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25 Feb, 2021 17:28

From Telegram to elections: Leaked documents expose sinister workings of UK government’s anti-Russian ‘troll factory’

From Telegram to elections: Leaked documents expose sinister workings of UK government’s anti-Russian ‘troll factory’

Newly-leaked UK government files shed further light on Machiavellian machinations to “weaken the Russian state” through a pan-European network of news platforms, charities, think tanks, NGOs, and ‘fact-checkers’.

The trove, recently exposed by hacktivist collective Anonymous, contains a variety of what appears to be internal documents of both the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) and its multiple contractors – statements of requirement, contractors’ pitches which often include revealing information on past projects, staff CVs and more. The papers describe Whitehall’s effort to covertly co-opt media and civil society across the former Soviet sphere, in order to further London’s financial, geopolitical and ideological interests.

Several of the newly-revealed files relate to Open Information Partnership (OIP) – a self-styled “diverse network of organisations and individuals united in our determination to counter and expose disinformation,” working together “through peer-to-peer learning, training and working groups” to strengthen civil society’s response to “disinformation” which the collective “believe to be an existential threat to democracy.”

Bankrolled to the tune of £10 million by the FCDO, OIP’s 44 partners are dotted throughout Central and Eastern Europe. Its four founding, leading members are controversial ‘open source’ investigations website Bellingcat, NATO propaganda arm Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Lab, Media Diversity Institute, and shadowy information warfare specialist Zinc Network (formerly Breakthrough Media).

If those names were not enough to arouse suspicion, OIP’s real nature as the UK’s anti-Kremlin propaganda wing is heavily hinted at in another batch of internal FCDO files, leaked around the time of its launch in 2019.

The new leak seems to confirm OIP’s role as an insidious tool for achieving Whitehall’s global policy objectives.

‘Building brands’ for influencers

Zinc’s bid to take part in FCDO’s effort to ‘Support Independent Media in the Baltic States’ contains a dedicated section on “[building] the reach and influence of Russian-speaking journalists and media personalities, including émigré and exile journalists.”

Noting “audiences have strong brand allegiances to individuals,” Zinc pledged to identify people in the Baltic states who would be offered extensive clandestine support, including “personal brand strategy informed by individual target audience analysis, growth strategies for their chosen social media platform, and digital marketing and campaign training.”

Participants would also be taught to “develop, pitch and place articles with national and international media outlets,” provided with “opportunities to pitch for regular slots with media outlets,” and “referred” to OIP.

Another excerpt boasts Zinc has “pioneered digital campaigning built around online social influencers,” employing individuals who “often enjoy a direct link to our target audiences.”

“Our research and production teams work with them to draw on digital analytics to inform effective and bespoke content to deliver messages that are both resonant and credible,” the company continued. “We nurture these networks over extended periods of time, enabling us to deliver both long-term strategic messaging to audiences, but also to conduct multi-layered ‘rapid response’ communications following key events.”

One such key event was an April 2018 protest in Moscow against restrictions on the use of messaging app Telegram – such is the scope of its network, Zinc was “able to activate a range of content within 12 hours” of the demonstration erupting. This content was no doubt amplified by the Western media, which covered the unrest widely.

‘Responding’ to elections

According to papers leaked back in 2019, one of OIP’s key objectives is to influence elections “taking place in countries of particular interest to the FCDO.”

Network members are trained in “identifying key trends and flashpoints in activity or narratives” in order to “test different approaches to engage targeted audiences,” and “intensify” this activity as polling day nears.

The new files provide an example of this: The elections in North Macedonia.

“The FCDO identified North Macedonia as a priority country early on in the project. Zinc identified a large media outlet within the country, MOST Network, and deployed a team which included a network manager and security consultant within three days of request,” a case study records. “Over two weeks, our team and consortium partners, including DFR Lab and Bellingcat, provided cyber security training, mentoring on digital forensics, open source investigation and media ethics.”

It’s unclear when this action was conducted, but the document states it was done “to respond” to the 2019 election in that country. There, the pro-European Union, pro-NATO candidate Stevo Pendarovski secured a clear win in the second round against Gordana Siljanovska-Davkova, a more skeptical, pro-Russian figure. A competition no doubt “of particular interest to the FCDO.”

One wonders whether Zinc et al were rushed to North Macedonia in “response” to a virtual tie in the first round of voting, which precipitated a run-off. In any case, the impact of this apparent meddling is debatable – in polling conducted prior to the vote, Pendarovski consistently enjoyed comfortable leads over his opponents.

‘The most vital space’

Nonetheless, the question of whether OIP may have impacted results of other elections elsewhere is, fittingly, an open one.

For instance, in November 2020, Maia Sandu defeated incumbent Moldovan President Igor Dodon. This again represented a clear battle between pro-Western and pro-Russian sentiment, with the former emerging victorious, in a win that was widely acknowledged by the mainstream media to be surprising.

In turn, Slovakian political monitor MEMO 98 published an extensive study of the Moldovan election campaign, attributing Sandu’s upset to her social media nous. The organization is an OIP network member, and its analysis would certainly have helped Zinc et al “identify key trends and flashpoints in activity or narratives” in order to “test different approaches to engage targeted audiences” in the lead-up to election day.

According to yet another proposal document, Zinc, Bellingcat et al identified Moldova as being in “the most vital space in the network,” due to being “subsumed almost entirely within Russia’s ‘sphere of influence.’” Two Moldovan organizations, the Association of Independent Press and Newsmaker, are fellow OIP network members, and thus could well have served as conduits for FCDO-funded, pro-Sandu, anti-Dodon material.

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‘Consulting’ in Belarus

Belarus sits in the same “most vital,” Russia-“subsumed” space, according to the document, so it may be no coincidence MEMO 98 published several analyses of media coverage and social media activity related to anti-government upheaval in Minsk, which began May 2020 and intensified significantly following credible allegations of widespread vote-rigging in favor of President Alexander Lukashenko in that year’s August election.

In its studies, MEMO 98 drew attention to the reporting of Belsat, a Poland-based television channel aimed at Belarus – founded in December 2007 by the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, it specifically seeks to influence political change in the country. The monitor praised the station’s “reasonably balanced” treatment of the Presidential candidates, and “extensive coverage of protests and related intimidation of activists.”

Belsat isn’t a member of OIP – but the newly-leaked documents reveal it received significant support from Thomson Reuters Foundation (TRF), at the FCDO’s behest, after then-UK Prime Minister Theresa May pledged to fund the station, specifically to counter alleged Russian “information operations.”

In all, Belsat received 150 days of consultancy in improving “TV output quality and audience reach” from TRF – its namesake newswire’s charitable wing.

(Not so) Open Information Partnership

OIP, the “disinformation-fighting” umbrella encompassing many of the initiatives above, is very concerned for its security, it seems. A file outlining “risk management” strategies for the project states it’s “vital” its offices have a dedicated security team, “resourced with qualified personnel” – namely, “former military and security services” operatives. It’s likewise mandatory for all OIP employees, and partner organizations, to be “subject to national security vetting.”

The FCDO also seems very keen to keep its location concealed. The headquarters was to be “located in a nondescript building that avoids attention”“its presence should not be advertised” – with all windows “tinted from external view.” Strict “access controls,” including “reinforced airlocked doors,” CCTV, and a “segregated meeting room” for “sensitive briefings” were also urged.

The same file offers appraisals of 56 organizations recommended by the FCDO for OIP’s network – including one of its four lead members.

“Bellingcat [is] somewhat discredited, both by spreading disinformation, and by being willing to produce reports for anyone willing to pay,” Zinc found.

Somehow, even more damning words were reserved for proposed partner Propastop, an Estonian ‘fact-checker’.

“Propastop has ties to both the Estonian government and neo-fascist groups. Sources indicate that Propastop has been involved in inciting violence against Estonia’s Russian minority,” the appraisal noted. “Its reporting is widely considered to lack credibility and they have published a number of intentionally false and defamatory articles about Russian media outlets.”

As a result, Zinc stated Propastop had been “removed from consideration for inclusion in the network.” However, Propastop still went on to become a member of OIP – as did many others about which significant concerns were raised as to their credibility, independence, funding sources and more.

That so many untrustworthy if not outright criminal organizations were recruited for OIP is understandable when one considers its actual modus operandi.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the risk of OIP “[being] interpreted as a UK-sponsored ‘troll factory’” was well-understood by the FCDO – to mitigate the danger, it was undertaken to position the project externally as being within the established and accepted sector of media development and pluralism and fact checking.” Hence all the lofty references to defending democracy and civil society in official literature related to the initiative.

It’s worth reinforcing that as shockingly Orwellian as OIP is, it’s just one component in a vast £100 million effort, announced by Theresa May in 2017, to demonize, destabilize and isolate Russia nationally and internationally. Indeed, OIP’s budget represents just one-tenth of that staggering total.

It’s also worth reinforcing, the project is in no way concerned about openness, democracy, truth, accuracy, equality or peace, as a highly illuminating passage in one of the many FCDO documents leaked so far starkly underlines.

“[One] barrier to combating disinformation is the fact certain Kremlin-backed narratives are factually true,” it stated. “Responding to inconvenient truths, as opposed to pure propaganda, is naturally more problematic.”

RT has reached out to the organisations mentioned in the documents leaked by Anonymous, and has received no response at the time of writing.

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.