The Arvamusfestival (Opinion Festival) convened this August by the Estonian Foreign Ministry featured as its centerpiece an English-language panel on “how to deal with misinformation…in the interests of curbing its propagation.”
During the discussion, a British state operative named Ross Burley descended into a rant about The Grayzone, demanding it be banned from YouTube on the baseless grounds that it is a “Russian propaganda outfit.”
Chaired by a local journalist, the panel was comprised of Atlantic Council Digital Forensic Research Lab representative Lukas Andriukaitis, Ivo Juurvee of Estonian think tank the International Centre for Defence and Security, Elīna Lange-Ionatamishvili of NATO’s Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence, and Burley, the co-founder & Executive Director of something called the Centre for Information Resilience.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the assorted guests clamored in complete lockstep for state censorship, counter-propaganda campaigns, and for private citizens to engage in grassroots information warfare to curb the spread of supposed “misinformation.”
On the latter point, panelists hailed the pro-NATO troll farm known as the Lithuanian Elves as heroes. They likened the Elves to NAFO, or the North Atlantic Fellas Organization, a more recently created troll farm which harasses public figures contradicting official Western messaging about the proxy war in Ukraine, and which encourages citizens to mimic their information warfare tactics.
Both NAFO and the Elves are ostensibly informal collectives that claim to be concerned with rebutting Russian “fake news.” They have earned praise from mainstream media and endorsements by Western government officials. NAFO has been so frequently accused of being sponsored or directed by intelligence actors, its members – identifiable by “doge” profile photos – have transformed charges to that effect into an in-joke meme.
Towards the end of an otherwise stultifyingly dull conversation, Burley blurted out a revealing comment.
Clad in dark clothes, shades and sporting a salt-and-pepper beard, the professional information warrior asserted that social media companies such as YouTube had a “responsibility” to remove content published by individuals like Patrick Lancaster, an independent American journalist embedded with Russian and allied forces, and Graham Philips, a British citizen recently sanctioned by his own government, in an utterly unprecedented development. (The state has seized his property and assets, and frozen his bank accounts).
“I saw Russell Brand, who has a huge following on YouTube, was interviewing a journalist called Aaron Maté on his channel. Aaron Maté works for The Grayzone,” Burley continued. “The Grayzone is a Russian propaganda outfit, so it’s incredibly irresponsible for YouTube and other social media companies to continue to host these people.”
The Grayzone is not a “Russian propaganda outfit,” however, and any suggestion that it is would qualify as straight up defamation. Still, while Burley could not pronounce Aaron Maté’s surname correctly, his belief this outlet is Kremlin-backed cannot be attributed purely to ignorance and ineptitude.
Indeed, Burley’s demand that The Grayzone and anyone hosting its contributors be banned from major social media networks suggests his participation in an active campaign by British intelligence.
So who is Burley, and what does he want?
Burley is the founder of the Centre for Information Resilience, ostensibly a “non-profit social enterprise building a global coalition to identify, counter and expose disinformation and influence operations,” founded in June 2020. A section on the Centre’s website indicates Burley and other spokespeople have served as talking heads in seemingly countless mainstream media reports on the scourge of disinformation.
Not one of these articles though has seemingly acknowledged Burley’s lengthy period of employment at the British Foreign Office, or ongoing role as “Civilian Deployable Expert” in Whitehall’s Stabilisation Unit, which he has occupied since March 2017.
Under the auspices of this post, Burley spent nearly three years in senior positions at Zinc Network, a highly suspect UK Home and Foreign Office psy-ops contractor whose activities are almost completely hidden from public view by the draconian Official Secrets Act.
That Burley remains tied to the Stabilisation Unit today raises the obvious question of whether his Centre is, in fact, a British government cutout, conducting info-war operations at arm’s length from the state. It may be significant that Centre for Information Resilience “Director of Special Projects” Tom Southern is a Zinc Network veteran as well.
Whatever the truth of the matter, a NATO Stratcom Centre of Excellence profile boasts that during the period Burley was involved with Zinc Network, he “designed, implemented, and led several of the UK Government’s counter disinformation programmes,” including Open Information Partnership (OIP).
Burley has also played a pivotal role in supporting the career of perhaps the most infamous character to emerge from the novel counter-disinformation industry. Nina Jankowicz, the disgraced former director of the US Department of Homeland Security’s Disinformation Governance Board once sat on the advisory board of Burley’s Centre for Information Resilience, and was or still is an advisor to his shadowy OIP. An official financial disclosure form indicates Jankowicz received thousands of dollars from both entities in 2021.
Launched in early 2019 by Zinc Network, NATO propaganda offshoot The Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, and Western state-funded investigative collective Bellingcat, and funded wholly by the Foreign Office, OIP’s sparse official website concisely frames the enterprise as “a diverse network of organisations and individuals united in our determination to counter and expose disinformation.”
In reality, the OIP is one of many Foreign Office information warfare initiatives that seeks to manipulate citizens at home and abroad, by maligning alternative viewpoints and suppressing evidence which British officials and spooks want kept out of the public domain.
As The Grayzone revealed, the OIP is the “flagship” component of a multi-million-pound effort by Whitehall to “weaken the Russian state’s influence” in countries comprising the former Soviet Union, Warsaw Pact, and Yugoslavia. A classified “theory of change” for the project circulated to implementing contractors redacts its ultimate intended objective. In other words, the OIP’s agenda is so sensitive, even its participants are forbidden from knowing the overriding goal their activities serve.
Throughout Moscow’s “near abroad,” OIP constructed a vast, covert nexus of Russian-speaking social media personalities, providing them with extensive support, including “innovative editorial strategies, audience segmentation, and production models,” in order to create and promote slick British state propaganda, masquerading as citizen journalism.
These relationships were so intimate, they necessitated “daily management.” The “compelling content” churned out by those influencers allegedly reached “millions of people.”
Other OIP documents contain remarkable admissions. For example, one states openly that a key barrier to combating Russian “disinformation” is that “certain Kremlin-backed narratives are factually true [emphasis added].”
Elsewhere, the risk of OIP “[being] interpreted as a UK-sponsored disinformation or ‘troll factory’” is judged to be a major concern.
A lengthy Foreign Office-funded appraisal of 56 prospective OIP network members is also extraordinarily candid. Bellingcat, a founding member of the OIP, was judged to be “somewhat discredited, both by spreading disinformation and by being willing to produce reports for anyone willing to pay.”
Far harsher words were reserved for Propastop, a supposed fact-checking and counter-disinformation initiative which received funding by the Estonian Ministry of Defense, and was endorsed by the EU, NATO, Western think tanks, and the media.
The Foreign Office assessment concluded Propastop was linked to “neo-fascist groups,” and had incited violence against Estonia’s Russophone minority: “Its reporting is widely considered to lack credibility and they have published a number of intentionally false and defamatory articles about Russian media outlets.” As a result, the Foreign Office argued that Propastop should be “removed from consideration for inclusion in the network.”
The much-vaunted Lithuanian Elves were similarly accused of “fomenting anti-Russian prejudice and spreading falsehoods” in the same document. Yet the group became a dedicated OIP member alongside the Nazi-affiliated Propastop. Content produced by the latter has been widely shared on social media since February 24th, while the Elves have received much fawning media coverage.
In an April Euronews article, none other than Ross Burley hailed the Elves as an “incredibly effective” coalition of “the best people, the most committed people,” working together in a “collegiate and systematic way.”
The established narrative of the Elves’ origin spins out a story of concerned citizens spontaneously banding together to counter Russian “trolls” online. Soon after their foundation, the Elves were serendipitously discovered by the Lithuanian Armed Forces Stratcom division, which then publicized the movement at a late 2015 NATO conference. Word of these discussions subsequently leaked to the media, and the model took off across Europe.
Leaked files related to the internal workings of Integrity Initiative, a covert Foreign Office information warfare operation staffed by military and intelligence veterans, point to a very different, and far shadier, origin story. The information contained in these documents furthermore raises obvious concerns about who or what is directing the activities of NAFO, the social media troll farm that recently came into existence to harass critics of the Ukraine proxy war.
The Integrity Initiative files strongly suggest there is little meaningful distinction between Lithuania’s Stratcom unit and the Elves, and show the Initiative was funded by the Lithuanian Ministry of Defense to arrange monthly trips abroad for its Stratcom staff, so the psy-ops divisions of other NATO member state militaries could be taught in the “infowar techniques” practiced by the group.
In other cases, NATO armies created “units within their own ranks” mirroring the Elves. For instance, the British Army’s 77th Brigade information warfare division operates explicitly according to “Lithuanian techniques.”
The Integrity Initiative also established an “Elves academy”, flying scores of academics, journalists and activists from across Europe to Vilnius, where they received “practical lessons and training.” In-country follow up visits to participants were later conducted by “Elves instructors”, to ensure local networks abroad “[developed] effectively.”
Giedrius Sakalauskas, a founder of the Elves, has proudly disclosed that his outfit is primarily concerned with conducting hostile operations and disseminating propaganda – the very activities the Elves profess to oppose.
In November 2020, Sakalauskas contributed a chapter to an academic handbook on “Disinformation and Fake News”, in which he revealed the Elves subscribe to the philosophy that “the best defense is offense.” This has consisted of the mass reporting of social media users who express the “wrong” opinions on NATO, and spreading “positive news” about Lithuania, the EU and NATO.
In the months before the 2018 FIFA World Cup, the Elves targeted Adidas for producing a range of garments emblazoned with the Soviet hammer and sickle. The deluge of negative online comments grew so intense, the company pulled the products from sale in just two days. Sakalauskas states that a “group of likeminded Ukrainian activists joined in on the action.”
When Walmart – a company whose boardrooms are not exactly a bastion of harcore Marxist-Leninist agitation – began marketing a range of Communist-themed clothing items that same year, the Elves once again went to work, successfully pressuring the retailer to remove the products from sale. Both campaigns relied heavily on memes and hashtags centered on the sarcastic query “Walmart, why not swastika?”
The Lithuanian government is a prolific promoter of the toxic fraud of “double genocide,” which falsely equates the mass slaughter of the country’s population by the Nazis with political repression during Soviet rule. In 2010, Vilnius passed legislation enshrining this mephitic myth in law, and criminalizing public discussion of the Lithuanian genocide of the country’s Jews before the Wehrmacht invaded. Similar measures were adopted by Kiev five years later.
The close proximity of Ross Burley to two insidious British intelligence constructs goes a long way toward explaining his baseless and censorious attacks against The Grayzone.
Both OIP and Integrity Initiative – and in all likelihood the other “counter disinformation programmes” that Burley led – are assets of the Foreign Office’s shadowy Counter Disinformation and Media Development unit. And this wing of the Foreign Office is staffed by senior intelligence operatives like Andy Pryce.
So who is Pryce?
In a series of recent investigations, The Grayzone has exposed him as a close collaborator and possible handler of British journalist Paul Mason. Leaked emails reveal how Mason’s war on the anti-war left was conducted in close coordination with Pryce, and how the pair discussed constructing an intelligence-supported “info op” that would be publicly presented as an “organic” grassroots endeavor. They planned to call it the “International Information Brigade” – in effect, Integrity Initiative 2.0.
Accordingly, Burley’s false characterization of The Grayzone as a “Russian propaganda outfit” and his casual calls for this outlet to be censored by major social media platforms are not just the inane ramblings of an obscure, self-appointed “disinformation expert”; they are a reflection of the British government’s position. Even more disturbingly, it’s clear that his superiors in Whitehall have the ability to make his proposed ban a reality.
This June, YouTube deleted a discussion between The Grayzone’s Max Blumenthal and Aaron Maté about the leaked Mason emails, on the ostensible basis of “harassment and bullying.”
Thus it appears the Foreign Office can now simply order the removal of offending content and bans of those who perpetuate it directly, while tech companies eagerly acquiesce.
But British state operatives like Burley are not satisfied with the arbitrary deletion of a single tweet or the removal of a YouTube livestream. As he made abundantly clear in his presentation Estonia, he and his cohorts seek nothing less than a comprehensive firewall around all sources of news and commentary that disrupt their imperial objectives.
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