Disinformation vs. democracy: authoritarians outspending U.S.


Authoritarian regimes like Russia and China are outspending the United States in the realm of soft power, Senator Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) told the National Democratic Institute’s annual Democracy Dinner at the Fairmont Hotel in Washington, D.C. last night.

“Our budget is $650 million—a fraction of what our adversaries spend,” he said “Today, Russia is spending over a billion dollars on covert propaganda operations,” he added. “Russian TV, radio, and internet bots continue to push misinformation without almost no pushback from the US.”

The authoritarian threat required greater investment in non-kinetic resources for exerting influence abroad, Murphy added.

“We have more people working at military grocery stores than diplomats deployed abroad,” he said.

Facebook estimates that 10 million people saw the [Kremlin’s] paid ads and up to 150 million people saw other content from the fake accounts, which Facebook has traced to the Internet Research Agency, a Kremlin-backed troll farm, WIRED reports:

Psychologists and students of advertising say the ads were cleverly designed to look like other internet memes, and to appeal to readers’ emotions. Jay Van Bavel, an associate professor of psychology at NYU, says he was surprised at the sophistication of the campaign. “It wasn’t transparent lies. It was just pushing our buttons,” says Van Bavel. “To me, this is more pernicious. It’s not a matter of fiction that we can root out with fact-checking. It’s more about turning Americans against each other.”

“The IRA are not amateurs, they’re clearly familiarizing themselves with the kind of content that resonates with the target audiences,” says Renee DiResta, researcher with Data for Democracy, a nonprofit group that has been digging into the data on Russian-linked accounts.

The threat of disinformation and other active measures employed by the Kremlin requires adaptation and innovation from the advanced democracies, according to NATO’s Secretary General.

“Defense is no longer about just looking at a map and deciding where to place armies,” Jens Stoltenberg said this week. “It’s also about countering misinformation. Protecting infrastructure. Making our societies resilient to attack.”

“The geography of danger has shifted,” he added.

The NDI dinner honored three civil society groups on the front lines of confronting disinformation and false news – . Rappler from the Philippines, the Ukraine-based StopFake and the Oxford Internet Institute.

“When a lie is repeated 1 million times it becomes truth, especially when it’s state-sponsored hate,” said Rapplerdotcom‘s Maria Ressa. “A sock puppet network of 26 fake accounts can reach 3 million.”

Disinformation “exploits the fracture lines of society,” she said, adding that she received an average of 90 hate messages per hour.”

Russia has no coherent ideological or political alternative to offer, but aims to disrupt and undermine democracy, said StopFake’s Margo Gontar.

“The Kremlin’s goal is not to make us believe what they say, but to confuse us,” she told the NDI dinner. “But truth is still there.”

The real strategy behind the Kremlin’s propaganda is “seeding multiple conflicting stories” in order to “introduce doubt into public life,” said the Oxford Internet Institute’s Phil Howard.

“The difficult work is ahead of us — not behind us,” he said. “Instead of censorship, we must find more ways to produce good, free political speech.” he argued.

From its office in Silicon Valley, NDI is working with tech companies to “Design for Democracy,” said NDI President Ken Wollack (above). Other groups and initiatives, including the National Endowment for Democracy, the International Republican Institute’s beacon Project and the German Marshall Fund’s Alliance for Securing Democracy are also active in combatting disinformation, he added.

Under communism, citizens skeptical of the propaganda pedaled through official media could turn to alternative, unofficial sources, said NDI chair and former secretary of state Madeleine Albright (above). “But in the internet age, unofficial channels are becoming less reliable, as propaganda is able to infiltrate these networks,” she said. “Democracy’s enemies have become adept at polluting social media with rumors, disinformation and anti-democratic propaganda”

“This is a global challenge and we need to start rallying small-d democrats around the world to push back,” she added.

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