Read this article in EN RU UA RO

Modus Trollerandi

July 28, 2021

How Democracy is SWAMPED: Seven Cheap Tricks

Since 2015, EUvsDisinfo has detected, documented and debunked disinformation from pro-Kremlin media. All individual cases are collected and available in a large and steadily growing database.

A consequence of EUvsDisinfo having followed pro-Kremlin disinformation outlets for several years is that certain patterns appear. EUvsDisinfo have, on earlier occasions, observed storytelling as a means of persuasion and certain fixed narratives; we have scrutinised fears and phobias exploited by the disinformation outlets.

The Rhetoric of Disinformation

This article will demonstrate a few of the cheap tricks of the Rhetoric of Disinformation; how the producers of disinformation systematically derail an exchange of ideas – the core of democracy – through a set of handy devices. The Kremlin trolls get the public discourse bogged down in a quagmire of pointless contestation. A Swedish activist has coined the term Modus Trollerandi to describe ways of trying to spoil public debate through a set of cheap tricks. EUvsDisinfo has developed the concept further, to show how democracy gets SWAMPED by malign manipulation:

S: Straw Man:
Attack views or ideas, never expressed by the target.

W: Whataboutism:
Deflect the discussion away from the subject.

A: Attack:
Use brutal language to discourage the opposition.

M: Mockery:
Use sarcasm to belittle the opposition.

P: Provocations:
Who benefits from Cui Bono?

E: Exhaust:
Drown the opposition in details and technicalities.

D: Denial:
Flatly deny any evidence

The common feature of all these devices is that they exclude any possibility for dialogue. Dissent is at the core of democracy; a democratic society moves forward through debate, discussion, compromise, and attempts to find common ground and agree on an acceptable solution. The Kremlin trolls are not interested in “questioning more”: they want to control the discourse; manage our thoughts; and shut down dissent. They attack the core of democracy: the concept of a respectful public dialogue.

Identifying the cheap tricks of Kremlin demagoguery helps us preserve a culture of dissent and questioning in the democratic discourse. We can stay on topic and continue talking about pressing issues instead of falling into the traps of the Kremlin’s spin doctors.

S for The Straw Man

The straw man is a rhetorical device where the troll attacks views or ideas never expressed by the opponent. EUvsDisinfo has occasionally highlighted the method in articles: sometimes using “neoliberalism” as a straw-man; on other occasions suggesting very sinister forces behind activists. Russian state broadcaster RT has claimed that Swedish teenage eco-activist Greta Thunberg wants to “reduce the world population” and argues loudly against such malevolent Malthusian plans.

The Modus Trollerandi of straw men is convenient and effective. From the perspective of classical rhetoric, it is an informal fallacy – both logically and factually false. That does not exclude its effectiveness as it appeals to the emotions of the audience: “Are you really going to allow Greta Thunberg to kill you and your children to save the rich people of the world?”

The EUvsDisinfo database contains several examples of the straw man device. The above-mentioned “Malthusian Straw Man” has been popular during the pandemic. Accusations of “Satanism” appear occasionally, suggesting democracy is a scheme to divert Europeans from God, decency and sound traditions.

The most prominent straw man exploited by the pro-Kremlin media are accusations of Nazism/Fascism. Any kind of criticism towards Kremlin policies might be labelled “Fascist”. Actual Fascism as in Italy during Mussolini or Spain during Franco, meanwhile, is met with understanding and sympathy. The EUvsDisinfo database contains numerous examples of virtually anyone being labelled a “Nazi/Fascist”. For instance, Russia-based SouthFront calls the German Green Party candidate for Chancellor and outspoken critic of the Kremlin, “An American Nazi”. Earlier, Ukraine has been labelled as “Nazi”, The United States is “Fascist”, France was an ally of Hitler, the Baltic States and Poland are ruled by Nazi sympathisers… In all these cases, Nazism functions as a straw man: the Kremlin can act as a fighter against Fascism, while ignoring any critical remarks.

Another popular straw man is “neoliberalism”. A vague, unpleasantly-sounding label that can be glued on any form of dissent.

The antidote against this device: stay on track! Refuse to take the bait! Continue insisting on talking about the core issue.

W for Whataboutism

This device was frequently employed in connection with the Belarusian president Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s act of air piracy in late May. The Kremlin spin doctors made furious attempts to deflect the news from the incident, claiming that sending fighter jets to intercept civilian aircraft and forwarding false bomb threats were common practice. This claim has been repeated ad nauseam (a device to be covered in a later article). Examples can be found here, here and here.

Whataboutism is a rhetorical device to deflect attention away from an unpleasant issue. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as:

The technique or practice of responding to an accusation or difficult question by making a counter-accusation or raising a different issue.

The method is very popular in the pro-Kremlin disinformation ecosystem. “Russian military shot down a passenger plane? Well, what about all the aircraft the US has shot down?“Eastern Ukraine? Well, what about all the countries in whose affairs the US has interfered?” “Demonstrators detained in Russia? Well, what about the police violence in Europe and the gilets jaunes? What about the persecution of the participants in the peaceful protests in Washington?”

The Tu Quoque Fallacy

Classical rhetoric describes this technique as a version of the tu quoque fallacy. In Russian, it is “сам дурак” – “you are the idiot!”. This approach has deep roots in Soviet rhetorical traditions, and the Kremlin disinformation ecosystem often uses it. EUvsDisinfo has described the method in several articles – here, here and here, for instance.

Whataboutism is an efficient cheap trick, and it has been a core element of Kremlin disinformation for a very long time. Even at the highest political level, instead of replying to questions on mass detentions of peaceful demonstrators, Russian officials apply whataboutism instead of dialogue:

We sent compilation of materials about how detentions are carried out and peaceful protests are broken up, how the police act in EU countries to Mr. Borrell so that he and his delegation could have a chance to answer many questions themselves before posing them to us.

Whataboutism is an aggressive means of assuming control over a debate. Through whataboutism, the Kremlin deflects criticism and turns the accusation against the opposition. The attacked party is forced into a defensive position and the Kremlin claims moral high ground.

The antidote to whataboutism: stay on track, and insist on continuing debate on the core issue.

A for Attack

Overblown language and exaggerated statements are to some extent standard practice in any polemical debate, e.g.: “The proposal of the opposition is plain madness!”; “The prime minister has lost her last piece of credibility”. But democratic discourse usually refrains from ridicule, dehumanisation and abuse. The democratic conversation is ideally connected to a fundamental respect and fair play between participants.

While most of the Kremlin’s cheap tricks are aggressive, the goal in this case is to discourage the opposition from continuing the conversation. Kremlin media are prone to label dissidents as “fascists”, “extremists” and even “paedophiles”. The Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson. Maria Zakharova, frequently does this in her statements:

The russophobic epileptic seizure in the Swedish parliament.

Statement of Maria Zakharova, Facebook, 2 June 2021


Our western partners live in a world of fantasy. I think they only see what does not exist and cannot see what stands in front of them. This is a strange ability – to be able to live in a world of illusions. My impression is that the collective West lives in a world of illusions.

RT, 23 April 2021

According to Ms. Zakharova, Russia acts impeccably, pragmatically and is above reproach. Criticism of Russian activities is nothing but a mental deviation, a sickness. A strange kind of epilepsy. Fantasies.

The EUvsDisinfo database contains several examples of this trick. Pro-Kremlin outlets describe the West as “satanists” and “perverts”. Russian state media suggest political decision-making is based on “mental illness”. The Swedish activist Greta Thunberg is a “victim of political paedophilia”.

As with most other of the Kremlin cheap tricks, the aim is to deflect. Instead of commenting on the issue, the opponent is attacked and dehumanised. The purpose is to discourage the opponent. Silence the conversation.

Of course, this method is not only used by the Kremlin. It is also frequently employed by Belarusian TV. The channel broadcasts a programme called “The Order of Judas”, and the host, Ryhor Azaronak, explains the purpose of the show:

“When nothing is clean, when the Liberal filth has covered almost everything, the world stands on the verge of extinction. Belarus is still standing. Thrice cursed is the son of Judas; may he suffocate from his love of silver. This is The Order of Judas. We talk about those who have forgotten about the good, and soiled their lives with the sin of betrayal.”

The antidote to this device: ignore the attack. Continue insisting on answers to the core issues, as such an attack clearly demonstrates the absence of viable arguments.

M for Mockery

Like a crazy person shooting deadly flaming arrows are those who deceive their neighbour and say, “Hey, I was only joking!”

Proverbs 26:18

Sarcasm, mockery, ridicule – “hahaganda” are well-functioning means of gaining advantage in a debate. EUvsDisinfo has frequently described the device in previous articles: here and here, for example.

Sarcasm, jokes, exaggerations can all be perfectly fine in a debate, but in the Kremlin’s case, it is a core element of the rhetoric. The Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Maria Zakharova, uses it as a staple in her weekly briefings, when ironic remarks about “our Western partners” and “our esteemed colleague” are used condescendingly, with the intention to belittle and defame.

“This is not the first time that the daily has published blatant nonsense.”

Briefing by Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, Moscow, 4 March, 2021

“All the nonsense that is now being issued publicly or through EU institutions’ accounts on social media, we will respond to it with clear argumentation and truthful factual information.”

Briefing by Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, Moscow, 4 March, 2021

“Many, unfortunately, still believe in this inculcated nonsense.”

Briefing by Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, Moscow, 10 December, 2020

“Repeated thunderous statements that no one, except Moscow, could perpetrate this cyber-attack because it is impossible to implement such an attack without using a special state resource are absurd. This amounts to a pseudo-legal position and nonsense.”

Briefing by Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, Moscow, 4 June, 2020

“The British government has come to the correct conclusion that the term “highly likely” no longer makes any sense.”

Briefing by Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, Moscow, 16 July, 2020

“Most likely, these fantasies (and this is how they should be qualified) should be considered in the context of London’s tactics of accusing Russia in their preferred “highly likely” style we know so well.”

Briefing by Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, Moscow, 16 July, 2020

In 2017, the NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence in Riga published a report on the systematic defamation of foreign political leaders on Russian state-controlled TV. While satire and humour is a fundamental element of public discourse in a democratic society, the satire on the Russian TV programmes deliberately intended to defame and belittle. The same approach was employed during the demonstrations in Russia in January 2021: Pro-Kremlin media outlets and pundits carefully labelled the hundreds of thousands of protesters “Navalny cubs and Mommy’s revolutionaries”.

Mockery is a powerful device and very hard to defend against. Mockery has to be endured, while not being diverted from the core issues. Kremlin humour is no laughing matter.

P for provocations

Occasionally, the purpose of a rhetorical device is to occupy the information space. This is in line with military theory, outlined in the Journal of the Russian Institute of Strategic Studies:

“A preventively shaped narrative, answering to the national interests of the state, can significantly diminish the impact of foreign forces’ activities in the information sphere, as they, as a rule, attempt to occupy “voids” [in the information flow].”

Russian military in Syria habitually forward claims that anti-Assad groups are planning chemical attacks against civilians, in order “to stage a provocation”, i.e. to blame the Syrian regime’s troops.

Moscow, 23 May. INTERFAX. “On the eve of the presidential elections in Syria, militants from the terror group Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (forbidden in Russia) are preparing provocations with the use of poisonous substances in the Western parts of the Idlib province. So reports the deputy head of the Russian Reconciliation Centre for Syria, Rear Admiral Aleksandr Karpov.”

Moscow, 20 February. RT. “The deputy head of the Russian Reconciliation Centre for Syria, Rear Admiral Vyacheslav Sytnik reports that militants in the North-East part of the Idlib zone are preparing a provocation, using poisonous substances.”

Moscow, 14 October. TASS. “Militants are preparing provocations with the use of poisonous chemical substances in the southern parts of the Idlib zone of de-escalation in Syria. So reports the deputy head of the Russian Reconciliation Centre for Syria, Rear Admiral Aleksandr Grinkevich.”

Moscow, 23 September. Izvestiya. “Terrorists are planning a provocation, using poisonous substances in Idlib in order to blame the government of Syria for using chemical weapons against the civilian population. This was reported Wednesday by the deputy head of the Russian Reconciliation centre for Syria, Rear Admiral Aleksandr Grinkevich.”

A provocation is, in the pro-Kremlin disinformation outlets’ toolbox, an operation performed by the opposition, targeting their own, in order to justify an attack. Other terms for the same concept are “set-up” or “false flag operation”. A similar idea is “the sacrifice of the sacred”. The EUvsDisinfo disinformation database contains numerous examples of the device: Navalny was poisoned by Western intelligence; MH17 was shot down by the Brits, The Democrats set up the January riots in Washington DC and, most recently, Lukashenka fell into a trap, rigged by British Intelligence.

The statements are, as a rule, never actually intended to convince anyone and the predictions are 100 per cent inaccurate. They aim at setting up an element of uncertainty, despite a complete lack of foundation or proof for the claims. In some cases, the “provocation device” might tempt professional media to suggest “alternative versions”. The world is a globe, but there might be some truth in the flat Earth theory.

E for Exhaust

An efficient way of destroying a debate is to endlessly bring forward technical details, peripheral elements of earlier statements and simply put effort in to avoid the core issue. The term “sea-lioning” appeared in a comic 2014, where a sea lion with exaggeratedly polite manners intrudes into a conversation, demanding explanations to an earlier statement. The point of this device is to achieve a position as a persistent hunter for the truth.

This method was on display in connection with the act of air piracy, committed by the president of Belarus, Alyaksandr Lukashenka. Pro-Kremlin outlets compared it with an incident in 2013, when US authorities demanded the landing in Vienna of a plane carrying the Bolivian President, Evo Morales. In this case, there were no false bomb-threats and no fighter jets intercepted the aircraft. The Vienna incident is still used as a comparison, however, the unique features of the Lukashenka act totally disregarded. Examples can be found here, here and here.

138 and Counting

Another means of exhausting the opponent in a debate is by simply flooding the information space with versions, conflicting theories and fake details. For example, King’s College London has collected 138 separate and contradictory narratives on the Skripal poisoning. A similar method is on display regarding the attempted assassination of Navalny, and the shooting down of MH17: new lies, new attempts to deflect… eventually one gets exhausted and is reluctant to engage in a debate on the issues.

Herein lies the goal of the Kremlin’s methods: the less the facts around MH17, the Skripals and Navalny are talked about, the better it is for the Kremlin. Permanent attacks, persistent denials of apparent evidence will eventually discourage criticism.

D for Denial

Among the deflective methods of the pro-Kremlin disinformation outlets, denial is, arguably, the favourite. EUvsDisinfo has over 500 examples of statements in pro-Kremlin outlets, containing the words “There is no proof”. In the pro-Kremlin ecosystem, “no proof” means “no proof we accept”. Any evidence, not in line with the Kremlin narratives, does not exist. Evidence, be that witness accounts, hard evidence, poison residue, photos or videos, or even detained individuals are “no proof”. Any individual, NGO or authority, forwarding data that raises questions about the Russian authorities’ accountability or links it to crimes, is, according to the Kremlin, biased and the evidence has no value. Even the United Nations is biased against Russia and Belarus.

A special case of denial is Russia’s persistent repudiation of deploying military units in Crimea in the spring of 2014, suggesting that the military there were local activists, purchasing equipment at army surplus stores. President Putin later acknowledged that the personnel were from Russian regular units, brought to Crimea to control the “referendum”.

Denial, despite mountains of evidence, can be effective, especially if combined with other tricks from the rhetorical toolbox.

The Limits of the Cult of Denial

The “cult of denial” occasionally creates problem for the Kremlin. Even the editor-in-chief of the Kremlin disinformation mouthpieces Sputnik and RT, Margarita Simonyan, doubts the value of blunt denial:

“There are two religions as to how a large and demanding country should behave itself in case of a disastrous screw-up. The first suggests that the country should enter into a state of strong denial; admit to nothing, atone for nothing. Otherwise everything will get much worse. Well, just because. Most responsible comrades in most powerful countries, including ours, adhere to this one.

The other religion suggests that one should act like Iran. This is closer to me. For simple human reasons. In my system of values, Iran acted like a real man.”

Iran admitted to accidently shooting down a Ukrainian passenger aircraft, quickly issued apologies and reparations. The incident was a tragedy, but the story soon left the front pages of the world media. The US acted in a similar way when an Iranian civilian plane was shot down by a US naval vessel in 1996.

Evidence in the MH17 case has been collected by investigators, NGOs and authorities and is being examined by a court of law in the Netherlands. The body of evidence points to Russian state structures. Russia continues to deny, deny and deny, and the case has poisoned Russia’s relations with virtually the rest of the world.

This concludes the series of the Kremlin’s cheap tricks. Keep your eyes on the core issue, don’t get SWAMPED!