Disinformation as a weapon in International Relations? How Russia attempts to influence German public opinion
Linus Siebert is a Berlin-based M.A. candidate in Political Science at the University of Potsdam, with academic stays in Chicago, USA and Tbilisi, Georgia. Through his work as Freelance Political Communication Manager in the German Ministry of Health during the COVID-19 crisis, and as a Project Lead for the Public Arena Playbook, he is familiar with the modern challenges of disinformation and fake news in the digital space.
Social media has taken over our lives. Not only we organize our friendships, voluntary work and our professional network through social media – we also consume news and other information related to global affairs. As a result, the public and private realms are increasingly intertwined. Assuming that you consume news in social media, have you ever reached the point where you were unsure if that video in your timeline is from a news broadcaster, a political campaign, or other private individual? Were you questioning if that video you watched is considered entertainment, an opinion, or official information? If so, you're experiencing first-hand the impact that social media has on the way that we form our views in the digital space. Everyone is a sender and a receiver at the same time. Therefore, everyone can share their "interpretation" of information. If we look at this phenomenon from a political perspective, it quickly becomes clear that if everyone can disguise as "everyone," then so can state actors.
The state behind the “everyone”
Researchers, journalists, and politicians often refer to the time we live in as the Age of Fake News, or the Disinformation Age – not just since the COVID-19-pandemic has given a boost to the spread of false information. If we consider the opportunity for state actors to also use the digital space to spread false information, we can assume that actors will aim to increase their political capital from these practices. One actor that is frequently mentioned in the German discourse about state-led disinformation is the Russian state apparatus under Vladimir Putin. Thus, in March 2021, the flagship project EU vs Disinformation identified Germany as the primary target of Russian disinformation campaigns among all EU member states.
Division as a political goal
First, to better understand the strategy of Russian disinformation in the case of Germany, we need to clarify what we understand by the term disinformation. According to the American researcher Ben Epstein from DePaul University Chicago, disinformation can be defined as the “false information that is deliberately created or disseminated with the express purpose to cause harm or make profit”. In the context of International Relations, the main goal behind disinformation is to manipulate and mislead the public opinion of the target country as well as to divide and mobilize its society in the attacking states’ interests. In the case of Russian disinformation in Germany, these campaigns are embedded into the military doctrine and information warfare strategy of the Kremlin, which, according to researchers Stefan Meister and Jana Puglirien, it uses them as a weapon to legitimize the actions of the Russian Federation. Since Germany is largely considered the leading force behind the implementation of economic sanctions on Russia and an important NATO-ally and EU-member that has a historically large Russian-speaking minority, it is not surprising that it has become one of the main targets of Russian disinformation efforts.
The underlying strategy
According to researchers from the German Council on Foreign Relations, while Germany is by no means the only country exposed to Russian disinformation – as it is evident most recently in the context of the current Ukraine crisis –, it can be said that the strategy employed and narratives spread follow a trial-and-error-approach which is tailored to the target country. Thereby, the circulated false information address pre-existing sentiments in German society directed against the partnership between Germany and its allies as well as the so-called “mainstream media” or “political establishment”. Since many modern democratic societies face a high level of polarization and mistrust, Russian disinformation campaigns attempt to capitalise on these perceptions and social division to pursure their foreign policy
agenda. In the German case, disinformation campaigns mainly aim to strengthen the assumption that Germany and its liberal, democratic system are not offering promising solutions suited for an increasingly complex world.
The stories that are told
One of these main topics leveraged in these disinformation campaigns is the issue of migration and the integration of refugees, which has been a highly polarizing subject in German society since the beginning of the so-called “refugee crisis” that started in 2015. In this context, Susanne Spahn from the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom found out that prejudices against refugees as a potential danger are amplified through the dissemination of misinformation surrounding crime statistics. At the same time, former chancellor Angela Merkel became the primary target of Russian-led disinformation campaigns, which depicted her leadership in a bad light, suggesting that she was not capable of dealing with the refugee crisis.
According to Spahn, another narrative being employed by the Russian regime is the depiction of any kind of criticism against Putin and Russia’s foreign policy measures as the result of Russophobia and an interest in maintaining the Cold War, which is also visible in Russia's most recent demands on NATO regarding eastern enlargement. An example of this is the false information that has purposely been spread by Russian media outlets claiming that Alexei Navalny’s wife was a German citizen. This is intended to create the legitimacy basis for preparing potential countermeasures against Germany, which provided medical care for the poisoned Russian opposition figure.
Foreign Media paving the way for confusion
On closer inspection, many of us may have come across the abbreviation RT while scrolling through our timelines. RT stands for Russia Today, which is a Russian state-funded international media network that started to broadcast in the German language in November 2014. The use of state-owned media plays a significant role in the implementation of disinformation campaigns that aim to damage the credibility of Germany. According to Meister and Puglierin, media outlets such as Russia Today position themselves as providers of “alternative” news, and are significantly involved in the spread of false and misleading information by using their reach in the digital space, such as in the “Lisa Case”. These campaigns are founded on the assurance that selected target groups, such as right-wing populists, will further distribute the content and a visible reaction will be provoked. As a result, they deliberately take advantage of the phenomena that researchers Ulises A Mejias and Nikolai EVokuev described as an “online discourse [which] has become an important space for the generation and propagation of these messages, turning regular citizens into propaganda machines capable of spreading disinformation, paranoia, and hatred”.
What does it mean for the future of our democratic societies?
After taking a closer look at the phenomenon of Russian disinformation in Germany, we can safely conclude that even our private sphere does not offer us protection from state interference; on the contrary, it is increasingly becoming the main target for state-sponsored disinformation campaigns. Even though the awareness of foreign disinformation has been strengthened over time, most of the democratic societies are far from being sufficiently resilient.
To strengthen the stability of our societies and the credibility of our political systems, the following steps could be considered to fight against disinformation:
1. Increasing the digital media literacy of our citizens, that is, the capacity to critically
evaluate news and detect false information.
2. Establishing public Disinformation Task Forces to tackle this political threat. In my
own experience in the German Ministry of Health during the COVID-19 crisis, I have experienced how uncertainty and manipulation can be reduced when false information is identified and debunked on time.
3. Reducing social polarization through respectful discussions and fact-based discourses, to remove the breeding ground for foreign disinformation.
In summary, the fight against foreign disinformation in democratic societies is an effort involving the whole of society, which starts while we scroll through our timelines, and which can only be mastered if social cohesion prevails over division.
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