‘Russian brigade’ of trolls and hackers

Over the years, “Ukraine’s war has seen a parallel reality and the use of a powerful instrument to give life to a ‘Russian version of events’.” Let’s start here – from a recent sentence by the ‘Russian Brigade’. The Kremlin’s hidden war between trolls and hackers – to better understand how the Moscow war perspective has become increasingly complex and “non-linear” and how it involves the most intriguing misleading tools in our lives. What do those weird social profiles have to do with alternative photos of kittens with anti-Ukrainian insults, fake news about missiles, braised meat recipes and war? What is the role of some seemingly legitimate ‘news’ outlets that provide their constant feed? But also: what would a Tuscany computer with a mega coat on the other end of the world do? Talking to the reporter about this Marta Federica OtavianiThe author of the article, a Russian expert for Avvenire magazine and contributor to numerous think tanks, including the Aspen Institute.

These days, on social media, we are witnessing a clear intensification of pro-Putin messages and the sharing of deceptions about Ukraine. In part, the phenomenon can be considered in clear and simple belief. But behind it are also trolls, ‘bad goblins’ who use Russian money to spread misinformation. How can they recognize each other?

The problem is that they are hard to recognize. Often they create hundreds of uncertain social profiles, behind which seem to be the real life of people who have friends, passions, pets. They are people who, in their interactions – for example commenting on a news story about a war and expressing deception about it – can accept the most varied articles, from obscene insults to seemingly clearer and calmer analysis. But numerous investigations and leaks have led to the discovery of thousands of profiles of the Kremlin’s misleading activities, most notably those coordinated by an Internet research agency headquartered in St. Petersburg.

What is it about?

It is an organization that employs about six hundred people. It is organized in real editorial offices aimed at reaching the interests and attention of the most diverse people in sports, from sports enthusiasts to entertainment, cuisine, and international politics. Housewives, students, but also people with more structured professional profiles, scattered in all four corners of the world – for writing thousands of false names – with salaries ranging from a few rubles to much larger figures. The system uses an algorithm, bot (ed, software capable of automatically creating messages on social media), ‘Deep Fake’ that lets you create visually realistic, but completely fake images and videos. At the beginning of this strategy, before 2013, they could sometimes be recognized by the lazy use of Italian and other foreign languages, now it is increasingly difficult. The system is influential and is linked to the signatures of bloggers who, by contrast, are paid by people close to the Kremlin because of their notoriety – as well as in terms of remuneration. The goal is always the same: to sow the seeds of suspicion in people, to focus on the dominant emotions and haste on social media, and to create a ‘snowball effect’ so that one’s content is recommended by millions of keyboard lions, often unknowingly self-assured.

The material is being supplied by a number of newspapers and media outlets, some of which are now banned in Europe (but not in Switzerland). Which one are they?

The most well-known facts are Sputnik and Russia Today, but the publications are many and often subtle in their presentation of reality: almost hidden persuasive sites such as Beyond Russia, agencies created ad hoc for conflict a few years ago. Style think tank. However, it should be noted that the promise of the propaganda machine is not only to keep Vladimir Putin’s rule abroad in good light, but also in Russia.

In that sense, it is possible Putin took control of the Internet.

The extent of Putin’s control over the web in Russia depends on the need to keep the population connected to the international network for business, financial reasons or the simple irreplaceable nature of some foreign services. However, trying to replicate social networks and other tools, Russian ‘clones’ such as VKontakte and Telegram are being created. This obviously makes it possible for the authorities to have more personal data of the population being ‘filed’ online in large quantities. Instead, such controls would make the pro-Putin campaign and opposition defamation more effective.

Prior to Euromidan, Ukraine was a huge laboratory for new confusing techniques.

It must be said that methods of ‘hybrid’ instability were already being tested in Estonia and Georgia in the early 2000’s. The guidelines constitute the so-called ‘Gerasimov doctrine’, named after the general who at least contributed to the development of the new strategic concept (and which now seems to have gone out of favor, ed): the concept of non-military equipment – infiltration from confusion, secret militias Until use – to re-establish a Russian international power that believes itself to be humiliated and surrounded without an open war. The instability in this tactical approach is constant, it does not know the conventional difference between war and peace and conventional weapons are used only as a last resort.

How about right now?

The big risk for Putin is to resort to conventional warfare. First, because it is so much more visible and unambiguous than the so-called ‘non-linear warfare’, it has become difficult to hide it through distorted information through many operations in recent years. And then because Russia has no way of sustaining this return to the ‘twentieth century’ level of conflict for so long.

Even without war, the combined use of trolls and hackers has worked to create chaos in the very center of the West: we have seen it with the election of Russiagate and Donald Trump, with Brexit, the yellow vest, but with no wax. No pass protest.

Russia’s role is also seen in a number of Western cases, although decentralized intervention often takes years to unmask. On the one hand, if street protests are provoked, on the other hand, hacker attacks are an attempt to bring the entire country’s infrastructure to their knees: this was seen in the United States in 2021, when hackers affiliated with Russia operated. It has been able to block 9,000 kilometers of oil pipelines and even cripple the entire hospital as well as the entire Kovid. To hide as many signs and links as possible, all the activities are cleverly integrated in a transferable way: think of the poor Tuscan mechanic who got the police at the door because his computer was taken as a ‘hostage’ during the attack in the United States.

Estonia and Ukraine have experienced similar attacks in the past. In the case of trolls, are hackers motivated by economic returns?

Yes: in this case, in addition to any direct financing often made in cryptocurrency, there is a possibility of huge ransom from the affected companies for ‘unlocking’ their systems: we are talking about a few million dollars.

It must be said that fraud and ‘pirates’ exist in other countries as well. Or not?

Of course, and indeed, fake news is also spread from Ukraine, and the Kremlin’s actions are often exposed by hackers from other countries. Here, however, Ukraine is the injured side, and infinitely weak in spreading confusion. For other countries: It is clear that their strategies include cyberwarfare and propaganda elements, but so far we have not seen such systematic and structural use in warfare management.

Let’s go back to the problem of confusion. Italy – and therefore part of the Ticino public opinion, which often follows the media – seems particularly vulnerable to pro-Persian deception. Because?

An important part of the Italian information is in the hands of the Russian “counter-information”. It certainly helps the shameless pro-utinism that has dominated various formations over the years, such as the League, the Five Star Movement, and the extreme left. Not surprisingly, Russian intervention is ‘secular’, it does not look at the difference between right and left, but it can play an unstable role in this or that structure.

Thus, as we once saw Salvini with Putin’s shirt, we now see a certain ‘pacifist’ lying on the street ‘neither with Putin nor with NATO’. But in Russia, too, they have protested for peace, and we all applaud them.

Yes, but they deny the persecution and shout “Ukraine, Ukraine” as well as “Putin the thief”, without arguing for some completely unfounded equivalence. And it is better to make it clear: those who do not want to separate the aggressor from the aggressor, those who hide behind the ‘but’ legitimize the attack against Ukraine, Europe and our values ​​of democracy and independence.

However, there are some people who, with all sincerity, point out some differences, perhaps they are hostile to US policy.

Maybe, but I think many on the right as well as the left have been influenced by the true fascination with Putinism. Now: On the one hand, if the sympathy of the people of Grillini and Lager is clear, on the other hand, the Left must stop surviving as if the Berlin Wall had never fallen, cultivating Soviet nostalgia.

What is the role of journalists instead?

Unfortunately – and the Italian case itself is an example – many journalists are behaving inadequately. There is a lack of checks, no expertise on foreign policy, and in some cases we see a real complication with Putin’s propaganda. Added to this is the desire – mixed with disability – to view the data of the viewer rather than the quality of the information. So in our talk shows and newspapers we have to see fierce quarrels between fake experts on everything and anything, who talk about their unknown subject, either out of ignorance or interest. Meanwhile, the most prudent journalists are pushed aside, having to deal with their increasingly subtle manipulation process and the confusion created by their more unprincipled or incompetent colleagues.


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