A new RAND Corporation report finds that Russia is waging a social media campaign in the Baltics, Ukraine and nearby states to sow dissent against neighbouring governments, as well as NATO and the European Union.
In addition to employing a state-funded multi-lingual television network, operating various pro-government news websites and working through Russian-backed "civil society" organisations, Russia also employs a sophisticated social media campaign that includes news tweets, non-attributed comments on web pages, troll and bot social media accounts, and fake hashtag and Twitter campaigns.
"Nowhere is this threat more tangible than in Ukraine, which has been an active propaganda battleground since the 2014 Ukrainian revolution," said Todd Helmus, lead author on the report and senior behavioural scientist at the RAND Corporation, a nonpartisan research organisation. "Other countries in the region look at Russia's actions and annexation of Crimea and recognise the need to pay careful attention to Russia's propaganda campaign."
In Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus, according to the RAND report, Russia aims to divide ethnic Russian or Russian-speaking populations and their host governments.
RAND researchers recommend that to counter the Russian campaign, Western countries need to strengthen and expand means to track, block and tag Russian propaganda more quickly, to offer alternative television, social media and other media to help displace the Russian narrative, and to develop more-compelling arguments for populations to align with the west and better understand NATO troop deployments in the region.
The report also recommends the training of local journalists and funding the creation of alternative media content to counteract Russia propaganda campaigns.
"We paid special attention to the role of non-attributed social media accounts, which are frequently, but not solely, employed on Twitter and Facebook," said Elizabeth Bodine-Baron, an author on the report, engineer and co-director of the RAND Center for Applied Network Analysis and System Science. "Russia has established that during critical moments, such as during the Ukrainian conflict, it can flood news websites with tens of thousands of comments each day,"
The report finds that US, EU and NATO efforts to counter Russian influence in the region are complicated by the relatively high presence of historically marginalised Russian-speaking populations in the region, which gives Russia a unique opportunity to communicate with a sympathetic audience.
Host government policies giving priority to national languages have limited government outreach via the Russian language, thus complicating state outreach to Russian speakers. Furthermore, Russian broadcast media dominates in the region, particularly in the Baltics. Ukraine is the exception as it has censored Russian government broadcasting and social media platforms.
Finally, heavy-handed anti-Russian messaging may backfire given local skepticism of Western propaganda.