Russian misinformation: how can America deal with it?

Russian misinformation: how can America deal with it?

The Harriman Institute discusses the new book of the former President of Radio Liberty Thomas Kent

A new book by Professor of the Harriman Institute Thomas Kent, “Striking Back: Overt and Covert Options to Combat Russian Disinformation”, was recently released by Brookings Institution Press.

In the book, Professor Kent analyzes the measures taken by the countries of the West, Africa and Latin America to counter Russia’s disinformation operations. What can help a successful confrontation with them? Should you focus on public action or give preference to covert operations? Are there ethical constraints in information warfare??

The book includes over 160 interviews with government and military experts, representatives of public organizations and scientists from dozens of countries..

What Jefferson and Turner Didn’t Know

Elise Guiliano, Professor of Political Science at the Harriman Institute, moderated the book’s discussion and read out questions during the Zoom webinar broadcast on YouTube Live. Eliza Giuliano runs the US-Russia Relations Program at the Harriman Institute at Columbia University.

Eliza Giuliano. Photo from the monitor

Thomas Kent also teaches at the Harriman Institute, focusing on disinformation, relations with Russia, and information geopolitics. Previously, he served as President and CEO of Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE / RV), served as Ethics Editor at the Associated Press, and as the agency’s bureau chief in Moscow and Tehran. He has spoken at conferences and other forums in 22 countries. Fluent in French, Russian and Spanish.

Rand Waltzman, Associate Chief Technology Officer and Lead Scientist at RAND Corporation, spoke as a panelist for this virtual discussion. An expert on the problems of artificial intelligence and the “militarization” of information, he is considered the author of the term “cognitive safety”. Waltzman has spoken at hearings in Congress and at many conferences around the world. Worked at Carnegie Mellon University and Lockheed Martin Corporation.

Rand Waltzman. Photo from the monitor

“I want to emphasize from the outset,” said Thomas Kent, “that real facts and democratic values ​​alone cannot triumph in a world fair of ideas. Thomas Jefferson said that the truth will make its own way, without someone’s help. In 1980, Ted Turner, launching CNN, said that we would transmit real news to the Russians via satellite, and peace would reign on the planet. But Jefferson and Turner did not know what the “Internet Research Agency” was, which was engaged in targeted disinformation (this structure, headquartered in St. Petersburg, is known as the “troll factory”, “Prigozhin trolls”, “kremlebots.” ). We cannot count on a spontaneous, independent affirmation of democratic values. Yes, they have to be convincing on their own, but it takes a lot of effort to promote them. Totalitarian regimes frighten their peoples with the danger of the coming of the Alien, by which they mean the United States and the countries of the West. And these regimes chose disinformation as the main weapon in discrediting the Alien “.

Arrows or archers?

“I agree with those who believe that it is necessary to intensify the fight against the flow of disinformation coming primarily from Russia,” continued Thomas Kent. – They say that it is more correct to aim not at an arrow, but at an archer. There are calls to create a headquarters to counter these streams of lies at the governmental and intergovernmental level, something like an information NATO. Others call for relying on non-state structures that are more flexible and free. We cannot only react to attacks by saying “this is a lie”, “do not believe”. Fakes must be supplanted and replaced with positive messages, and an objective picture of the world must be affirmed in the minds of people. Moreover, these messages should be intelligible as stickers on the bumper. Here’s an example from the past: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”.

Russian misinformation: how can America deal with it?

Speaking about the secret segment of the fight against “misinformation”, Professor Kent noted the existence of different points of view on the use of secret channels.

“There are ethical issues that keep the United States and the Western world from getting involved in a full-scale information war with Russia,” he said. “But many believe that we need to act more decisively and sweep aside the outdated ethical standards that tie our hands. Yes, Russia is weak in a number of aspects, but in terms of disinformation attacks, the use of bots, fake websites and all other arsenal, it is quite effective. “.

Rand Waltzman noted that Thomas Kent’s new book is one of the best works on the current topic of combating Russian disinformation..

“The author doesn’t turn away from the most delicate issues,” Waltzman said, “and doesn’t try to sugarcoat the situation. I agree with him that improving the media literacy of the population and strengthening fact-checking programs are important, but cannot adequately withstand the avalanche of lies from Russia. The effectiveness of these measures is very weak. Few people know about them, only a narrow circle of experts “.

Conspiracy theories and street language

Asked about Putin’s recent proposal to conclude a “truce” with the US in the information war, Thomas Kent said: “Of course, doubts about the sincerity of the proposal are justified. Okay, let’s say such an agreement has been reached. But in the world there are already many players who are quite independently conducting anti-democratic, anti-American propaganda in different countries and earn a lot of money from this, so that it is unlikely that anything will seriously change “.

One of the participants in the discussion drew attention to the widespread US conspiracy theory QAnon, which is voiced by ultra-conservative websites and media. Is a democratic dialogue possible with similar theories, which also include the theory of the “deep state” and the “pedophile world conspiracy”?

“Dialog? There is no dialogue, ”remarked Rand Waltzman. – In the world now everything is confused and complex, and the one who offers simple, easy-to-understand explanations wins. This is why conspiracy theories breed. They are easy to understand and fun in their own way. How to deal with this? Censorship is hard to beat, the Internet bypasses it easily. I believe that it is necessary to oppose false statements with truthful explanations, which should be equally intelligible and intelligible. The problem is that in democratic circles it is considered shameful to “sink” to the level of the broad masses and speak with them in the language of the street. But this is the only way to reach out to hearts, appealing to emotions, and not to reason. People instantly recognize when they are being talked down to, and no one likes that. I said at one EU meeting that the report I heard there on the fight against disinformation is simply boring, and no one will pay attention to it. Let me remind you that when the US government was preparing the people of the country to enter the First World War, direct propaganda methods were used. The focus was calculatedly on emotion, and it worked great. This is how Russians work now, and this is the most effective tactic. “.

One of the questions concerned the assessment of the effectiveness of disinformation coming into the United States from abroad. How can you measure its effectiveness??

“We need to separate immediate effect from long-term effectiveness,” said Rand Waltzman. – Effectiveness can be recognized with the naked eye, as for efficiency, everything is more complicated here. There are no objective criteria that would allow us to assert: yes, what we see is a product of the efforts of such and such a structure. It may turn out that this is not so at all, and someone else or something else has a stronger influence on what is happening..

Especially when it is very difficult to separate foreign efforts from the efforts of “home” players. Look how long and lively the issue of Russian interference in our elections has been discussed. Even if in fact this interference had minimal or no effect on the 2016 election results, it made the press and government talk about it. How much energy it took, how many hours we all spent on it! If the purpose of the Russians was to convince everyone that they can really manipulate public opinion in the United States, this alone allows us to draw conclusions about the effectiveness of Russian intervention. “.

  • Oleg Sulkin

    Journalist, film critic, correspondent for the Russian Voice of America Service in New York.

World news