Powerful Russian Weapon: The Spread of False Stories by Neil MacFarquhar

With a vigorous national debate underway on whether Sweden should enter a military partnership with NATO, officials in Stockholm suddenly encountered an unsettling problem: a flood of distorted and outright false information on social media, confusing public perceptions of the issue.

The claims were alarming: If Sweden, a non-NATO member, signed the deal, the alliance would stockpile secret nuclear weapons on Swedish soil; NATO could attack Russia from Sweden without government approval; NATO soldiers, immune from prosecution, could rape Swedish women without fear of criminal charges.

They were all false, but the disinformation had begun spilling into the traditional news media, and as the defense minister, Peter Hultqvist, traveled the country to promote the pact in speeches and town hall meetings, he was repeatedly grilled about the bogus stories.

Numerous analysts and experts in American and European intelligence point to Russia as the prime suspect, noting that preventing NATO expansion is a centerpiece of the foreign policy of President Vladimir V. Putin, who invaded Georgia in 2008 largely to forestall that possibility.

In Crimea, eastern Ukraine and now Syria, Mr. Putin has flaunted a modernized and more muscular military. But he lacks the economic strength and overall might to openly confront NATO, the European Union or the United States. Instead, he has invested heavily in a program of “weaponized” information, using a variety of means to sow doubt and division. The goal is to weaken cohesion among member states, stir discord in their domestic politics and blunt opposition to Russia.

The planting of false stories is nothing new; the Soviet Union devoted considerable resources to that during the ideological battles of the Cold War. Now, though, disinformation is regarded as an important aspect of Russian military doctrine, and it is being directed at political debates in target countries with far greater sophistication and volume than in the past.

The Kremlin’s clandestine methods have surfaced in the United States, too, American officials say, identifying Russian intelligence as the likely source of leaked Democratic National Committee emails that embarrassed Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.

The Kremlin uses both conventional media — Sputnik, a news agency, and RT, a television outlet — and covert channels, as in Sweden, that are almost always untraceable.

The fundamental purpose of dezinformatsiya, or Russian disinformation, experts said, is to undermine the official version of events — even the very idea that there is a true version of events — and foster a kind of policy paralysis.

Disinformation most famously succeeded in early 2014 with the initial obfuscation about deploying Russian forces to seize Crimea. That summer, Russia pumped out a dizzying array of theories about the destruction of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine, blaming the C.I.A. and, most outlandishly, Ukrainian fighter pilots who had mistaken the airliner for the Russian presidential aircraft.

The cloud of stories helped veil the simple truth that poorly trained insurgents had accidentally downed the plane with a missile supplied by Russia.

Moscow adamantly denies using disinformation to influence Western public opinion and tends to label accusations of either overt or covert threats as “Russophobia.”

“What the Russians are doing is building narratives; they are not building facts,” he said. “The underlying narrative is, ‘Don’t trust anyone.’”

The weaponization of information is not some project devised by a Kremlin policy expert but is an integral part of Russian military doctrine — what some senior military figures call a “decisive” battlefront.

A prime Kremlin target is Europe, where the rise of the populist right and declining support for the European Union create an ever more receptive audience for Russia’s conservative, nationalistic and authoritarian approach under Mr. Putin. Last year, the European Parliament accused Russia of “financing radical and extremist parties” in its member states, and in 2014 the Kremlin extended an $11.7 million loan to the National Front, the extreme-right party in France.

In Germany, concerns over immigrant violence grew after a 13-year-old Russian-German girl said she had been raped by migrants. A report on Russian state television furthered the story. Even after the police debunked the claim, Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, continued to chastise Germany.

In Britain, analysts said, the Kremlin’s English-language news outlets heavily favored the campaign for the country to leave the European Union, despite their claims of objectivity.

In the Czech Republic, alarming, sensational stories portraying the United States, the European Union and immigrants as villains appear daily across a cluster of about 40 pro-Russia websites.

Both RT and Sputnik portray themselves as independent, alternative voices. Sputnik claims that it “tells the untold,” even if its daily report relies heavily on articles abridged from other sources. RT trumpets the slogan “Question More.”

Both depict the West as grim, divided, brutal, decadent, overrun with violent immigrants and unstable. “They want to give a picture of Europe as some sort of continent that is collapsing,” Mr. Hultqvist, the Swedish defense minister, said in an interview.

RT often seems obsessed with the United States, portraying life there as hellish. Its coverage of the Democratic National Convention, for example, skipped the speeches and focused instead on scattered demonstrations. It defends the Republican presidential nominee, Donald J. Trump, as an underdog maligned by the established news media.

The effort involved leaking or even writing stories for sympathetic newspapers in India and hoping that they would be picked up in the West, said Professor Mark N. Kramer, a Cold War expert at Harvard.

One forgery, on Defense Ministry letterhead over Mr. Hultqvist’s signature, encouraged a major Swedish firm to sell artillery to Ukraine, a move that would be illegal in Sweden. Ms. Nyh Radebo, his spokeswoman, put an end to that story in Sweden, but at international conferences, Mr. Hultqvist still faced questions about the nonexistent sales.

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