On September 11, 2014, a flurry of tweets, a fake Wikipedia page, and photoshopped imagery of CNN news articles spread across the internet to convince Americans that ISIS had attacked a chemical plant in Louisiana. Widespread panic ensued, and many locals called authorities seeking updates, only to discover the entire disaster was a hoax and the plant was fine. The American people had been fooled. This incident was not a harmless prank. It was a targeted attack most likely conducted by Russia, and it illustrates a crucial lesson in the destabilization potential of disinformation.
The web brigades that carried out this operation work for Russia’s Internet Research Agency, an organization that fills entire office buildings with well-paid trolls to bombard online comment streams with anti-Western sentiments and amplify fake news stories. The work of this organization illustrates a grand shift in Russian political strategy; a shift towards conducting influence operations to undermine stability and advance Russian interests, a shift that is encapsulated in publicly available Russian Military doctrine, and a shift that the U.S. is not positioned to counter.
While targeted counter-efforts are sprouting up across the West, a comprehensive strategy is still missing. The United States, as a global superpower and key player in the NATO alliance, must take the initiative to lead its Western allies towards a broader long-term strategy for countering foreign information warfare. Washington should learn from past U.S. initiatives to secure the domestic information space as well as from the success of its Baltic allies in building grassroots public resilience by deliberately raising public awareness of the Russian misinformation threat. A robust U.S. strategy would create positive spillovers for the security of NATO allies, creating a united front against Moscow’s subversion.
Lacking Institutional Capabilities
As Moscow’s use of disinformation rises, the West’s stakes in information war increase. A dangerous mixture of Russia’s declining superpower status and rising tensions between Moscow and the West suggest that the Kremlin will continue to pressure its Western geopolitical competitors. Information warfare is cheap, potent, ubiquitous, and is likely to become one of the Kremlin’s primary tools.
The U.S. is ill-prepared to face this threat as Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election has illustrated. As of yet, no major unclassified initiatives have been created, no new governmental departments established, and over a quarter of Americans disapprove of the Justice Department appointing special counsel to investigate Russian meddling in the election. What has come in response to the meddling, however, is an additional $80 million in funding to the State Department’s Global Engagement Center and a broadening of the Center’s mission from fighting ISIL’s internet propaganda to countering Russian disinformation abroad. However, these funds have been frozen by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson as part of a budget review. Some have alleged that Tillerson is hesitant to use the money, fearing further deterioration in U.S.-Russia relations. The U.S. domestic response to disinformation remains reactive, lagging Russian information capabilities.
Washington will have to mobilize resources swiftly, especially if it aims to remain on par with other Western allies and their specialized counter-disinformation units. Furthermore, the United States must decide how to best format its efforts. The Baltics found success in combatting the threat at a grassroots level, but the local character of disinformation allows transplanting allied strategies only to a certain extent. To best understand what works in the United States, its leadership should seek guidance from the toolbox of the Cold War, where Washington faced a similar disinformation threat from the Soviet Union.
Learning from the Cold War
Washington policymakers grappled with Russian misinformation campaigns frequently throughout the Cold War. The best and most effective example of U.S. countermeasures against foreign propaganda has been the Active Measures Working Group. Formed in 1981 under the direction of the State Department, the Active Measures Working Group emerged in an American information environment like today’s. After a decade of neglecting to counter Soviet misinformation and failing to classify Soviet propaganda as a primary concern, the United States was vulnerable to Soviet disinformation. The group, comprised of an inter-agency medley of diplomatic, defense, and intelligence officials, began to change this dynamic. Over the course of a decade, the organization published reports that debunked several cases of Soviet disinformation, most notably a false story released by the KGB regarding the U.S. military’s role in creating the AIDS virus. The group’s frequent releases alerted the American public and Washington officials to the Soviet propaganda threat.
The United States has also taken an offensive stance in the information space in the past. For example, the United States Information Agency countered Soviet propaganda by broadcasting pro-Western messages to strategic countries from its creation in 1953 to its dissolution in 1999, and the State Department’s Global Engagement Center has since adopted similar tasks. Washington has even used disinformation through the Pentagon’s now-defunct Office of Strategic Influence, which conducted influence operations in the early days of the Iraq War.
Despite the debatable efficacy of these offensive strategies, the Active Measures Working Group’s defensive initiatives elevated public awareness of Soviet disinformation. In the internet age, Russia has become better equipped to quickly spread fake news to target audiences, requiring Washington to make some updates to any future strategy that rests on the teachings of the past. However, at a base level, the Active Measures Working Group offers a strong model for future U.S. counter-disinformation initiatives.
Looking at current U.S. anti-disinformation programs, only one has the capacity to achieve any meaningful victories in the information realm—the State Department’s previously mentioned Global Engagement Center. However, this initiative has severe shortcomings, namely its frozen funding and explicit focus on countering disinformation abroad rather than at home, further illustrating Washington’s current inadequacy in facing these threats.
These past strategies offer important advice for securing the attention of the grassroots—the primary target of disinformation. According to a Pew Research Center survey, the public already expects to be responsible for fighting disinformation, but only if the burden is shared equally with the government and social networking sites. However, only certain portions of the U.S. government retain meaningful public trust, with national defense-focused federal agencies enjoying the highest level of confidence and other government entities—such as the IRS and Congress—suffering from historic lows. While the severity of mistrust is a new development, the general trend is not. The aforementioned successful efforts were all tied to nonpartisan federal agencies staffed by national security professionals. Future implementation would benefit from adopting a similar structure.
Fighting to Win the Information War
If Washington hopes to win in the information space, changes to the U.S. position and understanding of information warfare will be necessary. Furthermore, information threats will have to be confronted both strategically and tactically. Without such shifts in U.S. policy, the West will remain vulnerable to future disinformation incursions, an unacceptable outcome.
Washington should start by un-freezing and utilizing the Global Engagement Center’s $80 million in funding that has been set aside to counter foreign disinformation and propaganda abroad. To maximize effectiveness, this strategy must be paired with a domestic partner-initiative that will similarly counter foreign influence targeted at domestic U.S. audiences. It is vital that this modern successor to the Active Measures Working Group goes beyond the original Group’s responsibilities of merely uncovering individual fake news stories because the breadth and the speed of disinformation proliferation on the internet make such a targeted approach unfeasible and ineffective. Instead, the proposed organization should focus on studying the trends of misinformation within the U.S. to understand a few key points—where the fake news is coming from, who is sending it, and who it is reaching—and propose to the appropriate authorities how to best counter these assaults in a way that minimizes any impact on U.S. democratic ideals and civil liberties. This group would place all study on the topic under one institutional roof, better integrating threat analysis and recommendation responsibilities.
However, the real benefit of these initiatives is in the message they will send to Western, liberal democratic allies. Given the United States’ traditional position as a global leader, its current role at the center of several international organizations and Washington’s preeminent leadership in the current world order, it is almost certain that a strong recognition of the disinformation threat in Washington would increase focus on this issue across NATO capitals and strategic planning offices. As previously discussed, many states and organizations have their own initiatives to counter disinformation, yet these unconnected initiatives could greatly benefit from enhanced coordination, cooperation, and knowledge sharing. Peak integration is only possible when the U.S. sets the West’s agenda. Washington must reclaim this responsibility.