Kse­nia Yer­moshina: "Dis­in­for­ma­tion is be­com­ing an im­por­tant part of in­ter­na­tional pol­i­tics"

"Dis­in­for­ma­tion is be­com­ing an im­por­tant part of in­ter­na­tional pol­i­tics"

The Ukrainian Week - - CONTENTS - In­ter­viewed by Alla Lazareva, Paris

The Univer­sity of Toronto re­searcher on de­tails of in­for­ma­tion war­fare in the Crimea, the prospects of civic jour­nal­ism and the dan­ger of in­for­ma­tion con­trol over the penin­sula

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 in­ter­net­might 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. 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

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.

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