Pillars of Russia’s Disinformation and Propaganda Ecosystem: Excerpts

The GEC has developed the “ecosystem” concept and has broken the ecosystem down into five pillars as a way to contextualize the threat posed by Russia in this field. A common understanding is a necessary prerequisite to developing analytical tools to monitor the various threat vectors and crafting the policies and procedures that allow for countermeasures. While this effort continues, the issuance of this report aims to heighten awareness of the threat posed by disinformation and further the international dialogue among the nations, organizations, and individuals who are committed to countering these malign efforts.

The disinformation and propaganda ecosystem that Russia continues to cultivate does not stand unopposed. A thriving counter-disinformation community comprised of governments, civil society, academia, the press, the private sector, and citizens around the world who refuse to tolerate these tactics is pushing back. This report is offered by the U.S. Department of State as a contribution to these joint efforts.

In any analysis of Russia’s disinformation and propaganda tactics, it is important to note there are multiple terms and concepts that have been used to describe the nature of this threat. “Information Confrontation” is the term used in Russian strategic and military circles to describe their approach to the use of information in both peacetime and conflict. There is also a rich public record of the use of “Active Measures” to describe long-standing Russian political warfare methods that utilize disinformation and propaganda as a core tool. These concepts speak to Russia’s strategic formulation that it is in a state of perpetual conflict with its perceived adversaries.

Russia’s current disinformation and propaganda operations are an integrated tactical manifestation of this strategic view. Analyzing this approach in a manner that increases resiliency begins with a recognition that there is no single media platform where propaganda and disinformation are distributed. Nor is there uniformity of messages among different sources.

Rather, Russia has operationalized the concept of perpetual adversarial competition in the information environment by encouraging the development of a disinformation and propaganda ecosystem that allows for varied and overlapping approaches that reinforce each other even when individual messages within the system appear contradictory. This ecosystem reflects both the sources of disinformation and propaganda—official government statements, state-funded media outlets, proxy websites, bots, false social media personas, cyber-enabled disinformation operations, etc.—and the different tactics that these channels use.

Russia’s willingness to employ this approach provides it with three perceived advantages. First, it allows for the introduction of numerous variations of the same false narratives. This allows for the different pillars of the ecosystem to fine tune their disinformation narratives to suit different target audiences because there is no need for consistency, as there would be with attributed government communications. Second, it provides plausible deniability for Kremlin officials when proxy sites peddle blatant and dangerous disinformation, allowing them to deflect criticism while still introducing pernicious information. Third, it creates a media multiplier effect among the different pillars of the ecosystem that boost their reach and resonance

The media multiplier effect can, at times, create disinformation storms with potentially dangerous effects for those Russia perceives as adversaries at the international, national, and local level. In the past, Russia has leveraged this dynamic to shield itself from criticism for its involvement in malign activity. This approach also allows Russia to be opportunistic, such as with COVID-19, where it has used the global pandemic as a hook to push longstanding disinformation and propaganda narratives

This ecosystem approach is also well-suited to reinforce Russia’s general aims of questioning the value of democratic institutions, and of weakening the international credibility and international cohesion of the United States and its allies and partners. Because some pillars of this ecosystem generate their own momentum, as opposed to waiting for specific orders from the Kremlin on every occasion, they can be responsive to distinct policy goals or developing situations, and then pivot back to their status quo of generally pouring scorn on Russia’s perceived adversaries

The perpetual conflict that Russia sees in the information environment also means that officials and state media may take one side of an issue, while outlets with a measure of independence will adopt their own variations on similar overarching false narratives. The ecosystem approach is fitting for this dynamic because it does not require harmonization among the different pillars. By simultaneously furthering multiple versions of a given story, these actors muddy the waters of the information environment in order to confuse those trying to discern the truth.