Secret documents from the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office reveal a “clandestine, full-spectrum, multi-channel, on- and offline, assault on perceptions waged by the UK government globally” targeting Russia and other states, investigative journalist Kit Klarenberg tells Sputnik.
In February 2021, documents apparently hacked by a group calling itself “Anonymous” revealed a highly extensive anti-Russian influence campaign funded by the UK’s Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO). Kit Klarenberg is an investigative journalist and one of the few to report the existence of those documents as well as on their significance. Klarenberg, whose article was published on RT, spoke to Sputnik about what the documents reveal and why he believes are important.
Sputnik: Explain exactly what it is that you discovered vis a vis the leaked/hacked FCDO files
Kit Klarenberg: They expose in ample and often shocking detail the extent to which Whitehall is determined to demonise, destabilise, and isolate Russia nationally and internationally.
In short, it’s a clandestine, full-spectrum, multi-channel, on- and offline, assault on perceptions waged by the UK government globally, to further its ideological, financial, and geopolitical interests. In the process, untold numbers of people have been manipulated and elections interfered with, and the democratic spaces of many countries have been egregiously violated.
This goes far beyond what Integrity Initiative was caught doing, which was already deplorable and alarming in the extreme. Via a constellation of shadowy contractors, most of which are staffed by individuals who previously served at the highest levels of government, the military and intelligence services, London is infiltrating and co-opting civil society throughout Europe and Central Asia at every level.
The documents reveal many “independent” media outlets, journalists, bloggers and social media “influencers” in the region secretly receive funding, support and direction from London to produce content critical of Russia. However, the UK also sponsors a variety of content targeted at different audiences, including several multi-episode TV shows. For example, the FCDO proposed a series aimed at women – “Girls on HBO is the kind of thing, but in Ukraine”.
This is almost comic, until you consider millions will have watched this programming without the slightest clue it was specifically created to surreptitiously extol anti-Russian, pro-Western propaganda narratives, and it may have impacted their opinions and behaviour.
There’s seemingly no limit to the public and private spheres Whitehall is willing, and has sought, to penetrate, without any democratic oversight, let alone target audiences’ knowledge or consent. Some files discuss plans to covertly fund and direct quiz tournaments, cultural events, city or nationwide competitions, and online games – all of which serving to secretly undermine Moscow in some way or other.
One contractor even advocated exploiting Russian-speaking children in the Baltic states as “agents of change” in order to influence their parents and grandparents to a pro-Western position. The dimensions are truly extraordinary.
Sputnik: Who are the main organisations involved in these programmes?
Kit Klarenberg: Contractors implicated include a firm called Albany, which was heavily involved in London’s propaganda war in Syria for many years, Thomson Reuters Foundation – the “nonprofit” wing of the global news agency – and BBC’s charitable arm, Media Action. These files can only raise serious questions about how “neutral” and “objective” these allegedly unimpeachable purveyors of news are, and what implications their clandestine relationship with the British state has for their output more widely.
However, Zinc Network is by far the most notable, and sinister of all. The company, formerly known as Breakthrough Media, has for over a decade carried out elaborate information warfare operations in the UK and overseas. Its activities are covered by the Official Secrets Act – often its staff aren’t even aware they’re working on Whitehall projects – although leaked documents and whistleblowers have offered some detail on the thousands of covert ops in which the company has engaged.
Among other things, Zinc has created “astroturf” NGOs, charities, social media platforms in service of the UK government’s highly controversial ‘PREVENT’ program, which critics – I’d say quite rightly – accuse of being a vile surveillance and manipulation campaign targeted at Muslims.
Zinc also sits at the head of another organization named in the files, the wholly FCDO-funded Open Information Partnership (OIP), alongside controversial “open source” investigations website Bellingcat, NATO propaganda arm Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Lab, and Media Diversity Institute.
It claims to be concerned with strengthening civil society, improving journalistic standards, and combating disinformation, but I exposed the true nature of OIP in July 2019, based on previously leaked FCDO documents – in brief, it’s a highly troubling information warfare effort, itself concerned with co-opting and corrupting civil society and democratic spaces.
The new files shed even further light on the endeavour’s Machiavellian machinations. A case study cited in one document reveals Zinc, along with Bellingcat and others were dispatched to “respond” to the 2019 North Macedonian presidential election, which pitted a pro-NATO candidate against a pro-Russian one. OIP gave significant support and “training” to a local news organisation.
It’s unclear whether this was in any way influential in the pro-NATO candidate winning, but there are strong indications OIP’s meddling may have been decisive in other elections elsewhere in the region, which my future reports will explore in detail.
Sputnik: What is the significance of these revelations?
Kit Klarenberg: For one, they make an absolute mockery of all the hysterical alarmism about the threat of foreign-borne “fake news” and “disinformation” in recent years. Not only has nothing even vaguely comparable to the disinformation operations detailed in the documents ever been attributed to Moscow, or any other “hostile” state, but one file contains a highly illuminating passage indeed.
“[One] barrier to combating disinformation is the fact certain Kremlin-backed narratives are factually true,” it states. “Responding to inconvenient truths, as opposed to pure propaganda, is naturally more problematic.”
In other words, the UK government simply wants to suppress and censor information it doesn’t want in the public domain, and perspectives it dislikes, which can often be found in alternative and independent media, and outlets such as RT and Sputnik, under the bogus aegis of protecting democracy from external threats.
The files also raise serious questions about literally all Western media reporting on Russia and the country’s near abroad. For instance, at the FCDO’s behest, Zinc has cultivated a network of “Russian-speaking media personalities, including émigré and exile journalists” on the basis “audiences have strong brand allegiances to individuals”.
This extends to “personal brand strategy informed by individual target audience analysis, growth strategies for their chosen social media platform, and digital marketing and campaign training,” in order to “inform effective and bespoke content to deliver messages that are both resonant and credible.” Zinc also helps get them interviews on TV and in print.
In other words, the FCDO hand-picks particular figures in the region who it believes will further the UK’s interests, then secretly trains them, funds them, creates content for them, and promotes them. How many figures who regularly feature in the mainstream media as “independent experts”, “grassroots campaigners” or “citizen journalists” are actually effective agents of the British state, following a script?
It’s important to bear in mind UK residents themselves are an ultimate target of these operations. Zinc’s influencer nexus can be called upon to produce “multi-layered ‘rapid response’ communications following key events.” One example of this capability cited was an April 2018 protest in Moscow against restrictions on the use of encrypted messaging app Telegram – Zinc boasted of “[activating] a range of content within 12 hours” of the demonstration erupting.
The unrest was covered widely in the UK media, including by the BBC, framed as a symbol of Kremlin attacks on privacy and freedom. It’s pretty much certain at least some of this “content” was amplified by these outlets, and viewers would’ve been totally unaware it was in fact funded, co-produced and edited in London, as part of a wider information warfare effort.
Sputnik: Why should the average person in the UK care about this?
Kit Klarenberg: Anyone and everyone, particularly people living in an alleged democracy, should be extremely concerned about what their government is doing in their name, funded by their taxes, abroad – particularly activity that’s conducted in secret. So often, meddling overseas comes back to bite the meddler – but it’s never the agency and individuals which carried out the subversion, or the official(s) who signed off on it, who suffer the consequences.
In September 2020, documents related to UK psyops in Syria were released by the same hackers who dropped the Russia content. These operations were absolutely vast, spanning many years and costing millions, extending as far as creating cartoons and comic books to propagandise Syria’s youth.
In the process, they put the UK government, and its contractors, in extremely close quarters with armed groups which murdered women and children, among other crimes against humanity – strikingly, many of the firms involved also feature prominently in Whitehall’s anti-Russian operations.
The objective behind all these endeavours was to destabilise the government of Bashar Assad, convince Syrians, Western citizens, foreign governments, and international bodies that violent extremist groups were a “moderate”, legitimate alternative, and flood media the world over with pro-opposition propaganda.
Months earlier, journalist Ian Cobain revealed an internal Whitehall review was absolutely scathing about London’s information warfare initiatives in Syria, finding they were “incoherent, poorly planned, probably illegal, and cost lives.” Of course, the operations, and review, were meant to be kept totally secret from the British public. There’s no indication the FCDO has learned anything from these failings. Quite the reverse.
It’s highly implausible anyone’s life is at risk in the UK, Russia, or elsewhere due to the leak of these highly incriminating files. Nonetheless, the disclosures don’t reflect at all well on the UK, the contractors involved, or the assorted media outlets named in the documents, such as Meduza, or the Pussy Riot-founded MediaZona.
It’s also likely to discredit or at least create suspicion around genuine citizen journalists and civil society groups across the region, given it’s now a matter of public record the UK government finances and manages such entities and individuals for malign purposes.
Moreover, average Russian citizens, and many residing in the various former-Soviet/Warsaw Pact states targeted by these operations, are likely to be extremely angry about what Whitehall is up to in their countries.
Can you imagine the outcry in the UK if it was revealed the Kremlin was funding a shadowy information warfare firm staffed by former Russian military and intelligence operatives to produce anti-English, Welsh-language TV shows for children in Wales, and “satirical” online games for teenagers lampooning Boris Johnson or Keir Starmer?
Sputnik: Are there more revelations that readers should expect in the near future?
Kit Klarenberg: Around 200 documents were leaked and what has been exposed, so far by myself and journalist Max Blumenthal, represents a negligible fraction of that total. London is, or has been, engaged in cloak-and-dagger schemes in every corner of the former Soviet sphere.
However, the files also reveal various insidious efforts Whitehall is undertaking elsewhere in the world. For instance, Thomson Reuters Foundation has established media outlets in various “countries of interest” to the FCDO.
A cited example of this activity is Aswat Masriya, an “independent” news platform created by TRF in the wake of the 2011 Egyptian revolution. The operation was secretly funded by the FCDO to the tune of £2 million, and run out of Reuters’ Cairo offices. One file brags that it became “Egypt’s leading independent local media organisation” and one of the “most visited websites” in the country. Its content, published in both English and Arabic, was offered for free syndication the world over, picked up by as many as 50 international media outlets every week.
Whitehall would have obvious reasons for kickstarting such a venture at that juncture – the revolution, and subsequent election of Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi, had the potential to threaten London’s significant economic interests in the country and region more widely. Creating a news platform issuing content for both domestic and international consumption would therefore allow the FCDO to maintain a degree of narrative control as events unfolded in the country.
A cursory glance at its output shows Aswat Masriya routinely published content which undermined Morsi, and whitewashed, downplayed or simply ignored crimes committed by security forces, including the slaughter of over 800 protesters in Rabaa al-Adawiya Square, Cairo, in August 2013.
This is particularly notable given that in January 2020, it was revealed British intelligence funded the creation of Reuters’ Middle East service in the late 1960s, specifically “to influence…the whole Reuters output”. The service provided copy in English and Arabic about local and world events, for reuse by journalists internationally – in the precise manner of Aswat Masriya.
When this broke, Reuters claimed “we would not do this today”, and that the company received no government funding whatsoever. This was clearly an outright lie given the contract for TRF’s covert work in Russia was signed by its CEO who is now chief advisor to the CEO of Reuters. What else have they got to hide?
*This article was amended at 11:19 GMT on 24 February 2021 to make clear that the contract with the FCDO was signed by the CEO of TRF and not Reuters.