Striking Back: Overt and Covert Options to Combat Russian Disinformation

By Thomas Kent

Russian leaders know they will not win a conventional military conflict with the United States. They also know they don’t have to. Despite America’s advantages in alliances, advanced weaponry, and manufacturing capability, Russia has trained to fight in the information space and honed their skills to the point that in any conflict they will have filled the world’s media with falsehoods before the first soldier has packed his ruck.

In this book, Kent describes how Russia has seized the advantage in the information space, which the West has largely ceded, and offers a number of recommendations for fighting back against Russian information operations both at home and abroad. Though he states up front “information wars are hard, both to wage and to measure who is winning,” he is optimistic that the United States has all the tools and skills available to compete and that democracies have more attractive stories to tell.

Russia has weaponized its understanding of the current social environment in Europe and the U.S. where the speed of social and economic change has left many wary of globalization, angry at elites, and distrustful of newcomers who are changing the look and culture of their nation. This situation is fertile ground for a multitude of Russian-promoted conspiracy theories and grievances, nearly all of which start with a grain of truth.

To fight back against this flood of disinformation, information campaigns must be able to identify the highest profile sources of misinformation and expose them quickly and repeatedly to ensure they are fully discredited. This will encourage consumers to doubt the validity of future missives, thus “shooting the archer, not just the arrow.” One way to identify the most impactful misinformation is to monitor the trending topics of news sites or social media. The most inflammatory information often receives the most clicks and shares, so responses to disinformation must also have an emotional appeal. To effectively influence populations targeted by Russian misinformation, messages can appeal to their dignity by showing how Russians are trying to fool or con them or appeal to their sense of nationalism by revealing how the Russians seek to divide their nation or rewrite their history.

Unfortunately, governments are often the least capable entities to effectively fight back against Russian misinformation as they are slowed down by bureaucracy and policy. However, governments can support or fund a multitude of partners who are sufficiently creative, flexible, and informed. The Global Engagement Center (GEC) has authorities and funding to hire private sector advertising and marketing companies who are skilled in describing target audiences and providing the most appealing content. Government-funded public broadcasters like the Voice of America or BBC are credible sources who can provide accurate information to populations both inside and outside of Russia. Foreign entities such as the EU and NATO both run strategic communications centers which the U.S. government could partner with for information collection and dissemination. The Alliance for Securing Democracy, funded by the German Marshall Fund of the United States, operates the Hamilton 2.0 dashboard which monitors Russian-funded broadcasting and social network operations.

Some of the most creative and agile actors in the information space are Non-Government Actors (NGA), which include civil society activists, local journalists, and media literacy trainers. Local NGAs will best understand their native cultures and concerns. They can effectively communicate pro-democracy messages and distribute accurate information whose resonance drowns out Russian disinformation. NGAs such as Bellingcat, a collection of researchers from over 20 countries, have mastered the use of open source information to provide in-depth research on Russian actions and disinformation. They are natural partners for the intelligence community, which is still struggling to leverage publicly available information in intelligence products.

Governments can also provide “backshop” support to the most organized and effective NGAs. This can include intelligence analysis of the social network environment, recommendations on which groups to target, and feedback on the efficacy of particular messaging campaigns. Governments can also provide NGAs with training on keyword search software, use of bots, graphic design, how to drive visibility of messages, etc.

Kent argues that there is also a need to establish information operations campaigns within Russia itself. The United States must establish a strategy with tactics that can be immediately employed if/when required. This will include identifying the different subsets of the Russian population which will require unique messaging; in a leaked missive, the Russian Presidential Administration established six population groups that require differentiated messaging: pensioners, patriotically minded citizens, Putin loyalists, youth, the poor, and citizens with critical attitudes toward authorities. The U.S. will also need to identify the means by which it can rapidly deploy information into Russian spaces (cell phone services, social media groups, email distros, etc) and test these different communications channels in advance. Other pre-emptive measures include educating Russian NGAs on how to spot bots, avoid Russian surveillance of communication, and utilize software for secure communications.

Finally, the author acknowledges that covert information operations have a place in any strategy, but they should be limited and thoroughly assessed for risk. This includes passing the “Washington Post” test, as ultimately any covert operation will be exposed and the U.S. must determine how will it look when the actors involved have been exposed. Joseph Nye offers three ethical standards to help assess the risk/reward ratio: whether the goal was worthy, whether there was proper analysis of the changes for success, and what unintended consequences the action brought on. “Winning hearts and minds” has become a cliché term in military discourse, but it may in fact be the only way to win a future conflict with Russia, and the United States has a lot of work to do to be postured for success.

Follow Up Questions:

  1. How does the U.S. regain credibility with its allies and neutral parties in the information space?
  2. Can the U.S. project a positive narrative about democracy while senior leaders claim loudly that our democracy is rigged and fake?
  3. How do we incorporate media literacy into the military? Is having NewsGuard enough? Are all/most senior officers/NCOs media literate?

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