At a European Union summit in November 2017, then-UK prime minister Theresa May announced plans to designate Russia a “hostile” state, and pledged to spend in excess of £100 million over the next five years on tackling the alleged threat of Kremlin “disinformation” internationally.
Now, hacktivist collective Anonymous has released what appear to be internal UK Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) files that shed significant light on how vast and ominous these efforts can be.
According to the papers, Whitehall has sought contractors to covertly infiltrate media and civil society at multiple levels – all under the aegis of schemes to, among other things, improve literacy, promote cultural activities, ensure “balance and plurality” in media reporting, and counteract propaganda.
Supporting anti-Kremlin media
One of these contractors, Zinc Network (more on them later) explained in its pitch documents that it was in the process of “delivering audience segmentation and targeting support for two of Russia’s leading independent media outlets – Meduza and MediaZona”.
The former is a Russian-language online newspaper and news aggregator based in Riga, Latvia. The latter is an investigative platform focused on Russia’s judicial, law enforcement and penal system, founded by two members of controversial punk rock band Pussy Riot.
As the pair “[lacked] the expertise and tools” to “promote content effectively to new audiences”, Zinc was working diligently to ensure their output reached as many eyes and ears as possible. In the process, the contractor conducted “weekly mentoring sessions with specialists from the outlets”, “adjusting their editorial and commercial strategy accordingly” and creating “common framings of issues.”
Prior to the release of these documents, any suggestions that Meduza and MediaZona – which both consistently publish content highly critical of the Russian state – were not only privately coordinating to ensure a consistent editorial line, but receiving assistance from a UK government contractor to do so, would surely have been dismissed as Russian propaganda, conspiracy theory, fake news, or worse.
It seems likely Meduza’s relationship with Whitehall, direct or indirect, conscious or unconscious, extends far further than this collaboration. Several contractors reference the outlet in the leaked files, in relation to numerous other FCDO-funded and directed projects.
For instance, in pitch documents submitted by another contractor, Albany, Meduza is mentioned alongside ETV+, which is the Russian-language service of the Estonian broadcaster; Latvia’s LTV, Lithuania’s LRT Re:Baltica – the website of the Baltic Centre for Investigative Journalism – and other Russian-language platforms as a potential “long-term partner”, for which “new programming” could be funded and developed.
That this programming was to be explicitly anti-Moscow in character is starkly underlined by a section on “creating narrative games which encourage participation through social media and mobile platforms.”
“Meduza is a leading proponent of these games which, for the most part, embrace political themes (e.g. Putin Bingo, ‘help Putin get to his meeting with the Pope on time’ and ‘help the Orthodox priest get to his church without succumbing to earthly pleasures’),” Albany notes.
These “satirical games” would make the “valid point” that “the offer of a fairer, respectful and caring society is better than that of an arrogant, nationalistic regime.” Proposed themes include helping “the whimsical Russian exile preserve his cultural identity in the face of British political correctness”, and “the oligarch’s son conceal his unseemly wealth on his first day at university”.
Such surreal proposal excerpts would be laughable, were it not for the fact they amply underline the extraordinary lengths London is determined to go to in service of demonizing, destabilizing and isolating Russia nationally and internationally.
The contractors involved – including the aforementioned Zinc and Albany – all boast staff who previously served at the highest levels of government, the military and security services. They furthermore have extensive experience in conducting information warfare operations on London’s behalf the world over. For instance, several shadowy companies named in the leaked papers feature prominently in leaked documents related to Whitehall’s far-reaching propaganda blitz in Syria.
As such, the companies clearly wouldn’t be at all obvious candidates to lead programs genuinely concerned with strengthening civil society, improving journalistic standards, or combating disinformation – but of course, these programs aren’t.
Zinc Network (previously known as Breakthrough Media) is a seasoned veteran of clandestine Whitehall-funded information warfare campaigns at home and abroad. It has a long, deplorable history of cynically co-opting genuine civil society voices to covertly further Whitehall’s interests, without their knowledge or consent, and often with serious real-world consequences.
One programme Zinc bid for is Support for Independent Media in the Baltic States. The leaked papers include the FCDO’s statement of requirement for the project, as well as the details that were spelled out to contractors at a meeting convened June 2018 by FCDO Counter Disinformation & Media Development (CDMD) chief Andy Pryce, along with a parallel operation in Eastern Partnership countries.
Stating openly the endeavor – set to cost up to £6 million in 2018-2021 – is ultimately concerned with “weakening the Russian state”, Pryce warned attendees against “unauthorised disclosures of activity”, and noted that “for security reasons”, some suppliers “will not wish to be linked to the FCDO.”
He went on to list numerous ways in which journalists and media organizations in target countries could not only be co-opted via funding, but outright “acquisition” of content. Sponsoring public broadcasters was said to provide “easy wins” given “light touch governance” locally, a euphemism for corruption and lack of regulation.
He professed to be “audience agnostic” when asked about targeting people under-18, and said there was “scope for gender sensitivity in programming” – “Girls on HBO is the type of thing but in Ukraine.”
It’s a bizarre suggestion which amuses at first glance, until one considers at least five television serials in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were produced by Zinc Network under the auspices of the program, including the region’s first Russian-language kids’ show.
It’s troubling in the extreme that millions of people – among them many children – may have watched this programming, without any idea it was created to surreptitiously extol anti-Russian, pro-Western propaganda, let alone that the UK government bankrolled its production as part of a dedicated psyops effort.
Such disquiet is amplified by Albany specifically seeking to exploit “young Russian speakers” in the Baltics “as agents of change”, to “influence their parents’ and grandparents’ generations and amplify a distinct ‘Euro-Baltic’ identity” in a separate project.
Co-opting social media influencers
Other leaked documents reveal Zinc’s activities in the region were already sizable by the time it submitted proposals for the project, to the extent of maintaining“an in-house team of Russian speaking producers, digital researchers and digital growth strategists.”
Zinc maintained a secret network of Russian-speaking social media influencers, to promote “media integrity and democratic values” – curiously, its relationship with these individuals is said to have involved “daily management”.
Recruited via YouTube, Facebook, VK and Instagram, the company “[helped] them build their brands and improve their content in order to grow their audience share,” and “[established] a co-owned channel on YouTube to host their content, help them access one another’s audiences, co-creating content that tackled complex social issues.”
Moreover though, one file indicates Zinc taught these influencers how to “make and receive international payments without being registered as external sources of funding” and “develop editorial strategies to deliver key messages”, while minimizing their “risk of prosecution” and managing “project communications” to ensure the network’s existence, and indeed the UK government’s central role in creating it, were kept “confidential”.
In other words, they appear to have operated, and may continue to, as effective paid agents of the British state, Zinc “assisting” them in crafting slick propaganda furtively propounding Whitehall-approved “key messages”, which was then broadcast globally under the guise of citizen journalism.
The identities of the influencers, and their cognisance of the insidious role they were playing by collaborating with the company, is presently unknown. Although, unlike viewers, the influencers would’ve at least been aware their “independent” content was in fact co-produced in a London office.
ENGAGE, ENHANCE, ENABLE, EXPOSE
There are hundreds of papers in Anonymous’ leak, and the above is just scratching the surface. The FCDO’s wide-ranging, secret campaign apparently consists of four pillars, or ‘strands’ – ENGAGE, ENHANCE, ENABLE, EXPOSE. One document circulated to contractors pitching for the assorted, lucrative programmes therein – dubbed “Theory of Change” – sets out the activities, output, outcome, and impact of the respective strands, both in isolation and in tandem with one another.
EXPOSE’s activities are defined as “real-time debunking, support to investigative journalism, capacity building, networking between NGOs” – yet its output, outcomes, and impact are redacted, hidden in an already classified document, indicating its operations and objectives are extremely sensitive indeed, and one requires a senior security clearance to know them.
For all the mainstream media’s alarmist chatter of the threat of Kremlin “disinformation”, not a single example of anything even remotely comparable to the full-spectrum, multi-channel, on- and offline, global assault on perceptions outlined in this article has ever been attributed to Moscow, or any other “hostile” state.
It is similarly staggering that for all the documents’ references to transparency, truth and democracy, these mammoth, multi-million-pound initiatives have been conducted in total secrecy for years without any public oversight, or even awareness among British citizens – let alone target audiences overseas – of their operation.