Russia’s disinformation ecosystem is often mischaracterized, with many assuming that its primary target is foreign audiences. In reality, Moscow has spent years attempting to master and mislead its central target, the Russian people.
The Kremlin operates a disinformation ecosystem that embeds propaganda-led policies in all realms of society, with government bodies in every sphere pushing an agenda aligned with Moscow’s overarching ambitions. These ecosystems cloud critical thinking by seeping into every domain of Russians’ life, from overt media sources funded or affiliated with the government to intelligence-linked media that amplify and associate solely those voices who promote narratives aligned with the Kremlin’s goals. As a result, the tentacles of disinformation are spread widely across the country.
SOURCES OF RUSSIAN DISINFORMATION
The notorious Glavset, or Internet Research Agency began operations in 2013 as a blog-type forum. The agency, which is reportedly directed by President Vladimir Putin’s close companion Yevgeny Prigozhin, who is also linked to the private military group Wagner, has become well-known in mainstream American conversations due to its interference in US domestic culture wars and election meddling. However, despite this reputation, its primary focus has always been the domestic Russian audience and manipulating the national conversation.
The Internet Research Agency, like any other actor in the disinformation ecosystem, isn’t always wanting to influence individuals. Still, often, it is a source of conversation deflection, acting as a disseminator of “whataboutism” to audiences. For example, Russians will receive spikes in regurgitated news surrounding US war crimes and NATO intervention in the Balkans, which are used to solidify suspicions of the “other.”
As the world isolates Putin, a crumbling Kremlin only pushes harder on the disinformation accelerator, which targets all Russians, including children.
Within Russia, the ecosystem reflects the vast nature of the country, catering to a spectrum of political alignments. Although they may appear intertwined from a foreign perspective, internally, Russia has diverse political identities — and the Russian disinformation system has found a way to target different audiences uniquely. This reflects outwardly onto foreign audiences, with left-leaning individuals finding comfort in Redfish, an outlet that mimics the likings of VICE News with a focus on documentary making, despite being a subsidiary of traditionally right-leaning RT. Combined with censorship, targeting of opposition groups, and corruption, the disinformation ecosystem continues to live and is relatively undisturbed domestically.
Russia’s disinformation ecosystem drives and thrives on emotions — individuals who are confused, angry, and skeptical are easy targets for disinformation campaigns. They present an open space for misinformation disseminators to reinforce a narrative or at least plant a seed of suspicion. Such campaigns are especially successful when facts and data are incomplete, which is often the case in Russia, where verifying facts can be difficult due to the intertwining nature of media and government.
The disseminators of disinformation sometimes search for the perfect narrative or aim to break consistency in the conversation. Actors often use any tactic possible to enter the conversation. Humanization and false flags are sometimes designed to be unrealistic and somewhat ridiculous because they seek out and break truth and “collective sensemaking” in a bid to cast doubt and harm long-term information literacy. It is almost censorship through noise.
PROPAGANDA FOR EVERYONE
Propaganda is not just directed toward adults. Russian children are specific targets for state propaganda. The state information agents indoctrinate children by using specific child-friendly language, both in the classroom and online. Since 2009, the Kremlin has been running cartoon games that have been recently revamped to feature war propaganda going as far as fear mongering young kids into thinking Russia is being threatened and that the armed forces need to be strong to protect Russia from losing its sovereignty.
Commonly people’s answer to Russia’s domestic disinformation crisis is to provide them with new sources or assist them, but this often neglects the reality of Russia. It is a poor country, with around 500 people holding 99.8% of the country’s wealth. Outside of the city centers, most people are just trying to get by and, therefore, accept the reality they are fed. For many over the age of 30, the shadows of the Soviet Union create comfort in Putin’s regime as they weigh contemporary issues against the Soviet days. Often enough, the older generation favors the current times. Of note, much of the population lives in intergenerational households, which also plays a crucial understanding in backdrop conversations and how one may consume the media. Combined with limited news sources, late-night television shows, and radio, these audiences can find themselves stuck in a loophole of propaganda where they can’t completely reflect on one story or critique the source because another narrative has already begun.
The Kremlin also controversially takes advantage of the Russian Orthodox Church to amplify propaganda and the overall pro-government agenda to church followers. Putin has been painted as a gatekeeper and protector of Christianity, which has helped consolidate his power. Throughout the Soviet era, religion was banned with individuals adopting underground methods to practice their faith; even Putin himself stated his mother secretly baptized him. When he rose to power, he built an image as a man of faith that could protect the beliefs of the Russian people from being demonized once again. The weaponization of the church also pulsates outwardly, with opportunities to extend Russian influence to eastern Europe. In a sphere of belief and trust, the church is used as a Kremlin policy tool both nationally and internationally.
As the world isolates Putin, a crumbling Kremlin only pushes harder on the accelerator. From hiring influencers to propaganda children’s websites to weaponizing faith, Russia’s domestic propaganda has alarmingly escalated to ludicrous levels.
Perri Grace is a disinformation and geopolitical analyst specializing in hybrid warfare and propaganda within authoritarian regimes. She currently works as a Senior Researcher at the Red Line as well as an Extremist Monitor of the Platform of Peace and Humanity’s Central Asia Desk. She holds an MA in Conflict and Security from the United Nations Institute of Training and Research, where she completed her research in international law and disinformation.