Russian Information Operations in Estonia and Latvia: How the AABS Dissertation Grant Advanced my PhD Project

Dec 9, 2020

I was honored to receive the 2020 Dissertation Grant for Graduate Students on March 11, 2020, for my research project titled “Polarization and Paralysis: Russian Information Operations in Estonia and Latvia.” The project’s core argument held that the objective of Russian info ops in both countries was not to persuade target audiences in Moscow’s favor, but rather to polarize them along ethnolinguistic and ideological cleavages, generating political polarization that then paralyzed decision-making processes in Estonia and Latvia. This paralysis remains visible both in recent parliamentary instability, but also in the executives’ policy-making processes. Much has been written on the Kremlin’s messaging, but the recent vogue may have generated more heat than light.

Noel Foster, PhD Candidate, Department of Politics, Princeton University, © Noel Foster.

The project required detailed research into the content used in Russian info ops and dozens of interviews – and then capturing exactly what effects Russian info ops have on a representative sample through original survey experiments, without any risks of real world harm – and finally evidence of intentionality behind the strategy used. I relied on AABS support to conduct extensive fieldwork in the Baltic countries, now totaling some 62 interviews. But I also used my field to receive data from the largest portal in the Baltic states, which, combined with access to Facebook Inc.’s data from 2004 onwards, allows me to engage in content analysis that points towards Russian intentionality in its choice of polarizing strategic narratives.

The funding I received through AABS paid for research expenses involved in my most recent fieldwork in Estonia and Latvia, from October 2019 to May 2020. Such funding was all the more important given the unexpected challenges posed by COVID-19, which arrived halfway through my term and cut short my work. 

AABS support funded my internal travel expenses within Estonia and Latvia, specifically, as well as travel from Tallinn back to Princeton. Indirectly, it also allowed me to conduct what I believe to be the first-ever Facebook Advertisement sampling of Estonian adult citizens for research in the social sciences, conducting two waves of surveys in August 2019 and then in May and June of 2020. Separately, my next round of elite surveys of Estonian security professionals is due in late November 2020.

While in Estonia with AABS funding, I was also able to give lectures at the Tallinn Technological University to undergraduate and graduate students. In addition to my work with scholars from TalTech, I was able to work with scholars from the Baltic Defense College, the Estonian Military Academy, the Latvian National Defense University, the University of Tartu, and the University of Latvia, cultivating the professional ties I hope will last my entire career. In my work with graduate student research assistants in Estonia, involving translations, archival work and the coding of data, I have also sought to share what I can to help my peers become the next generation of Estonian scholars. In the longer term, my goal is to secure the means with which to support a transnational research group combining the study of the international and regional politics of Baltic states and threats to open societies.

In addition to my work with scholars from TalTech, I was able to work with scholars from the Baltic Defense College, the Estonian Military Academy, the Latvian National Defense University, the University of Tartu, and the University of Latvia, cultivating the professional ties I hope will last my entire career.

More than a matter of funding, it is the explicit support of the AABS at this pivotal stage in my career, and the imprimatur it gives my research, that has been invaluable. Coming from a political science department, rather than a regional studies institution, and with no previous background in the study of politics in the Baltic states and no faculty members specialized in the area in my home department, AABS validation supports my career goals as a scholar with a regional focus on the Baltics.

Toompea Castle, Tallinn, January 2019, © Noel Foster.

Thus far my AABS funding has contributed to three dissertation chapters. My second chapter, “A Theory of Russian Strategic Theory—and Praxis,” centers on the study of Russian and Baltic military theory and doctrine in the era of gray zone warfare and hybrid threats. Drawing on readings of doctrinal texts, as well as interviews and an original survey of military officers at the Baltic Defense College in Tartu, it process-traces how the epistemic and professional national security communities in the Baltic states internalize military theory, strategic realities, and respond with their own theory and praxis.

My third chapter, “Alms and Influence: Janus-Faced Influence Operations in Europe,” draws on the comparison of Russian influence operations in Tallinn and Riga, and Russian and Chinese influence operations in Brussels against EU institutions and NATO. In spite of the considerable data collection challenges of a domain where both the agent of influence and the principal have powerful incentives to conceal their activities, it provides empirical support for a counterintuitive theory whereby foreign powers gravitate more marginalized agents of influence – which should be less appealing due to their more circumscribed influence – due to the premium those principles place on agents’ loyalty, and those agents’ limited exit options. It also explains variation in the scope of influence operations between Baltic states with higher audience costs for such influence operations, and Western European cases with lower audience costs.

Lastly, my fourth chapter on Russian information operations in the Baltic states uses a combination of qualitative fieldwork, greatly facilitated by my AABS support, with the first-ever survey experiments in Estonia on Russian information operations. As I wrote in my grant application to the AABS, my claim is that the goal of Russian information operations in Estonia and Latvia is not persuasion, but polarization. The Kremlin knows full well that given Soviet-era historical legacies and present-day public attitudes it has little chance of winning hearts and minds in either country, outside subsets of Russian-speaking minorities that consume Russian media content. Instead, Moscow seeks to polarize domestic audiences in Estonia and Latvia in order to paralyze policy-making processes. Polarization in domestic opinion fuels growing demand for populist political parties, which in turn leads to deadlock in both countries’ unicameral parliamentary systems, as well as within the bureaucracy.
Moscow accomplishes this outcome through the use of strategic narratives that polarize respondents along preexisting cleavages, whether ethnolinguistic or ideological. Using vignettes from Russian state-sponsored media as well as from Estonian public broadcaster Eesti Rahvusringhääling (ERR) as experimental treatments, I show that the same strategic narrative, for example, can drive respondents on the left further to the left, and those on the right further to the right. Furthermore, I demonstrate that contrary to the recent focus in the social sciences on online fake news, and particularly Russian fake news, fake news is not required to polarize: under specified conditions, factual content from state broadcasters such as ERR polarizes equally effectively.

Tallinn Old Town, March 2020, © Noel Foster.

In addition to testing my theory of polarizing strategic narratives through unique survey experiments on representative samples of Estonian adults, I show Russian intentionality through my content analysis of Russian state-sponsored information operations, in comparison to local content from the portal Delfi. I received rare data from Delfi, the popular content portal, while conducting field research with AABS backing, which supplements the unique proprietary data I received from Facebook Inc. This chapter has yielded my job market paper, “Digital Disruption and Revisionist Statecraft: How Revisionist Powers Shape Their Adversaries’ Politics.” This chapter is set for submission for publication this month as a journal article.

Beyond my focus on the mechanisms of information operations, my research in Estonia and Latvia has contributed to my next research project, which seeks to go beyond the study of how information campaigns manipulate users, and instead examines how to identify and prevent such online manipulation. In this endeavor, I collaborate with my dissertation committee advisor Prof. Marc Ratkovic, of the Princeton Center for Statistics and Machine Learning, as well as my colleague and fellow Princeton PhD candidate Zenobia Chan, as we work to develop the analytical tools to detect and interdict disinformation, misinformation and malinformation. In this project, my main role is to devise and test interventions that prove effective in countering disinformation online. As alluded to previously, in the long-term this effort would include a research laboratory and a transatlantic research group focused on these threats to open societies.

More than a matter of funding, it is the explicit support of the AABS at this pivotal stage in my career, and the imprimatur it gives my research, that has been invaluable.

Beyond the scope of the study of Baltic states and their politics, some of my research conducted in Estonia with AABS support proved instrumental in my forthcoming chapter, “Propaganda Gone Viral: A Theory of Chinese and Russian “COVID Diplomacy” in the Age of Social Media.” There I contrast how Moscow and Beijing adapted to the COVID-19, which threatened both states’ image and legitimacy to varying degrees, with aggressive public diplomacy and messaging in diplomacy in EU member states. From this study I articulate a theory of epistemological nihilism as the objective of both revisionist states – the conscious objective of undermining faith in local institutions and sources of information and authority. This chapter is part of a volume due out with Springer in early 2021, titled The Russian Federation in Global Information Warfare: Influence Operations in Europe and Its Near Abroad, edited by Vladimir Sazonov of the University of Tartu and Holger Mölder, Archil Chochia and Tanel Kerikmäe of the Tallinn University of Technology.

In addition to my work on Baltic politics, this study has informed my fieldwork in Brussels and my fifth dissertation chapter, “Polarization by Proxy: How China’s Information Operations Polarize Taiwanese Voters.” In this chapter I seek external validity for my theory of information operations by testing it, with local variations, in the case of Chinese policy towards Taiwan. With this hard case the portability of my theory should be clear. It would be difficult to overstate the degree to which my initial study of the mechanisms behind information and influence operations in the Baltics, based on fieldwork supported by AABS, has informed my understanding of revisionist statecraft in international politics, and from that my book-style dissertation and overarching research agenda.

Noel Foster

Recipient of 2020 AABS Dissertation Grant for Graduate Students

Apply now: AABS grants and fellowships

The AABS is now accepting proposals for Birnitis, Grundmanis, Saltups, Emerging Scholars, and Dissertation grants and fellowships for academic year 2021-2022.

Awards: $4,000–$21,000

Deadline: February 1, 2021