Crisis (Non-)Management, Pro-Kremlin Style
Last week, the Disinformation Review highlighted the cynical opportunism of the pro-Kremlin media in exploiting the racial injustice protests sweeping across America and the world. The efforts by Russian state media and pro-Kremlin outlets to exploit the situation for political objectives, internationally as well as domestically, showed a distinct contrast in coverage for Western versus Russian-speaking audiences. That trend continued this week, with pro-Kremlin outlets spreading the usual conspiracy theories – modified for the topic of the day – as well as divisive messages related to the protests. While there is scant evidence of a covert coordinated influence effort like around the 2016 US election, there is rapidly growing evidence that the pro-Kremlin media is actively instrumentalising the US crisis to push its preferred narratives and advance an anti-liberal, anti-Western agenda.
Racial injustice protests: a ploy for colour revolution
Several cases this week attempt to link the protests with America’s supposed penchant for fomenting “colour revolutions” and meddling in the affairs of other states. For example, we saw claims that the protests are “extremely reminiscent of the techniques of a colour revolution” and a “dress rehearsal” of the Orange Revolution – even alleging that the US prepared people in different parts of the world to organise them. It is well known that the power of popular mobilisation is one of the Kremlin’s greatest political anxieties regarding regime stability, given the trend of civic revolutions against corruption-prone regimes in post-Soviet countries. As a result, the pro-Kremlin media have a habit of suggesting that demonstrations anywhere, of any sort, must be orchestrated by malevolent outside forces. The present unrest in the US is no exception, with suggested culprits including America’s “ruling elites”, globalist corporations, the Democratic Party – seeking to gain influence ahead of the upcoming presidential election – and of course George Soros, who is supposedly encouraging riots and pogroms by the black population and trying to prevent Trump’s re-election, in cahoots with the Democrats. Soros is a popular bogeyman in pro-Kremlin disinformation thanks to his philanthropic work and promotion of democracy and free markets. By painting him as an instigator of the current US protests, the pro-Kremlin media also pushes the message in other countries that Soros’ Open Society Foundation should be banned.
Other disinformation cases we recorded this week involved the amplification of divisive messages and portrayals of the US as on the verge of collapse due to an impending “civil war”. For example, Sputnik claimed that the fate of the United States is at stake thanks to a “political game” verging on civil war to thwart Trump’s re-election. Other inflammatory messages included claims that blacks commit 80% of crimes in the US, that America has a choice between racism and anarchy, and that children in the West are taught to fear and hate the police.
Finally, the pro-Kremlin media never passes up an opportunity to target Ukraine. For example, the US protestors are compared with non-existent Nazis in Ukraine, and President Zelenskyy is advised to use the current chaos to secure Ukraine’s independence from the US.
While concerns persist about a potential second wave of COVID-19 as countries relax restrictions, the pro-Kremlin media is showing renewed appetite for coronavirus-related disinformation. Indeed, the involvement of foreign actors like Russia and China in spreading disinformation and amplifying conspiracy theories about COVID-19 has been highlighted in a new Communication by European Commission Vice President Věra Jourová and High Representative Josep Borrell, presented on Wednesday.
The cases we saw this week were mostly rote repetition of the narratives recorded previously. The coronavirus has destroyed the European Union and proved NATO worthless. Bill Gates is behind the virus and plans to use vaccines to cull the world population. The West has responded to the pandemic by sacrificing the sick and elderly, but at the same time exaggerated the threat thanks to “matriarchal hysteria”.
Claims that the coronavirus came from a laboratory and is artificially made remain especially common. These also feed into another common trope in pro-Kremlin disinformation, for which the pandemic provides especially fertile soil: that the US is operating biolabs around the world and creating ethnic weapons. For example, we saw claims that US laboratories in Ukraine are testing bioweapons on Slav populations, and that people of Armenia, Georgia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan are “biomaterial” for the Pentagon. In these scenarios, Russia is of course portrayed as the ultimate victim of US aggression.
So what’s this week’s takeaway? Never let a good crisis go to waste – that is the unspoken motto of certain pro-Kremlin media. The tragedy and suffering of others often makes the best fuel for the disinformation fire.