August 12, 2020 | The Dispatch

How Effective is Russia’s Disinformation?

Let's look at the numbers.
August 12, 2020 | The Dispatch

How Effective is Russia’s Disinformation?

Let's look at the numbers.

A new report by the State Department highlights Russia’s proxy network, but the sites are bit players in the information marketplace.

Earlier this month, the State Department’s Global Engagement Center (GEC) released a report documenting Russia’s efforts to spread disinformation online. As a descriptive analysis, it is well worth reading. The report is filled with references to shady characters. The GEC finds that Vladimir Putin’s minions and supporters rely on an “ecosystem” that “consists of five main pillars: official government communications, state-funded global messaging, cultivation of proxy sources, weaponization of social media, and cyber-enabled disinformation.”

Much of the report focuses on that middle piece—a network of seven alleged “proxy” websites: the Strategic Culture Foundation (which is run by Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, known as the SVR), Global Research (a conspiracy site operating out of Canada), New Eastern Outlook (a publication of the Russian Academy of Science’s Institute of Oriental Studies), News Front (a site that supports the Kremlin’s agenda in Crimea), SouthFront (a site for military and security enthusiasts), Katehon (a “quasi-think-tank” based in Moscow), and Geopolitica.ru (a site for Russian ultra-nationalists). These sites often obscure their links to Russian state actors and to one another, meaning readers could be duped into thinking they’ve accessed independent work.

The content on these sites is about what you’d expect. They are deeply anti-American and conspiratorial. Some of the more prominent themes include pieces that: question al-Qaeda’s responsibility for the 9/11 hijackings, obfuscate Russia’s culpability for the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 (MH-17) in eastern Ukraine in 2014, and deny Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons in Syria. All of these are standard motifs in the Russian disinformation playbook. Since the beginning of the year, these outlets have also blamed the U.S. government for spreading COVID-19. Logical inconsistencies rarely bother the conspiracy-minded, so these sites simultaneously claim that COVID-19 is a “hoax.” Obviously, that is at odds with the idea that the coronavirus is a devastating American invention.

As I read through the report, I kept coming back to the same questions: How effective is this Russian disinformation mill? How do the Russian proxy sites compare to known state media sources? The report doesn’t offer solid answers. But there are good reasons to suspect that the proxy sites profiled—although noxious—are merely bit players in the information marketplace.

The State Department’s GEC mentions that other Russian “news” providers—such as RT.com and Sputnik—are integral players in the Kremlin’s online ecosystem. While the report doesn’t dwell on those state-run sites, I think it is worth noting that they do have significant global audiences. Since the beginning of the year, RT.com has averaged more than 130 million visits per month, while Sputniknews.com averaged more than 60 million. Those are noteworthy traffic figures. The Russian proxy sites aren’t even close.

According to the GEC, Global Research receives the most traffic of the seven proxy sites profiled. Over the course of three months from February 1 to April 30 of this year, Global Research received an estimated 12.370 million page visits. That’s not the number of unique visitors, as some readers frequented the site more than once during the reporting period. Global Research accounted for more page visits than any of the other six sites by a wide margin. NewsFront was in second place with 8.950 million page visits over those same three months. The remaining five sites had 7.535 million combined. Of course, some visitors will frequent more than one of the sites on the GEC’s list of Russian proxies. But let’s look at the combined page visits across the seven sites over that three-month span—a total of 28.855 million, or an average of 9.618 million page visits per month. That is about 320,611 visits per day across the seven sites.

That may sound like a lot, but it really isn’t. For starters, none of the seven Russian proxy sites are close to being on a top 50 list of most read news sites. In fact, real news sites have audiences that dwarf the Russian proxies’ readership. For instance, CNN and Fox News are locked in an intense digital competition. The web presences for both cable news channels regularly crack the top 20 most read news sites. For June, Fox News Digital reported 1.923 billion views, while CNN.com had an estimated 2.564 billion. That’s a combined average for the two sites of nearly 150 million views or visits per day for the month of June, far more than the Russian proxy sites’ average of 320.611 thousand visits per day during the reporting period.

This comparison isn’t perfect, as the timeframes are a bit different based on data availability. But that doesn’t change the bottom line: The seven Russian proxy sites profiled by the GSE have a very small reach. If we were to start including other top news and news aggregation sites in our comparison—Yahoo, Google, New York Times, BBC News, etc.—it quickly becomes apparent that the Russian proxy sites are playing at the margins of the digital information space. Again, Russian news agencies, such as RT.com, are more comparable in terms of audience size to real news agencies.

The GSE also looked at the proxy sites’ social media presence. But it is striking to see how small their audiences really are. The seven sites have spawned dozens of social media pages—most of which have a negligible number of followers. A rare exception is Global Research’s Facebook page, which has nearly 280,000 followers. No other social media site run by the proxies comes close to that size. Global Research also has the best-followed Twitter feed of the bunch, but still has fewer than 38,000 followers. That’s not a lot. By way of comparison, RT.com has 3 million Twitter followers. The number of tweets generated by the proxies is also insignificant when compared to any of the aforementioned news sites.

Thus far, I’ve provided some reasons to doubt that the Russian proxy sites discussed in the State Department’s report have a significant reach. We’ve looked at some basic metrics. But here is a more anecdotal argument, which is harder to quantify.

Conspiracy theories dominate the Russian proxy sites. Indeed, I was aware of Global Research well before the State Department’s report was posted online. I’ve spent most of the post-9/11 period researching al-Qaeda, ISIS, and other jihadist groups and had stumbled upon the site when looking into the 9/11 Truther community. This genre of nonsense has long been a specialty of Global Research’s founder and head, Michel Chossudovsky, who is based in Montreal. He is the editor of a “9/11 Reader,” which is packed with wacky claims.

Chossudovsky is a well-known conspiracy theorist. I doubt that anyone of sober mind would be fooled into thinking that he is on the level. Which raises another fundamental question: What sort of people are actually visiting these Russian proxy sites?

If you are a Global Research enthusiast, then you likely have a penchant for conspiracy theories. But there are multiple 9/11 conspiracy sites and other outlets for indulging in one’s anti-American fantasies. If Global Research disappeared tomorrow, then its fan base, such as it is, could just move over to another website produced by that wing of the asylum. In other words, while this form of pro-Russian disinformation is offensive, it isn’t really clear what effect it is having outside of a relatively small audience already living in Crazytown.

Disinformation stories that escape the Russian sphere into the wild are the most troubling. However, even here one needs to be careful with respect to assessing impact.

For instance, the New York Times was quick to point out that some conservatives and Trump loyalists had amplified a video clip from the Portland protests that was edited by Ruptly, a video “news” service operated by the aforementioned RT. That clip shows protesters burning one or two Bibles. Sen. Ted Cruz, Donald Trump Jr. and others pointed to the footage as evidence of the protesters’ malevolent intentions. The Times was happy to report that the video originated with a Russian news agency, claiming it was “a Story Too Good to Check Out.” Except, if you read the Times’ own story, you’ll see that the clip wasn’t staged. Perhaps some context was missing and the politicos exaggerated its meaning, but the footage showed an actual event.

This form of disinformation—if the Portland video can even be considered as such—is not nearly as damaging as publishing a dishonest op-ed attributed to Sirajuddin Haqqani, a notorious anti-American terrorist. The Times published Haqqani’s op-ed in February. It is a classic example of disinformation.

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD’s Long War Journal. Follow Tom on Twitter @thomasjoscelyn.

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