President Vladimir Putin’s Russia seeks to weaken Western governments and transatlantic institutions, discredit democratic and liberal values, and create a post-truth world, with the aim of shielding Moscow’s autocracy from liberal influence and easing Russia’s domination of its neighbors. Russian disinformation campaigns amplify existing social divisions and further polarize democratic societies. As such, they do not stop when the ballot box closes. Elections may provide an ideal high-impact opportunity for a disinformation actor, but the barrage of disinformation against Western democracies, including the United States, continues between election cycles.

The spread of disinformation to undermine public confidence is one critical tool in the Kremlin’s broader toolkit of malign influence, which also includes cyber-hacking, illicit finance, support for radical movements and parties, and the use of economic warfare, primarily through energy exports. Disinformation, as a tool of Russia’s political warfare, is not new.

But what is new is that, today, what used to take years takes minutes. The advance of digital technology and communication allows for the high-speed spread of disinformation, rapid amplification of misleading content, and massive manipulation via unsecured points of influence. This digital ecosystem creates opportunities for manipulation that have exceeded the ability of democratic nations to respond in pace with the adversary.

Russia’s democratic and pro-Western neighbors—especially Ukraine, Georgia, and the Baltic states—have contended with Russian disinformation attacks for years. The United States and Western European countries woke up late to the challenge. Indeed, the Russian disinformation attack on the United States in 2016 was part of a long-standing pattern of Russian political warfare, of which the United States was another target and victim. As a result, Western democracies have learned that the very principles and values of open societies—plurality, freedom of speech, independent media—are also vulnerabilities that can be exploited by malign actors for their advantage.

Since the 2016 wake-up call, however, Europe and the United States have moved beyond “admir­ing the problem” and have entered a new “trial and error” phase. As these efforts progress, three insights have emerged:

  • A whole of society approach is key. There is no silver bullet for addressing the disinformation challenge. Governmental policy, on its own, will not be enough. The private sector, specifically social media platforms, and civil society groups, including independent media, must be part of the solution.

  • As we – democratic governments, social media platforms, and civil society – have responded since 2016, adversarial tactics have evolved along at least three threat vectors:

    -Russian information operations pose a global threat, no longer contained to the frontline states of Central and Eastern Europe.

    -Russian influence operations form a full-spectrum ecosystem approach, in which disinformation campaigns work across digital and traditional media and in concert with other tools of political warfare.

    -Russia is engaged in information warfare by proxy – using cutouts, local groups and individuals, and local servers to mask their origins. This greatly limits our ability to identify and expose covert information operations and de facto erases the line between authentic and inauthentic actors or domestic and foreign content.

  • To get ahead of the threat rather than reacting to disparate attacks in a whack-a-mole fashion, democracies must invest in building long-term societal resilience while at the same time getting on the offensive to deter foreign disinformation operations.

  • The U.S. response must be calibrated to meet these and future challenges as Russia and other state actors will continue to use multi-faceted influence operations to undermine U.S. credibility and global leadership.

    During the Cold War, the United States developed and invested in a messaging and media infrastructure that was well suited for the communications environment at that time – Radio Liberty and VOA delivered trusted information to people behind the Iron Curtain. Unfortunately, that is no longer the case: after the Cold War, the United States ceded that space and with it, the ability to project democratic values and principles into the frontline states. Today, the communications environment has been revolutionized and transformed by the digital revolution, but U.S. messaging has not kept up.

    A 20th century model for countering 21st century disinformation will fail.

    We need to take urgent and critical steps today.

    • First, the United States needs to invest in rebuilding our messaging and capabilities to reach vulnerable populations in the frontline states.

    • Congress should authorize and appropriate funds to “build capacity of civil society, media, and other nongovernmental organizations,” countering Russian and other sources of foreign disinformation (from DASKA Sec 705(b)), in coordination with the EU, NATO, and other bodies.

    • Ensure consistent and continuous funding for the GEC. 2020 was the first year that the GEC was funded directly through the State Department rather than via the DoD transfer. This should continue.

    • Ensure scalability of GEC efforts to respond to a global rather than a regional threat. The GEC received approximately $62 million in 2020. The President’s proposed 2021 budget includes an additional $76 million in funding for the GEC. An increase of this level would allow the GEC to scale up its operations.

    • Consider establishing an Undersecretary level position for information operations to establish and coordinate whole of U.S. government responses that is outside of the public diplomacy bureau at State.

    • Develop an ecosystem approach to an ecosystem threat. The GEC should work in close cooperation with U.S. government agencies tracking Russian illicit finance, private military group activities, and support for disruptive political groups to identify high threat areas where the GEC should provide direct support and expand resources.

    Congress should also put pressure on the U.S. Administration to:

    • Ensure the Administration continues to impose sanctions on foreign official or officially controlled or directed purveyors of disinformation and their sponsors, and to identify and prosecute violations of federal elections laws (prohibitions on foreign contributions).

    • Establish a USG rapid alert system (RAS) to inform the public, allied governments, and social media companies of emerging disinformation campaigns that threaten national security. The European rapid alert system can help the USG judge the potential of this idea. Some of the challenges can be anticipated: given U.S. politics and traditions, issues will arise around a U.S. RAS’s mandate (e.g. the definition and attribution of disinformation) and its composition, credibility, and independence.

    Getting ahead of the threat

    The above recommendations are low-hanging fruit on which the U.S. Congress and the Administration should act. These steps will not turn the tide of disinformation attacks. Rather, these are the minimum actions needed to start to build resistance. The Kremlin’s toolkit is out in the open and Russia has faced few consequences for its malign activities. This sends a signal to other malicious actors that they can act with impunity to destabilize democracies and distort public discourse. Other state actors with perhaps greater capabilities, such as China, and non-state actors, such as terrorist groups with a higher tolerance for risk, will adapt the disinformation toolkit to undermine democracies or are already doing so.

    While the democratic West is fighting yesterday’s war, our adversaries are evolving and adapting to the new playing field. Innovation in artificial intelligence (AI) is enabling the creation of “deep fakes” and other “synthetic media” products. As these tools become more low cost and accessible, they will become perfect weapons for information warfare. Such technologies could drive the next great leap in AI-driven disinformation.

    The United States has fallen behind in addressing the challenge of foreign disinformation. But it is not too late to change course toward a proactive rather than reactive approach. This critical issue concerns all democracies equally. Strong U.S. leadership could tip the balance toward ensuring that the digital space continues to facilitate and support democratic values of transparency, accountability and integrity. To do otherwise is to leave this arena open to authoritarians to set the rules of the game.

    All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.

    This article was adapted from Dr. Alina Polyakova’s testimony before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. Read the full testimony here.

    Photo: By TheUknownPhotographer via Pexels.

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    Alina Polyakova

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    August 18, 2020

    Europe’s Edge is an online journal covering crucial topics in the transatlantic policy debate. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.