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Domestic offline threats, international online action - Digital Threat Digest

PGI’s Digital Investigations Team brings you the Digital Threat Digest, SOCMINT and OSINT insights into disinformation, influence operations, and online harms.

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I would need more than ten fingers to count the number of times I’ve personally concluded a digest by explaining that online threats such as disinformation and conspiracy need offline solutions; mainly through policies that better educate the public in digital resilience. But what about when that situation is reversed? What about when the disinformation and conspiracy are seeded, amplified, and evolved entirely offline? When we think about Russian information operations, we focus on their efforts to manipulate election results, or how they seed pro-Kremlin narratives in developing countries. But by far the biggest target audience, and the most endangered potential victims of Russian disinformation campaigns, are Russians themselves. Of course, Russia isn’t the only country where this is true, but it’s the one we’re going to focus on today.

The Kremlin know that offline influence is critical to swaying and holding domestic support for the “special military operation” of Ukraine. They also know that they desperately need young people to be supportive of the operation so that they enlist after they finish school. According to a report by the Wilson Center, the entire shape of the Russian education system has changed since February 2022. Now, textbooks and mandatory lesson plans have reframed Soviet narratives to align with Putin’s long-winded, history lesson justification of the whole conflict. Teachers face expulsion or even federal criminal charges for going against the new curriculum. This state backed campaign within the country itself makes countering propaganda inside the classroom, unfortunately, relatively futile. Indeed, trying to counter any kind of domestic propaganda from the inside of an oppressive regime is like handwriting your own one-way ticket to a prison cell. But that doesn’t mean there’s no hope for Russian youth.

Teachers (and other anti-war activists) across Russia are using the same tools that the Kremlin uses to covertly leak curriculum changes and expose new strains of domestic offline propaganda. In fact, they’ve been so effective that we knew about Medinsky’s new classroom textbook within hours of it hitting kids’ desks in Moscow. Telegram messages anonymously sent to Western journalists and burner accounts dropping photos of the pages allow a modern strain of international aid to take place – dispelling narratives and fact-checking disinformation. This is so important because if there’s one thing we universally know about young people, it’s that no matter who they are or where they’re from, they’re going to get on the internet and social media. So, while in some instances we need to do a better job at not flooding the information environment (side-eyes the Royal Family photo story); in others, flooding social media with information exposing offline domestic propaganda efforts is critical to reaching those who could be falling victim to it. We focus a lot on battling online operations with offline education solutions, but in many cases, the opposite is just as important and shouldn’t be forgotten about. The internet can, and is, being used for a lot of good too.

More about Protection Group International's Digital Investigations

Our Digital Investigations Analysts combine modern exploitative technology with deep human analytical expertise that covers the social media platforms themselves and the behaviours and the intents of those who use them. Our experienced analyst team have a deep understanding of how various threat groups use social media and follow a three-pronged approach focused on content, behaviour and infrastructure to assess and substantiate threat landscapes.

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