British MP Chris Williamson appears on Russian State outlet RT to denounce the Integrity Initiative

Russia’s State outlets and their supporters have been vocal recently in denunciation of the Integrity Initiative, a program of the Institute for Statecraft which has received funding from the UK Foreign Office.

The Initiative is being supported to counter Russian disinformation, but Moscow’s agencies — likely to be behind the hack of the Initiative’s documents — are pushing the line that it is part of a UK covert conspiracy to spur Russophobia. That effort has succeeded, at least with British and American activists such as Max Blumenthal — courted by the Russians with his attendance at a high-profile ceremony for Russian State broadcaster RT in December 2015.

Whipping Up a Story Over Russia, A “UK Plot”, and Disinformation

The Guardian’s James Ball was named in Initiative documents and therefore labelled by Russian backers as a conspirator. He responds in The Guardian with an analysis both of the Russian information warfare and the need to reconsider the UK counter-disinformation efforts, ensuring transparency.

How do you respond when a principle that forms part of the bedrock of your society is used to undermine it?

This is the question facing liberal democracies across the world as Russia and others exploit free speech and its institutions – especially traditional and social media – through misinformation and electoral interference.

Russia’s information manipulation strategies are many and varied, and far more sophisticated than simply pushing out pro-Putin messages. It uses a mix of Russian-owned media outlets, most notably RT (formerly Russia Today) and Sputnik, sympathetic talking heads, social media “bot” accounts and state-sponsored hackers to influence western politics and media coverage.

The aim is rarely to push out one single message, but rather to diminish trust in western institutions, destabilize countries or counter narratives that would be unhelpful to Russia.

Turning A Society Against Itself

When a Russian-backed militia group shot down the Malaysia Airlines passenger plane MH17, killing 298 people, its media offered numerous different – and contradictory – explanations.

When the Russian double agent Sergey Skripal and his daughter were poisoned with a nerve agent in Salisbury, Russian-backed outlets and supporters threw question after question to cast doubt on the official narrative and muddy it up.

Such tactics only work in free societies, where doubt and debate are encouraged, and in which mainstream outlets encourage a broad range of voices: arguably the most successful information operation Russia has ever launched was the hacking of John Podesta and the Democratic National Committee’s emails.

This operation relied on WikiLeaks to publish the emails, and on mainstream outlets to find them irresistible and bring them to a much larger audience – which they did: Fox News ran them for weeks.

Like a virus that turns its host’s immune system against itself, Russia’s information strategy works by turning free media and free speech against its own society. This makes countering such information warfare an especially difficult and delicate task.

The Integrity Initiative

A cautionary tale in just how difficult this can be, and how easily it can backfire, can be found in a pan-European effort called the Integrity Initiative. On the surface, the effort – run by a not-for-profit – seems laudable and uncontroversial.

“We are a network of people and organisations from across Europe dedicated to revealing and combating propaganda and disinformation,” its website states. “Our broader aim is also to educate on how to spot disinformation and verify sources.”

The statement says: “This kind of work attracts the extremely hostile and aggressive attention of disinformation actors, like the Kremlin and its various proxies, so we hope you understand that our members mostly prefer to remain anonymous.” It adds: “We are not a government body but we do work with government departments and agencies who share our aims.”

In practice, the Integrity Initiative receives considerable funding from the UK Foreign Office and other national governments, and is primarily focused on countering Russian misinformation – and this effort, plus its slightly mysterious mission statement and unwillingness to name its contributors, have made it the perfect target for conspiracy.

The Russian Attack

The trouble began when fringe UK leftwing blogs, soon followed by Sputnik and RT, noticed the group’s Twitter account had retweeted a small number of articles critical of Jeremy Corbyn.

Given the organisation receives funding from the UK government, this kind of political attack was inappropriate and ill-advised. But soon it had morphed into something much more sinister: Labour politician Chris Williamson called for a parliamentary inquiry into the group, saying its agenda appeared to include the “denigration of the Labour party and Jeremy Corbyn”.

What happened next would surprise few Russia watchers. As with so many others who might oppose Russia’s agenda, the Integrity Initiative found itself the victim of a hacking attack, and had its internal documents anonymously posted online.

As I landed after a six-hour flight with no internet during a December weekend, I discovered a number of British leftwing activists and then WikiLeaks (where I briefly worked from 2010 to 2011), with its 5.4 million Twitter followers, had discovered my name among a group of journalists named in the leaked files.

My name was present as I had given a one-hour training talk on verifying online information to a group of international journalists at the Frontline Club in London, for which I was paid £225. As the talk had been co-organised by the Integrity Initiative, its agenda was published online, with the names of everyone who had spoken there.

Journalists often give training talks, and this was a routine one. But in the world of Twitter conspiracists, I was a “presstitute” working with “dodgy state actors” – a “paid propagandist” and “smear artist” engaged in “conscious subversion of domestic politics”.

Never mind that the documents show nothing of the sort – that is now the narrative that will mark any future efforts by the Integrity Initiative. The group’s very structure, and its effort to at least partially mask its identity and its funders, doomed it from the beginning.

Rather than serve as a counter to misinformation, its very existence appeared to confirm the suspicions of several groups that are most susceptible to information operations: the UK left, who distrust the mainstream media as anti-Corbyn; those already sympathetic to Russia; and WikiLeaks and its supporters.

Russia is the master of blurring the boundaries between the state, the media and outriders. By being seen trying to do the same – even, as seems likely, with far clearer rules of engagement – European governments have found themselves engaging in a mudfight with a pig. That’s a situation in which there will only be one winner, and a contest only one participant will enjoy.

Counter-Disinformation In The Open

If we are to tackle Russian-backed misinformation – and to restore trust in our institutions, we must – we can’t do it by trying to beat them at their own game. If efforts involve government funding, this should be openly declared, and every penny publicly accounted for. Every participant in the efforts should be named. Each tactic should be publicly declared.

Wherever something happens behind the scenes, it will be exploited as a secret, or a “psyop”, once it is inevitably exposed months later in a hack.

Working largely from the shadows, Russia has co-opted our information ecosystem. Confronting it will have to be done in the open.