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Russia’s info war and the propaganda machine behind it

Ryan Denison is the Senior Fellow for Theology at Denison Forum, where he contributes writing and research to many of the ministry’s productions.

He is in the final stages of earning his PhD in church history at BH Carroll Theological Institute after having earned his MDiv at Truett Seminary. Ryan has also taught at BH Carroll and Dallas Baptist University.

He and his wife, Candice, live in East Texas and have two children.

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A customer watches Russian President Vladimir Putin on a computer screen in an electronic hypermarket in Grozny, regional Chechen capital, Russia, Thursday, December 18, 2014 (Credit: AP Photo/Musa Sadulayev)

In a fascinating article for the New York Times Magazine titled “The Agency,” Adrian Chen describes a Russian propaganda machine commonly referred to as the Internet Research Agency. Over the past few years, the Agency has employed hundreds of Russians to assume false online identities and post pro-Kremlin propaganda across LiveJournal, VKontakte (Russia’s version of Facebook), Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and in the comments sections of countless news outlets. Each day the workers are given a series of points and emphases that they are to then stream into the public conscience via those different media platforms.

The war in Ukraine has been a popular topic and the Troll Farm, as the Agency is also called, has not been shy in criticizing Petro Poroshenko, Ukraine’s president. They have also fabricated numerous stories of atrocities committed by the Ukrainian army. In addition, they were responsible for rumors accusing the opposition movement of the murder of its former leader, Boris Nemtsov, this past February. Given that it is thought Nemtsov was preparing a report describing Russia’s direct involvement in the Ukrainian conflict, involvement the Kremlin has repeatedly denied, many suspect that the government had a hand in his murder and thus a great deal of motivation for shifting blame elsewhere.

The Agency’s origins can be traced to the 2011 anti-government protests, organized because of the growing evidence of fraud in the Parliamentary elections that year. The protests had been organized largely via Facebook, Twitter, and LiveJournal and the government wanted to ensure that similar protests were far more difficult to put together in the future.  So the next year, Vyascheslav Volodin was named the new deputy head of Putin’s administration and given the task of gaining better control over the internet. In addition to starting the Agency, laws were passed that required bloggers to register with the state and the government was allowed to censor websites without a court order. Putin justified the new laws “by calling the Internet a ‘C.I.A. project,’ one that Russia needed to be protected from.”

However, as Chen would discover, their efforts are no longer limited to commenting on the news. They have also begun trying to create it, both in Russia and abroad. On September 11th of last year, for example, residents of St. Mary Parish in Louisiana received text messages instructing them to seek shelter because of toxic fumes stemming from an explosion at nearby Columbia Chemical. The warnings were followed by hundreds of Twitter users corroborating the disaster with eyewitness accounts and images of a chemical plant engulfed in flames. There was even footage of the event, complete with a YouTube video in which ISIS claimed responsibility for the explosion.

The problem is that there was no explosion that morning. There is not even a Columbia Chemical in St. Mary Parish. The whole thing was a hoax perpetrated by the Agency in Russia. Similar efforts at generating confusion and panic were made in December when many of the same Twitter accounts began warning of an outbreak of Ebola in Atlanta and detailing the shooting of an unarmed black woman by a police officer in the same city. In each case, Twitter, YouTube, and a host of other social media outlets were flooded with accounts that corroborated the fictitious stories.

As Leonid Volkov, a Russian politician and supporter of the opposition to Putin’s party, has said of the Agency’s efforts to control the Internet, “The point is to spoil it, to create the atmosphere of hate, to make it so stinky that normal people won’t want to touch it.” Chen would go on to say “The Internet remains the one medium where the opposition can reliably get its message out. But their message is now surrounded by so much garbage from trolls that readers can become resistant before the message even gets to them.” He concludes by saying that the Agency’s “target is nothing less than the utility of the Internet as a democratic space.”

What does it say about a person or group when they will go to such great efforts to control the way their message is received? The Agency’s efforts are clearly working in Russia, as evidenced by Putin’s 86% approval rating this past February. However, resorting to these tactics of fear-mongering and misinformation demonstrate a lack of confidence in effectiveness and legitimacy of their message. After all, it speaks very poorly of your content if you are afraid to let people think about it critically.

The same is true of our message as believers. While it is vital that we present the gospel as Christ intends, namely in love, we should never feel the need to change the core message to accommodate the culture around us. God’s truth is perfect and our message of salvation in Christ alone is still the only living water for our thirsty world (John 4:13-14). However, when we twist that message to try and make it more palatable to others, we demonstrate a lack of confidence in it. What we end up presenting is not a more acceptable gospel but rather one that people rightly view with suspicion.

We need to regain our confidence in God’s ability to transform people through the truth of his word. We need to believe again as Paul did when he told the believers in Rome “I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16).

If we truly want to transform our culture and help those around us come to a saving knowledge of Christ, then we must be resolute in presenting the true gospel rather than some watered down version we think they’ll like better. God paid an incomprehensibly high price to give us the chance to do just that. Let’s not waste it by pandering to our preconceived notions of what people want to hear. Such an approach reflects poorly on us and, more importantly, poorly on our God.

God doesn’t need our help in crafting a message that can transform lives. He’s already done that. All God needs is for us to present his truth, his full truth, in love to those around us. Can you do that today? Will you?