Russia turns its diplomats into disinformation warriors

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Move over, RT. There’s a new Russian disinformation player in town.

After the European Union banned Kremlin-backed media outlets and social media giants demoted their posts for peddling falsehoods about the war in Ukraine, Moscow has turned to its cadre of diplomats, government spokespeople and ministers — many of whom have extensive followings on social media — to promote disinformation about the conflict in Eastern Europe, according to four EU and United States officials.

The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to Digital Bridge, POLITICO’s transatlantic newsletter, because they were not authorized to speak publicly about how Western governments are tracking Kremlin narratives about the war.

Before Russia invaded Ukraine, the country’s officials left outright disinformation tactics to Kremlin-owned outlets like RT and Sputnik, whose multilingual operations helped spread bogus narratives to audiences from Latin America to Africa. Instead, Russian government representatives promoted a positive vision of the country, couched in diplomatic language within, the rules of the existing international political order.

Yet since late February, the gloves have come off.

The Russian Embassy in Spain posted a video taken from now-sanctioned RT that showed alleged Ukrainian attacks on civilians in the country’s breakaway republics. The country’s missions to Paris and Geneva promoted falsehoods about the Russian executions of civilians in the city of Bucha. Moscow’s official Facebook account for its foreign ministry repeatedly shared links to a Russian-language Telegram channel and associated website that have allegedly debunked Ukrainian lies about the ongoing conflict.

Since Russia invaded its Western neighbor on February 24, Russian diplomatic accounts’ combined Twitter posts have risen 26 percent, compared with the same period before the war. But the amount of engagement — in terms of likes and shares — of that same material has jumped by more than 200 percent since the war began, with these accounts becoming more belligerent in how they push disinformation, according to data from the German Marshall Fund of the U.S.’s Alliance for Securing Democracy.

“As long as Russian state media continues to be either banned, downranked or impacted in some way, they’re going to want to fill that messaging gap,” said Bret Schafer, head of the Alliance for Securing Democracy’s information manipulation team that tracks state-backed disinformation. “The best way to do that, to control the narrative, is through their diplomatic accounts.”

Russia’s own ‘wolf warriors’

In a time of war, it’s not surprising that Russian officials and diplomats would rally behind the Kremlin.

But the level of disinformation, including the promotion of Russia-owned state media and potentially doctored images, now being shared by Moscow’s official accounts, represents a paradigm shift in how Russia pushes its false narratives, according to two EU and U.S. officials.

In many ways, Moscow now borrows heavily from Beijing’s own foreign policy playbook, which has relied on so-called wolf warrior Western-aimed social media accounts from Chinese diplomats to spread its messaging around the world. These officials quickly jump on any perceived slight against China, as well as promote often false messaging about the country’s actions around the world.

The switch has been swift and dramatic, coinciding with EU sanctions against RT and Sputnik, as well social media companies’ decisions to limit how these state-backed media outlets can share their content online. With the end of the war in Ukraine unclear — and Russia’s isolation on the world stage likely to remain — Western officials said this new use of diplomatic accounts to aggressively push disinformation would likely become the new normal.

Soon after conspiracy theories about a potential American bioweapons laboratory in Ukraine began to surface online, the Russian Embassy in the United Kingdom jumped on that bandwagon, including sharing alleged satellite images of these facilities dotted around the country. Other embassies posted viral videos of suspect war crimes against Russian-speaking civilians, while the Twitter account for Russia’s foreign ministry released documents and pictures — along with the hashtag #DonbassTragedy — that similarly accuse Kyiv of committing genocide between 2014 and 2022.

Western governments are starting to hit back. On Thursday, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said he had summoned the Russian ambassador over the “indecency and provocation” of the embassy’s repeated sharing via social media of falsehoods about the Bucha executions, which Ukraine said were carried out by Russian forces.

Twitter also said that it would not promote Russian state officials’ accounts on its platform, in part because of how these diplomats and politicians were using the social media network to spread disinformation. Facebook similarly said it was considering further action against Kremlin-linked pages that spread falsehoods about the war in Ukraine.

“We’re actively reviewing additional actions that we should take, particularly in the context of misinformation and hoaxes that are coming from Russian government pages,” Nathaniel Gleicher, head of security policy at Meta, the parent company of Facebook, told reporters Wednesday.

Fake accounts and Warfakes

Russia is delving into its bag of tricks to promote its new disinformation strategy.

A sizable proportion of Twitter users interacting with this content, for instance, was created since February, and repeatedly shares the diplomats’ posts — a sign these users are either fake or have been created as part of a wider influence operation, according to an internal EU report on Russian disinformation obtained by POLITICO.

One newly created account has posted almost 100 times since the beginning of the war, using Kremlin-linked hashtags like #See4Yourself, while another user shared 41 of the most engaged-with posts written by Russian officials, almost all of which were falsehoods about Ukraine.

“The [social media] reach isn’t the same as Russian state media, but they are trying to recreate what RT and Sputnik had done,” said one EU official involved in tracking Russian disinformation. “It’s a coordinated effort that goes beyond social media and involves specific websites.”

Central to that wider online playbook is a Telegram channel called Warfakes and an affiliated website. Since the beginning of the conflict, that social media channel has garnered more than 725,000 members and repeatedly shares alleged fact-checks aimed at debunking Ukrainian narratives, using language similar to Western-style fact-checking outlets. The affiliated website, which is hosted in Russia and was registered on March 1, similarly shares pro-Russia disinformation and falsehoods in multiple languages.

Russian diplomats have been some of the biggest sharers of this content — including dismissing allegations of Russian war crimes and blaming Ukraine for disinformation — according to research from academics from the University of Amsterdam. Researchers found that among those that have shared content from Warfakes are foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova, 23 of the country’s embassies, from Bulgaria to Kazakhstan, and at least 10 Russian “houses of culture,” mostly within Europe.

“There was this intentional attempt at constantly reposting Warfakes [content]. That seems like that’s state sponsorship to me,” said Marc Tuters, a University of Amsterdam professor who helped to oversee the research. “It seems like more than a coincidence that all of these accounts are promoting this one thing.”

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Russia’s tactics for spreading disinformation about the war in Ukraine are part of a wider transatlantic playbook that includes far-right extremists and anti-vaccine conspiracy theorists. I’m Mark Scott, POLITICO’s chief tech correspondent, and if you enjoyed this story, check out Digital Bridge, my weekly newsletter of EU-US digital politics.

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