How to defend against Russia’s disinformation war



Facebook has been told to hand over evidence of Russian meddling in British politics to MPs, The Daily Telegraph reports:

The Digital, Culture, Media and Sport committee has demanded that the US internet giant release adverts and pages linked to Russia in the build up to last year’s EU referendum and June’s general election. It comes after Facebook admitted that fake accounts tied to the Kremlin had bought more than $100,000 (£760,000) worth of politically-charged adverts in an apparent attempt to influence last year’s US election.

Another leading social media outlet, YouTube — the world’s most-visited video site, owned by one of the most powerful and influential corporations in America — played a crucial role in helping build and expand RT, an organization described as the Kremlin’s “principal international propaganda outlet” and a key player in Russia’s information warfare operations around the world, The New York Times reports.

“RT management did view YouTube as hugely important to spreading content,” said Liz Wahl, a former correspondent for RT who quit on the air in 2014 over concerns that the network was whitewashing the Russian annexation of Crimea. “Traditional television ratings weren’t important because the aim was to get the messaging out through various digital and social platforms.”

YouTube is “a target-rich environment for any disinformation campaign — Russian or otherwise — that represents a long-term, next-generation challenge,” said Senator Mark Warner, Democrat of Virginia and vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is investigating Russia’s exploitation of social media platforms.

A new transparent, crowd-sourced platform aims to “empower the public to participate in the fact-checking process in real-time,” its backers claim:

Any individual can submit potentially fake articles from their news-feeds using TruthSetter’s U-Submit tab for immediate public view. Registered users can log-in using their Facebook accounts, or directly, and access our proprietary fact-checking tools to highlight errors and misinformation they find. Users are provided a link to attach corroborating sources. The public immediately can vote on the accuracy of the fact-check while also observing the voting trends for that article. Statistical analysis determines the votes necessary to affirm the article as fact-checked. Machine learning accounts for and mitigates personal bias.

As discussions continue about how best to defend against disinformation campaigns. Kennan Fellow Nina Jankowicz addresses the “fake news” phenomenon, online propaganda wars and what can be done about them for the Wilson Center NOW series (above).

Fake news is only going to get worse, according to Axios, which outlined a number of ways fake news creators are becoming more creative in the face of efforts to stamp them out, often pivoting from circulating their own misleading stories to developing sophisticated techniques that manipulate real news.

Fact-checking and “Fake News” have become an international dialogue. “Stopping and correcting false and misinformation will take public input,” says TruthSetter Founder and CEO, Julie Wright Smith. “Free Press is the basis for any free society. Blatant lies and misinformation serve to undercut democracy.

Russia’s propaganda campaign targeting Americans was hosted, at least in part, on American soil, The Daily Beast adds. The Kremlin’s use of an American host is true to form, said former FBI agent Clint Watts, an expert on Russia’s propaganda campaign.

“All of these placements are designed to create anonymity around the source and make it look authentic—like there’s real, grassroots support around the world for these interests,” he added. “You don’t want these to trace back to Russia, so you pick a believable community closest to your target. It’s not necessarily that they’re directed Russian agents, but they can go through Russian communities—witting or unwitting—outside of Russia,” Watts told The Daily Beast.

Disinformation and the Decay of Nations

The Kremlin is ideologically pantheistic. And therein lies its weakness, argues a prominent analyst. In order to exploit it, policy-makers, media and civil society will have to work across borders in order to understand and undermine the emerging Nationalist Internationale. Extreme nationalists have thus far used the transnational potential of online networks more effectively than the “global elites” they attack, notes Peter Pomerantsev , a Visiting Senior Fellow at the Institute of Global Affairs at the London School of Economics and the author of Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia.

This in turn reveals another paradox: the cohesion of nations as we know them has thus far depended on a limited amount of media which contribute towards an often quarrelsome but at the end of the day mutual public space, he writes for The American Interest:

The new digital ultra-nationalists, however, capitalize on the sprawl of new media echo chambers, which spread like digital pinmold across the decaying fruit of nations, decomposing the wholeness of the very national entities they claim to champion. In dealing with the Nationalist Internationale, therefore, we are going to have to reimagine how we engage with each other in a modern media space where concepts we have previously taken for granted, such as “truth” and “authority”, are increasingly difficult to agree upon. The fight against “disinformation” is also a fight to ensure that deliberative democracy can continue to thrive into the twenty-first century.

“The first step is to tap into the data tools which the extreme nationalists are using so effectively,” Pomerantsev contends. “[G iven the knowledge data can give us about what drives and motivates publics, how can we use it to rebuild public space rather than inspire hatred?”

What does the digital revolution mean for democracy? Is it changing European discourse, or reinforcing existing trends? How does disinformation operate, does it work, and how can it be addressed?

These were some of the questions addressed by a recent forum (right) co-sponsored by the European Union (Creative Europe), Eesti Kultuurkapital, the National Endowment for Democracy, the City of Tartu and the Open Society Initiative for Europe.

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