Pro-Regime Information Classification System
The report “Russian Media Landscape: Structures, Mechanisms, and Technologies of Information Operations,” published in October 2021 by the NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence, explains how Russia manipulates public information spaces using legal means.
A ‘cloud enemy’ is a proxy agent in the theatre of hybrid war who acts to inflict damage and subvert operations on the enemy’s home front by, for example, carrying out cyber-attacks against critical structures, influencing foreign public opinion leaders, or introducing agents of influence into the leadership of political parties, government structures, and defence management bodies. Any and all damage to the enemy is sanctioned as long as it falls short of triggering an actual military conflict. Among the most important and productive areas in which cloud enemies can operate to spread Russian influence ‘legally’ are Western public information spaces.
Malign influence involves legally permissible actions that constitute an attack in intent and effect over time. A uniform classification system with clear definitions would reduce bias and improve research reproducibility, consistency, and, thus, the quality of observations. Transparency about observations and rationale allows people to understand what actions may boost pro-regime information ecosystems.
What does it mean for a source to be included in an ecosystem?
We define pro-regime as framing, arguments, or ideas endorsed, promoted, or implied by regime officials, employees, representatives, allies, or contract workers. The pro-regime label itself does not indicate whether something is true, false, misleading, or otherwise.
The only trait inclusion in the pro-regime information system indicates is that the site met Hoaxlines’ criteria for a pro-regime website. Whether the classification as a pro-regime website is positive or negative goes beyond the scope of this methodology and is not addressed. Outlets are classified as Tier 1, Tier 2, Tier 3, Interface, or Multi-State.
- While some of these outlets have concrete ties to the state, some included in the data do not. Consent is not required to backlink a website.
- Inclusion in the database should not be regarded as an assertion that an outlet is affiliated with a regime, nor that content is false, misleading, or otherwise nefarious. Again, this goes beyond the scope of this methodology.
Criteria for inclusion in a pro-regime ecosystem
Entities included in this information ecosystem report met one of three criteria.
- The website is recognized by the US federal government or an intelligence agency from one of the Five Eyes (Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States) as pro-regime or a regime agent.
- The website is recognized as pro-regime or another comparable label by a research organization or media manipulation specialty outlet that employs qualified scientists, researchers, ethical investigative journalists, or other appropriate experts and shares the evidence supporting their conclusions.
- Outlets or organizations engaging in any one of the following:
- Repeatedly publishing, promoting, or citing pro-regime content or authors from an outlet that meets criteria one or two,
- A Tier 1 organization or representative owns another outlet’s domain, oversees editorial decisions, or provides funding to a website.
- The website owner has previously produced content for the Russian state through either overt propaganda like RT or covert, such as the outlets controlled by the GRU or FSB. And the website has published recognized disinformation that can be clearly tied to Russia, as with the 2017 Ukraine “biolabs” story published by GRU front, Cyber Berkut. Russian and Chinese state-affiliated accounts boosted the story on social media.
- A website publicly shared a partnership with a Tier 1 or Tier 2 entity, as demonstrated by disclosure on at least one of the partner sites that goes legally uncontested, public records, reporting from reliable news outlets, public statements, or other behavior that suggests intentional collaboration. Anything a disinterested party may reasonably argue is a coincidence does not fulfill this requirement.
- Majority-owned, -funded, or -operated by the state.
- Pro-regime content, which we define as framing, arguments, or ideas endorsed, promoted or implied by regime officials, employees, representatives, allies, or contract workers.
Outlets categorized under the state's control are owned by someone living in or based in the regime state, like Russia or Belarus, for example, as press freedom does not exist in those states. Outlets receiving more than half of their funding from the state or under the oversight of intelligence or other officials, even if located elsewhere and funded by other means, may be classified as regime-controlled.
To illustrate categorization, let us imagine an outlet operated by an American living in Russia. This would be classified as a Tier 1 website because press freedom, practically speaking, does not exist in the Russian state.
We concluded about press freedom based on international press freedom evaluations. Over 100 new laws restricting the press since the renewed invasion of Ukraine, and many dead and disappeared journalists, some of whom evidence suggests may have been killed at the behest of the Russian state. We also heard or read the testimonies of journalists harassed or attacked.
Tier 1 outlets include RT, Sputnik, TASS, South Front, News Front, New Eastern Outlook, and Factor GMO.
- A significant relationship with a Tier 1 website or relationship with the Russian state that the outlet fails to disclose.
- Creating or amplifying pro-regime content, which we define as framing, arguments, or ideas endorsed, promoted, or implied by regime officials, employees, representatives, allies, or contract workers.
Hoaxlines defines a Tier 2 website as pro-regime with at least one link to a Tier 1. Links are relationships or shared employees or assets between a Tier 1 and Tier 2 website. Tier 2 websites are not in the Russian language and may conceal or deny any relationship to outlets or individuals affiliated with the Russian state.
A visitor to a Tier 2 site may not identify it as a pro-regime website because it may cover the national politics of a country besides Russia, which is the case with OneWorld.Press. Actions that fulfill the requirement for a significant link between the two websites include:
- Public records showing a Tier 1 owns or is managing a Tier 2 outlet, shared AdSense or Analytics ID numbers, shared address, shared phone numbers, or shared tax status identifiers like two outlets sharing a tax-exempt EIN.
- Disclosure of a partnership or collaboration between a Tier 1 and Tier 2 website, including past partnerships. Only one party must recognize the partnership if the recognition goes legally uncontested.
- Authors or employees of a Tier 1 website also write for the possible Tier 2 website or employees of a Tier 2 website being interviewed or platformed by a Tier 2 website.
- Publishing or hiring a current or former employee of a Tier 1 outlet, but only if the potential Tier 2 website also creates or amplifies pro-regime narratives identifiable in Tier 1 outlets.
- Repeated republishing of the content from Tier 1 or a Tier 1 website repeatedly republishing the Tier 2 website. Still, there are instances where the relationship goes in one direction, and the amplification is significant, as in the case of Reseau International. The strongest evidence would be mutual republication, citation, or promotion.
To qualify as Tier 2, republishing must repeatedly occur—defined as three or more articles in two years—regardless of if the content is withdrawn or removed from the site. The time frame reflects the significant periods taken by some writers to produce content. Global Research, Off-Guardian, and Greanville Post fall into Tier 2 because they have had or have partnerships with Tier 1 websites.
- No significant relationship with a Tier 1 website
- Amplifies or creates pro-regime content or is repeatedly republished by the state, if the content is misleading or false
As one may intuit, content creators and amplifiers either generate content that frequently favors the regime’s preferred narrative–which requires no collaboration or cooperation–or republish content from Tier 1 and Tier 2 regularly. Regularly is defined as at least one piece of content per month for three consecutive months. While this may seem like a small amount of content, a key to effective disinformation is maintaining a high percentage of quality reporting.
The audience experience with the outlet providing reliable, complete information increases the believability and subjective impression of truth when viewing misleading or false content. For this reason, websites that publish non-stop propaganda may have a smaller devoted readership but fail to reach a wider audience.
In contrast, an outlet like the state-controlled Russia Today reaches a much larger audience. This is likely to be at least partially because of the quality, respectable reporting by the outlet, which means reaching people who are not seeking conspiracy content or pro-regime views. Tier 3 websites include Reseau International and The Unz Review.
- Respected scholars publish content on the website.
- Actors with a history of spreading disinformation have also published work on the site.
- Reliable and unreliable websites alike cite the outlet.
This section was the most difficult to define. Websites in this category have published pro-regime disinformation or authors known to create or amplify content for the state. The difference between Tier 2 and Interface is that Interface websites publish expert commentary and may have relationships with legitimate scholarly organizations. The desire for a website to avoid public scandal could be weaponized against interface websites.
Outlets in this category maintain credibility and may be cited by reliable and unreliable websites. Addressing them may present a social or political conundrum because of the potential for an offense to be taken by the truly respectable parties associated with the site. Media manipulation tactics in content from pro-regime actors published on interface websites may be more subtle–the seemingly well-reasoned historical revisionist essay, the carefully framed policy proposal that uses false equivalency.
Although only one outlet exists in this category at this time, it is an area that warrants more attention because of the potential for influencing people who are themselves highly influential or authoritative in their field. An example of an Interface website is Modern Diplomacy[.]EU because it has been cited by the Washington Post, anti-abortion website LifeSiteNews, and the Russian Foreign Ministry, which lists Modern Diplomacy[.]EU as a partner on its website.
- Publishes content or promotes outlets aligned with more than one nation-state.
- Websites within that nation-state's ecosystem backlink the website or organization. For example, websites within the pro-regime ecosystem backlink to InfoBRICS. InfoBRICS promotes Russian state-affiliated outlets, but it also promotes pro-regime messaging from Iran and China.
Multi-state organizations may exert influence through policy, social alliances, or financial contributions. These organizations include individuals or outlets that are part of the pro-regime ecosystem, but may also include countries like China or Iran and represent a collaborative effort by foreign states. An example of a website categorized as Multi-state is the InfoBRICS website or The Alt World, which shares a Google Analytics ID with Iranian websites.