President Vladimir Putin is on a mission to expand Russian ideology and is employing social media trolls to effect political change.
The director of NATO’s strategic communications command in Riga, Latvia, says that the Russians are using modern propaganda methods to effect change in their favor and that Britain is not immune from the results. Jānis Sārts says that the Russians are in a digital information offensive against non-Russians.
Sitting at a long table in a conference room at the whitewashed Nato headquarters, Sārts cannot see the logic of Russia invading Latvia in the near future, as it did Georgia and Ukraine, but he will not beat around the bush: “It is not at all impossible.”
One project examined 200,000 comments posted on Latvia’s three main online news portals between 29 July and 5 August 2014. It found 1.45% of those comments were from “hybrid trolls”, a phenomenon that came to light recently when it emerged that Russia had set up warehouses in which an army of bloggers sat day and night, charged with flooding the internet with comments favourable to Russian interests. But in some stories, more than half of the comments were by Russian trolls – identified partly by their poor grammar, repetition of content and IP address.
Five types of troll were found: the “blame the US conspiracy trolls”; the “bikini trolls” (adorned with images of young women who would gently ask targets to rethink their views); “aggressive trolls” determined to drive people off the web; “Wikipedia trolls” working to edit blogs and web pages to Russia’s advantage; and “attachment trolls”, who would post link after link to articles and videos from Russian news platforms.
The audience for the presentations – including diplomats and military officers – were told that, while the number of trolls might seem small, they were the “glue” for a wider project.
Kremlin-backed TV channels were jammed into the airspace, Russian-language newspapers disseminated stories and content produced in Moscow, while NGOs, funded by Russian money, offered up talking heads on every issue under the sun. Meanwhile, automatic “digital bots” were churning out messages influencing the search engines. “If you research for Ukraine, maybe the top 10 results will be those backed by the Kremlin,” said Sanda Svetoka, a senior Nato communications expert.
Speaking on Thursday, Sārts held little back: “What we have to do is understand the strategies, the methods, the tactics, and, of course, from that understanding create an ability to resist, respond, and win and protect our societies, the hearts and minds of our people, our value systems, the way our societies work.”