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From UK Troll Farms to Covert Psyops: The Troubling Past of Nina Jankowicz

Published: May 23, 2022
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Source: Mint Press

WASHINGTON – The Washington Post revealed Wednesday that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s highly controversial “Disinformation Governance Board,” launched with much fanfare just three weeks earlier, was to close, and that its director, Nina Jankowicz — former fellow at the quasi-state Wilson Center think tank, and Ukrainian foreign ministry communications adviser – had resigned.

The exclusive report, authored by Taylor Lorenz, went to enormous efforts to frame the Board’s dissolution as resulting from egregious sabotage by right-wing activists, who engaged in “coordinated online attacks” on its “well-known,” “well-regarded” chief, subjecting her to an “unrelenting barrage of harassment,” which served to “derail” the Biden administration’s benevolent efforts to tackle the “urgent and important issue” of disinformation.

In reality, public backlash against the Board, which erupted immediately following its official launch on April 27, was wide-ranging, and anything but partisan or personal. Prominent rights groups and lawmakers expressed grave concerns about its constitutionality and the obvious risk of its serving as a state censorship mechanism, with many comparisons drawn to the infamous Ministry of Truth conjured by George Orwell in “1984.”

Many legitimate, vital criticisms of Jankowicz were also raised, including her history of slandering independent news outlets, such as The Grayzone, as “Russian disinformation”; frenzied attacks on WikiLeaks and its imprisoned founder, Julian Assange; and enthusiastic advocacy on behalf of former MI6 spy Christopher Steele, author of the utterly discredited “Trump-Russia” dossier that produced countless wholly fictitious stories in the mainstream media, many of which have since been significantly rowed back or retracted outright.

While in Kiev, Jankowicz hosted the YouTube channel of U.K. and U.S. government-funded “fact checker” StopFake, which has endlessly whitewashed the issue of widespread fascism in Ukraine. Jankowicz herself is directly implicated in this shameful, misleading output. In January 2017, she presented an on-camera report extolling the virtues of four national paramilitary units, including the openly neo-Nazi Azov Battalion, linked to serious human rights abuses and brutal war crimes.

Lorenz’s friendship with Jankowicz notwithstanding, it’s rather extraordinary that one of America’s leading newspapers – which in 2017 adopted the slogan “democracy dies in darkness,” inspired by famous quotes in defense of the First Amendment, and condemning official secrecy – is lamenting the demise of a shadowy government unit concerned with determining what constitutes “fake news,” let alone was so enthusiastically supportive of such an entity’s existence in the first place.

“INTENTIONALLY FALSE AND DEFAMATORY”

Despite Jankowicz’s professional activities and public statements providing such ample fodder to critics, even her most vocal detractors overlooked her résumé’s most troubling aspect – namely, that she serves on the advisory board of Open Information Partnership (OIP), a British Foreign Office psychological warfare operation.

Details on when this role began, what it entails, and the remuneration she receives, if any, aren’t clear. It’s also a position that has been barely promoted, the only public reference to it online today being contained in Jankowicz’s Pulitzer Center biography. Then again, rather ironically given the organization’s name, OIP is itself markedly opaque.

Nina Jankowicz bio

Jankowicz’s Pulitzer Center biography touts her myriad posts pushing government propaganda

OIP’s spartan official website sparingly styles the endeavor as a “diverse network” of “investigative journalists, charities, think tanks, academics, NGOs, activists, and fact checkers, active in over 20 countries,” which since February 2019 has “been standing firm against the rising tide of disinformation – in the news, on social media and across our public discourse – which we believe to be an existential threat to democracy.”

Little further elucidation of OIP’s activities and objectives is offered, but its founding “Partners” provide cause for concern. They include NATO propaganda offshoot The Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab; and Zinc Network, a British communications agency managing covert psyops campaigns – many explicitly targeting Muslims – the world over for a variety of clients, including the U.K. Home Office, U.S. intelligence cutout USAID, and the Pentagon.

Controversial U.S. and U.K. government-funded investigative website Bellingcat – a prominent disseminator, amplifier and validator of Western national security propaganda, which counts numerous individuals with military and intelligence backgrounds among its contributors – was also one of OIP’s founderstraining journalists overseas under its auspices for two years from launch.

OIP British FO

OIP’s own website touts its connections to the British Foreign Office

If those names aren’t sufficient to raise significant suspicions about OIP, the effort’s sinister true nature is amply underlined by a trove of leaked Foreign Office documents reviewed by MintPress News.

These incriminating papers reveal that OIP is the “flagship” component of a wider cloak-and-dagger effort to “weaken the Russian state’s influence” in Moscow’s “near abroad” — the constellation of countries comprising the former Soviet Union, Warsaw Pact, and Yugoslavia – bankrolled to the tune of over $100 million by London from 2017 onwards.

OIP alone received a tenth of that total in its first two years of operation to “use audience-centric communications to undermine the credibility of disinformation sources for specific target audiences” in the region and construct the “diverse network” referred to on the organization’s website.

Nina Jankowicz British Foreing Office

Excerpts from leaked British Foreign Office files related to OIP

Members of this nexus are provided training in “best practice in exposing and countering disinformation” across a range of disciplines, from “open source research through to viral video production and digital targeting as well as cyber security, libel and data compliance.” Participating entities then increase the “pace, scale and quality” of their output and more optimally target audiences “vulnerable” to Russian propaganda in tandem via “campaign co-creation…[linking] the organisations across borders.”

Which would be all well and good, except the leaked files make abundantly clear that OIP isn’t actually concerned with countering “fake news” at all but is, in reality, energized by a desire to conceal facts and bothersome perspectives the British state doesn’t want in the public domain, via manipulation, distortion, and lies.

Take, for instance, the following passage in one document, which laments without irony that one of the key barriers to combating Russian “disinformation” is that “certain Kremlin-backed narratives are factually true [emphasis added].”

“Responding to inconvenient truths, as opposed to pure propaganda, is naturally more problematic,” the file explained.

Consider too the footsoldiers deployed by OIP to “respond” to such “inconvenient truths.” One leaked file offers appraisals of 56 organizations identified by the Foreign Office as potential network members, including OIP founder Bellingcat. Eliot Higgins’ much-venerated crack squad of laptop jockeys was judged to be “somewhat discredited, both by spreading disinformation and by being willing to produce reports for anyone willing to pay.”

Even harsher words were reserved for Tallinn-based fact-checker Propastop, which was found to have “ties to both the Estonian government and neo-fascist groups.”

“Propastop has been involved in inciting violence against Estonia’s Russian minority,” the appraisal damningly ruled. “Its reporting is widely considered to lack credibility and they have published a number of intentionally false and defamatory articles about Russian media outlets.”

Meanwhile, prospective network member International Centre for Defence and Security was found to be “funded by and politically linked to the Estonian state, specifically the Ministry of Defence, giving the appearance of independence without being so.”

“It is more respectable than Propastop, and is not linked to the far right, though it reflects the hawkish nationalism of the Estonian government,” its appraisal concluded.

Despite these condemnations, both organizations – among many other mooted members about which significant reservations were privately raised — became part of OIP’s network, granting them Foreign Office financing, support and promotion and ostensibly placing their output and operations under the guidance of Jankowicz.

“RUSSIAN INTERFERENCE”

Given this composition, it was perhaps unsurprisingly well-understood internally that OIP “[being] interpreted as a UK-sponsored disinformation or ‘troll factory’” was a significant risk.

To mitigate this hazard, Zinc Network pledged to “position the project externally as being within the established and accepted sector of media development and pluralism and fact checking” [emphasis added]. Which no doubt accounts for all the lofty references to defending democracy on OIP’s website today.

A screengrab of a leaked file from from the British Foreign Office

The leaked documents contain numerous troubling examples of OIP at work.

For example, in Ukraine, it trained 12 online influencers “to counter Kremlin-backed messaging through innovative editorial strategies, audience segmentation, and production models,” helping their “compelling content” reach “millions of people.” In Russia and Central Asia, a network of YouTubers was secretly paid to create videos promoting “democratic values”; “project communications” were carefully concealed to ensure the network’s existence, and London’s role in managing it was kept “confidential.”

Meanwhile, in the Baltic states, online personalities received unadvertised “personal brand strategy informed by individual target audience analysis, growth strategies for their chosen social media platform, and digital marketing and campaign training.”

Quite clearly, far from fostering independent citizen journalism, these initiatives were pure astroturfing, the creation of a hand-picked clandestine nexus of effective British agents helped by OIP to generate slick propaganda – reading scripts effectively prepared by the Foreign Office – which was then amplified globally by the organization’s network members. There are obvious echoes in this of the U.S. National Security Council giving direct briefings to Tik Tok stars on Washington’s “strategic goals” in the Ukraine conflict.

Underlining this interpretation further, Zinc Network boasts of maintaining its influencer networks “over extended periods of time, enabling us to deliver both long-term strategic messaging to audiences, but also to conduct multi-layered ‘rapid response’ communications following key events.”

One such “key” event cited was an April 2018 protest in Moscow against restrictions on the use of messaging app Telegram. Zinc was “able to activate a range of content within 12 hours” of the demonstration beginning. It’s almost inconceivable that at least some of this output didn’t worm its way into the Western media, which gave the upheaval almost blanket coverage. If so, domestic audiences would have been totally unaware that it was in fact funded and co-produced by London.

Still, that’s an open question — as is the extent to which OIP has influenced the outcome of elections “taking place in countries of particular interest” [emphasis added] to the Foreign Office, one of the organization’s key objectives. Network members are trained in “identifying key trends and flashpoints in activity or narratives” during campaigns and to “intensify” their propaganda output as polling day nears.

In May 2019, North Macedonia convened a presidential vote, in which pro-NATO candidate Stevo Pendarovski was elected. Subsequently, OIP “deployed a team” to offer two weeks of intensive training to a local media outlet in the country, which the Foreign Office identified as a “priority” target in the early stages of OIP’s life. Bellingcat provided an instructive session to the outlet via webinar in June 2020, in order to “respond” to the election result at London’s express request.
 
In a perverse irony, the next month Bellingcat published a report on alleged “Russian interference” in North Macedonia ahead of the country’s parliamentary election.
 
OIP elections Macedonia

OIP partners were actively involved in attempting to influence the outcome of elections in Macedonia

In November of that year, Moldova had a presidential vote of its own, which saw similar candidates square off – the pro-Russian incumbent Igor Dodon and pro-Western upstart Maia Sandu. The latter prevailed, an upset that the mainstream media acknowledged came as a surprise.

OIP member MEMO 98, a Slovakia-based election monitor, released an in-depth study of the election thereafter, attributing Sandu’s shock win to her social media skills. OIP ranks Moldova as inhabiting “the most vital space” in its network, owing to the region being purportedly “subsumed almost entirely within Russia’s sphere of influence.”

Accordingly, two Chisinau-based organizations, the Association of Independent Press and Newsmaker, are OIP members. MEMO 98 could have been instrumental in “identifying key trends and flashpoints in activity or narratives” over the election campaign, its findings informing “compelling content” to be broadcast via the pair and a more comprehensive OIP network locally and internationally, in support of Sandu’s candidacy.

 

TO BE CONTINUED?

Keeping the internal workings of OIP as closely guarded from the outside world as possible was of paramount importance to the Foreign Office.

A section on “risk management” strategies for the project in one document deemed it “vital” that OIP’s head office have a dedicated security team, “resourced with qualified personnel,” including “former military and security services” operatives. All employees and network members are “subject to national security vetting,” with the operation based “in a nondescript building that avoids attention,” precise coordinates unknown.

The location of its headquarters is not advertised or known; all windows are “tinted from external view”; strict “access controls” – including “reinforced airlocked doors,” CCTV, and a “segregated meeting room” for “sensitive briefings” – are also in place. A similarly intense veil of secrecy shrouded the DHS Disinformation Governance Board.

Having launched the DGB without any clarity whatsoever regarding its functions, responsibilities, and how and whether it would be regulated or subject to democratic oversight, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas responded to the initial wave of censure by offering reassurances that the unit would have no operational capabilities, and absolutely would not monitor or police U.S. citizens’ statements on- or off-line, instead simply accumulating “best practices” for counter-disinformation.

Such promises inevitably did little to inspire confidence — there quite obviously seems little purpose or sense in creating a new division of a federal executive department that has no operational powers, or at least won’t at a later date. And indeed the CIA and NSA are similarly prohibited by law from domestic activities – yet both routinely flout this crucial restriction without compunction or consequence.

Subsequently, the DHS issued a factsheet promising that the Board would merely keep track of black propaganda spread by “foreign states such as Russia, China, and Iran,” adding that the Department was “deeply committed to doing all of its work in a way that protects Americans’ freedom of speech, civil rights, civil liberties, and privacy.”

Of course, numerous other Western state and quasi-state anti-disinformation efforts – which serve as establishment censorship mechanisms, validating establishment news organizations while blacklisting and maligning alternative U.S.-based media, including MintPress – claim to be similarly committed to those principles. Such as Open Information Partnership, for example, a particularly blatant example of the emergent, aggressive trend toward direct state diktat over what’s true and false, and what citizens are allowed to know.

As such, it’s incumbent to ask whether the organization represented a blueprint for the Disinformation Governance Board; whether Jankowicz’s role in it was a factor in her recruitment by the DHS; and whether apologetic obituaries published by The Washington Post and The New York Times – which falsely claimed the Board’s cessation was influenced by “disinformation” – are a reflection of how both outlets stood to materially benefit from its operation.

The body’s rapid, unceremonious termination represents a not insignificant victory for people power: concerned citizens, independent journalists and researchers led the charge in sounding the alarm. However, there is little reason to believe the threat has been permanently vanquished. In fact, that the public was able to successfully challenge the warm welcome extended to Jankowicz by the majority of mainstream pundits and pressure officials to scuttle the venture has no doubt reinforced the necessity of the Board’s mission.

Editor’s note | A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Bellingcat was recruited by OIP to provide training in Macedonia ahead of the country’s elections. Bellingcat actually provided an instructive session via webinar in June 2020, two weeks after the elections, in order to “respond” to election results at the express request of the British Foreign Office.

Feature photo | MintPress News

Kit Klarenberg is an investigative journalist and MintPresss News contributor exploring the role of intelligence services in shaping politics and perceptions. His work has previously appeared in The Cradle, Declassified UK, and Grayzone. Follow him on Twitter @KitKlarenberg

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