Russian intelligence was once seen as an aloof force, immortalised in James Bond and Cold War Hollywood cinema as an an exotic danger. In 2018, the Russian spies sharp suit and vodka cocktails may have been replaced by something much more sinister; online troll accounts. Although Russia’s political dominance in Central and Eastern Europe may not be what it was in the mid to late 20th Century, in recent years social media has become a new tool in sustaining an influence in ex-Soviet countries.
This perhaps should come of no surprise, in a 2013 interview with Russia Today, Vladimir Putin did declare that he wanted to ‘break the Anglo-Saxon monopoly on the global information streams’. A study by RAND points to a variety of examples where Russia has appeared to infiltrate local media especially by using platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.
Admittedly, the RAND corporation are perhaps not the most objective source, founded to offer research and analysis to the US Armed Forces. However, this uncovering does fall in line with what has been experienced on a more international stage. The past year has uncovered a variety of exposés surrounding the Russian involvement in the 2016 American election with Jonathon Morgan, a former state department on digital responses to terrorism stated in an October interview with The Guardian “The broader Russian strategy is pretty clearly about destabilizing the country by focusing on and amplifying existing divisions, rather than supporting any one political party”. In Eastern Europe the biggest threat appears to be that of external influence especially from likes of America.
Pro-Russian websites ran stories claiming that NATO would be using Eastern Europe to attack Russia without consulting the governments of these countries. The impact of this story was considerable with these claims being believed by a quarter of Czech’s. These stories reach, and impact can arguably be connected to the role of social media. After an anti-government protest in Kyiv in 2014, it was discovered that VKontakte, Russia’s most popular social network which is heavily modelled on Facebook had been a catalyst for many of the protesters. Groups such as Patriots of Ukraine were discovered to be coordinated by the Ukraine with connections to the Kremlin.
Many of these accounts stem from the Internet Research Agency, which is a company that provides online influence to political and business interests. In America they have been linked to Facebook accounts linked to Black Lives Matter designed to stoke racial tensions. There has been a lack of research over how much these kind of methods have been mirrored in American and European policy, however it is clear that Russian influence will only increase as debate and discussions move online.