Spraying Hate and Slinging Lies

Source — EUvsDiSiNFO — November 16, 2023 —

Pro-Kremlin disinformation blurs the line between the digital realm and physical space, amplifying online images of graffiti to fuel offline anti-Semitism while trying to provoke discord and turmoil.

When we think about countering pro-Kremlin information manipulation and disinformation, we sometimes fall into the trap of equating the information space with the vast digital realm. Admittedly, since the dawn of the World Wide Web, the digital realm has become a crucial and life-altering part of the information space.

Spraying hate and slinging lies — EuvsDiSiNFO

However, when it comes to purposeful attempts to manipulate the information space, the boundaries between the digital and the physical can sometimes be blurred. This week, let’s zoom in on a telling example of how this intersection can be exploited for deceitful and manipulative purposes.

Not quite Banksy

On 9 November, the French Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs issued a press statement exposing an online media campaign spreading images of some 250 Stars of David painted on buildings across Paris. The French agency to fight foreign disinformation (VIGINUM) identified the campaign as closely connected to the Russian online disinformation network Recent Reliable News (RRN), also known as the ‘Doppelgänger’ network. It used bots on X (formerly known as Twitter) to publish these posts.

This manipulative campaign had two facets: the physical – that is, spraying more than 250 Stars of David on buildings in Paris – and the digital, amplifying the incident online to exploit tension between Muslim and Jewish populations in Europe. French intelligence services now suspect(opens in a new tab) that the graffiti was an attempt by Russia to destabilise the domestic political scene.


Blurring the lines

This is not the first time that the pro-Kremlin information manipulation ecosystem has exploited graffiti in European cities. Such acts appear to be conscious efforts to blur the lines between the physical and digital spaces. Since 24 February 2022, EUvsDisinfo has identified similar attempts to spread images of graffiti to erode public support for Ukraine or to drive wedges in European societies. In some cases, images spread by pro-Kremlin accounts were entirely fabricated and never existed in the physical space, thus blurring this boundary even further.

While Ukraine is often the main target for the Kremlin’s information manipulation and disinformation, pro-Russian propagandists have used similar tactics to artificially amplify the spread of real or fabricated images, particularly graffiti, in the Western Balkans and elsewhere.

A page from KGB history

Pro-Kremlin attempts using fabricated images or graffiti to drive wedges between different strata of societies often seek to exploit religious, political, or ideological fault lines. They date much further back than Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Known as ‘active measures’, they are Russian attempts to exert external influence through covert interference operations, including spreading disinformation, and the practice goes back for decades. The Doppelgänger/RRN campaign uncovered by French authorities bears all the hallmarks of ‘active measures’.

Looking for cracks

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is a particularly popular target for pro-Kremlin disinformation, including through faked magazine covers. Recent examples include claims that Zelenskyy wants to abandon Ukraine or that he staged a coup and cancelled elections to stay in power. Consistency has never been the Kremlin’s strong suit. Some pro-Kremlin outlets even peddle ludicrous stories about Zelenskyy’s wife selling children to Western paedophiles.

Publicly ridiculing President Zelenskyy and his family is also a way to drive wedges between those who are steadfast in their support for Ukraine and those who are looking for an excuse to waver.

However, not all of these manipulation attempts are designed to tarnish Ukraine’s external image. Lately, pro-Kremlin wedge-driving has included attempts to create the perception of an allegedly growing rift between President Zelenskyy and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine Valerii Zaluzhnyi.

Still looking for friends

Finally, driving wedges and depicting Ukraine and its supporters as if they are on the brink of a total collapse is only one side of the coin. The other side is conjuring a self-deluded image of the Kremlin’s bountiful friendships around the globe.

This week, pro-Kremlin mouthpieces followed Putin’s eastward-bound quest for friendship, this time to Kazakhstan. While little was achieved in terms of signing any meaningful agreements, pro-Kremlin outlets still touted the ‘strategic partnership’ and exaggerated how warmly Putin was welcomed. The trip was also an opportunity to spread unfounded conspiracies about alleged EU neo-colonial designs vis-à-vis Central Asia and to marvel at Putin’s geo-strategic prowess in outsmarting the EU. One cannot help but wonder how such visits, shrouded in thinly veiled colonial rhetoric, are really perceived by those subjected to Russian advances of ‘friendship’.


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See also:

« De la haine sur les murs et des mensonges au visage » — EUvsDiSiNFO — (2023-1116) —

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