24 September, 2022
by Jean-Pierre Mercier

Russian disinformation networks: structure and mechanism

I have penetrated the world of Russian disinformation networks to better understand their mechanics, but also their state of mind. I offer you a summary of how they do it, this article complements those written on social networks and sources of information on the war in Ukraine. Russian troll farms in the news We talk […]

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I have penetrated the world of Russian disinformation networks to better understand their mechanics, but also their state of mind. I offer you a summary of how they do it, this article complements those written on social networks and sources of information on the war in Ukraine.

Russian troll farms in the news

We talk about it a lot, we’re very afraid of it, but have you seen any? Not me, and yet I searched, in French and English. The serious MIT did a study on these so-called troll farms that would affect millions of people, yet I’d never heard of the sites named and when I tried to find them on Facebook they either didn’t exist or only had a few thousand followers.

Still, here are some pro-Russian Facebook pages, but they are clearly identified:

Perhaps the most ludicrous is this “study” published by Radio Canada on Russian trolls allegedly infiltrating the comments of readers of 32 Western media, including Le Figaro, the Times, Der Spiegel, La Stampa and the Washington Post. We’re in a democracy, and readers’ comments are part of their freedom of expression. It’s normal to see a variety of opinions, and this only represents a danger for the advocates of the pensée unique.

The only real danger would be if these readers’ comments pages were one day infected by bots.

Russian zone of influence on Telegram

The real Russian influence network happens on Telegram, its system is simple, remarkably effective, uncensored

  • La structure :
    • Hundreds of Telegram pages
    • Connected to a large information-sharing center
    • A technical administration center for pages.
  • Chaque page est animée par une ou deux personnes, parfois d’anciens militaires, souvent intelligentes, il est possible de discuter avec eux par clavardage. En voici quelques-unes :
    • Russia and Zov animated Russev and Bachir who is a soldier in the field, allowing him to send his photos and videos of the day. Unlike other pages, the hosts are quite friendly, and you can even chat with them in private messages.
    • ASB Military newsEnglish page with many readers, including Russians.
    • Info War
    • Wagner Group Russia
    • Operation Denazification contains excessively violent posters threatening death and torture to commentators and the families of Russian critics. These same people also show videos of Wagner’s tortures, which they seem to enjoy. This page like others, shows the level of extreme violence that is rampant on some Telegram channels, these pages should be removed. All those who call with impunity for the torture and murder of those who disagree with them should also be prosecuted internationally.

It’s hard to know whether the page hosts are Russian or not, but they hire native Russians born in their target country who fully understand the culture and language. Some hosts post audio capsules in perfect, accent-free French.

  • Multiple languages for different target audiences
    • Russian pages are intended for Russians
    • Pages in English for participants from every continent – Africa, Asia, South America, North America.
    • French-language pages aimed at the French and, above all, French-speaking Africans.
  • Each moderator runs one or more channels, with one moderator claiming to manage 20 simultaneously, and aims to increase the number of readers through friendships, the number of publications, the quality of relationships between members, and word-of-mouth. Animators are paid up to 1,000 to 2,000 rubles per month per page, i.e. between 12 and 25 euros, which is nothing when you consider that each page can have several thousand participants who firmly believe in the hype they are given.
  • Paradoxes and questions: after discussions with some of the presenters, it seems that some of them are French soldiers of Russian origin, legionnaires, who have served in Africa and who work in information networks controlled by Prigozhin, i.e. by Wagner, who is the enemy of the French in Africa. Of course this would have to be verified, but I’m convinced of it from the discussions I’ve had. So how do you respond to dual allegiance? I’m not criticizing a soldier who defends his country, even an enemy, but how do you reconcile the two? For Africa, I think the allegiance would be to France, but what if France sent a battalion to Ukraine? I don’t think it’s possible for a Russian to fight his own people, I think he’d just refuse to leave. What’s even more astonishing is that some Russian page hosts also boast of running Ukrainian pages, which they were already doing before the war.
  • Each page is divided into two parts: the information page and the comments page. Each Telegram publication allows comments. It’s worth noting that, on Telegram, every comment is accompanied by an addictive visual and audible notification. Everyone has an opinion, likes to express it and get a response – that’s what builds community. A channel can have from several hundred to tens of thousands of readers. When I asked the Russian host of one of the Ukrainian pages if he would block me if I made pro-Russian comments on that page, he said yes. You should know that he had blocked me on a number of Russian pages, so in a way he’s doing his job very well, and I understand that. So we enter a complex world of multiple and contradictory allegiances, unless there’s only one, but which one? It’s worth noting that some of our animators have a Russian parent, another Ukrainian, were born in France and went to school in France with a general father who fled Russia some time ago. It’s a complex world in which some of the protagonists are intelligent, educated, write good French and have lived in Paris, sometimes in the best neighborhoods like the 7th.
  • Un centre de communication qui envoie de manière continue des informations sur la guerre en Ukraine, c’est manifeste, car toutes les pages Telegram publient à peu près la même chose. Il s’agit donc d’un centre qui diffuse partout à travers le monde vers des pages décentralisées. Ce centre de communication a manifestement plusieurs sections :
    • Translators who translate Russian information into several languages. Page animators don’t have to translate, they just transfer content.
    • Those who send or make information available to channel administrators.
    • The technical armament specialists to whom the page hosts seem to have access, as needed.
  • The network administration center seems to be segregated by language, so some page moderators used to call on a certain Soraya to block me when I expressed opinions that didn’t go their way. The slightest dissenting comment leads to ejection; their aim is to keep the community homogeneous. As they say: “We want to maintain a good team climate”.
  • The strength of the network lies first and foremost in its constant influx of information all pointing in the same direction. You can try to deny certain information, but it’s more difficult when it’s coming in a steady stream, and you end up believing it’s the truth. But more than that, it’s the quality of the host’s communication and the warmth of the community that makes the difference. It’s nothing like a Facebook page, it’s a fraternal page for many of them, and this is where the host makes the difference. It’s incredible to see people calling each other “brother”, and to see the sympathy that exists between them, which gives them an incredible power of influence with readers. I’ve even been ejected from certain groups for putting forward a dissenting idea, but some discussion participants who thought they were responsible would contact me privately to apologize. This is especially true for the pages with Africans, who are very enthusiastic; in the English pages, with many Russians, relations are colder.
  • Finally, there are separate Telegram pages for Russian collaborators or infiltrators to report targets. I visited one of them, and they specify all the key information to be included, target type, contact details, etc. Of course, here we have war pages that need to be spammed or blocked.

French networks of influence

The Russians also make direct or indirect use of French personalities to extend their influence. These personalities have their own network of influence, and their videos are picked up on Telegram pages.

  • François Asselineau of the UPR: he acts purely politically and out of conviction, and his publications are numerous and often taken up on Russian networks.
  • The lawyer Régis de Castelnau, who shouted from the rooftops that the Russians had captured two French Caesar cannons, information immediately denied by the Ministry of Defense. His motives are less well known; he says he knew the owner of the factory that repaired French cannons, and that he also got his sources from the FSB. It’s hard to know, but he’s not credible.
  • Xavier Moreau, former French soldier, businessman and political analyst. His strategic communications company is based in Moscow. He broadcasts propaganda videos, and in early July 2022, he was already declaring docently, “For me, Russia has already won the war”. It is regularly published by Russian Telegram pages. The Russian Defense Ministry’s press releases are far more objective than its nonsensical diatribes. Nevertheless, it’s entertaining to listen to.
  • Alawata: blog hosted by a former French soldier who says he fought on the side of the Russians in the Donbass.

The consequences

The consequences of a disinformation campaign are worth several infantry divisions. Take Mali as an example: France lost its influence there as a result of systematic disinformation by the Russians, which must have cost them a few hundred thousand euros, and now they have Burkina Faso, the DRC and the Ivory Coast back. Let’s see how they did it:

  • They create their network based on locals broadcasting on Facebook and Telegram
  • The messages are always the same
    • French TV channels tell nothing but lies
    • France plunders Mali
    • France and the West have an appalling colonial past, Russia has always helped Africans.
    • France has done nothing to protect us from the rebels, they are “big losers”.
    • Worse still, France is giving money and weapons to the rebels.

The Russians back it all up with a few fake videos and bogus testimonials. Many of these messages are crudely ridiculous, but they work very well with uneducated, naive and gullible populations.

  • Each Facebook page or Telegram channel has several hundred or thousands of subscribers; these numbers aren’t huge, but the number of pages and channels makes it possible to reach a lot of people, plus subscribers comment and pass on disinformation to their friends.
  • Here’s an example of how they apply their methods: when the Russians knew that a convoy of French and Malian soldiers was heading for a town, they sent out messages through all channels asking the population to stop it, on the pretext that it was going to deliver arms to the rebels. The military were faced with thousands of young people attacking them on the roads. If they retaliate, the same channels convey that they are killing civilians. The trap is unstoppable: you don’t need planes to destroy a convoy, just a few thousand euros to replace a division.

The attempted French response

From what the French media are saying, France has tried to fight back by creating Facebook pages under fake accounts, but with basic mistakes that led to them being discovered and shut down by Facebook, while meanwhile the Russians are using theirs at full throttle. Apparently, they made some basic mistakes: creating fake accounts, borrowing profile images from celebrities such as Mohammed Ali, and so on.

Reminder of signals indicating fake Facebook accounts:

  • The profile photo is retrieved from the Internet, you can use Google image to check.
  • Profile not consistent with photo
  • His name, typed on the internet, shows nothing, or on the contrary is so common that we can’t find anything.
  • A recent creation
  • The number of friends is low
  • Questions of a personal nature, such as age or location, are either not answered or answered poorly.

Another point, Facebook pages have a limited reach in Africa, Telegram is the one to use.

Possible solutions

We need to copy the Russian organization, which is very efficient, and even improve on it.

  • Create an information dissemination center
    • Information “creation” and fake video and photo detection unit
    • Specialists in geographical, political and military areas to answer questions from broadcasters
    • FAQ: frequently asked questions about current events
    • Technical section to control infiltration
  • Use various social media: Facebook, Telegram, Twitter. The latter is “colonized” by bots that broadcast messages, or respond, in an automated way, but this should diminish.
  • Hire locals who have been educated in France, or vice versa, so that they can blend in with the population while remaining loyal to it.
  • Développer un réseau de blogueurs prenant part aux discussions des pages de désinformation ennemies afin de les désorganiser, il faut pour cela la possibilité de se créer de nombreux comptes et profils afin de revenir dans la page si on se fait bannir, j’en ai fait l’expérience, et cela vient vite ! Il existe trois profils d’intervention :
    • Disseminate real information until you’re banned, then come back under another name
    • Take a very extremist profile and call Nazis (the favorite insult on Russian networks) those who are too lukewarm, including the host!
    • Being 100% pro-Russian, but defeatist with comments like “how come our brothers are beaten so often, what’s wrong with them, I’ve always supported them, I’m starting to doubt them”. This has a way of infuriating the animators, who are often called to order by saying: “Russian soldiers are reading this, they’re going to be demoralized, you’ve got to stop”. Don’t forget to include any spelling mistakes either, as the quality of the French is a good indicator of the interlocutor’s level. Some give themselves away by going from terrible French to suddenly perfect, strange French.
  • Train all stakeholders – content creators, broadcasters, bloggers – in communication and persuasion techniques. There are simple answers that can demolish complex demonstrations.

In conclusion

The Russians have a formidable machine for disseminating their information. The system is not Manichean, as is often said, but simple and effective. If you’re still wondering about the influence of these pages then, you should know that Vladimir Putin is brought excerpts from these Telegram pages every morning, and he takes the comments on board. It is also said that he wants to please milbloggers, i.e. participants in military blogs. Maybe one day he’ll read your comment!

Westerners have to adapt and create their own networks of influence, as the normal media are largely obsolete.

Normally, the solution is not to block or censor information, which lends credibility to such information, but to ensure that it can be disseminated freely, which is the best way of discrediting it. No one tells the whole truth in war, but confronting information allows us to see where misinformation lies. On the other hand, Telegram is a weapon of war for the Russians; it’s the only network accepted for its soldiers, and one wonders if we shouldn’t attack this weapon.

Jean-Pierre Mercier