Russian disinformation efforts in Germany aim to divide public opinion, boost anti-Western sentiment, and exploit political debates over sanctions and inflation, a report published last month by Budapest-based Political Capital has found.
The disinformation efforts pushed various pro-Kremlin narratives with the help of fake, or stolen Facebook profiles targeting broadcast and tabloid media, and the webpages of mainstream and far-left and far-right politicians, in an effort to sow division.
The disinformation campaigns peaked during the Russian invasion of Ukraine and during debates in Germany over military support for Ukraine and sanctions against Russia hitting the energy sector.
The Political Capital research focused on activity on Facebook related to Russian disinformation and was based on text-mining programs supported by analyses of several millions of war-related comments.
The core of the Russian propaganda narrative focused on how the West — mainly the US and Nato — has “cheated” Russia by violating an alleged promise that they will not expand eastwards. It also propagates that Ukraine is not a sovereign state but a Western puppet.
It claims that the 2014 wave of demonstration in Kyiv, the EuroMaidan, was orchestrated by the West.
It also spreads that Russia was “forced” to act after the US refused Russia’s proposal for redrawing Europe’s security order.
Another type of anti-Western disinformation content blames Nato and the EU, and — interestingly — the World Health Organisation (WHO) for serving dictators of the alleged new world order, who have been using the “fascist Ukraine”.
This was pushed in Germany as the debate over sanctioning Russia’s oil sector and delivering heavy weapons to Ukraine was heating up in March.
Playing both sides
Even some of the Kremlin-critical comments spread across Facebook were part of the disinformation effort, the report found.
“Some profiles involved in this were caught disseminating both pro-Kremlin and anti-Kremlin narratives, which indicates it is not intended to counter the Kremlin’s information operation but to be a part of it,” it stated.
The aim of this tactic has likely been to divide public opinion and create a feeling of insecurity and disorientation among users.
Mistakes give away operators who run multiple profiles, the report revealed, citing the examples of a Slovak user commenting on Czech pages in Hungarian, or profiles spreading pro- and anti-Kremlin narratives in parallel.
With the aim of reaching the widest audience, the pro-Kremlin disinformation has been spread on the Facebook pages of the most popular media outlets, and television shows, such as RTL, RTL Aktuell, Sat1 and the ZDF Heute. Of the printed media, only Stern, a popular tabloid, was targeted.
Top mainstream newspapers had not been of interest to pro-Kremlin trolls. The report said that those “who prefer lighter content” had been targeted, with the exception of the newspaper Frankfurter Rundschau, which has a “centre-left, social-liberal attitude”.
Another tactic was focusing on the Facebook pages of politicians, including chancellor Olaf Scholz, and finance minister Christian Lindner. With the intention of mobilising their supporters, trolls also targeted Die Linke politician Sahra Wagenknecht and the page of the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD).
Fake and stolen profiles were most likely engaged in disseminating these narratives, the report said, with seemingly real users also joining in.
A report recalled that the UK foreign office’s recent research showed that the influencing efforts can be linked to a new troll farm connected to Yevgeny Prigozhin, an oligarch known as “Putin’s chef”, who appeared to admit to Russian interference in US elections in 2016.
Pro-Kremlin troll farms had been identified before in Poland, Germany, Italy, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, Péter Krekó, the director of Political Capital told MEPs last month.
Mobilising the anti-vax
Russian disinformation was also aimed at those who rejected Covid-vaccines with the hope of mobilising them.
It attempted to push the narrative about a “new, dictatorial world order, led by Nato, which uses both the artificially created Covid and the war to spread and enhance its control over the population”, the report said. This was also used during the sanctions debate in Germany.
“The use of anti-vaccination narratives is a clear illustration of how both the target groups and the perpetrators of pro-Russian coordinated trolling overlap and try to strengthen and amplify each other’s activity,” the report added.
These efforts have largely failed to generate much sympathy for Russia, and so far have failed to turn Europeans against the sanctions, the report said. However, that could change.
“Even if public opinion in the EU is currently unfavourable to the Kremlin, the onset of high, permanent inflation, soaring energy prices and the looming danger of an EU-wide recession could create a more favourable environment for the Kremlin’s propaganda efforts”, the report warns.
The EU remains woefully unprepared to countering this offensive.
“Russia keeps outspending the EU by approximately 1,000:1, even though member state and European Parliament have been asking for more rescues for countering disinformation for years,” Jakub Kalensky of the European Center of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats (Hybrid CoE), a Helsinki-based think tank, told MEPs late last month.