane was shot down by a Russian missile, used by Ukrainian rebels. However, the Kremlin has denied any involvement and has made numerous statements claiming that the investigations are speculative and false. Additionally, the Kremlin has stated that it has proof that there was no Russian involvement in the tragedy, but this “proof” had not been released to the investigative authorities until last week- despite two years of demands from the Dutch government to see it. There is still much doubt regarding this “proof”. In the upcoming weeks the investigation team of MH-17 will look into this.

This is not the only example of Russia using disinformation as a real policy method. Last year, a new department in the EEAS was set up, the East Stratcom Task Force, in response to Russia’s disinformation campaign. The Task Force is responsible for finding Russian propaganda and debunking it. On their twitter account, the Task Force publishes all the results of their investigations. A funny example are the claims  coming from the Russian Ministry of Defense that the Crimea was already Russian about 160 million years ago, when dinosaurs walked the Earth.

Russian prop.jpg
The Russian media have an interesting take on Denmark: Picture from East Stratcom.

Whereas this is an rather entertaining example, Russia is very serious in its disinformation policy. A year before the invasion of Crimea, Putin officially stated that Russia had no plans to invade Crimea. European (and other international) leaders believed him. A year later, Russia invaded Crimea, and pointed out that it never said it would not.

What Russia does with its disinformation policy is create uncertainty, allowing for a situation where the average citizen does not know what to believe. Where the Bolsheviks were clear that everybody besides themselves were not trustworthy or good, Russia now is spreading the idea that you cannot believe anybody, full stop. Not even the Russian leaders themselves, since Russian people disappear when they ask questions and speak critically about the Kremlin. Pro-Russian journalists who write that Russia did nothing wrong in the Crimea and with the MH-17 crisis get rewarded for their efforts.

An insight into how the Kremlin portrays Europe. Source: East Stratcom

Worse yet is that the current situation in Europe shows that this disinformation policy is working. Nobody knows what is true and what is not. The consequence of this is that there is no straightforward policy towards Russia, as is shown with the MH-17 investigations. Because of all this uncertainty, European leaders do not stand up against Russian interference in the EU’s immediate neighbourhood. Their disinformation campaign has been very effective at wedging a policy divide between European states. Bilateral relations with Russia, varied across the continent, get in the way of a unified response. For example Latvia and Estonia have a difficult relationship with Russia, and for Estonia the Russian threat is “very real.” However, for other European Member States, such as Italy, who blocked further sanctions on Russia this week, the Russian threat is a bit further away, and they prefer a stable relationship with Russia because of economic interests. These elements contribute to a lack of a common European voice towards the Kremlin and its foreign policy.

The Kremlin is thought to be the source of much of the anti-EU propaganda filtering into EU Member States: Photo by Andrey Korzu.

However there are ways we can combat Russia’s hybrid war. What we can do, according to Kalensky, is contribute to the investigations of the East Stratcom Task Force, and give them information about Russia’s disinformation policy whenever we come across it on the web or in print. This way, it can be shown to the general population that the disinformation policy is a real and tangible threat, breeding disorder and mistrust, happening on media across Europe, and that there is a need to do something about it.

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Who Polices the Internet? Content Removal v. Freedom of Speech


Napalm Girl, an iconic image of the Vietnam war

Julia Mason

Can we continue relying on internet hosts to be solely responsible for taking down offensive content or hate speech?

Last week’s headlines traced the scuffle between Norway and Mark Zuckerberg when one of Norway’s largest newspapers, Aftenposten, criticised Facebook for removing their photos of the ‘napalm girl’ on account of child nudity. The photo of the ‘napalm girl’ or Phan Thị Kim Phúc, from Vietnam and now a Canadian citizen, was taken  on 7th June1972 during the Vietnam War. It shows her as a nine year-old-child, running away from a South Vietnamese napalm attack which left her severely burned. Taken by Nick Ut of the Associated Press, the image is world famous for its depiction of the violence of the Vietnam conflict. Zuckerberg later reneged on his decision to remove the photo and acknowledged the iconic status of the historical image. Whilst this incident might primarily raise alarm bells about the power that Facebook wields over our modern lives, it is also symptomatic of the arbitrariness of online content monitoring.

Alongside its status as one of the most democratic exercises in information sharing, the internet is home to an increasing body of offensive content and unchecked manifestations of hate speech. Whilst some self-censuring is taking place, (for example in the form of ‘NSFW’ indications and ‘content notes’), such warnings are essentially used in a humorous manner. If there’s to be a concerted effort to tackle hate speech and offensive material which transcends the old adage of turning a blind eye, how is this to be achieved?

Should governments and the international community have a role to play?

The European Court of Human Rights

Simply put, the answer from the European Convention on Human Rights is a resounding no. Article 10 ECHR guarantees freedom of expression for all and goes on to say that:

 ‘This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers.’

This freedom is extended to internet users and the Secretary General of the Council of Europe has confirmed that ‘the state [must] not exercise surveillance over Internet users’ communications and activity on the internet except when this is strictly in compliance with Articles 8 and 10 of the Convention.’ The Court’s case law confirms a support for freedom of expression, even if the article does allow some margin of appreciation for states to take restrictive measures, as was the case in Delfi v. Estonia [2015], where the court held that there had not been a violation of Article 10.

Similarly, Article 11 of the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights provides that ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers’.


This is inherently a good thing. Of course there are some countries in Europe where the systematic blocking of whole websites has severely reduced freedom of expression and access to internet material to an unacceptable level. Consider the recent ECHR case, Cengiz and others v. Turkey, where the court unanimously held that there had been a violation of article 10 due to the blocking of access to Google over a long period(Ahmet Yıldırım v. Turkey [2012]). And yet, the question we must ask ourselves is, if governments aren’t checking online content, then who is?

Net neutrality: a commercial myth?

One of the many images associated with the campaign for net neutrality, but is there more to it than open internet?

The hands-off approach taken to internet monitoring by national governments (as advised by the Council of Europe and EU) results in a two-fold problem:

  1. this leaves internet providers and website hosts – i.e. private companies in charge of monitoring content;
  2. these companies are sensitive to legal threats, as well as their reputation among their users and end up haphazardly take down content without serious reflection.

In the case of the former, the crux is this: when we leave it to web hosts to decide what is suitable content and what isn’t, we are allowing organisations with their own commercial, social and political agendas to act as the moral arbiters for all society. Is this democratic?

And in the case of the latter, this is exactly what happened with Facebook napalm incident. Is this double burden of total freedom and total responsibility not actually counter-productive to freedom of expression online? As the 2016 Annual report on state of human rights, democracy and rule of law in Europe concludes:

‘the fact that internet intermediaries fear being held liable for the content they transmit may have a chilling effect on the freedom of expression online.’

If we’re serious about blocking hate speech and inappropriate content, we need more explicit guidelines from governments and IOs. As it stands, we hail our freedom from government censorship but are trapped in an online game where private web hosts write their own rulebooks.

Click here for more by Julia Mason.

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