The U.S. is “decades behind” in its efforts to counter Russian propaganda, according to a leading official.
“Until now, when we see it and the results of it, in the last year or so — now, your eyes are wide open and I’m like, ‘Hey, I’ve heard about this the last three years in Eastern Europe, and they’ve been living with this for decades. We are just now getting in the game. And we are decades behind,’” said Bill Evanina, the Director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center.
“The government, private sector, and most important, the media, is not experienced in this. They don’t know how to differentiate between what’s fake news, what’s not fake news, what’s a botnet. Eastern Europeans know the difference. We have a lot of growing to do as a country,” he told The Cypher Brief’s Mackenzie Weinger.
Despite the performance gap, observers are expressing concern that opportunities to counter Russian disinformation and radical Islamist propaganda through the Global Engagement Center are being squandered.
An interagency unit based at the State Department that was created in spring 2016, the center replaced the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, and its staff of about 80 is responsible for coordinating government-wide efforts to counter the online messages of terrorist groups such as the Islamic State, writes POLITICO’s Nahal Toosi:
A Pentagon spending bill signed into law by former President Barack Obama in December broadened the center’s mandate to include battling state-sponsored disinformation campaigns by countries such as China, North Korea and Russia. U.S. intelligence officials say Moscow used fake news reports and malicious Twitter accounts to influence the 2016 election, and lawmakers in both parties have called for a more robust U.S. response.
Aside from its governmental coordinating work, the center also partners with the private sector to test novel ways to defeat false information spread by U.S. adversaries. One project has employed guerrilla marketing tactics to place anti-terrorism videos in the Facebook feeds of young people showing an interest in jihadi media. To help pay for such efforts, the legislation in December authorized the Defense Department to send the State Department $60 million in fiscal year 2017 and $60 million in fiscal year 2018, but the secretary of state needs to request the money from the Pentagon.
“Over the last five to 10 years, there’s been a tsunami of disinformation and anti-American propaganda around the world,” said Rick Stengel, who, as a former undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, oversaw the center. “The Global Engagement Center is one of the few, if only, areas in the U.S. government that could be tasked with countering and rebutting disinformation against America.”
“Congress has provided substantial resources to combat foreign propaganda, particularly from Russia. There is broad agreement that the U.S. Government is behind the curve on this threat,” said Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who co-authored the legislation:
Countering foreign propaganda should be a top priority, and it is very concerning that progress on combatting this problem is being delayed because the State Department isn’t tapping into these resources. The State Department should take swift action to fully fund the GEC and ensure that it is capable of carrying out the purposes Congress directed, particularly as they relate to Russia and other state-sponsored foreign disinformation.
Hamilton 68, a new website (right) launched today, aims to track Russian propaganda in near-real time, as it spreads via Twitter accounts linked to the Kremlin’s disinformation and other influence operations.
“The approach we’re taking is not about labeling anything as ‘real’ or ‘fake’, or exposing particular accounts,” said Laura Rosenberger, the director of the German Marshall Fund’s Alliance for Securing Democracy. “We’re simply using analytical tools to show what messages this network is promoting,” she told Business Insider on Wednesday.
“In the Federalist Papers No. 68, Alexander Hamilton wrote of protecting America’s electoral process from foreign meddling,” the site reads. “Today, we face foreign interference of a type Hamilton could scarcely have imagined.”
Putin believes that “[o]ne way to undermine America’s standing is to provide disclosures that can be used by its own political factions, and the media, to sow distrust in America’s reliability as a democracy founded on transparency,” notes Edward Jay Epstein, author of How America Lost Its Secrets: Edward Snowden, the Man and the Theft. “Putin tells the truth when he says that it doesn’t matter particularly to Russia whether Clinton or Trump won the election: his goal was to install doubt in the legitimacy of the process, regardless of how it turned out,” he writes for the City Journal.
Ramzin Kadyrov, head of the Chechen Republic, echoes Putin in mobilizing prejudice and “state-sponsored homophobia” as part of an anti-Western narrative, according to Jonny Dzhibladze, an activist at Coming Out St. Petersburg, a local LGBTQ organization.
“It’s a combination of Christianity and Stalinism, two things that don’t [even] logically go together,” he tells Vox:
He attributes Putin’s success, and the rise of homophobia in Russia, to the same thing. “After the collapse of the Soviet Union, people saw the country they grew up in vanish overnight,” he says. Without a common, shared, cultural identity, they became easy to manipulate. For Dzhibladze, Putin has been able to rally his country by focusing on “the enemy from without” — the West — as well as the “enemy from within”: gays, who are widely seen as symptomatic of Western decadence or vice.