Western countries have pitifully few defenses against ever-more-powerful disinformation campaigns. Banding together can help.
It was Sweden that manufactured the nerve gas that nearly killed Russian double-agent Sergey Skripal in Salisbury in March. Or the Czechs. Or in fact the UK itself. Russian media deliver a dizzying range of exaggerations and falsehoods about our countries, while we usually opt for the high road of near-silence. But truth won’t prevail on its own. We need a robust defense not just of our borders but of our free and open societies: in other words, a Communications NATO for information warfare.
Following last month’s chemical attack in Syria, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov denounced reports of it as fabrications. A Russian military spokesman insisted that the UK had been involved, an allegation that Britain’s UN ambassador Karen Pierce dismissed as a “grotesque, blatant lie” and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson called “demented.”
Such responses to disinformation are like swatting flies: time-consuming and ineffective. But not addressing disinformation is ineffective, too. “Western media still have this thing where they try to be completely balanced, so they’ll say, ‘the Russians say this, but on the other hand the Americans say this is not true,’ They end up giving a lie and the truth the same value,” noted Toomas Hendrik Ilves, the former president of Estonia.
Fending off disinformation will get even harder when a new Russian news outlet launches in the United States this month. Going by the unwieldy name of “USA Really. Wake Up Americans,” this private counterpart to the Russian government’s RT is owned by the media company RIA FAN, which previously resided at the St. Petersburg “troll factory” the Internet Research Agency.
“Why do we even allow RT to broadcast in our countries?” asked Ilves. Why, indeed. But as "USA Really" shows, even if EU or NATO member states collectively revoked RT’s broadcasting licenses, Russian disinformation would not go away. The EU is trying to provide some sort of coordinated response. According to an April 26 statement, the European Commission will introduce a Code of Practice for online platforms; it will, for example, require the platforms to be transparent about political advertising and to identify and close fake accounts (“bots”). The EU also runs the three-year-old East StratCom Task Force.
That’s an excellent start, but it’s dwarfed by Russia’s massive and highly sophisticated information operations. Though the East StratCom Task Force does a valiant job documenting mostly Russian disinformation, it consists of only 14 people. In a new report on Russian disinformation campaigns, the RAND Corporation advises governments to increase their populations’ media literacy. That’s a laudable goal, but a long-term one. So who will go head-to-head with Sergey Lavrov, the way NATO would confront, say, Russia’s armed forces if they made aggressive moves? And what if other countries or entities (say, ISIS at its zenith) attack us with propaganda campaigns? We can’t hang the job on our own news media. “You can’t press news organizations into the service of the nation,” noted Prof. Robert Picard, a senior research fellow at the University of Oxford’s Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.
And yet our citizens consider disinformation a serious threat. In a Eurobarometer poll conducted in March, 83 percent of EU citizens called fake news a problem for democracy. NATO has proven that a defense alliance can withstand severe military threats, but because today’s national security threats no longer involve only armed forces, our defense most be more wide-ranging too. Indeed, earlier this year Sweden announced that it will establish an Agency for Psychological Defense.
What we need now is a cross-border defense alliance against disinformation — call it Communications NATO. Such an alliance is, in fact, nearly as important as its military counterpart. (And militarily non-aligned countries such as Sweden and Finland could join too.)
During the Cold War, the United States funded and successfully ran what one might call an information shield: Radio Free Europe and its sister operation Radio Liberty. But they provided information with the goal of enlightening people behind the Iron Curtain, not Americans.
RFE/RL remains a respected news source. But it’s just that: a news outlet reporting on Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and the Middle East. Together with VOA, RFE/RL runs the fact-checking service Polygraph.info – but like the East Stratcom Task Force, it has a small staff with a limited scope. A Communications NATO would immediately and jointly be able to respond disinformation directed at our countries.
While combating propaganda sounds dirty, it’s crucial defense. By pinning the Novichok nerve agent on Sweden or the Czech Republic, or blaming the UK for the nerve gas attack in Syria, the Kremlin sows confusion among our populations and makes us lose trust in our institutions. What if Russia suddenly announced that its Baltic Fleet had dispatched an armada towards Britain? Would most people greet the news with steely resolve in the knowledge that their governments would know what to do, or would constant Kremlin-influenced reports about the incompetence of British institutions make them conclude that any resistance was pointless?
Picard sees a role for Western news media. “In the past couple of years they have become much better at fact-checking information from social media,” he pointed out. “Now they just have to find a way of warning the public about the disinformation they find. Perhaps instead of always only highlighting good new websites and apps they should also feature bad ones.”
Such a move would help strengthening citizens’ resilience against disinformation. And a Communications NATO could explain how things actually work in our countries. Otherwise many of our own citizens may indeed conclude that renegade scientists at Porton Down – or was it the Czech Republic? – spread the Novichok. That would be a chink in the armor of our free and open societies.