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The narrative laundromat - 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.


Last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin complained that former Fox News anchor Tucker Carlson had been too soft; saying Carlson avoided “sharp questions” during their interview on 06 February. As Putin is known for trolling western media and governments, I wouldn’t take this as a genuine request for scrutiny. After all, many journalists, including those from major outlets such as the CNN and BBC, have repeatedly asked to speak to the Russian President since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. It stands to reason that Carlson was chosen precisely because he would be a sympathetic interlocutor.

The latest annual report by the Estonian Foreign Intelligence Service sheds some light on this use of select western journalists to promote Russian narratives abroad. One focus of the report is on the use of state sanctioned ‘press tours’ of occupied Ukraine. In these events, the Russian government allows sympathetic conspiratorial political influencers and fringe journalists from various European countries to visit regions normally off-limits to press. These field trips are organised and financed by the Russian state, or sometimes by non-profits likely acting on behalf of Russian intelligence.

The role these journalists fill is to provide “independent” validation of Russian propaganda and reveal the “truth” about life in the occupied territories. This typed of content is often quite popular with domestic Russian audiences, and some journalists are even amplified by Russian state social media accounts or websites. However, according to the Estonian intelligence report, the process plays out a bit differently with international audiences. With those viewers, this type of content does not immediately undermine support for Ukraine. Instead, these co-opted western journalists provide a narrative framework that can be used alongside war fatigue to slowly chip away at international resolve.

The use of these ‘useful idiots’ is not a new phenomenon. The real innovation is their integration into the ever-polarised western political landscape and media environment. However, I feel it’s glib to say that people like Tucker Carlson and the media figures on these ‘press tours’ are unwittingly duped. They benefit from privileged access to content and networks they can use to boost their profile within the contrarian and conspiratorial networks in which they operate. Just like with economic sanctions, Moscow is bypassing the western media embargo by laundering their propaganda through third parties. As political support for Ukraine wavers, pro-Ukrainian voices in the media need to re-affirm the clear moral and political case for resistance.

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