Since the US presidential election, RT and Sputnik, Russia’s state-funded foreign media networks, have dominated the discussion about the US response to Russian disinformation. This month, the American government debated whether those outlets should be categorised as foreign agents; a recent article in The New York Times Magazine labelled RT “the most effective propaganda operation of the 21st century so far”.
Many Americans seem increasingly to embrace the belief that snuffing out these networks and otherwise responding directly to Russian fakes will win the information war. It won’t. To win this fight, Americans need to think seriously about why RT, Sputnik and “fake news” resonate with so many people in the first place. RT and Sputnik are bellwethers for the progressing American policy response to disinformation. On September 14, Molly McKew, a writer and consultant who describes herself as an “information warfare expert,” testified before Congress that these “media outlets” and others “deep within the shadow space” have infected America. In response, McKew would have us “develop a rapid response capability for irregular information warfare” to “secure our information space”. She also recommended more regulation for social media.
Unfortunately, these views are shared by many people who work in the burgeoning anti-fake-news field. They discuss responding directly to Russia by restricting speech, flagging false information on public platforms and opening centres to counter disinformation. The creation of a Western media antidote to RT is floated regularly, even though the channel has only about eight million viewers in the US each week. (While it has more viewers on YouTube, they are largely brought in by memes or disaster videos, not news.)
What no one seems to care to discuss is the people who are targets of Russian disinformation, why its narratives find fertile ground among them and what can be done to change that.
According to the Pew Research Centre, only 20 per cent of Americans trust their government. The same low percentage has “a lot” of trust in the national news media. It’s impossible to say definitively what causes this mistrust, but its growth has coincided with the rise of both the adrenalin-driven internet news cycle and the dying of local journalism over the past two decades. Without news that connects people to their town councils or county fair, or stories that analyse how federal policies affect local businesses, people are left with news about big banks in New York and dirty politics in Washington.
Readers compare this coverage with their dwindling bank balances and crumbling infrastructure and feel disconnected and disenfranchised, and latch onto something — anything — that speaks to them. That might be President Donald Trump’s tweets. Or dubious “news” from an extreme right- or left-wing site might ring true. Or they might turn to Russian disinformation, which exploits this trust gap. All is not lost. Disinformation can be defeated without the establishment of a shiny new initiative cased in the language of Cold War 2.0. Instead of “rapid information operations”, the US should work to systematically rebuild analytical skills across the American population and invest in the media to ensure that it is driven by truth, not clicks.
The fight starts in people’s minds, and the moulding of them. In K-12 curriculums, states should encourage a widespread refocusing on critical reading and analysis skills for the digital age. Introductory seminars at universities should include a crash course in sourcing and emotional manipulation in the media. Similar courses could be created as professional development for adults, beginning with state employees. Large corporations could be offered government incentives to participate, too.
Training like this has a proven track record. In Ukraine, Irex, a non-governmental organisation, trained 15,000 people in critical thinking, source evaluation and emotional manipulation. As a result, Irex measured a 29 per cent increase in participants who double check the news they consume. Another neighbour of Russia, Finland, has been resistant to Russian influence in part because of its media education programme, which begins in childhood.
The US government should also work to level the information playing field, increasing its investment in public broadcasters and demanding a hefty financial commitment from companies such as Facebook and Twitter — the unwitting agents of Russia’s information war — to support the proliferation of local, citizen-focused journalism. If social networks are unwilling to be the arbiters of truth (despite 45 per cent of American adults’ getting news from Facebook), they should at the very least provide grants to reporters who cover the local issues that most immediately affect people’s lives and donate advertising to small outlets that cannot compete with national media giants.
Finally, under no circumstances should the US attempt to restrict freedom of the media. The US might label RT or Sputnik a foreign agent, but it should never ban them. It also need not reinvent the wheel by creating an American version of RT.
These would be grave mistakes that would erode the US position as a beacon of free speech. They would contribute to the crisis of trust that makes Russian disinformation successful in the first place.
Russia has very deftly exploited America’s weaknesses — but these are weaknesses of our own making. Until policymakers start putting people at the heart of their fight against disinformation, they will continue to be easy targets for Russian lies.
— The New York Times News Service
Nina Jankowicz is a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Centre’s Kennan Institute.