Information Warfare Watch No. 17

Related Categories: Cybersecurity and Cyberwarfare; Democracy and Governance; Intelligence and Counterintelligence; Public Diplomacy and Information Operations; Central Asia; Russia

For years, the question of the extent - and the impact - of Russia's interference in American politics has been the topic of feverish debate on both sides of the political aisle in the U.S. Throughout that time, Russian officials have doggedly denied culpability, despite mounting evidence that Russian nonstate actors connected to the Kremlin have, in fact, played a material role in disseminating false narratives and fostering political agitation in the U.S. via a variety of means.

That fiction, it seems, is now a thing of the past. On November 7th, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the influential Russian businessman known to run the notorious Internet Research Agency troll farm implicated in spreading political disinformation in the run-up to the 2016 U.S. presidential election, publicly admitted his role in attempting to destabilize American politics. "We have interfered (in U.S. elections), we are interfering and we will continue to interfere. Carefully, accurately, surgically and in our own way, as we know how to do," Prigozhin was cited as saying in a social media post disseminated by one of his companies. (Reuters, November 7, 2022)

[EDITORS' NOTE: The admission by Prigozhin is deeply significant. It confirms the increasingly vociferous assertions of the U.S. government that Russia engaged in a coordinated campaign of malign influence aimed at destabilizing the U.S. political scene in recent years. U.S. government agencies have been gathering proof of this activity, and in July the U.S. State Department offered a reward of $10 million for information connecting Prigozhin with "engagement in U.S. election interference" - evidence that the oligarch himself has now supplied.]

Against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine, new attention is being paid to public attitudes within Russia - and to how the Kremlin is shaping domestic opinion about its offensive. Here, television plays an outsized role, with Russian airwaves saturated with state-sanctioned and -promoted propaganda about the conflict and frictions with the West. This focus on television reflects the media consumption patterns of ordinary Russians, a new survey by the Moscow-based Levada Center has found. In a recent study of over 1,600 Russians from across the country, nearly two-thirds (64%) of respondents indicated that they rely on television as their main source of information.

That dependence, however, varies greatly with age, and younger Russians are now increasingly acquiring their news from the internet and social media sources. Among respondents aged 18-24, the Levada poll found, social networks account for the main sources of information for 60% of those polled, with Telegram serving as the most popular such platform. All this suggests a growing information divide in Russian society. "The trust of TV in news coverage directly depends on the age of the respondents," the study notes, "the younger the respondent, the greater the trust in alternative resources." (Levada Center, November 3, 2022)

Journalists and activists fighting against the Kremlin's stranglehold on the media and public discourse in Russia have a new tool in their arsenal. In early November, five opposition media outlets (Proekt, iStories, The Insider, Bellingcat, and the investigative team of jailed regime critic Alexei Navalny) launched a new digital app designed to defeat regime blocking and censorship. The app, dubbed Samizdat in a call-back to the Soviet-era practice of self-publishing banned materials, is supposedly impervious to blocking by ROSKOMNADZOR, Russia's state censor. It works by aggregating the content from the various opposition media outlets involved into one feed for the user, making it easier for Russians to break free of the official Kremlin narrative surrounding the Ukraine war and relations with the West. (Ukrainskaya Pravda, November 11, 2022)

For years, Kyrgyzstan has been a reasonably bright spot in the evolving Central Asian media milieu, offering a comparatively free and pluralistic information environment that stood in contrast to its neighbors and permitted the functioning of broadcasters like Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. That, however, could be changing. Against the backdrop of the Ukraine war and amid mounting conflicts on its borders, the Kyrgyz government appears to be becoming more sensitive to media coverage that doesn't comport with its political priorities and outlook. Thus, in late October, authorities in Bishkek abruptly issued a two month ban on the website of Radio Azattyk, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz service, and froze its bank account in the country. The moves follow Azattyk's refusal to take down a video produced by RFE/RL's Russian-language Current Time network, that Kyrgyz authorities say favored Tajikistan in its coverage of the ongoing tensions between the two countries - a charge that RFE/RL officials reject. (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, October 31, 2022)