The 2016 presidential campaign alerted the public to the concept of information as a weapon—and to its incredible effectiveness when used just right. From WikiLeaks to RT to Sputnik, the Russian government tried to sow discord among Americans, according to a recent U.S. intelligence report. To some extent it succeeded, by facilitating public skepticism of American institutions and the press—and undermining Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
“Russia is trying to create civic chaos, questions about what is reliable, and mistrust about institutions,” said Karl Altau, director of the Joint Baltic American National Committee, which advocates against Russian misinformation. “It’s a national threat. This is something responsible citizens need to be aware of.”
Russian intervention in the U.S. democratic process caught many American policymakers dozing at the wheel, observers say. But the dramatic nature of the intelligence community’s findings, both before and after Trump’s election, has woken them up.
“This was not paid much attention to until the Hillary Clinton [presidential campaign was upended by hacked and leaked emails] last summer,” said Donald Jensen, a senior fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis, a leading think-tank on Russian information warfare. “If you went around town last spring and asked senators and lawmakers if this is a problem, they would have said ‘no’… People are playing catch-up.”
Without fanfare, the catch-up is slowly beginning. The United States government is spending tens of millions of dollars to counter propaganda from Vladimir Putin and other state actors, a move slipped into the thousands of pages of the annual defense policy bill passed by Congress.
The great uncertainty of the new counter-propaganda initiative lies in how it will take shape under the Trump administration and whether the administration will use propaganda tools wisely and for the intended purposes of the law. Trump’s public coziness with Putin puts that in question. And the new measure raises yet another question: Is giving the president another propaganda tool a good idea?
Typically, when Congress directs a response against America’s enemies, it takes the form of sanctions—a targeted squeeze on an adversary’s economic health. Countering propaganda and information warfare is more abstract and complex, and often goes under the radar.
But a bipartisan initiative led by Republican Sen. Rob Portman and Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy has authorized $160 million over two years to fight propaganda state actors through a little-known interagency office housed at the State Department called the Global Engagement Center (GEC).
Bipartisan Russian sanctions legislation, proposed last month by Sens. Ben Cardin and John McCain, would expand it even further, dedicating an additional $100 million for the GEC and others to support objective Russian-language journalism, counter “fake news,” and support research on the effects of information warfare.
The interagency office, when it enters operation later this year, will mark the first centralized counter-propaganda pushback against the Russians since the 1990s, when the Cold War seemingly left such counter-propaganda obsolete.
The GEC will track foreign propaganda campaigns, analyze the tactics, and counter them through a series of grants to overseas journalists, civil-society organizations, and private companies.
“By directly countering false narratives and empowering local media and civil societies to defend themselves from foreign manipulation, this legislation will help support our allies and interests in this increasingly unstable world,” Portman told The Daily Beast.
The grants would go to independent organizations. For example, websites like Bellingcat and StopFake.org—which provide access to truthful information and counter false Russian narratives in Ukraine—would be eligible for these resources.
“We cannot respond to state propaganda with more state propaganda. The proper response is to use the main advantage that Western societies still have over authoritarian regimes: a really robust, pluralistic civil society,” explained Alina Polyakova, who is the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center deputy director and was an early supporter the GEC legislation.
The Global Engagement Center was initially created under the Obama administration to fight ISIS propaganda, but the Portman-Murphy measure expanded its scope to target propaganda from state actors, with Russia in mind as a primary antagonist. The measure also upped their funding 16-fold. The GEC originally had just $5 million a year for operations, according to Murphy’s office.
However, information warfare remains a battlefield where the Russians are far more advanced. The concept is a formal idea in Russian declarations of their military doctrine, released publicly in 2013. And Putin puts his money where his mouth is: Polyakova estimated that Russia spends, at a bare minimum, $400 million annually on information warfare in the United States.
“Russia has a well-thought-out, complex information strategy that seeks to influence narratives and politics and policy in Western countries… unrivaled in the scope and complexity and maliciousness,” she said.
Unlike the Cold War, Putin doesn’t need to promote Soviet-style communism: He merely has to undermine America’s democracy.
“Russia doesn’t have to sell an ideology; it just needs to exploit divisions in the West and the West’s uncertainty about its own values and what is true and what isn’t,” Jensen said. “There’s a complacency in the West… about the danger this poses.”
The United States, on the other hand, moved away from much of the anti-Russian information warfare game with the closure of the U.S. Information Agency in 1999. The resources dedicated to counter-propaganda in recent years have been focused on countering jihadi propaganda, rather than Russian—and many of these have been shown to be of dubious effectiveness.
The Center for Global Engagement, in the Obama administration’s original conception, focused on targeting would-be extremists with anti-ISIS messaging. But ISIS has had an advantage over the West’s campaign to defeat it: The United States and its allies have not been able to agree on anti-ISIS messaging.
One anti-ISIS messaging effort, which used video of the terrorist group’s savagery—crucified bodies and severed heads among them—was criticized by some experts as embarrassing and possibly even beneficial to the enemy.
And the initiatives have seemed stale, despite the efforts of Hollywood’s most talented creative minds. American officials have previously concluded that ISIS is more effective in spreading its message than the U.S. is in countering it.
Other American information-warfare efforts, such as spending $24 million to fly a plane around Cuba, beaming U.S.-sponsored television programming that the Cuban government immediately jams, have been ill-conceived or poorly executed.
Around the turn of the decade, the United States began trying to create internet access and social-networking tools in order to empower dissidents and democracy activists, including ones in Russia. These efforts on social media networks like Twitter and Facebook backfired, as Putin viewed these tools as U.S.-backed efforts to overthrow him—and now uses these same networks to spread fake or pro-Russian news.
Still, Russia’s aggressiveness and effectiveness on this front, combined with American flat-footedness, have started to attract the attention of America’s intelligence community. In one of his final hearings on Capitol Hill, outgoing Director of National Intelligence James Clapper proposed that the United States reestablish an U.S. Information Agency to counter misinformation.
It’s an idea that has energized lawmakers from both sides of the aisle. Both Democratic Sen. Chris Coons and Republican Sen. Todd Young spoke about countering Russian propaganda at the confirmation hearing for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
“Our enemies are using foreign propaganda and disinformation against us and our allies, and so far the U.S. government has been asleep at the wheel. We have to delegitimize false narratives coming out of Russia, China and other nations and increase access to factual information,” Portman told The Daily Beast. “We need to get the law implemented and the new center up and running so it can help confront the extensive, and destabilizing, foreign propaganda and disinformation operations being waged against us by our enemies overseas.”
If anything, Trump knows the powers of using new mediums, such as social media, for counter-messaging—with widespread effects. As presidential pal and notorious conspiracy theorist Alex Jones might say, there’s a war on for your mind.
Update 10:10am 2/6/17 for clarity.