The disinformation media attempt to divert attention from the violations in the Russian elections
United Russia party gained a majority of votes in a parliamentary election accompanied by alleged widespread violations. While observers report cases of forced voting and vote-rigging, Russian officials shift the blame to foreign media and NGOs. Their rhetoric is echoed by the pro-Russian disinformation media.
Infosecurity.sk presents an overview of disinformation trends that have been on the rise in information space in the past two weeks:
1. According to official results of the Russia's recent parliamentary elections, the United Russia, party of the president Vladimir Putin, won nearly 50 % of the vote, retaining a majority in the State Duma. However, the election was overshadowed by reports of widespread violations ranging from forced voting to ballot stuffing.
2. Kremlin officials immediately pulled out the victim card by spreading a series of false narratives which shifted the blame to OSCE, various NGOs and independent media for their alleged attempts to interfere in the election process.
3. This rhetoric was also taken over by local disinformation sites. The local portfolio of disinformation websites published various false narratives in their attempt to defend the "freedom and fairness" of the Russian elections and in turn blamed the "usual suspects: the liberal and Russophobic media."
4. It was revealed that the author of the disinformation articles, who publishes under the pseudonym Eugen Rusnák and who writes for several disinformation media, maintains contacts with the staff of the Russian media agency financially supported by the Russian state.
“Free and fair” elections
The legislative elections were held in Russia from 17th to 19th September 2021. 450 seats in the State Duma – the lower house of the Federal Assembly – were at stake. After 100 % of the votes had been counted, Putin's ruling party United Russia officially received 49.82 percent of the votes, thereby secured 324 seats in the 450-member Duma, retaining a majority.
However, the three-day vote was accused by several reports of widespread irregularities. Many democratic candidates could not run in the elections, and some of them even had to flee into exile to avoid the fate of the opposition leader Alexei Navalny. His foundation was classified as an extremist one and the independent media were branded as foreign agents.
While Putin praises the elections as “free and fair”, the independent group Golos, which monitors the election and which is branded as a "foreign agent" by Russian authorities, claims that it had received reports of about 5,000 possible violations of election rules. The reports included instances of forcing people to vote or examples of voting envelopes that appeared to have been opened and then resealed.
Similar violations have been uncovered by several other independent media outlets. There are videos on the Internet allegedly showing fraud in the elections. In addition, for the first time since 1993, no election observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) were present since the Russian authorities had restricted their participation.
While independent observers and international media point to the signs of Kremlin interference during the elections, its representatives are ready to play the victim card while blaming various NGOs and independent media for their alleged attempts to interfere in the electoral process. Even before the elections, Russia threatened with legal action claiming alleged election meddling in case Apple and Google did not remove the Navalny’s "Smart Voting" app from their online stores. The app was designed to identify opposition candidates with the best chance of beating rivals from Putin's party United Russia.
In order to prove the opposition’s interference in the elections, the Russian Central Election Commission released probably a staged video showing Russian police exposing opposition’s "anti-Kremlin trolls" who, according to the police, are producing fake stories about Moscow's meddling in the elections.
Some of the alleged "anti-Kremlin trolls" were later identified by BBC as actors who have appeared in various pro-government videos and protests before.
The Slovak disinformation actors and their distortion of reality
This rhetoric was also picked up and spread by local disinformation sites. Zem a Vek (Earth and Age), one of the leading pro-Kremlin disinformation media in Slovakia, published an article that defended freedom and fairness of the Russian elections and claimed that the EU, the United States, and the "mainstream" media actively tried to interfere in the Russian elections.
Effortlessly utilising the victim card, the article labels the Kremlin’s criticism and its interference in the elections as the expected "anti-Russian, Russophobic howls and scaremongering, fabrications and nonsense" spread by the "liberal and Russophobic media." The disinformation media have thus attempted to turn the story around, blaming the independent media and observers for allegedly producing disinformation and false narratives about the Russian elections.
The article goes on to blame the OSCE for its inability to observe the elections because it did not abide the Covid restrictions in Russia. Prior to the elections, Russia had indicated that only a limited number of OSCE observers would be allowed to observe the election, while referring to the unfavourable epidemiological situation.
However, according to the official OSCE press release, it appears that Kremlin imposed tighter restrictions on the OSCE mission intentionally in order to limit the number of OSCE observers there. The limitation would prevent a successful monitoring mission, therefore it was cancelled.
Nevertheless, the author of the article falsely claims that it was never the OSCE's intention to observe the elections because it was "quite obvious that Putin's United Russia would win" and if international observers were present, they would have to admit that the election was free and fair. Moreover, according to the author, the OSCE absence allows the international community to spread, false claims about government interference in the elections.
The article itself was written by Eugen Rusnák, a pseudonym allegedly used by a Russian Yevgeny Paltsev. In November 2018, it was revealed that Paltsev, who writes for several disinformation media outlets including Zem a Vek (Earth and Age) and Hlavné správy (Main News), has been maintaining contacts with the staff of the Kremlin-funded Russian media group Rossiya Segodnya (Russia Today).The media group also includes the Sputnik agency, which has been described by the European Parliament as one of the tools used by Kremlin to undermine democratic values and divide Europe. This proves that one of the most influential disinformation websites in Slovakia is linked to an agency funded by the Russian state.
The other local pro-Russian media reported on the events in a similar vein, predominately quoting the statements of Russian officials and their one-sided criticism of the OSCE and the NGO sector.
Project Infosecurity.sk organised by STRATPOL – Strategic Policy Institute and Slovak Security Policy Institute, which is supported by the Prague office of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom, continuously monitors the activities of both Slovak and foreign disinformation actors but focuses mainly on the former. The project activities are built upon daily monitoring of emerging disinformation, hoaxes, and conspiracy theories in the online information space. This approach allows the analysts to identify disinformation posts and narratives that resonated with the public the most, as well as to find out where they originated, and how they spread and evolved on social media. The report takes the form of a bi-weekly summary of arising trends in the spread of malicious information content online. Based on that, Infosecurity.sk can warn the public about emerging and current trends in the field of disinformation, manipulation, and propaganda.
Matej Spišák is a Research Fellow at STRATPOL – Strategic Policy Institute in Bratislava and Editor-in-Chief at Infosecurity.sk.
Denis Takács is an Analyst at STRATPOL – Strategic Policy Institute in Bratislava.