How Russia laid the groundwork for future disinformation campaigns

A close up of a man in uniform as tanks drive in Red Square in Moscow

More than 13,000 military personnel marched shoulder-to-shoulder, mostly without masks, in Moscow’s Red Square Wednesday. 

Russia was six weeks late to its annual World War II Victory Day parade, which is usually held May 9 — the country’s largest public holiday. 

Related: Coronavirus postponed Russia’s Victory Day. For Putin, it’s a problem.

This year, President Vladimir Putin postponed the celebrations marking the 75th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s defeat over Nazi Germany because of the coronavirus pandemic.

But Russia is still the third hardest-hit country in the world by COVID-19 — so why risk hosting a mega event, even if delayed?

One answer is that the celebration comes ahead of a key constitutional vote that would help Putin stay in power for two more terms.

Related: This pact between Hitler and Stalin paved the way for WWII

But there’s also an interesting history with Russia’s Victory Day celebrations, dating back to 2007 in the Baltic country of Estonia.

In one chapter of her new book, “How to Lose the Information War,” Nina Jankowicz describes how relocating the Bronze Soldier statue in Tallinn, Estonia’s capital, exposed divisions between Russian speakers and Estonians. The Bronze Soldier was a controversial Soviet World War II memorial, which also served as a reminder to many of the 50 years Estonia spent under Soviet occupation.  

Jankowicz spoke with The World’s Marco Werman about how this controversy made Estonia vulnerable to a cyberattack over a decade ago that laid some of the groundwork for Russia’s future disinformation campaigns.

Related: The human chain that unshackled the Baltic nation

Marco Werman: The Victory Day parade is connected obviously to World War II, and the triumph of the Soviet Union over Nazi Germany, which is tied to the story of Estonia and its more recent attacks by Russia in cyberspace. Those first attacks came in 2007, and it was all over — this will sound especially familiar now — a statue that got moved, the Bronze Soldier. Explain what happened.

Nina Jankowicz: When a new Estonian government decided to move this World War II statue and Tomb of the Unknown Soldier to the outskirts of the capital, Russia used this as a flashpoint, and for many years, this is where people were gathering, for instance, on Victory Day to mark the victory, of course, of the Soviet Union over Nazi Germany. And this was seen as a real slap in the face to the Russian population [in Estonia] and certainly was interpreted that way by Russia. And there’s evidence that Russia, the embassy, its security services, instigated riots that happened in 2007 around Victory Day in the moving of this statue, and then a cyberattack, which took down many Estonian media outlets. It took down parts of the Estonian government and banking system. And as a result, Estonia was one of the warning signals that this information war that we find ourselves in was coming.

Related: Countering Russian disinformation the Baltic nations’ way 

There’s this troubling scene where lawmakers in Washington were asleep at the wheel in response to the 2007 Russian cyberattacks on Estonia. Do you think now Washington is alert enough to the meaning of the entire constellation of threats to democracy in cyberspace, whether it’s coming from Russia or anywhere else?

I think we are waking up. Unfortunately, we’re still in bed, though, Marco. We’ve not fully gotten out of bed and really washed our face and clearly faced the threats of the day. Something that worries me every single day is the fact that disinformation has been politicized by both political parties in the United States. We need to recognize that it is not one political party that is going to always be victorious because of Russian or any other foreign disinformation. The ultimate victim is democracy. This is not a partisan issue.

And we need to equip our citizens, equip our lawmakers with that understanding that we will not stand for foreign interference or even domestic interference that is misleading voters about things like polling place locations and voting times. We’re seeing all of this happening because disinformation has been democratized and we need to fight back against that. And unfortunately, the Russian playbook is open to anybody who wants to use it — anyone with a social media account and a credit card. This stuff is not hard to do and it’s becoming more and more rampant unless we act soon.

Related: Analysis: Facebook is undermining democracy 

So you describe combating Russia’s disinformation techniques through “whack-a-troll,” kind of like the game, whack-a-mole. Explain that, Nina.

Sure. So, I think what we, the United States and many other countries in the West, have done so far is we’ve tried to fact check. We have tried to remove inauthentic accounts and inauthentic content from the internet. And that is a losing strategy because Russia is happy to allocate as much resources as necessary, whether those are human resources or monetary resources, to pump the information ecosystem full of misleading and divisive content. Their strategy isn’t a grand strategy where they know exactly what buttons to press at every time. It’s more like spaghetti at the wall — they throw it and they see what sticks and then they keep throwing that same sticky spaghetti over and over. And social media empowers them. It makes them able to do that.

So rather than playing “whack-a-troll,” I argue that we really need to invest in solving the root causes of these problems, solving what makes us so vulnerable to Russia in the first place. We need to heal the fissures in our society and heal the polarization that Russia weaponizes. And that means, first of all, that our politicians themselves cannot use disinformation tactics, because that makes us, as I mentioned before, totally impotent when we’re trying to push back against bad actors like Russia or China. But it also means investing in things like media literacy, digital literacy, civics, and, you know, restoring a democratic discourse, not only online, but offline as well. These are things that are generational investments, of course, but it’s important that we start them now because as the story of Estonia in 2007 shows, this has been something that Russia has been at for generations and it’s time that we catch up.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

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