Shirley King
April 12, 2018

The Russian government seems to be waging a social media war in the Baltics, Ukraine and nearby states in a bid to spawn dissent against neighboring governments, as well as NATO and the European Union.

This is the claim put forward in a new report by the RAND Corporation that also added that the social media war is in addition to things that the Russian government is already doing in the region to sow dissent. Some of these actions include employing a state-funded multi-lingual television network, operating various pro-government news websites and working through Russian-backed “civil society” organizations.

According to the report, the social media war includes sophisticated social media campaign that includes news tweets, non-attributed comments on web pages, troll and bot social media accounts, and fake hashtag and Twitter campaigns.

“Nowhere is this threat more tangible than in Ukraine, which has been an active propaganda battleground since the 2014 Ukrainian revolution,” said Todd Helmus, lead author on the report and senior behavioral scientist at the RAND Corporation, a nonpartisan research organization. “Other countries in the region look at Russia’s actions and annexation of Crimea and recognize the need to pay careful attention to Russia’s propaganda campaign.”

The report points out that Russia aims to divide ethnic Russian or Russian-speaking populations and their host governments in countries such as Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus.

RAND researchers recommend that to counter the Russian campaign, Western countries need to strengthen and expand means to track, block and tag Russian propaganda more quickly, to offer alternative television, social media and other media to help displace the Russian narrative, and to develop more-compelling arguments for populations to align with the west and better understand NATO troop deployments in the region.

The report also recommends the training of local journalists and funding the creation of alternative media content to counteract Russia propaganda campaigns.

The report finds that U.S., EU and NATO efforts to counter Russian influence in the region are complicated by the relatively high presence of historically marginalized Russian-speaking populations in the region, which gives Russia a unique opportunity to communicate with a sympathetic audience.

Host government policies giving priority to national languages have limited government outreach via the Russian language, thus complicating state outreach to Russian speakers. Furthermore, Russian broadcast media dominates in the region, particularly in the Baltics. Ukraine is the exception as it has censored Russian government broadcasting and social media platforms.

Finally, heavy-handed anti-Russian messaging may backfire given local skepticism of Western propaganda.