It was announced last week that US Department of State and Department of Defense have agreed to allocate at least $40 million for countering foreign propaganda and disinformation financed by “certain states.” The two agencies signed a Memorandum of Agreement to transfer funds to the Department of State’s Global Engagement Center (GEC). One of the initiatives is the creation of an Information Access Fund to support public and private partners working to expose and counter propaganda and disinformation from foreign nations.
COUNTERACTING RUSSIA’S DESTRUCTIVE ACTIVITIES
Civil society groups, media content providers, nongovernmental organizations, federally funded research and development centers, private companies, and other American and foreign institutions will be eligible to compete for grants from the GEC. The media quote Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Steve Goldstein as saying that “we would be happy to get applications from any group that shares our determination to counter disinformation.”
The Global Engagement Center was founded in 2016 to counteract Islamist propaganda. Its mandate was expanded later so that it could also counter the propaganda and disinformation funded by other states. Observers believe that, although Russia is not named directly, counteracting Russia’s destructive activity in the information field is from now on one of the Center’s main objectives.
In addition to budgetary allocations, nongovernmental funds will also be used to counter propaganda and disinformation. Goldstein said that the private sector had contributed a part of the $40 million. “This funding is critical to ensuring that we continue an aggressive response to malign influence and disinformation and that we can leverage deeper partnerships with our allies, Silicon Valley, and other partners in this fight,” Goldstein said. “It is not merely a defensive posture that we should take, we also need to be on the offensive.”
STANDARDS ABOVE ALL
The US activities in averting informational dangers drastically differ from the European Union’s steps. Washington believes that anti-American propaganda and disinformation pose a threat to national security and should be dealt with by the Department of Defense.
Brussels has a different vision of this problem – from the viewpoint of protecting the values of a free world and democracy, meeting the standards of journalism, and the quality of the media. This is why the European “analog” of the American GEC – East StratCom Task Force (StratCom) established by the European External Action Service – focuses on the disproving fakes. In other words, it reacts to the well-known and already committed information attacks, without trying to forestall them. The StratCom employs several times fewer staff members than the GEC does, and it is considerably underfunded. Besides, there is no proof that StratCom receives support from EU states’ defense ministries.
I recently attended a TV program with a well-known activist of the “stop-fake movement” in Ukraine. I was trying to explain that exposing fake news is an overwhelming task for those who want to curb the spread of propaganda and disinformation. After the program I said frankly: debunking bogus items is an extremely difficult and necessary job, but is a “Sisyphean labor.”
One can deny lies and distortions in the media indefinitely, but this in no way hinders fake news makers from continuing to invent and spread them. And if you take into account that the audience of “stop-fake projects” is dozens, hundreds, and thousands times smaller than that of the propaganda media, the effectiveness of the “disproval conveyor belt” looks still more doubtful. But this kind of activity fully suits the Europeans who are thus (ostensibly) combating disinformation without infringing the freedom of speech at all.
ALL FIGHT AGAINST FAKES!
Ukraine, which is suffering from Russia aggression, is trying to diversify the means of resisting hostile influence in the sphere of information. This includes bans on Russian social media and deportation of Russian propagandists, i.e., actions that are vital for protecting Ukraine’s national security but trigger a negative reaction in the West.
The EU recently discussed again its strategy in countering propaganda and disinformation.
Academics, journalists, and media experts discussed at a Brussels conference in late February what is to be done to make propagandists as well as troll- and bot-makers stop their activities.
But again, as before, they only focus on anti-fake actions in order to protect democracy. The media quote Mariya Gabriel, EU Commissioner for Digital Economy, as saying: “Fake news can even pose a threat to our democratic values. So it is very important to get as many people as possible involved in the process and try to find a solution.”
The European Commission is expected to disclose its plans to counter fake news in the next few months. But we can forecast even now that the main efforts will be concentrated on increasing the media literacy of people and the quality of journalism.
NOT YET A COLD WAR, BUT…
It is unknown so far which measures the United States will support to enhance anti-propaganda and anti-disinformation activities. Earlier, in the 1980s, an entity called Active Measures Working Group functioned in the US. This group analyzed Soviet “active measures,” first of all, disinformation and propaganda, and suggested various counteractions. The group cooperated with not only the Department of Defense, but also the CIA and the FBI.
It is so far a long way to a full-scale confrontation with the “evil empire.” Yet some steps “from the past” have already been taken overseas. By contrast with the Europeans who confine themselves to verbal criticism of Russian propaganda facilities, such as RT (ex-Russia Today), last year the US Department of Justice forced the Russian state-run channel RT to register as a “foreign agent.” The procedure was in line with the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). This law was passed in the US on the eve of World War Two in 1938.
In spite of its name, the Foreign Agents Registration Act is aimed not against spies or foreign intelligence agents but against people and organizations that try to influence the formation of public opinion in the US on the instructions of and with financial support from other countries. The chief target was Nazi Germany which was trying to influence the US public in order to prevent the US from taking part in the imminent war.
Now, 80 years on, the “anti-Hitlerite law,” which has considerably eased off since then, is being applied against Russia.
We will know what the Americans are prepared to do in order to protect themselves from a destructive informational influence when it will be clear on which projects the 40 million dollars will be spent. Still, judging by the experience of past years, we will not be told about most of the planned and taken measures to counter “actions of certain countries.” They will, at best, hint us about it many years later. For example, Hollywood will make a film about this kind of special operations.