Remaining Vigilant and Committed to Combating the Spread of Disinformation 

The use of negative reputation focused campaigns often plays a role in the arsenal of individuals and entities who find themselves in the limelight for the wrong reason.

These seek to divert focus, and fast, from their own failures, mistakes or criminal actions which have gained more attention than they were hoping for. Campaigns such as these should be seen on a scale, from those that are comprised of completely fabricated narratives to those which are, as they say in Hollywood, “based on a true story” but simply stretch the truth. Such tactics seek to create a smokescreen, and redirect public and media attention towards a new target, generating a much needed reprieve from public pressure and scrutiny.

A campaign such as this, will be considered successful then the “waters have been muddied”; in other words, when the public finds it impossible to discern the truth amidst the onslaught of misleading information. As award winning psychologist and researcher Dr. Douglas Gentile once said however, “Realizing when a diversion has gotten out of control is one of the great challenges of life”.

Disinformation campaigns as we know them today can be traced back to Moscow, and legacies of the methods it pioneered during the era of the Soviet Union, when the KGB perfected the art of “dezinformatsiya”, or the strategic dissemination of false information to mislead and manipulate public perception. Most famously, in the 1980’s a campaign was led by the Soviets aptly called Operation INFEKTION, or Denver as the Americans called it, falsely claiming that the still not fully understood AIDS virus was a US developed biological weapon. Among the less informed public, the campaign managed to sow doubt and distrust towards the US.

Looking at the private sector, the same methods are employed by individuals or companies looking to divert attention away from their own misdeeds. Dutch oil trader, Niels Troost, who has been in the news lately due to his trading of sanctioned Russian oil, has been leading one such campaign against a former business partner of his, American businessman and prominent oil investor Gaurav Srivastava who finds himself in Troost’s crosshairs, with clearly sponsored articles popping up recently seeking to defame Srivastava. Interestingly, Troost has been in the news not only for sanctions evasion, but also given his too close for comfort connection with the Kremlin.

The story begins with Troost’s decision, in late 2023 to remove his then business partner Gaurav Srivastava’s 50% holding of Paramount Energy, which Srivastava held through an American corporation. This followed Troost’s use of the company’s Dubai subsidiary to evade sanctions and trade Russian oil, without the knowledge of his then business partner. Troost’s claim, which would eventually culminate in a smear campaign against Srivastava, was that he had been scammed, although more likely than not, his decision to remove Srivastava stemmed from a concern that his sanctions evasion would be found out by Srivastava, a key player in the US oil industry.

Specifically, Troost claimed in a series of paid for articles on disreputable websites which he had placed, that Srivastava had posed as both an FBI and CIA operative, and had told Troost that by transferring half of his company to Srivastava, the later, through his connections, would be able to help Paramount avoid an investigation into their sanctions busting activities. As if not ridiculous enough to claim that a seasoned businessman would transfer half of his company to someone he claims to only recently have met, he also claimed that the law-firm he was reportedly encouraged to engage, Baker & Hostetler, was also part of the scheme. The disinformation put out into the public sphere goes on, with Troost making additional false allegations against Gaurav Srivastava regarding additional scams and law suits he was also purportedly involved in, making Troost liable to potential defamation law suits.

All of these claims are only the tip of the iceberg in terms of the disinformation tactics employed by Troost, and have been complimented by a series of articles very obviously seeking to boost Troost’s own credibility. One such placement paid for in Modern Ghana by Troost, calls him “soft spoken and highly intelligent”. Replete with typos, the article calls Troost, “Entrepreneur and Chief Executive of major, highly successful global business”. Realizing the lack of effectiveness of such endeavors, and more likely than not as a result of concerns over his impending sanctioning in the US (Troost is already sanctioned in the UK), he hired US lobbyists to the tune of 100,000 USD a month to continue to spread disinformation, while positively painting Troost as a legitimate businessman. Any disinformation specialist knows that to be effective, negative campaigns must also be complimented by positive information. In a more recent addition to Troost’s disinformation efforts, he paid for advertorials in the Indian press pushing libelous claims against Srivastava.

Returning to Moscow, the Kremlin has continued to employ exactly these sorts of campaigns, particularly in the context of its ongoing war of aggression in Ukraine. As early as 2014, when Crimea was annexed, the use of disinformation campaigns was apparent. These were aimed at deflecting attention from Russia’s violation of the laws of war and specifically human rights violations. The same is true for its actions surrounding the 2022 invasion of Ukraine. Similar to Troost, Moscow has focused on both negative and positive content, flooding media channels with deep fakes, social media swarms, and manipulated information which paints Russia as the victim. It has thus created a cloud of uncertainty, complicating international responses and accountability and of course, serving Moscow’s own strategic interests. The similarities between Moscow’s methodology and that employed by Troost are uncanny.

The pervasive use of negative reputation focused campaigns underscores a critical need for vigilance and proactive measures both at the international and individual business levels. At the state level, international bodies and governments must strengthen their collaborative efforts to identify, expose, and counteract disinformation campaigns. This includes investing in advanced detection technologies, promoting media literacy, and fostering transparent communication channels to quickly debunk false information.

In the business world, companies must recognize the reputational risks posed by such campaigns. Organizations should develop comprehensive crisis management strategies that include monitoring for potential disinformation attacks, ensuring rapid response capabilities, and maintaining transparent communication with stakeholders. By addressing these issues, both states and businesses can mitigate the impact of negative reputation campaigns and safeguard their integrity in an increasingly complex information landscape.

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