Ksenia Yermoshina: "Disinformation is becoming an important part of international politics"
The Ukrainian Week discussed the characteristics of information warfare in the Crimea, the prospects of civil journalism and the danger of information control over the peninsula with the researcher from Citizen Lab, University of Toronto
You study information processes through the example of the Crimea. Which information warfare trends most clearly manifest themselves in this region?
When we talk about disinformation, we focus primarily on the dissemination of false information on social media. But this is just one way of waging information warfare using technologies such as bots. They can simulate the behaviour of a normal user, expressing certain tastes and talking about sports and art, despite the fact they are not a real person. These fake profiles promote certain hashtags. For example, this was the case with #CrimeaIsOurs on Twitter. It was launched from Russia in order to make the world accept the annexation and treat it as if it were a military trophy. If we look at how this hashtag began to spread, we can see that its original sources are highly questionable, often fake profiles.
So the use of social networks is one way of conducting information warfare, but there are others too. For example, interference in presidential election campaigns, as happened in the US and France. Russia, being a conservative and anti-European state, has promoted conservative candidates such as Marine Le Pen and Donald Trump. Going back to the Crimea, it is worth noting that Russia launched two major projects: a bridge that everyone knows about and a cable that is not talked about as much. The latter is laid under the waters of the Black Sea, in the Kerch Canal. The beginning of works was announced in March 2014 and the first connection was made in July 2014. The speed with which this project was implemented is due to its strategic importance in the war against Ukraine. It was about attaching the region to Russia not only on paper and in peoples' heads, but also physically, using an optical cable. In this way, Internet traffic from and to the Crimea has been fully monitored by Russia since then. This makes it possible to control information on the peninsula.
What does this control mean?
The very concept of "information control" is extremely important in order to understand the annexation of Crimea as a hybrid operation. It is not limited to the creation and distribution of fake news and misinformation. It also involves restructuring the media market and changing the legislation regulating the work of independent journalists who come to work in the annexed Crimea, as well as bringing internet infrastructure under Russian influence. Very often, when speaking about misinformation, people mean the production of news items that contain distorted facts or are completely fictional. But one should not forget about the purely physical aspect of the matter: who owns the internet and mobile communications infrastructure. It is important to see the full depth of the misinformation problem. The content, text, images, and videos for fake news items are just the visible part of a much wider operation that in the case of the Crimea starts in the corridors of the Kremlin, runs under the waters of the Black Sea and ends its journey on the TV and phone screens of the peninsula's inhabitants.
It has been reported that Ukraine itself has stopped providing internet services to the Crimea. Can you confirm this?
I would like to know more about it. It is well known that Ukrainian traffic stopped going to the Crimea in July 2017, but it is not clear why this happened. I was in Kyiv in March 2018 and tried to figure it out. I spoke to representatives of the Internet Association of Ukraine and they explained to me that the Ukrainian state decided to stop selling traffic to Crimea, because sanctions do not allow the provision of such a service. This is one of the hypotheses. The second is that Russia cut the cable from Ukraine for censorship purposes. Finally, there is a third theory about a more or less peaceful agreement between providers. There is no clarity. But whatever the case, it is important to understand that controlling internet traffic is another way of conducting information warfare. Ukrainians who stayed in the Crimea and are dissatisfied with the occupation have to look for ways to get around the censorship, because Russia blocks access to numerous sites from the Crimea. Like Ukrainian civil society organisations, I investigated the application of censorship in Crimea during the Russian presidential election. It was discovered that more than 30 Ukrainian sites were blocked on the peninsula, although they could be seen from Russian territory. My colleague Ihor from Toronto and I tracked a list of 100 websites to understand how censorship in Crimea works compared to other regions. The list was predominantly made up of Ukrainian, Tatar, Western and Russian opposition media outlets. We found that publications in our list were blocked 25% more often in Crimea than in Russian territory. In addition, it is not consistent. Depending on the ISP, certain media outlets could or could not be seen. From conversations with Crimean providers, I realised that certain decisions were actually taken at the level of local administrations without proper legal procedure. Crimean human rights groups and the Human Rights Information Centre also discovered discrepancies depending on the specific city. In general, it can be stated that a lot of media outlets in the Crimea have been blocked in an extra-judicial way.
Speaking at a colloquium devoted to the use of misinformation in international politics held at the French National Assembly, you noted that following the occupation of the Crimea, the work of journalists on the peninsula has become considerably more complicated and censorship has intensified.
Yes, in 2014 and 2015 entire editorial offices had to leave the Crimea. Nowadays they work in mainland Ukraine, but the problem is that their sites are blocked on the peninsula. The situation is the worst for Crimean Tatar media. Ukrainian journalists have to overcome many obstacles in order to cover Crimean events. Their documents do not give access to courts, administrations or other authorities. Since it became very difficult to travel to the Crimea, so-called civil journalism started to develop there. In particular, the Crimean Tatars, who are subject to the harshest repression from the new authorities, have created the group Solidarity of Crimea to cover cases involving Tatar political prisoners with smartphones and tablets. In our laboratory, we have already studied a similar phenomenon in Tibet: due to a lack of institutional journalism, Tibetan monks have introduced a system of "connectors". Information exchange is provided through links that were previously created due to culture and religion. Unlike fake news that is not based on social realities or trustworthy networks, news from civic journalists belongs to the community and has a place in it.
In your opinion, how is it necessary to combat the spread of false information? Are there any effective countermeasures today?
We must act on different levels. The first is to install programs that make it possible to circumvent censorship and blocking. The second is to learn to recognise fake profiles and not repost their messages. Finally, the third thing is to educate conscious users who can check information in alternative sources and confirm it on other channels, including publications from serious media outlets that are reputable. Today, not everyone is able to recognise trolls. The next stage is the intervention of governments or international organisations when necessary. I also think it is worth getting the platforms themselves, such as Facebook, to block false information. There is no universal solution. It should also be remembered that any censorship on the internet might have a negative effect on freedom of expression. Numerous international organisations, such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Access Now, among others, are categorically opposed to any censorship at all, even during wartime. At the same time, artificial users are becoming more and more like humans – some are even able to make grammatical errors. Consequently, we need professional work from researchers and scientists to identify and professionally neutralise all these artificial profiles.
Do you think big social networks such as Twitter or Facebook are doing enough to stop the production and distribution of false information?
Social networks have begun to do better work in this direction. For example, there are now tools that allow you to complain about a user. Special groups have been set up to monitor incitement to hatred, calls for violence, and so on. The platforms themselves can count the number of shares to detect bots. After all, a human is unable to exceed a certain speed. If a profile is suspiciously active, it may receive a warning from the social network and a request for a scan of a passport or other document to confirm their identity. Unfortunately, this mechanism is also used by opponents of free speech. They write complaints about activists – for example, pro-Kremlin circles complain about Ukrainians, accusing them of spamming. The problem is that it is often not clear who is writing the complaints. It is a pity that Facebook is not transparent in this matter, so it is impossible to understand whether a discrediting campaign played a role. High numbers of complaints get a reaction from Facebook and sometimes activists who did not post anything forbidden are blocked.
You said in your speech at the National Assembly that disinformation encourages political repression and contributes to the stagnation of the conflict between Ukraine and Russia. Could you describe the mechanisms of this influence?
Crimean residents who do not use satellite communication or programs to circumvent the censorship consume the information provided by official Russian media. The media on the peninsula is known for its hate speech. According to Crimean Human Rights Group research, in 2014, Ukrainians were the category of the population against whom hate speech was used the most often (70%). At least 30 Ukrainian media outlets are now blocked in Crimea. Disinformation is also distributed through search engines: if you enter the word "Crimea" on Google, Sputnik and Russia Today publications appear in the first results. Disinformation affects repression by contributing to their acceptance in society. For example, Crimean Tatars are regularly called "terrorists" and this group demonstrates the most systematic opposition against the new authorities. Oleh Sentsov, Oleksandr Kolchenko and Volodymyr Balukh are also presented as "terrorists" by official Russian media outlets. The censorship and influence of the Russian government on Crimean internet infrastructure complicate the struggle against oppression and weaken the resistance of those who disagree with the occupation of the peninsula. Disinformation is becoming an important part of international politics.
Ksenia Yermoshina was born in 1988 in St. Petersburg. In 2010, she received a degree in sociology from Paris Descartes University. Yermoshina left Russia for political and academic reasons (having participated in protests against mass falsifications during the 2011 parliamentary elections). In 2016, she defended her doctoral dissertation at the School of Engineering in Paris on the topic of the political use of mobile technologies in the civilian hacker movement. Since 2017, Ksenia has been a researcher at the University of Toronto's Citizen Lab, which specialises in disinformation, cyberattacks, information security and censorship on the internet. She is researching the situation in the Crimea following the annexation of the peninsula by the Russian Federation.