The Detector Media asked an expert on countering disinformation in the Task Force from the Atlantic Counci Jakub Kalenský about Kremlin’s interference in the elections in the EU and the US, and what should Ukraine prepare for in 2019.
– Jakub, first of all, I would like to ask you what term you prefer to use: “Kremlin propaganda” or “Russian propaganda”.
– In our previous team, as well as in my current capacity, we always prefer the term “pro-Kremlin disinformation” or “Kremlin disinformation”. We don’t even use the word “propaganda”. The word “propaganda” is from “propagate”. You can propagate something in a very sensible manner. It doesn’t have to be dark arts. But when you say “disinformation”, it’s very clear. This is a bad thing, a lie that is intentionally spread. And why do we talk about the Kremlin and not about Russia? We do not want to repeat Kremlin’s propaganda that tells: Kremlin is Russia. That’s not true. Not everybody in Russia agrees with the Kremlin. There are still some brave journalists who are in the minority, but they are there. For instance, they uncovered St. Petersburg’s troll factory. The second reason is the language because you see that pro-Kremlin disinformation is not only in the Russian language but also in other languages. Many people in Europe will ask you: “How can we say that this piece in the Hungarian outlet is pro-Kremlin disinformation?” And the answer is: “Because we saw it two weeks ago on the Russian state TV.”
– The East StratCom Task Force was established in 2015. I read your digest in which you were gathering some examples of Kremlin disinformation and explanations about them. What else did you do?
– Let me outline that there were three objectives of the work of the Task Force. One of them was better communication of the EU policy about Eastern Partnership countries. The second was support for the independent media in the region. And only the third of them was raising the awareness about Russia’s or pro-Kremlin disinformation campaigns. I was leading the team in this third objective for three years. And in this third objective we had publicly available products because we wanted to make it public as much as possible. That was the disinformation review which was collecting the examples of disinformation, and the disinformation digest which was more analytical product where we looked at the bigger picture. For example, how was the topic of LGBT covered in pro-Kremlin media? Or the topic of Nazi? Because it was not only Ukraine accused of being fascist country but also Estonia, Latvia, the United States, Germany. And we used the Twitter account, the Facebook page, plus a weekly newsletter to amplify these two products.
We participated in the conferences where we could reach a bit different audience, high-level decision-makers who usually do not have that much time to read the newsletters. Also we had a lot of background briefings for journalists. We did not need to brief many journalists in Ukraine because, as I like to say, I’ve come here to learn something about the disinformation campaign, since Ukraine has the most experience with it. But for the journalists in the West pro-Kremlin disinformation was a new phenomenon. Many of them have discovered this topic only after 2015–2016.
– How many subscribers of the newsletter did you have after three years of work?
– For a newsletter via e-mail it was something around 20,000 subscribers. On the Twitter account there was something like 50,000 people. Some people viewed website. My colleagues were counting all-in-all how many people we reached during month: during a bad month it was something like 1 million people, during a good month it could be up to 2 million people reached by all these channels. Probably, these are not the highest numbers, but we focused rather on expert audience: the decision-makers in the governments, high-level civil servants, officials, and the journalists with their crucial audiences. We couldn’t reach everyone, but we knew that we managed to talk to the journalists in Denmark who then write articles for the Danish audience. So, we could reach the audience by them.
– Did you conduct briefings for journalists only in Brussels?
– No, journalists from everywhere could call us by a phone. I remember even the journalist from Japan who wanted to be briefed on Russia’s disinformation. Sometimes journalists from London came over; Brussels is not that far from London, from Paris, from Berlin. Or we came to Berlin during the conferences. American journalists were coming a lot as well. Especially after 2016, after their elections, when they realized the problem that we have been talking about for a couple of years.
– Is it easier to communicate about Kremlin disinformation now than at the beginning?
– Yes, it is. On the other hand, what I like about the Americans is that they have Robert Mueller’s investigation. They have new findings every couple of weeks, couple of months. And this will make the front pages. Whereas, in many European countries we are seeing that there are these ups and downs. Do you remember the Lisa Case in Germany? That was crazy. We had several German journalists every day on the phone. But it was just a one-off event, and nothing more, no follow up. I think this is a bit dangerous; this is where Americans are a bit better than Europeans. Because they investigate the attacks on the democracies. The Europeans don’t do that. Basically, their behavior looks like saying: “Come on, you can attack our elections, we don’t care.”
– I think that at least Sweden cared about it because they met us in March and asked about good practices in countering disinformation.
– There are a few such states. You can realize that from the fact which EU member states are sending their people to the East StratCom Task Force. There are the three Baltic states, three Nordic states, the Czech Republic, the United Kingdom. And Poland has recently joined. But it’s not Southern Europe. Apart from the UK it is no one from Western Europe. Yes, Swedes are one of the more alerted nations. And we are happy of that.
– Was Sweden successful during its elections in September 2018?
– I’ve been present to one briefing of the MSB (Swedish Civil Contingency Agency. – DM), and their assessment was that they actually were. They were prepared quite well, they briefed the crucial audiences like civil servants, the politicians, and the journalists – people who multiply information. On the other hand, state agencies always protect themselves, and you rarely see the state admitting: “We did not do that well.” But it is true that I have not noticed big scandals, some big operations. So, it probably went well.
– Here in Ukraine, we faced Russian attacks earlier. But we will have elections in 2019. And I am not sure if we are well prepared. Should we ask Sweden to share its practices with us?
– Perhaps. It always seems to me that here in Ukraine, there is a very strong response by the civil society. So many new projects emerged after Maidan, after information attacks. Be it StopFake that almost everybody in the West knows, be it your organization or the Ukraine Crisis Media Center which brilliantly shows how the Russian TV talks about Western nations. There are so many brilliant singular journalists and researchers. But on the state level, I think it always takes time when the institutions realize what they can do, what is their role in the system. And for that you probably need a period of stability that Ukraine unfortunately still has not really had after the fall of the Soviet Union.
What is good in Sweden is that they have MSB, the civil contingency agency. It is under the Ministry of Justice. It is part of the government, but it is not in the government. It is slightly independent. I think it is really a very good role. Because when we, for example, in the East StratCom talked about disinformation, we saw a few western journalists saying: “OK, this is the government or intergovernmental organization, we should not trust them.” The skepticism towards authorities’ institutions is there in Europe as well. It is good that there is someone a bit more independent, but who can talk to high level civil servants. We were focusing on talking out loud to the public. They are doing it more behind the closed doors. And I think it works very well when you are in closed environment in one state.
On the other hand, it is also true that the Kremlin is much more aggressive in Ukraine. Swedes had a bit easier task than Ukraine has. And it is not only the Kremlin is the most aggressive here, but it also has more fertile ground: I mean language issue and the fact that the Kremlin knows audience probably much better than it knows Swedes. It has probably cultivated more people here than in Sweden.
– Was the Czech Republic successful in countering disinformation during your elections (parliamentary elections were held in October 2017. Presidential elections were held in January 2018. – DM)? I have heard about the Pirate Party or another party which leader is a rich person who promised to fight rich people…
– Andrej Babiš, exactly. Almost an oligarch.
It seems to me there was quite a lot of activity around the presidential elections. As you might know, the Czech President Miloš Zeman is one of the most pro-Kremlin people in Europe. He is a puppet of Russia’s propaganda about no Russian troops in Ukraine. This is horrible. And it contradicts the official position of the Czech Republic. You do not see often that the head of state goes against his own state. But we have that. And I think, precisely for these reasons, this person is more important for the Kremlin than the MPs. Maybe, he is important not in the negotiations behind the closed doors because he does not decide very much. But when we have a look at the official Kremlin outlets, they are really presenting him as “our people in the West”. It’s really important for their propaganda efforts. So, there were reports about disinformation attacks against candidates who were running against Zeman – quite nasty ones accusing of pedophilia, etc.
The question of success is always very difficult: how do you measure it? The very holistic and very simplistic view is: what outcome did the Kremlin want? The outcome happened. So, it means they were successful. They have definitely succeeded in creating the information environment which is very hysterical and polarized: older generation vs. younger generation, better educated vs. poorer educated, better income vs. worse income, Prague vs. the rest of the country, biggest cities against countryside – in many questions it is almost fifty-fifty.
On the other hand, it does not tell you exactly how many people they managed to persuade. On the working level, in the ministries, there are many good people in the Czech Republic who are trying very hard to work on it. Which is brilliant, and you do not have it in every country. The political level, unfortunately, is not doing enough.
– I would like to ask you about new initiative in Czech Republic – elves. Do they work as volunteers?
– Yes, quite a new thing. We copied Lithuanian approach. As far as I know, it’s mostly volunteer activity. One aim is to support persons who are being attacked in social media by trolls. Another aim would be to infiltrate the groups that are organizing hostile information operations in social media. What I would also like to see – but I am not sure if Czechs will manage to do that – is the brilliant thing that the guys in Lithuania are doing: they are helping journalists with identifying disinformation. It costs time, as you as a journalist know very well. Because you have to find the information, then you have to find the official statistics or the precise statements. Imagine that you have several dozens or several hundreds of people who are helping you with this. This really speeds up the process.
Czech elves have just started and I wish them luck. You can see that some countries have a brilliant response by the state – Sweden, Lithuania. And in some countries it comes more from the civil society – Ukraine is a brilliant example. I think it’s good if we have them both, the more the better.
– Who is leading Czech elves? Under which authority are they working?
– It is still pretty secreted. As far as I know, they have only one spokesperson who goes to media and talks. They have a Facebook page where you can see what they say.
If I would be organizing such group, I would want not only people from the private sector, I would also try to engage with the people from the state sector, because they have information that I do not have.
– In Ukraine, we are afraid that our people can elect pro-Russian President. But also they can elect pro-Russian parliament parties. And even one of their leaders can become a Speaker of the Parliament. I am talking about Viktor Medvedchuk. He bought two TV channels recently. Do you know such examples from European experience when a politician can buy TV channels before elections and be pro-Russian at the same time?
– Sadly to say, Czech Prime Minister owns some media. But at least he is not openly pro-Kremlin. No, to be frank, you do not hear this very much in Europe. It is not very common that politicians control the outlets. It’s more often oligarchs or rich people. And there are some kinds of a deal between politicians.
You will have to find solutions because I am not sure that anyone can give you a good advice. Perhaps, it might be wise to think about some laws that would prohibit people in public functions to control channels that inform the public. And it is important that the rest of the civil society, the rest of the journalists oppose that.
Of course, it would also be good to avoid too strong polarizations because it is one of the Kremlin’s aims in it – when people are hysterically accusing each other who is Kremlin agent, who is not. I unfortunately see it in Ukraine.
And you cannot just measure the readership of particular media outlet and think whether it has impact or not. The trouble is that there are other channels spreading pro-Kremlin disinformation. I’ve mentioned the Czech President. When a President of a country says something, even the mainstream media report it. No matter whether he lies or not. So, you have disinformation in the outlets that are not controlled by Kremlin or not involved in the disinformation campaign. It means that the message itself can have much bigger impact than just one outlet spreading this disinformation.
When you are trying to counteract the influence operations, it’s a little bit like espionage. You know that you will never stop it. But you are trying to raise the costs, you are trying to make it more difficult for your adversary. And even the fact that journalists are talking about it and discussing it is already helping. But please keep in mind that, for example, in many European countries people do not even realize that they have this problem. I think you can divide the EU in approximately thirds. One third is pretty much aware what is happening. They try to counteract. As I already mentioned, the Baltic countries, the Nordic countries, some of Central and Eastern European countries, and United Kingdom are much alerted. Then there are some countries acting in grey zone. Sometimes you hear from them very good statements about the need to stop Kremlin’s disinformation attacks. But sometimes you see conflicting statements or you see that they are not fully implemented. But these states are at least on the way. And then you have approximately one third of the countries who simply deny that there is a problem and do not solve it – despite the obvious fact that they are very often a victim of this information aggression. They are the most difficult to work with.
– Will the Task Force continue to gather examples of disinformation and spread them via newsletters and consultations for journalists? Or will this organization change the focus of its activity?
– I think the mandate is still the same: to challenge the ongoing Russia’s disinformation campaign. Until this year, the team was working without a budget. And now the team will be implementing its first money. So I actually hope that they could gather more than before.
– You already mentioned that Kremlin disinformation is like a game with no ending. What do you think about the end of a hybrid warfare? When will it happen?
– It seems to me that we are solving the trouble of Kremlin’s aggression in a wrong way. It reminds me when you have an arsonist in the village and he is setting houses on fire. He knows which house to set on fire during the night and which during the day when everybody is away, and which house burns from the top and which from the bottom. He does that on daily basis, he is experienced in that. And we, the villagers, are discussing: we should build better water supplies, we should hire more firemen, we should train kids how to put out fire, maybe we should have built brick houses instead of wooden houses. And we are not discussing that we should catch the arsonist.
The Kremlin’s activities are not extremely sophisticated. They are sometimes repetitive; they do make mistakes. Their Skripal action was not that huge success. But have we ever stopped them? No, we have not. So, I am a bit afraid that until we decide that we want to stop them, they will go on. Because there’s nothing that would prevent them. They might find new ways. They had to shut down Sputnik’s offices in Sweden, Finland, and Denmark, because Sputnik in these countries was not successful. But it does not mean that they would abandon these countries. They just focus more on social media trolling; they focus on manipulating the comment sections in media outlets. At the same time, we have some weaknesses because we want to be an open society. And we will not fix all the holes. So, we have to stop the aggressor.
– Yes, it’s an issue of the asymmetric response. What do you think about this asymmetric approach? Is it the best way to stop the arsonist?
– I think we could be a bit more robust. Just have a look at the timeline: what Kremlin has done since 2007 in Estonia. 2008 – Georgia. 2013 – Ukraine. 2014 – export of disinformation into European countries and North America. Attempts to manipulate the Scotch independence referendum, the Dutch referendum about the Association Agreement, Italian constitution referendum, the US elections in 2016, French and German elections in 2017, Czech presidential elections, Austrian presidential elections, and I am sure I left something out. Jesus Christ! Could we actually see a pattern finally?
We should say: “Ok, if you try to meddle into Ukrainian elections next year, there will be a unified response from the West kicking out five Russian diplomats. You try half a year later in Greece – Ok, we kick another diplomats.” And again, sanctions against companies and people involved. How is it possible that Dmitriy Kiselev is the only pseudo journalist involved on the sanctions list? How come Solovyov is not there? Solovyov who washes brains three days a week in the prime time about the fascistic West that needs to be destroyed – and then he sits on the plane and enjoys his villa at Lago di Como. How come that the western companies buy the advertisement on Russian TV? How come that the western companies are paying for the anti-western disinformation? When we realize the very conflicting situation which some people call even a hybrid war, and I would not really disagree with them, this would be just about finding the right solutions.
– Have you ever been a victim of Kremlin propaganda? Did they target you personally when you worked for the Task Force?
– Actually, it was not that horrible when compared to what is happening on a daily basis to those who oppose the Kremlin in Ukraine or in Russia, or even to European journalists who are covering this topic. The Russian ambassador to the EU once called us the “идеологический спецназ” (ideological special forces. – DM) of the European Union. I was very proud of it. I put it in my bio section. (Laughs.)
Maybe now I can expect something more. But I believe they did not want to have a full-scale conflict with European institutions.
– Are you afraid to visit Russia?
– I had planned to visit Russia. But my friend told me it’s not the best idea. Not because of myself but because of people I would meet there. They could have problems. I thought he might be right. It looks like under the current regime I might not visit Russia. Last time I was there in 2006. It was the study visit for a month.
– From time to time we might hear that there are some other countries, not only Russia, which use Russian techniques of disinformation. What do you think about it?
– A few weeks ago, Ben Nimmo from the Atlantic Council wrote an article and commenting for the other media on how Iran copy-pasted the Russian approach. You can see that China is very advanced in controlling information. But the Kremlin not also controls the internal information space but has the export of disinformation. We don’t know about the export of disinformation from China. I am not an expert on China, but what the researchers tell you is that it focuses more on decision-makers, businessmen, politicians, not that much on the general audience where Russia is doing its information carpet bombing aiming as many targets as possible.
Last month, I’ve been to the conference that was organized by my new organization, Atlantic Council, in DC. There were speakers from Brazil, the Philippines, Kenia, and they said that authorities there increasingly using information almost as a weapon. So, it is a bit worrying and let’s be frank, I think we have to consider the mistake of the West that we have not reacted more adequately to the Kremlin’s activity. Because we have made it too cheap for them. We have shown: you can do it and our response will not be very strong. I think this is resulted in that other countries can say: “Ok, we can also do that.”
Interview was prepared by Galina Petrenko