College Football’s Cyber Warfare

After special prosecutor Robert Mueller announced indictments for a number of Russians last week, the Washington Post published an interview with an employee from a Russian troll farm near St. Petersburg. The employee talked openly about creating multiple online personalities and using them to influence opinions, organize efforts and create division using narratives and stories they had cooked up.

This was some real 21st century spy warfare, the kind of stuff you would see in the Showtime series “Homeland.”

But would you believe this type of social media/internet cyber warfare has been going in college football for a long time?

It has.

The internet disinformation wars began years ago in college football. As far back as the late 1990s coaches and operatives in football programs would create online message board personalities to post “rumors” on opposing team’s message boards. Often the rumors involved an opposing coach being on the hot seat, or players being unhappy or wanting to transfer. These posts usually sparked a string of responses.

These threads were created to sow doubts about rival schools in recruiting and often the coaches who started the disinformation would direct recruits to check them out. The recruit would see the rumor and the negative fan feedback.

Those were the early days and they seem quaint now.

As social media exploded so did the size and sophistication of college football social media operations, including cyber warfare.

Because the NCAA now allows coaches and teams to retweet things recruits post they can easily signal to their fan base who they are recruiting. For years the NCAA did not allow teams to publicize who they were recruiting to prevent rogue boosters from having contact with recruits.

Those days are over. Coaches essentially confirm who their school is recruiting and fans can engage directly with recruits on social media. It creates a lot more opportunity for disinformation.

But the real cyber warfare takes place with internet operations in college football programs. Like the Russian troll farms, they create online personalities to troll other teams, to contact and help recruit players and to try to control and react to any negative news stories.

One of the methods used in the Russian troll farms was to stage mock debates between people in comments sections, or in social media. A couple of trolls would debate a straw man in the comments section and inevitably they would convert the straw man to endorse the view they wanted.

Some programs have the same type of operation. On message boards or social media you’ll see online personalities that always defend their school and engage every time there is something they want to refute.

But the disinformation plots don’t just work on recruits. They are used to fight against negative fans when a team might be struggling. They are used to create apparent “virtual momentum” and the appearance of a groundswell of support when a school is deciding to possibly fire a coach, or hiring one. They are used to swamp the comment sections of certain writers who may be critical of the program.

Athletic directors and administrators fall for it because they are concerned about popular opinion. While head coaches may maintain plausible deniability, the operations are all part of helping them keep their jobs.

It is possible that the superagents in college coaching who have many big-name clients may have similar operations. As openings come and go, those agents could deploy their trolls to whip up popular opinion to get their guy hired and thereby reap the rewards of major new contracts.

As more details about the Russian operation emerge, keep in mind that the cutthroat world of international cyber warfare and politics may be reflective of what may be going on at your favorite school’s athletic program.

These operations have shot up as the NCAA’s regulatory retreat from social media has left an online world of Wild-West lawlessness.

Building the positive propaganda and combatting every negative rumor and utterance has become a full-time 24/7 operation. So too are the even murkier operations that create disinformation through rumor and innuendo to damage other schools or help your school with recruits, fans and administrations. An army of interns in football buildings around the country are always on the case.

And you thought that this was a Russian creation? Guess again.

It is a bold new world out there. Prophecies of disinformation operations using high-level technology that Orwell wrote about in his book “1984” have been exposed in politics. Little did many of you suspect that those Orwellian tactics have already been part of college football programs’ operations for years.


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Mueller indictment shows the evolution of Kremlin political warfare

Far deeper than an online disinformation campaign, the IRA’s work included extensive research on American politics and society and real rallies on U.S. soil. Its operatives impersonated Americans to dupe an unspecified number of U.S. citizens and Trump campaign staff.

The indictment provides the clearest blow-by-blow assessment of how Moscow has adapted its influence operations for the 21st century. The basic tactics are straight from the Soviet “active measures” playbook: a continuous spread of disinformation during the Cold War to discredit American political leaders (including Martin Luther King, Jr.), fuel ethnic tensions and undermine trust in U.S. intelligence agencies.

In 1976, the KGB launched a smear campaign against the anti-Soviet Democratic candidate Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson, armed with forged FBI intelligence. In the post-Soviet era, Putin’s advisers have boasted about how they pit different groups against each other inside of Russia. Sound familiar?

What’s next: The coming revolution in AI and machine learning will transform malicious actors’ capabilities to influence democracies. This won’t happen by the fall of 2018, but 2020 will likely usher in even more dangerous forms of political warfare.

Alina Polyakova is the David M. Rubenstein Fellow for Foreign Policy at the Brookings Institution.


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Memetic Warfare: Spreading Weaponized Ideas for Influence and Control

Russia’s Internet Research Agency’s was recently highlighted in charges from special counsel Robert Mueller for its operations to “to interfere with elections and political processes.”

According to a new book, however, the Russian operations are just a small part of a much larger picture. Special interest groups, governments, and big businesses are trying to alter the way we perceive information, in order to influence the culture and underlying values of our societies.

The book, “Information Warfare: The meme is the embryo of the narrative illusion,” by James Scott, founder of the Center for Cyber-Influence Operations Studies, explains the strategies of “memetic warfare,” and reveals the groups using this system to advance their agendas.

(Institute for Critical Infrastructure Technology)

A meme is an idea that can can “evolve” over time, and eventually influence culture. Memes are often associated with funny pictures overlaid with text. Yet the concept goes much deeper, and can be anything from music, to movies, to words and their perceived meanings.

Memetic warfare is a weaponized use of memes to intentionally introduce ideas into society, packaged in a way that allows them to spread, with a goal to alter the culture and perceptions of a targeted population.

A goal of memetic warfare isn’t to alter reality, but instead to alter the perceived reality.

According to the book, “the most profound weapon a nation or special interest group can possess is ‘control’ over information. This contributes to control over the narrative, and the meme is the embryo of the narrative.”

Other entities play a role in helping shape the ideas, and control people’s exposure to ideas that don’t fit the objective.

“Corporate nation state propagandists, such as Google, Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook, perpetuate the syntactical amalgamation of censored ideas, narrative illusions, and perception steering initiatives that cripples and imprisons the mind,” it states.

It adds, “Censorship is about what you don’t see, rather than what you do see. Digital gatekeepers provide users with only the content that they want them to view.”

Manufactured Thought

The nature of warfare has changed. As the book notes, war has moved beyond merely killing an enemy or capturing and holding territory. The war of messages has taken over, and “The emerging hybrid war depends on the allegiance of civilian populations and control over narrative.”

The book poses a question. It cites French philosopher René Descartes, stating, “I think, therefore I am,” and poses the question, “but who does one become when the thought is hijacked?”

It raises the issue that as political organizations, social networking companies, legacy news outlets, and other powerful groups work together to manufacture ideas intended to alter the perceptions of a country, how can people recognize what are their own thoughts, and which thoughts have been planted?

In today’s world, “Information Warfare” states, websites like Facebook are nearly as relevant as the United Nations, information-leaking website WikiLeaks has intelligence analysts similar to the CIA, and “Google’s dragnet surveillance censorship algorithm has become the new gatekeeper of critical information that could lead society into a new renaissance.”

A shift in power has taken place, moving to an “an all-out battle for the psychological core of the global population.”

“Digitized influence operations have become the new norm for controlling the electoral process, public opinion, and narrative,” the book states. “The cyber war has moved beyond the battlefield into an all-encompassing struggle in economics, politics, and culture, along with old-school physical confrontation.”

Among its examples, “Information Warfare” notes that some violent protests are being used by special interest groups to advance key narratives. For instance, the communist extremist group Antifa, known for its black-clad, masked followers, label nearly all conservatives as “fascists” and often escalate conflicts into violence.

“In reality, the overwhelming majority of protestors and counter-protestors are non-violent; however, they and, in most cases, the points of their causes do not merit media attention because relatively minuscule radical factions can easily steal the spotlight,” the book states.

In some cases, the true intention of the “revolutionaries” isn’t just to protest, but instead to “derail an event or detract from a cause by altering public perception and polarizing issues based on partisan politics.”

Due to the fact that Antifa members wear masks, anyone can infiltrate the group to escalate conflicts, which can then be used by legacy news outlets and political groups to frame new narratives.

This is a common phenomenon, the book states, noting “false flag operations and operations sponsored by special interest groups are both effective and prevalent in this space.”

Perception Warfare

The term “meme” was coined by militant atheist Richard Dawkins, who compared the spread of ideas and their effects on society to a “virus.”

The concept far outdates Dawkins, however, and ties to broader systems of propaganda and psychological warfare—a method of warfare designed to alter the way a target interprets information.

Propagandists, such as those under communist dictatorships, will try to control a society’s exposure to ideas through censorship, while also feeding select ideas through state media and other channels—similar to the methods used by today’s information gatekeepers.

Among the methods used to frame ideas are misinformation and disinformation. While misinformation is the mere statement of falsehoods, disinformation is much more complex.

A disinformation campaign can take the form of false-flag operations, such as manufactured events or protests, or fake scientific studies and research papers. The disinformation can then be pushed by news outlets or through other channels to help shape a narrative. The rule is that disinformation needs a grain of truth, which the propagandist can point to in order to derail critics during debate.

Another use of disinformation is to cite otherwise true information, but to manufacture a false conclusion, using the propagandist concept of “one plus one equals three.” This can include citing a series of half truths, then claiming the evidence adds up to something it does not. Debunking this method requires a dissenter to debunk each piece of evidence, which can rarely be done quickly enough for public debate.

These tools are still in heavy use. As the book notes, psychological warfare is part of the Chinese Communist Party military’s “three warfares” system, which also includes “legal warfare” to manipulate courts, and “media warfare” to control news and social media coverage.

Disinformation is still actively being used by Russia’s Internet Research Agency, which the book says includes “a collection of government-employed online trolls directed to spread propaganda, incite divisions in foreign communities, and otherwise sow chaos and destabilize democratic platforms.”

“Propagandists from Russia, China, and other nations typically pander memes to both sides or multiple factions of sensitive conflicts in an attempt to breed discord, capitalize from chaos, derail productive discussion, distract impending investigations, dwindle valuable resources, or polarize susceptible populations,” “Information Warfare” states.

The overall picture is that numerous groups, both public and private, are using memetic warfare to attack the perceptions of individual people. Some are interested in advancing their political agendas, others are working to destabilize the United States.

The book states, “nations must decide how to best defend their people against foreign influence operations while launching their own campaigns against emerging adversaries in the hyper-dynamic, ill-defined battlefield for control of the meme, control of the narrative, and control of perceived reality.”


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Russian meddling prays on a gullible public

By Hank Waters

In an excellent report published in this newspaper last Sunday, Rudi Keller explained what he learned from several researchers about recent Russian meddling in U.S. affairs using social media. Keller’s primary source was Lt. Col. Jarred Prier, who for years has studied Russian cyber warfare and recently wrote a peer-reviewed report including student protests at the University of Missouri as an example.

Prier says Russian disinformation campaigns seek to sow discord among allies of the U.S. and internally as well. Particularly galling to Prier, a 2003 MU grad, was the successful Russian effort to stoke unfounded fears of a violent white backlash surrounding 2015 student protests and subsequent resignation of then-UM President Tim Wolfe.

Prier found Russian cyber trolls used Twitter to spread untrue accounts of campus violence, including Ku Klux Klan marches and a phony picture of a battered black youth. Incessant repetition on social media caused many to believe the false reports.

The recent indictment by Special Counsel Robert Mueller charges Russia used its campaign in the 2016 presidential campaign to benefit Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Bernie Sanders in order to discredit Democrat Hillary Clinton, thought by the Russians to be their main target.

Larger conclusions by Prier and other expert witnesses interviewed by Keller are interesting. Prier says “They want to force the American public to go over into a corner and argue amongst themselves.”

MU Professor of political science Cooper Drury says the Russian long-term goal is not the victory of any political party but a weaker U.S. If disruption is your goal, says Drury, “then the greater polarization you can get inside a democracy the more successful you will be.”

MU professor of communications Mitchell McKinney says social media helps mask the source of otherwise questionable propaganda, and volume creates believability. Then, he says, most success comes when these rumors are reported by trusted news organization.

“These Russian trolls were driving clicks,” says Prier. “Clicks are what keeps the business moving.”

If political polarization in the U.S. is a primary goal we might think the Russian campaign has been spectacularly successful, but MU professor Drury points out that traditional media once considered neutral is more likely today to take sides. He cites television networks Fox News and MSNBC which attract opposed and mutually disdainful audiences.

Prier’s report sounds pessimistic, but MU journalism professor Mike Kearney argues the internet makes it easier for each of us to share and find information “by ourselves.” Prier says it’s up to providers of information, including Twitter, to be more careful.

Obviously, the first line of defense should be the retail consumer of news, but as we see in the new age of easy disinformation, we have not yet fully learned that skill. A gullible public has existed since the first human society appeared. Today the same human frailty persists, frighteningly fueled by the internet and its latest, most insidious tool, Twitter.

Yes, I will say “insidious.” The benefit of sharing innocuous messages is sadly overcome by the pernicious opportunities gained by newly empowered trolls who so easily get in our heads anonymously. Will we learn to be skeptical enough?


The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.

—Winston Churchill


Vladimir Putin makes use of cyber weapons to maintain Individuals at one another’s throats

By – – Tuesday, February 6, 2018


Just so there’s no confusion: This column is not about Americans conspiring or colluding or coordinating with Russians. That’s a separate controversy about which I don’t have a lot to say at this moment.

What this column is about: Dezinformatsiya, the Russian word that gave birth, in the 1980s, to the English neologism “disinformation.” Understand that disinformation is not a synonym for misinformation. The later implies information that happens to be wrong. The former implies an attempt to deceive public opinion for strategic purposes.

For decades, thousands of Soviet propagandists and espionage agents disseminated tons of dezinformatsiya around the world. Today, using social media, sophisticated tech platforms and cyber weapons, the Russian government, headed by , is running a dezinformatsiya offensive beyond Joseph Stalin’s wildest dreams.

Jamie Fly and Laura Rosenberger have been studying this operation. Senior fellows at The German Marshall Fund of the United States, they are seasoned national security professionals. Both have worked, among other assignments, at the National Security Council, Mr. Fly in the George W. Bush administration, Ms. Rosenberger under President Obama.

They’ve been tracking “Kremlin-oriented social media accounts,” “troll farms,” “fake personas” and “fake organizations.” President , they’ve concluded, is attempting to undermine faith in America’s democratic institutions, assist extremists on both the left and right, divide and polarize Americans (even more than they already are), and poison the policy debates that citizens of a mature republic should be able to conduct in a civil manner.

Elections are just one target of opportunity. Russia’s networks, Mr. Fly and Ms. Rosenberger write in the Journal of Democracy, have been using social media to heighten tension in a range of controversies. One example: Reasonable people may differ over whether Confederate statues, in Charlottesville and elsewhere, should remain or be removed. The mission of Russian disinformation operations: Make this a fight between neo-Nazis on one side and Antifa thugs on the other.

Another example: has a strong interest in keeping his European neighbors dependent on his oil and gas, and pushing the price of those commodities as high as possible. So ’s networks have been running a covert disinformation campaign against hydraulic fracturing, the technology that has made it possible to access abundant natural gas deposits cheaply. The Kremlin didn’t create the controversy over fracking, it has simply promoted “some of the most divisive, conspiracy-minded stories around” that debate.

America is not Moscow’s only target. The Fly/Rosenberger research “has found examples of Russian interference” in 27 countries since 2004: planting false information in reputable newspapers, boosting radical political parties, hacking moderate political parties and leaking juicy tidbits to friendly and/or credulous journalists. More insidious than spreading fake news is sprinkling lies into a goulash of facts to produce a distorted narrative that becomes impossible to successfully rebut.

Why is doing this? If that’s the question you’re asking, you haven’t been paying attention to the man. His mission is to restore the power Russia lost when the Soviet Union collapsed. And, in his calculus, strengthening Russia and weakening the West amount to the same thing.

is an authoritarian and like other authoritarians — Chinese, Iranian, Turkish, North Korean, etc. — he regards democratic and republican forms of government as weak, decadent and, over time, bound to fail or, better yet, be defeated.

Undermining democratic institutions increases ’s legitimacy. You say elections in Russia are rigged? His supporters say that elections are not so free and fair in America and Europe either. This perception hobbles movements in support of civil rights and representative government everywhere.

Okay, I think I will say a few words about the raging partisan debate — allegations from Democrats and some #NeverTrump Republicans that meddled in America’s 2016 election with the goal of helping Donald Trump. More likely is what retired CIA chief of station and veteran Russia-watcher Daniel Hoffman concluded: that the “Russian espionage disinformation plot” was meant to target “both parties and America’s political process.”

As evidence, he notes a 2017 report from the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence which concludes that “pro-Russia bloggers even prepared an election-night Twitter campaign, #DemocracyRIP, designed to question the election’s validity after a Clinton victory.”

As V.I. Lenin would say: What is to be done? A bipartisan bill introduced by Sen. Marco Rubio and Sen. Chris Van Hollen would punish Moscow if our intelligence community determines that Russia is interfering in future elections.

Mr. Fly and Ms. Rosenberger argue that a “whole-of-government response, with a strong interagency lead and process that cuts across national security and domestic policy spaces, will be required to address this threat.”

They add: “With the United States and Europe facing a shared threat with similar tactics, a united trans-Atlantic response is critical to pushing back on Moscow’s efforts to weaken democracies and divide democratic nations from one another.”

Finally, the United States should do whatever is necessary to win the race in cyberspace, as much a domain of modern warfare as air, land, sea and space. Our aim should be nothing less than overwhelming superiority, both defensively and offensively.

We also need to get way ahead in the race for artificial intelligence, a weapon of dezinformatsia with enormous potential. declared last year that “whoever becomes the leader in this area will rule the world.”

The United States has no interest in ruling the world. The United States does have a vital interest in preventing authoritarians from ruling the world. Acutely aware of that, will do everything in his power to keep us at each other’s throats.

• Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a columnist for The Washington Times.



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Information Warfare: Gauging Trolls’ Influence on Democracy

CIA Chief Warns Russia Is Seeking to Influence US Midterm ElectionsMathew J. Schwartz (euroinfosec) • January 30, 2018

Information Warfare: Gauging Trolls' Influence on Democracy
Distribution of reported locations for tweets by Russian trolls (red circles) and a random, baseline set of Twitter users (green triangles). (Source: “Disinformation Warfare: Understanding State-Sponsored Trolls on Twitter and their Influence on the Web”)

The United States appears to be headed into yet another perfect information warfare storm of Russian making.

See Also:Ransomware: The Look at Future Trends

On Monday, the Trump administration announced that it will impose no new sanctions on Russia as a result of its 2016 meddling in the U.S. presidential election or 2014 invasion of Crimea.

But CIA Director Mike Pompeo tells the BBC that he’s seen no “significant decrease” in Russian information warfare activity and predicts it will not decline before November’s House and Senate mid-term elections (see No Shock: Russia Confirms ‘Cyber War’ Efforts).

“I have every expectation that they will continue to try and do that, but I’m confident that America will be able to have a free and fair election [and] that we will push back in a way that is sufficiently robust that the impact they have on our election won’t be great,” Pompeo says.

Russian Disinformation Campaigns

In October 2016, the U.S. Department Of Homeland Security and Office of the Director of National Intelligence blamed the Russian government for attempting to interfere in U.S. elections by hacking and leaking documents, saying such activities were authored by “Russia’s senior-most officials.” (See US Government Accuses Russia of Election Hacking)

The precise manner of that interference continues to come into focus, as Twitter, Google and Facebook release details of social media accounts tied to Russia’s disinformation and propaganda efforts (see Senate Grills Tech Giants Over Russian Fake News).

Troll Farms

What effect might Russian information warfare efforts have on U.S. voters?

In late 2017, Congress launched an investigation into Russian interference and released Twitter accounts flagged as being used by Russian trolls.

A group of researchers have since analyzed what they say are “27,000 tweets posted by 1,000 Twitter users identified [by Congress] as having ties with Russia’s Internet Research Agency and thus likely state-sponsored trolls.” The researchers – from Cyprus University of Technology, University College London and University of Alabama at Birmingham – looked at the Twitter users’ impact not just on that social network, but also on the Reddit and 4chan forums, according to their new report, “Disinformation Warfare: Understanding State-Sponsored Trolls on Twitter and Their Influence on the Web.”

Troll Hashtags

Top 20 hashtags in tweets from Russian trolls compared to a baseline, random set of Twitter users. (Source: “Disinformation Warfare: Understanding State-Sponsored Trolls on Twitter and Their Influence on the Web”)

Their chief finding: The quantifiable impact of the “trolls’ influence” on other Twitter, Reddit and 4chan users over a 21-month period “was not substantial with respect to the other platforms, with the significant exception of news published by the Russian state-sponsored news outlet RT,” which was previously known as Russia Today.

The researchers found that tweets that include links to RT had four times as much impact as other trolling efforts (see Russian Interference: Anatomy of a Propaganda Campaign).

Terms extracted from Latent Dirichlet Allocation analysis of tweets’ semantics, comparing Russian trolls with a baseline of random Twitter users. (Source: “Disinformation Warfare: Understanding State-Sponsored Trolls on Twitter and Their Influence on the Web”)

Return on Investment

So why would the Russian government sanction disinformation campaigns via Twitter if they had negligible impact?

The researchers say the apparently limited influence could relate to their only studying 1,000 troll accounts – a very small sample. But another likely explanation is simply that trolls’ goals are more indirect.

“Another, more plausible explanation is that the troll accounts are just not terribly efficient at spreading news, and instead are more concerned with causing havoc by pushing ideas, engaging other users or even taking both sides of controversial online discussions,” the researchers write.

Bolstering that theory: Twitter recently reported that it’s discovered at least 50,000 automated troll accounts, which may be much better at sending people to specific URLs, the researchers say, adding that they hope to see more sophisticated measurement techniques get developed.

Influence is Tricky

Alan Woodward, a professor of computer science at the University of Surrey, says that demonstrating the scale of trolling – as this paper does – is tough to translate into how people’s opinions may have been swayed.

“It is notoriously difficult to measure – and hence prove – influence,” he says. “We all like to think we are more intelligent than that.”

Counterpoint: Billions of dollars get spent every year by businesses who want to influence which laundry detergent, fast-food restaurant or vacuum cleaner they prefer.

Psychological Warfare

The very fact that the Kremlin sponsors troll farms suggests they do serve a purpose. “The Russians would not persist if they didn’t think it had some benefit them, even if that is to cause sow confusion,” Woodward says. “It’s also interesting that ‘western’ countries are setting up psychological warfare units that specialize in online social media.”

The United Kingdom, for example launched its 77th Brigade – motto: “Influence and Outreach” – in 2015. The same year, the EU launched a rapid-response European External Action Service designed to counter disinformation campaigns.

Woodward likens the influence of foreign powers to the days of newspaper barons, when “owners of newspapers could sway opinions through editorial control.” But whereas newspapers had an owner and mastheads, social media can make it much tougher to identify who’s behind messaging that can operate at a heretofore unseen scale.

Arguably, today’s stakes are also much higher than ever. “At the very least, I think that foreign powers can cause a loss of trust and sow doubt about the effectiveness, relevance and so on of a country’s government, and that has to build a picture in the minds of swing voters,” Woodward says. “At worst it could bring the whole concept of democracy into disrepute.”

Trump Administration Criticizes Sanctions for Russia

Given the threat posed by Russian information warfare, many observers continue to ask: What will the United States do to attempt to deter future Russian meddling in U.S. elections?

On Monday, the Trump administration announced that it will not sanction Russia, as required by a new U.S. law meant to punish Russia for its interference in the 2016 U.S. Presidential election.

“Today, we have informed Congress that this legislation and its implementation are deterring Russian defense sales,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement released on Monday. “Since the enactment of the … legislation, we estimate that foreign governments have abandoned planned or announced purchases of several billion dollars in Russian defense acquisitions.”

The “Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act,” or CAATSA, cleared Congress last August and was signed into law by President Trump, even though he described it as “deeply flawed.”

The passage of the law also prompted criticism from Russia, with Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev saying it signaled a “full-scale trade war” against Russia.

The law requires the Trump administration, as of Monday, to impose at least five out of 12 sanctions specified in section 235 of CAATSA on anyone determined to engage “in a significant transaction” with anyone who’s part of Russia’s defense or intelligence sectors.

While the White House initially rebuffed the law’s requirements, later on Monday, the administration acceded somewhat to the law’s demands by issuing a list of 114 Russian politicians and 96 oligarchs – some close to Putin – in what’s informally known as the “Putin list.”

Some of the individuals on that list are already subject to U.S. sanctions. But it’s not clear if more individuals on the list might be sanctioned, or if the list’s purpose is simply to “name and shame” them.

The U.S. Treasury, for example, notes that the list “is not a sanctions list, and the inclusion of individuals or entities … does not and in no way should be interpreted to impose sanctions on those individuals or entities.”

But if the Trump administration does not attempt to exact a political or financial price for Russia’s continuing attempt to meddle in U.S. political affairs, it’s unclear whether the Kremlin will have any incentive to cease its U.S.-focused information warfare campaigns.


Russia Bristles At US Allegations It Is Waging ‘New Generation Warfare’

Russia has lashed out at the United States over remarks by White House national security adviser H.R. McMaster, who accused Moscow of using multiple methods of “subversion and disinformation and propaganda” to destabilize other countries.

President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman made the comments on December 13, a day after McMaster said Russia and China were “undermining the international order and stability” and “ignoring the sovereign rights of their neighbors and the rule of law.”

McMaster said that Russia has pioneered “new generation warfare” that uses “subversion and disinformation and propaganda using cyber tools, operating across multiple domains, that attempt to divide our communities within our nations and pit them against each other, and try to create crises of confidence.”

McMaster alluded to the assessment by U.S. intelligence officials that Russia conducted a concerted campaign of interference in the U.S. presidential election in 2016. Putin and other Russian officials deny that Moscow meddled in the election, despite what U.S. officials say is ample evidence.

Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said that McMaster’s remarks were “extremely and absolutely wrong” and that Russia “does not indulge in sophisticated subversion in the United States.”

McMaster’s speech in Washington came as President Donald Trump is set to unveil his national security strategy on December 18.

The strategy will identify other threats to the United States and its interests, including China’s “economic aggression” and “rogue regimes” like Iran and North Korea, McMaster said.

Based on reporting by Reuters, TASS, and Bloomberg


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From Tweets to Tanks

This article comes from The Buzz Around the Ballot edition of Visegrad Insight 2/2017 devoted do media landscapes and disinformation in Central Europe. Read full contents page here.

Interview with Robert Pszczel, Senior Officer for Russia and the Western Balkans, Public Diplomacy Division, NATO HQ (Former Director of NATO Information Office in Moscow)

Are Poland and Central Europe taking part in informational warfare?

If we take into consideration the countries which are members of NATO, then they do not participate in any kind of war. It is true however that the security environment has changed significantly over the last few years, and therefore so has the context and terms we are using to describe it. The elements of hybrid war like disinformation, cyber-attacks – these are not abstract terms, but very real threats and challenges. These tools are not used by the NATO states for offensive purposes, but such actions or elements can be attributed to the Russian Federation or the Islamic State.

One such operation was the Crimean occupation in 2014 where we could see – for the first time in modern history – the “little green men” being employed on a large scale. We all know who they were and what they did, so let’s not forget that their first acts involved taking over and occupying local media centres. There was also a disinformation campaign, and a military exercise seemingly used as a decoy which preceded the operation in Crimea. So, the answer from the Allied side is no, we do not engage in

information warfare, but if we talk about the negative and aggressive actions in the

informational sphere, then there is plenty of evidence to suggest that others may see

it differently.

What strategy does NATO have concerning this hybrid warfare?

This is a very broad topic. Since 2014, NATO has developed and initiated a hybrid strategy to deal with such threats. It encompasses many elements ranging from a better coordination of intelligence products, work on resilience of our institutions and infrastructure, incorporating hybrid scenarios in our exercises, as well as cooperation with partner countries and the European Union.

NATO has 29 member states united by a collective defence pledge, forming a stable, permanent coalition that primarily looks after the security of its members.

Moving to the issue of your main interest, information policy as a dimension of our response to hybrid challenges, as is the case with other aspects, the first stage of our approach is analysis and situational awareness.

Comparing to where we were a few years ago, our awareness of, for example,

how social media are used for aggressive aims of disinformation has improved a

great deal. NATO’s situation awareness is an essential starting point because if we

lack the tools to identify the problem, it is hard to devise optimum countermeasures against it.

The second question is what can be done in a particular situation. We, first of

all, need to stick to our mandate and our principles. This means simply that NATO

does not answer disinformation or propaganda with its own propaganda or disinformation. We aim to present facts and our arguments in a dynamic way, using diverse platforms and tools. We do it via interaction with traditional media, but also through the internet and social media – see for example our “Setting the Record Straight” portal. But we also try to correct many “false facts or fake news” which target NATO and individual Allies – by engaging with journalists, opinion formers and ordinary people.

In the NATO family, there are many so called Centres of Excellence, and two with the highest public profiles are those which deal respectively with cyber security and with Strategic Communications. Both institutions help NATO and member states by undertaking research, running courses and workshops – real educational work.

This long-term effort does not happen solely within NATO borders. The fact that Sweden, a non-NATO country, has already trained thousands of its civil servants on how to deal with the problem of disinformation shows that the threat has an international character. People who work in specific spheres are likely to face certain kinds of disinformation attacks, and if they are made aware of this then they will know how to react and would hopefully share their knowledge among their communities.

One paradoxical advantage we have in NATO is that we have been the target of disinformation for many years, only the methods have changed somewhat. Recognizing this, NATO’s Public Diplomacy Division (PDD) and other NATO representatives and experts are very active in organising and participating in a variety of seminars and conferences, debating both cyber and disinformation threats (which often go together). These topics also come up high on the list of issues discussed with parliamentarians from all member states. This last point is crucial if we are to contribute to long-term solutions, such as for example media literacy projects.

International cooperation is essential. It is not a coincidence that among the 42 areas which were collectively defied as priorities for joint work by the EU and NATO, one of the fist agreed items was disinformation.

Recently, there was the ceremonial opening of the Helsinki Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats. While established under the EU aegis, this Centre has close links to NATO. The Secretary General of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg, standing next to the EU’s Federica Mogherini, described hybrid threats as “a combination of covert and overt operations and measures: everything from propaganda, from disinformation to actually the use of regular forces – from tweets to tanks.”

Returning to the challenges posed by Russia, it is interesting to compare our agendas and thus approaches. For NATO a “comprehensive approach” is a concept which aims to ensure synergy of different kinds of resources – civilian, military and Strategic Communications – in order to assure stability. To illustrate: for many years now, we have been working in order to stabilise Afghanistan. We know that ensuring security is an essential task. Without security there can be no development. But stable institutions, rule of law, support of the local population and economic prospects are in turn factors without which long-term security will not be guaranteed.

Unfortunately one gets an impression that from the Russian perspective, a

hybrid approach applied in many regions in Europe and beyond is serving a very

different purpose which has more to do with destabilisation. For example, we are

well aware that 2/3 of negative online comments on social media about NATO’s

enhanced Forward Presence (bringing many Allied troops to the Baltic States

and Poland) are generated by Russian online accounts operated by bots. And

these comments have nothing to do with the real debate, with transparency and

the truth: they aim to denigrate, undermine our governments, distract soldiers

and destabilise the region.

Does Poland at all need to be ready to react and resist such kind of threats? What is the priority action for Poland?

On the one side, the Polish society is very resistant towards any misinformation campaigns directed by foreign countries. It is not easy to persuade Poles in believing something which is not true as they have a high level of awareness following years of communist propaganda. On the other hand, there is no state, including Poland, which can ignore fully well financed disinformation operations, some of them devised on individual basis and targeting specific recipients.

One hears of plans of the Polish MOD to create a centre to deal with cyber threats. This certainly sounds like a very good idea, a route taken by other allies too. But one should also take into account that potential opponents are always improving their methods, and they are not stingy with resources, so our approach should be a comprehensive one, using a mixture of military and civilian capabilities and institutions, at both the state and local level.

A good example of work in this domain was a conference (co-sponsored by PDD) on hybrid threats hosted in Szczecin in October. It brought together representatives from the Polish parliament, academia, the military, business and media. There were a lot of presentations and discussions on policies, best practices from divergent experiences: ranging from crisis management systems at a city level to airport security. But participants could also take part in a specialised workshop where business expertise was shared on practical solutions to improving security of cyber space, e.g. on protection from hackers’ attacks – which is badly needed today.

Not only NATO and the EU should act but also on more local levels there should be coordinated actions. This is a very long-term process when it comes to such measures as raising awareness of citizens of dangers of hybrid threats and disinformation, as teaching university students, improving resilience of critical infrastructure or honing the role of military forces. There are many good experts in Poland and their expertise should be fully utilised. But other states, including those among the Visegrad Four, have a lot of very useful experience, be it on the government level or non-governmental organisations. So, it is very important to share our knowledge, our experience and available tools among states, organisations and ordinary citizens.

Interviewed by: Wojciech Przybylski


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The EU will spend over € 1.1 million to counter Russian propaganda

In 2018-2020, the EU will annually spend 1.1 million Euro on combating propaganda in the Russian media. About it reports the British newspaper the Guardian.

For the information confrontation with Russia, the European Union uses a task force on strategic communications in the East. This “antipropaganda special forces” from 2018 to 2020 will fight with fake news and misinformation. If before it used the money of other European agencies, it now received its own funding.

Russian Senator Vladimir dzhabarov believes that the EU’s actions – the evidence that the renewed anti-Russian propaganda, characteristic of the cold war. He believes that Moscow will respond in a similar way.

Previously managing EU Donald Tusk stated at the summit of “Eastern partnership”, Europe is vulnerable to “cyber attacks, hybrid warfare and disinformation.” And Theresa may, the UK Prime Minister called Russia a “hostile country” and a “threat to its Eastern neighbors,” seeking “to destroy the collective force”.



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The ‘Combination’: An Instrument In Russia’s Information War In Catalonia – Analysis


The ‘combination’ (kombinaciya) is an operation which integrates diverse instruments (cyber warfare, cyber-intelligence, disinformation, propaganda and collaboration with players hostile to the values of liberal democracy) in Russia’s information war in Catalonia during and in the wake of its illegal referendum.

By Mira Milosevich-Juaristi*

The principal objective of this paper (which serves to complement a previous work on ‘disinformation’)1 is to: (1) analyse the facts of Russian interference in the illegal referendum in Catalonia, along with the motives and objectives which guided the actions of the current Russian regime; (2) show how Russian interference in Catalonia forms part of an information war, an asymmetric military method which Russia employs in the US and Europe; and (3) evaluate the response of the West (the US, the EU and NATO) and determine whether or not it has been up to the challenge of Russia’s information war.

While Westerners tend to conflate ‘disinformation’ with ‘information war’ –while distinguishing between ‘cyber warfare’ and ‘strategic communication’– the Kremlin uses ‘disinformation’ as one of the instruments of the ‘combination’, demonstrating in practice that ‘cyber warfare’ and ‘information war’ –while seemingly synonymous– are interdependent phenomena.

Russian military doctrine defines as one of its principal objectives not to destroy the enemy but rather to influence him –pursuing not the extinction of opponents but instead their internal decline–. This shifts warfare from the conventional battlefield to the sphere of information, and into the terrain of psychological warfare and the distortion of perceptions. Therefore, it is clear that war with Russia is not fundamentally a physical conflict but rather one between consciousnesses. In the final analysis, the objective is always the same: win the war in the hearts and minds of the enemy.


Russia’s victory in Catalonia

In light of previous examples of Russian interference –in the Brexit referendum, in the Dutch referendum on the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement, in the US presidential elections and in the German and the French elections, not to mention the cyberattacks and disinformation campaigns undertaken by Russia against its neighbours– the 2,000% increase in Russian digital activity related to Catalonia registered during the month of September has been no surprise, and neither is it an anomaly. Rather, it reflects what has been one more Russian attempt (and probably not the last) to influence the internal political situation of another country, to sow confusion and to proclaim the decline of liberal democracy.

Various high-level Russian representatives –including Yuri Korchagin, the Ambassador of the Russian Federation in Spain, Serguei Lavrov, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, and President Vladimir Putin, among others– have officially expressed their ‘total support for the territorial integrity of Spain’. They claim that Russia has no interest in meddling in what is an ‘internal process’. Nevertheless, after conducting detailed analyses of pro-Russian websites and social network profiles (using, as in the case of El Pais, digital analytics), many Spanish and international news media have reported (along with many Russian communications media, including RT, the old Russia Today, Sputnik, Russia Beyond the Headlines and many state TV stations) that the Russian government has been applying the ‘combination’ of various instruments of information warfare. To this end, it has collaborated with players hostile to the West –Julian Assange, Edward Snowden and radical groups in the UK and the US supporting Brexit and Donald Trump– to intervene in the illegal referendum in Catalonia.

The contrast between the opinions of Russian diplomats and the attitudes of the Russian media should be no surprise. What George Kennan insisted on during the Cold War –that is, that one should not confuse Soviet foreign policy with Soviet external relations– is also still valid for Russia today. The external relations of Russia are –despite its violation of international law with the annexation of the Crimea– embedded within the institutional framework of the international community. Russian foreign policy is another matter altogether. The Russian foreign-policy objective is to revive Russia’s great-power status through the expansion of its zones of influence and by placing itself in competition with the US and the EU in different international scenarios. During the last three years, Russia has shown that it is capable of carrying out –and that it has the political will to do so– both military operations and information warfare at the same time. In the Ukrainian and Syrian wars, the Kremlin has combined the use of military force with the techniques of information warfare. In Western countries, where Russia’s principal objective is to gain influence, as opposed to territory, the conflict has taken the form of hybrid warfare with a special focus on the information war.

Russian activity related to the illegal referendum in Catalonia has concentrated on the transmission of both true and false messages via social networks (Facebook and Twitter) by trolls (online profiles created to disseminate pre-fabricated information), bots (dissemination of information by autonomic processes) and sockpuppets (online profiles created with the objective of generating and transmitting false, or ‘fake’, news). It has also involved intense coverage of events in Catalonia by Russia media.

As on previous occasions, the successful combination of different instruments of information warfare has required the support of the Government of the autocratic regime, in addition to the close collaboration between intelligence services (which together define the principal weaknesses and internal problems of a target country), as well as the cyber intelligentsia: the ‘web brigade’ of all the hackers, trolls, bots and sockpuppets who steal digital information and then divulge it to the media. The pirated information on different social groups shapes the definition of potential targets –possible receptors of particular messages– in the social networks.

The most significant content of the messages

The most significant information divulged by Twitter and Facebook came from Julian Assange and Edward Snowden. They defined Spain as a ‘banana republic’, arguing that Spain was on the verge of a civil war and insisting that Spain had used violent police force to block the democratic right to vote. This was retweeted and shared on Facebook by trolls and bots.

The Russian media publishing in English and Spanish –Sputnik and RT– and the Russian state television channels2 (the only source of information for most Russians) offered an ‘alternative point of view’ on the events, highlighting the supposed weaknesses of a Spain in crisis. The most significant content of these messages can be summarised as follows:

  • The use of force by the police consisted of deliberate violence that was not employed in the legitimate defence of the security of the State, but rather as a Francoist practice unworthy of a democratic State.
  • The EU would recognise the independence of Catalonia after a process of accession.
  • The EU had ordered Spain to undertake “repressive action” to stop the referendum, in an attempt to avoid another Brexit.
  • The referendum is another ‘colour revolution’, but this time within the EU, representing the first phase of the EU’s own disintegration.
  • Europeans are ‘hypocrites’ to condemn the use of force in the Ukraine by Victor Yanukovich but not that used by the Spanish police in Catalonia.
  • Spain is in the same situation as the Ukraine, and Catalonia is on the verge of a civil war like that in Donbas.
  • The referendum in Catalonia is like the referendum in the Crimea.
  • The West is responsible for the Catalan desire to become independent of Spain: it created the prior conditions for the separatists when it supported and recognised the independence of Kosovo.

The objectives and motives of the ‘combination’ in the illegal referendum in Catalonia

The fundamental objectives of employing the ‘combination’ is the same as that of disinformation: to deceive and disorient an opponent, to influence his decisions and to undermine his political, economic and military efficacy. The difference between disinformation and the ‘combination’ lies in the fact that the ‘combination’ uses a larger number of instruments (including disinformation). The principal objectives of the ‘combination’ in Catalonia are:

  1. To discredit Spanish democracy, foment division among Spanish citizens and create a divide between Spain and its EU and NATO partners.
  2. To discredit European institutions, pointing to their inefficacy and to the failure of the European project, and to sow confusion.
  3. To discredit the liberal order created and maintained by the US.
  4. To distract the attention of Russian citizens away from internal problems (including the separatism of the North Caucasus region) and to insulate them from information from foreign communications media.

The strategic motives of the Kremlin which underlie these practices are the following:

  1. To achieve the lifting of the economic sanctions imposed on Moscow for the annexation of the Crimea and the economic and military support provided to the pro-Russian rebels in south-eastern Ukraine, deepening internal division within the EU.
  2. To present liberal democracy as a failed model, lacking any credibility to offer moral lessons to Moscow, and not one desirable for Russia, as it only creates chaos and disorder.
  3. To foment ‘anti-Westernism’, one of the supporting pillars of the Russian regime, which maintains a deeply-rooted attitude of resentment and grievance towards the West. Russia is not only a very proud country but also a resentful and alienated one. A large part of this alienation is based on a fundamental difference in the Russian and Western points of view on Europe, the US and NATO.

The information war: origin and development

To obtain military, social, political and economic advantages through cyber intelligence and cyberattacks is part of a strategy that is not exclusive to the Kremlin (as the well-known cases of China, North Korea and the radical US groups supported the Trump candidacy amply demonstrate). Not even presenting fake news as real and authentic is an exclusively Russian practice. Respected media such as The New York Times, the BBC and The Guardian (to mention only a few) have published, intentionally or not, articles on Catalonia with much erroneous information. Nevertheless, what distinguishes Russia from other ‘cyber actors’ and disseminators of lies is the use of information warfare as a military strategy defined by and integrated into the most recent Military Doctrine of the Russian Federation, official since 2014.

As a concept, information warfare has its roots in pre-revolutionary Russia and the Bolshevik tradition, and its evolution has been shaped by: (1) the Kremlin’s mimicry of what it considers the US attitude with respect to Russian behaviour in the ‘colour revolutions’ (as interferences in the internal affairs of other countries with any eye to changing their regimes); (2) the observation of the workings of social networks during the Arab Spring; (3) by the trial and error pattern of the Kremlin’s behaviour in the Chechen War of 1999, the Georgian War of 2008, the mass protests against Putin’s government for fraud in the legislative elections of 2011, the annexation of the Crimea and the war in the Ukraine (2014); and, finally, (4) the extraordinary capacity of the Russian intelligence services to adapt to the principles of subversion relevant in the age of the Internet. The fact that since 2014 information warfare has formed part of the Military Doctrine reveals that the Kremlin considers Russia to be involved in a large-scale information war.

The perfecting of the current information war began with the second Chechen War (1999-2009), when the Federal Secret Service (FSB) concluded (based on information that citizens had disseminated about the war on social networks) that the Internet was a dangerous destabilising factor and a threat to national security that should be carefully controlled. Among the conflict scenarios where the Russian intelligence services identified and studied the ‘threats’ to national security represented by the Internet –and its infinite possibilities as an instrument of information warfare–, the 2011 protests marked a significant advance in the use of social networks. During the protests, the Kremlin realised that the automatic systems for disseminating information (that they had used since 2009, or before) were insufficient by themselves; rather, they also required an investment in human players with the object of anticipating debates online. Since then, Russian investment has centred on three main areas: communications media that operate both abroad and inside the country, such as RT and Sputnik; and the use of social networks to ensure that Russian narratives reach a broad audience in both Russian and foreign languages.

The annexation of the Crimea in 2014 –which did not require the ‘little green men’ to fire a single shot– has been the biggest success of the ‘combination’ of the various instruments of information warfare and the immediate reason why it was integrated into the Military Doctrine of 2014. The chapter devoted to ‘military dangers’ included for the first time ‘the information space and the internal sphere’. Particular emphasis was placed on ‘foreign information influence on the population… aimed at undermining the spiritual and patriotic traditions’, and on ‘the use of communications technologies against the sovereignty, political independence and territorial integrity of some States, which endangers international security and peace’. One of the prime refrains of Russian doctrine is the importance of state policy in containing the influence of foreign actors in domestic Russian affairs and in the sphere of the so-called ‘zones of vital interest’. The Military Doctrine suggests that the Russian perception of the current information war is purely defensive (although it is obvious that it has been offensive, as much in the former Soviet republics as it has been in Western countries) and that it merely gives back to Westerners some of what is considered to be ‘their own medicine’.

The Western response

Russian interference during the Brexit campaign and in the US presidential elections is already under investigation. The US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence questioned representatives from Facebook, Google and Twitter about Russian interference in the US and Catalonia. Needless to say, the Spanish government should do the same. A substantial body of research on the Russian troll campaigns has already been accumulating in various Western countries for some time now. During its recent legislative elections, Germany took a series of precautions to prevent Russian interference; its Army now has a ‘cyber-brigade’ charged with countering cyber-threats. Various European and US institutions, think tanks, non-governmental organisations, journalists and analysts have created teams to combat fake news. Their job is to detect when Russian interference takes place, to describe its characteristics, define the false information and then take measures to counter it. Although those involved in the ‘Russian plot’ must be brought to justice and their information denounced as false, this is not enough. Westerners do not understand the full significance of the Russian concept of information warfare. Above all, they resist accepting that Russia is no longer a ‘strategic partner’ –or even an adversary with whom one might differ and then reach agreements– but rather an enemy, in the sense that it desires the West’s submission or destruction.

Although Westerners tend to conflate ‘disinformation’ with ‘information warfare’ –even as they distinguish between ‘cyber warfare’ and ‘strategic communication’–, the Kremlin uses ‘disinformation’ as one of the instruments of the ‘combination’ and shows in practice that ‘cyber warfare’ and ‘information warfare’ while seemingly synonymous are actually are interdependent phenomena.

The West has concentrated on cyber-protection and on the technical responses to cyber threats. The NATO countries are well prepared for a ‘pure cyberwar’. Nevertheless, so far their response to the Russian information war has not been adequate for three major reasons: (1) because they have believed that Russia discredits itself by spreading false news; (2) because they do not understand that the West is at war with Russia; and (3) because they suppose that telling the truth is sufficient, which it is not.

Russia has failed according to Western criteria –it does not tell the truth– but according to its own criteria it has achieved an overwhelming success, particularly in two areas. Within Russia, the mission to engage the information war commissioned by the Military Doctrine has secured the national information space: Russians have been isolated from foreign information sources and most of the domestic media are controlled by the Kremlin. Abroad, Russia is exerting its influence over the consciousness of the masses, generating an atmosphere in which it is difficult to distinguish authentic information from half-truths and fake news.


The consciousness of the Western population is the key terrain of the confrontation with Russia. It is therefore insufficient to simply counter false information. Ignorance of the fact that Russian disinformation campaigns are paving the way for future action against the interests of the West is the principal danger of the ‘combination’ strategy.

It is impossible for the West to respond with total success to the ‘combination’ of instruments and tactics now employed by Moscow. While the intelligence agencies can engage in intelligence work, Western governments cannot effectively restrict information flows. They cannot restrict the use of the Internet as do the governments of authoritarian or totalitarian countries.

Russian Military Doctrine defines as one of its principal objects not to the destroy the enemy, but rather to exert influence, that is, not the extinction of opponents, but rather their internal decline. Therefore, warfare moves from conventional battlefields to the realm of information, psychological warfare and the distortion of perceptions. War with Russia is not fundamentally a physical conflict but rather one between consciousnesses. This is because, in the final analysis, the objective is always the same: win the war in the enemy’s hearts and minds.

About the author:

*Mira Milosevich-Juaristi
, Senior Analyst at the Elcano Royal Institute and Associate Professor of the History of International Relations at the Instituto de Empresa (IE University) | @MiraMilosevich1<


This article was published by Elcano Royal Institute. Original version in Spanish: La “combinación”, instrumento de la guerra de la información de Rusia en Cataluña


1. See Mira Milosevich-Juaristi (2017), ‘El poder de la influencia rusa: la desinformación’, ARI, nr 7/2017, Elcano Royal Institute.

2. To analyse the messages about the illegal Catalan referendum broadcast on Russian TV channels I have used the outstanding analysis of the portal EU vs DisinfoRussian, ‘TV’s view on Catalonia referendum: Europe falling apart and Spain compared to Ukraine’.