The West’s coordinated expulsion of more than 150 Russian diplomats in response to the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal is a sign, perhaps, of a reinvigorated transatlantic relationship – a relationship that pro-Kremlin social media accounts have actively sought to undermine.
Until recently, however, most of the attention on Russia’s computational propaganda and online influence operations have focused on attempts to widen divisions within Western democracies rather than between them.
Yet, data collected by the Alliance for Securing Democracy (ASD), a transatlantic, bipartisan initiative housed at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, shows that fraying transatlantic bonds – a critical part of Putin’s effort to undermine the international order – has been a consistent thread in Russia’s ongoing information war against the West.
Since August, ASD has been monitoring, via its Hamilton 68 dashboard, pro-Kremlin Twitter accounts that have been linked to influence operations in the United States. Just before the German election in September, ASD launched Artikel 38, a similar tool that monitors the activity of pro-Kremlin Twitter accounts in Germany. The two dashboards now automatically monitor these accounts in real time and distill their content – with a focus on the themes and messaging they are pushing – into a readily analyzable format.
Data harvested from the dashboards over the past six months reveals two primary messaging strategies used by pro-Kremlin accounts to drive a wedge between the United States and Europe. The first involves directly discrediting the transatlantic partners in the eyes of each other by painting a negative picture of Europe to American audiences and of the United States to Germans. The second strategy is a more indirect effort at disrupting the alliance by promoting the Kremlin’s version of “traditional values” and attacking the open, tolerant, liberal ideas that have long defined the West.
The Kremlin’s indirect attempts at fraying transatlantic bonds look much alike on both sides of the Atlantic. In pushing an “anti-globalist” narrative, Kremlin-oriented Twitter networks exploit issues that are contentious in both the United State and in Germany, most notably migration/immigration issues and the war in Syria. These topics have made Americans and Europeans question the desirability of the global liberal order, which has long formed the ideological bedrock of the transatlantic partnership. The central message behind the Russian-linked Tweets is thus: “Look what the post-war liberal order has created!” – “Look what your partnership has brought about!”
No political event of the past years has challenged the attractiveness of the liberal order more than the European refugee crisis. This is true for Germans that are still struggling to manage the inflow of more than a million migrants since 2015 as well as for Americans that were largely unaffected by the crisis but that have been roiled in debates over their own immigration policies.
Russian-linked accounts targeting both countries have therefore consistently amplified xenophobic content that portrays immigrants as criminals, rapists, and cultural invaders. Headlines that have been promoted by accounts tracked on Hamilton 68 include: “Meanwhile in Sweden, crime hits all-time highs;” “Italian city removes Christmas tree to avoid offending Muslims;” and “Germany: Syrian migrant kills defenseless dog by throwing him out of a high window.”
On Artikel 38, the network has pushed similar headlines that tarnish the idea of open societies, including “Swedish workers have to work longer to pay for migrant benefits;” or “Disabled elderly woman violently robbed by two North Africans in the Netherlands.”
This narrative that Europe is under attack from “Islamization” and the failed liberal policies of the West allows Russian-linked accounts to champion the illiberal policies and governments favored by the Kremlin. This most clearly manifests itself in the almost fetishization of Viktor Orbán, whose hardline immigration policies and anti-EU stance draws consistent praise from both networks, and whose country is regularly portrayed as a halcyon oasis amidst a collapsing continent. For instance, both networks eagerly promoted the headline “Western Europeans flee from Islam and set up colonies in Hungary.” It is likely no coincidence that Orbán also favors warmer relations with Moscow.
But not all Russian efforts at dividing the West take an indirect shape. On German Twitter, the network portrays the Syrian war and the resulting refugee crisis as the willful result of an American intervention rather than the consequence of a national uprising. By highlighting the continued U.S. military presence on German soil, the pro-Kremlin Twitter network also actively jiggles a thorn in the side of some segments of the German population who would prefer if Americans left.
One retweeted story greatly exaggerated the size of protests at the U.S. air base at Ramstein, claiming that the air base plays a major role in extra-legal killings by U.S. drones and that Germans should object to U.S. weapons being stationed in their country. Other retweeted stories feature conspiracy theories about the CIA, George Soros, or U.S. companies weaponizing climate change.
Yet, one figure that may shore up Germans’ resentments like no other is conspicuously absent from the networks’ tweets: Donald Trump. Clearly, the network cannot simultaneously exploit Germans’ resentments of the U.S. president while also striking the same anti-globalist tone that has become one of Trump’s hallmarks.
By amplifying instances of migrant-related chaos, crime, and violence in Europe – either actual, highly exaggerated, or simply fabricated – Russian-linked Twitter accounts attempt to directly discredit Europe in the eyes of targeted American audiences.
In January, Voice of Europe, a far-right English-language site that focuses almost exclusively on stories of migrant crime in Europe, was one of the top 30 most linked-to sites by the network as tracked on Hamilton 68. The most shared URLs during the month painted a bleak picture of a Europe seemingly teetering on the brink of disaster. The message to Americans is clear: Europe is no longer a stable, reliable partner.
The negative messaging tactics deployed on both sides of the Atlantic mirror the Kremlin’s efforts to splinter the Western alliance. It also underscores the need for a transatlantic response to online influence operations and, more broadly, the need for Western governments to reaffirm their commitment to the liberal ideals that are now under attack.
Sophie Eisentraut is a Visiting Senior Fellow from The Finnish Institute of International Affairs
Bret Schafer is the Alliance for Securing Democracy’s coordinator for communication, social media, and digital content at the German Marshall Fund.