Until the full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year, much of the success of Russia under President Vladimir Putin has been due to the skilful spreading of Kremlin narratives to the world, frequently via the Russian diaspora.
But not all Russians abroad toe the propaganda line. A group in Australia has taken matters into its own hands, just as the Kremlin’s behaviour has become more undemocratic and threatening.
They formed the Svoboda Alliance – “Svoboda” is the Russian word for freedom. It has called on the “Australian government to expel Russian diplomats for their lies and propaganda”.
Cybersecurity and the fight against disinformation share one key feature that, if better understood, could point the way to a more durable defence for democracies.
Malware on the internet and the meaning of content online are reversible in ways that challenge the orderly processing of information needed for stable democracies.
In the cyber domain, order is the ability for businesses, governments and economies to function without data breaches, disruptions and the theft of valuable data.
Order, in the case of online content, means the public’s ability to understand and trust the information they receive.
The weapons of malware on the internet are themselves information that, with re-engineering, can be repurposed to be used against their creators.
The Shadow Brokers hacking group exposed tools used by US intelligence agencies. Once the tools were hacked and released in 2016, they were incorporated into ransomware used against US and Western targets.
The strategy of declassifying intelligence around Russia’s intentions to invade Ukraine has recast the global narrative about Russia, and possibly about authoritarianism too.
The way the White House declassified and shared intelligence on Putin’s military intentions has effectively now robbed Russia of narrative control.
But the campaign to forewarn the public of an imminent invasion has had another collateral effect so far: It has blown up a certain unofficial view on US power, on the Western alliance, and on democracy that had come to colour the broader debate between democracy and authoritarianism.
The US has warned repeatedly over the past weeks that the Kremlin will attempt to stage an attack inside Ukraine to create a pretext for an invasion of the country.
Russian operatives would likely attack Russian land or ethnic Russians in Ukraine, film and publicise the aftermath, as if it had been a Ukrainian attack on Russians, thus giving the Kremlin a justification for an invasion, the Pentagon said.
“As part of this fake attack,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said on February 4, “we believe that Russia would produce a very graphic propaganda video which would include corpses and actors that would be depicting mourners and images of destroyed locations.”
This sort of tactic, known as a “false-flag” attack, is an event or action committed by one group to create a false-perception about another side, usually in a conflict.