Why the West is failing to counter Kremlin disinformation


Ten years ago, in the wake of the murder of the leading Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya (left), a popular comedian-turned-blogger in Italy named Beppe Grillo urged tens of thousands of his readers to go out and buy Putin’s Russia, her searing exposé of corruption under the leadership of Vladimir Putin, The Guardian reports:

But today, Grillo’s position on Russia has radically changed. He is now part of a growing club of Kremlin sympathisers in the west – an important shift given that the comedian has become one of the most powerful political leaders in Italy and his Five Star Movement (M5S), the anti-establishment party he created in 2009, is a top contender to win the next Italian election.

More than 20 years late, Western countries are belatedly waking up to Russia’s information warfare and growing political influence, particularly in Germany which is in a state of near-panic as the autumn general election draws near, notes Edward Lucas, a Senior Vice President at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) and a senior editor at The Economist. My main prediction for 2017 is that we will see an onslaught on Angela Merkel—and indeed on the German political system—which will dwarf the Russian offensive we witnessed in the United States in the second half of 2016, he writes:

Merkel won’t go down without a fight. I expect to see a range of regulatory and other sanctions deployed against the peddlers of fake news. Germany has quite a different attitude to the media than the United States, where the First Amendment reigns supreme. In Germany, press freedom is also constitutionally protected, but in a less absolutist way. Publishers have legal responsibilities, including the obligation to publish corrections. The untranslatable term Meinungsbildung—the development of public opinion—is a serious professional responsibility.

There are three reasons why, in the West, there is a clear lack of political will among governing politicians to pursue policy responses to hostile disinformation and influence operations, writes Jakub Janda, Head of Kremlin Watch Program and Deputy Director at the European Values Think-Tank based in Prague:

  • First, there is a lack of understanding as to how local electorates are shifting on issues from geopolitical identity, through foreign policy issues, to domestic affairs. There is very little research and data available on what exactly are Kremlin-linked or inspired narratives—and their success rates. Measuring this impact might prove methodologically impossible, but there are other reasonable paths to follow. For example, an excellent vulnerability study was conducted by the Latvian Defence Forces Academy. We can also look at how much the Kremlin narratives have penetrated society. For example, we have teamed up with a group of Central European think-tanks to create a GLOBSEC Trends Report, revealing some horrifying numbers. ….
  • Second, the resources available for investigative journalists and fact-checking organizations is limited. That is why there are only individuals—like the Finnish investigative journalist Jessikka Aro, or Re: Baltica—and a few good organizations such as StopFake.org, capable of investing in long-term projects. Traditional media outlets are already struggling financially in most of Western countries—so paying an investigative professional to focus on comprehensive stories about Russian influence is simply a luxury.
  • Third, there is a lack of policy analysis, comparing and assessing already-implemented government strategies. In an ideal world, we’d have a list of best practices, and while there are some solid comprehensive strategies—such as Winning Information Warfare by CEPA or our own 50-measure full-scale democratic response—very little policy assessment from has been produced thus far. Why? Again, there is almost zero funding for this difficult task.

Many governments – including both the United States and many European governments – provide technical assistance about how to run elections, how to create and run a political party, and other normal forms of democracy promotion, notes Frances G. Burwell, a distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC:

But is it acceptable behavior for foreign governments or their proxies to bankroll specific political parties or movements? Should it be acceptable for foreign governments to break into databases and other information sources owned by one party or the other? And then to disclose that information, or to give it to other organizations for disclosure? Is hacking a political party any different than a physical burglary aimed at stealing critical information?

The U.S. and Europe must work more closely together in pushing back against Russia’s aggression, including by exploring the idea of expelling RT and Sputnik employees — who are not real journalists, let’s be blunt — from our countries, argues David J. Kramer, senior director for democracy and human rights at the McCain Institute in Washington. After all, the role of these outlets is not to engage in true journalism but to blur the distinction between fact and fiction and exploit the openness of Western societies, he writes for Politico. More European countries should also adopt the Magnitsky legislation — Estonia this month is the only country on the Continent that has done what the U.S. did in 2012 — that sanctions Russian officials involved in gross human rights abuses.

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