Should the West collaborate with Russia on cybersecurity issues, despite the Kremlin’s information warfare conducted against the liberal democracies?
The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has launched a webpage dedicated to tracking “fake news,” Peter Gross writes for Transitions Online:
Unsurprisingly, this Wonder Woman of a webpage – fighting for truth, accuracy, and justice – does not make “clear what part of the [Western] information it considers inaccurate…, nor does it provide any clarification details,” according to Newsweek. By faking concern about so-called Western fake news, the Kremlin simply adds another layer of fakery for domestic and foreign audiences. The accusation that other countries produce “fake news” about Russia is nothing new; it was in the Soviet playbook as well. And as during those times, some Westerners today enable and add to the ongoing disinformation, misinformation, and propaganda.
The Kremlin should “cease its destabilizing activities in Ukraine and elsewhere,” Russia was warned last week, amid indications that Western democracies are finally waking up to the threat of hybrid warfare. The warning followed calls for a more robust response to the campaign of disinformation, propaganda, and cyberwar being waged by Russia to undermine U.S. and European democratic institutions..
Search engines also will need to remove all variations from query results, one media outlet reports. The Russian government and local telecom watchdogs will approve the list of sites, and ISPs will have 24 hours to comply, one media outlet reports.
The news coincides with reports that China and Russia plan to strengthen media collaboration in what will likely be a boon for authoritarian propaganda and disinformation.
Germany expects Russia to start publishing compromising material on German MPs in the summer in order to destabilize elections in September, anticipating “a classic disinformation campaign with lies and half truths intended to shape opinions” that would be spread by online “bots”.
The global challenge posed by digital disinformation will require new coalitions, tools and strategies. That was one of the principal conclusions of #DisinfoWeek, a series of discussions convening policymakers, tech companies, and civil society sponsored by the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI); the Oxford Internet Institute; Stanford University’s Center on Democracy, Development and Rule of Law; the Atlantic Council; the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung; the First Draft Coalition; Jigsaw; and the Hewlett Foundation.
“While the Internet has made a publisher of everyone with a mobile phone, it is not an inherently democratic medium,” said NDI President Kenneth Wollack. “Anti-democratic forces have increasingly weaponized the freedom of the Net to corrupt the marketplace of ideas and sow disinformation.”
The week began in Washington, with an NDI briefing on a set of nine case studies by the Oxford Internet Institute on how computational propaganda is used in different contexts. This was followed by the Digital Disinformation Forum, organized by NDI in partnership with the Center for Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law in Palo Alto, California.
“The challenge of disinformation and computational propaganda poses threats to the quality of democratic discourse globally — it is an issue that extends well beyond the U.S. and Western Europe,” said Scott Hubli, director of governance programs at NDI, a core institute of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group].
An event hosted by the Atlantic Council in Washington, D.C., highlighted the bipartisan consensus on the threat posed by Russian disinformation.
“Vladimir Putin and his disinformation network are not Republicans, they are opportunists,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.). “It is just a matter of time before they train their sights on the Republican Party.” There were “rooms [in Russia] filled with hundreds and hundreds of Russian-paid trolls, troll factories, people that were every single day in enormous numbers standing up fake news, fake accounts inside the United States to try to spread a series of lies to influence our election,” Murphy said.
But “greater awareness of the problem does not automatically translate into effective policy responses,” U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) told the forum.
“Russia and any other information campaigns are effective in part because they integrate a broad range of capabilities within a common strategic and operational framework,” he told the Atlantic Council forum, part of #DisinfoWeek. “These tools and these operations, including the cyber-attacks, the troll farms, social media, funding of useful think tanks and political organizations, funding of media—state-owned media, is broad and it’s complex.”
The US Congress should make the Kremlin pay for its aggressive interference by imposing further sanctions, speakers suggested.
“The problem of computational propaganda is a 21st century problem. We need 21st century responses,” said former Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright. She had been “stunned by the scope and intensity” of Russia’s hybrid war against Ukraine during a recent visit with the National Democratic Institute. But she was also “heartened to learn of the grassroots efforts underway to combat the scourge of disinformation, and to raise greater awareness.”
“There is just an abundance of information. So the way that you end up picking what is the most relevant information to you ends up being what people talk about, the engagement around it.”
Disinformation is only one of a range of “active measures” the Kremlin employs against European democracies, said Jakub Janda, deputy director of the Prague-based European Values think tank, citing efforts to lure Germany’s Social Democratic Party into a pro-Russian stance. Some 13 of the European Union’s 28 member states are addressing the challenge, but it’s important to realize that Russia’s hybrid warfare is about national security as much as foreign policy.
Ukraine was a testing ground for digital disruption. Along with Russia’s ground war in eastern Ukraine that launched in 2014, a propaganda war was also in full force, ABC News adds.
“It’s really easy for a hostile player to come in, disrupt [an election], take advantage of this new digital age and to do so where it becomes harder and harder for an individual to identify that narrative,” says Maks Czuperski, director of the Digital Forensic Research Lab at the Atlantic Council.
Ukraine has curbed access to Russian TV stations, but the Kremlin is still able to promote its antidemocratic and post-truth narratives through philo-Russia Ukrainian media, said Roman Shutov of Detector Media, one of several groups which collaborated on the Kremlin Influence Index, a quantitative tool to measure the impact of Russia’s active measures.
Is defense against Russian active measures enough? How do democracies go on the offensive? Atlantic Council fellow Jeffrey Gedmin asked.
“Disinformation is a symptom of a disease,” said Rasa Jukneviciene, deputy chair of the national security and defense committee in the Lithuanian Parliament. The West should “project what we stand for – democratic values,” she told the forum. The best way to counter the Kremlin is for the European Union and NATO to enhance multilateral economic and military assist to weaken Russia’s grip over eastern Ukraine, she told the Atlantic Council forum.
“Without that, Ukraine will lose and Russia will gain influence in Ukraine and other countries. We will lose a lot and Russia will prolong its authoritarian, imperialistic existence longer than we would like.”
Deterrence in information space
Disinformation has always been part of Russia’s armory for political warfare, going back to the Tsars and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, said the Atlantic Council’s Alexander ‘Sandy’ Vershbow. But it has been “amplified by digital technology”, he added. Russia sees itself at war with the West, not to promote a rival ideology, as during the Cold War, but simply for the regime’s survival, he added. Putin wants to create a false moral equivalence to deter Russia’s people from pressing for reform, hence the harsh response to Ukraine’s Maidan revolt.
The West’s media and electorate should learn from the recent French election – to be forewarned is to be forearmed, said German MEP David McAllister.
The democracies have underplayed and misread the threat of Russia’s aggression, said Matt Olsen – former Director of the National Counterterrorism Center. Tougher sanctions would need to be part of any effort to consider what deterrence in the information space would look like.