Russian disinformation on Ukraine has grown in scale and skill, warns Berlin

Apr 1, 2024 4:18 pm | News

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Russian disinformation campaigns to undermine support for Ukraine in Europe have grown significantly in scale, skill and stealth, one of Germany’s most senior diplomats has warned.

“It is absolutely a threat we have to take seriously,” Ralf Beste, head of the department for culture and communication at Germany’s Federal Foreign Office, told the Financial Times. “Overall, [there] is an increase in sophistication and impact to what we have seen before.”

Russia is combining greater subtlety and plausibility in its messaging with automation to make its disruptive attacks more effective and harder to combat, he said.

“There is probably a lot going on we can’t even see. More and more conversations are happening in private . . . channels on Telegram and WhatsApp. It is very difficult to understand what is happening there.”

Beste’s department has a dedicated cell that leads the German government’s efforts to track and stop Russia’s information operations overseas.

Germany has emerged as one of the Kremlin’s main targets for disinformation over the war in Ukraine. Under the government of Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Berlin has dramatically revised its security and defence policy and become the second-largest donor of military aid to Kyiv after Washington.

Disagreements over the shift run deep — particularly among supporters of Scholz’s own Social Democratic Party — and many Germans are concerned over economic growth and the impact of the country weaning itself from Russian gas supplies.

Beste said: “[The Russians] are looking for cracks of doubt or feelings of unease and trying to enlarge them.”

Ralf Beste
Ralf Beste of Germany’s Foreign Office said the Russians were ‘looking for cracks of doubt or feelings of unease and trying to enlarge them’ © Sven Simon/picture alliance/dpa

His department this year uncovered one of the biggest attempts to manipulate German public opinion yet, on the social media platform X.

A network of more than 50,000 fake accounts posting as many as 200,000 posts a day sought to convince Germans that the government’s help for Ukraine was undermining German prosperity and risking nuclear war.

The network sought to “launder” such claims by making them look as if they had been published as opinions in reputable news outlets such as Der Spiegel and Süddeutsche Zeitung. But it also simply sought to amplify existing anti-Ukrainian views and make them appear to be more widespread.

Last week the Czech government, acting with other European states, accused the Ukrainian oligarch Viktor Medvedchuk of secretly cultivating a network of influence among European politicians to spread pro-Russian narratives and undermine support for Kyiv.

Countering such efforts is hard, Beste said, and indicates the extent to which Russia has moved on from the days of running infamous “troll farms”, which employed real people to spread dissent, often in a clumsy and obvious manner.

Beste said: “[Now] it’s not just a question of information that is verifiably true or false. It’s more than that. It’s about skewing opinions. Trying to tilt the balance of debate. Or to convince people that the frame of the debate is different to what it is in reality.”

The techniques being used were more like “nudging”, he said, referring to the concept in behavioural science of using small social and informational cues to subtly shift opinion or action.

“If you say, for example, ‘there is increasing doubt that XYZ . . . ’ then you will make people more receptive to doubts about that topic,” Beste said. “They are taking elements of reality in these campaigns and then warping them to create a different impression.”

Trying to rebut such campaigns is hard because the basic elements are often unfalsifiable, and engaging can often counterproductively lend claims to credibility.

Artificial intelligence tools are also a serious concern because of their ability to mimic human behaviour.

“AI is clearly something we have to watch very carefully,” Beste said. “What I worry about is how it will be used to create the impression of interaction . . . You enter a de facto second world, not just fake pieces of information or fake films or pictures but an entire alternative information ecosystem.”

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