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It is a public secret that, through its state-funded multilingual television and radio networks, the Russian government has for years tried to influence the political situation in the former Soviet states. Networks like RT, formerly known as Russia Today, are notorious for biased news coverage that often borders on propaganda. These misinformation networks are not, however, only limited to traditional media and increasingly include social media, as well.

Since the Ukraine crisis and subsequent annexation of Crimea in 2014, Moscow has stepped up its social media propaganda, which includes news tweets, non-attributed comments on websites, troll and bot social media accounts, and fake hashtags on Twitter and other social media.

Until recently, little was known about the exact scale and intensity of Russian efforts to distribute fake news and other misinformation. A recently published study by the RAND Corporation tries to map out this phenomenon, focusing on Russia’s cyber propaganda activities in post-Soviet states. The report examines Russian-language content on social media, as well as broader propaganda efforts, in the former Soviet Union, including Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus. It also includes a set of recommendations:

To effectively counter Russian propaganda, it will be critical to track Russian influence efforts. The information requirements are varied and include the following:

• Identify fake-news stories and their sources.
• Understand narrative themes and content that pervade various Russian media sources.
• Understand the broader Russian strategy that underlies tactical propaganda messaging.

It will also be important to identify and track the identities and influence of unattributed Russian social media accounts that take the form of bots or trolls. These accounts represent a potentially pernicious form of influence and one that has been targeted against audiences in eastern Europe and Ukraine but also in the United States.

Monitoring various social media channels in the Baltics and Ukraine will also be important as a way of identifying any Russian shaping campaign that could prelude more-aggressive political or military action. As one Pentagon-based expert observed, “If you saw them spike their efforts in the Baltics, then you know something is happening.” Another at State asked, “How can we use these tools to predict and spot trends? When is the boiling point that we need to pay attention?”

Such views align nicely with that of the Estonians, who themselves fear that increased Russian social media operations could serve as a prelude to mischief.

Read the full report here.

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