US efforts to counter Russian disinformation and malign influence

Members of the State Council attend a meeting, chaired by Russian President Vladimir Putin, in Moscow, Russia June 26, 2019. Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. - RC1D08CAEF20
Editor's note:

Alina Polyakova, director of the Project on Global Democracy and Emerging Technology at Brookings, testified at a hearing of the House Committee on Appropriations’ Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs, on “United States Efforts to Counter Russian Disinformation and Malign Influence.” Her full written testimony is available to download and an adapted version of it can be found below. 

Dear Chairwoman Lowey, Ranking Member Rogers, Distinguished Members of the Subcommittee:

It is an honor and privilege to address you today on this important issue. Thank you for inviting me to testify.

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 aim to amplify existing social divisions and further polarize democratic societies. As such, they don’t 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 tool-kit 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, and sometimes even to grasp the extent of the challenge.

I have been working on Russian disinformation long before it became the issue du jour. Likewise, 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 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 2016 wakeup call, however, European governments, the European Union, Canada, and the United States have moved beyond “admir­ing the problem” and have entered a new “trial and error” phase. As these efforts progress, four insights have emerged:

  1. 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. A whole of society approach is key.
  2. Exposure and identification of specific malicious entities (i.e. Russian bots or trolls) or content is necessary but not sufficient to curb the spread of foreign disinformation. As we respond, the adversary’s tactics evolve.
  3. A democratic response to state-sponsored information warfare must be rooted in democratic principles of transparency, accountability, and integrity. These principles should guide U.S. and European policy. As we learned during the Cold War, we need not become them to beat them.
  4. Malicious disinformation attacks are not limited to one country. All democracies are current or potential future targets. Therefore, our response is stronger with allies. Like-minded governments should establish mechanisms for consistent sharing of information, best practices, common definitions, and risk-assessment guidelines. The trans-Atlantic alliance should be the basis of a “Counter Disinformation Coalition,” in which the United States should play a leading role.

Unfortunately, the United States has fallen behind Europe in both conceptualizing the nature of the challenges and operationalizing concrete steps to counter and build resilience against disinformation.

In my written testimony, I have detailed the nature of the Russian threat, European and US responses, and what else needs to be done by this legislative body and the Administration to counter and build resilience against foreign malign disinformation. Here, I will focus on specific policy recommendations relevant to this committee and the Administration.

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. I can speak from personal experience growing up in the Soviet Union in the 1980s, that we relied on Radio Liberty and VOA for truthful information about our own country. Unfortunately, that is no longer the case: after the Cold War, the US ceded that space and with it, the ability to project democratic values and principles into the front line states. Today, the communications environment has been revolutionized and transformed by the digital revolution, but the US media apparatus has not kept up. A 20th century model for countering 21st century disinformation will fail.

We need to take urgent and critical steps today.

What u.s. congress should do

  • First, the US needs to invest, in a real way, in rebuilding our messaging and capabilities to reach vulnerable populations in the front line 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.
  • Congress should authorize and appropriate funds to establish a “fusion cell” or NCTC-style model for coordinating U.S. government efforts on disinformation. The Cell could be housed in DHS, State, or elsewhere. There is more than one option for structuring an interagency response.
    • The interagency group should be tasked with coordinating governmental efforts to counter disinformation at home and abroad. The group should have high level political leadership to direct and coordinate policy, establish a baseline for response, educate civil servants, work via State with U.S. embassies, and create communication channels from the local to the federal level.
  • Congress should authorize and appropriate funds to further develop Current Time to allow Current Time to broadcast and build audiences in Central Eastern Europe and the Balkans with potential expansion further into Western Europe.
    • At the same time, the United States Agency for Global Media (USAGM) should be tasked with conducting an audit of its existing programs and services to assess which are underperforming. Congress should require an annual audit report that links resources spent with indicators of success.
    • It may not be a good use of resources to continue to fund traditional television broadcasting. More innovative, digitally oriented content should be considered to reach audiences through social media markets.

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 tool-kit 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.