Countering Russia’s Disinformation and Malign Influence

DATE:  24th of July, 3:00 pm – 4:00 pm

EVENT TRANSCRIPT: Countering Russia’s Disinformation and Malign Influence

VENUE: Online

SPEAKERS:  Nina Jankowicz, Brian Whitmore, Dr Andrew Foxall

MODERATOR:  Dr Andrew Foxall


Dr Andrew Foxall  00:19

Well, good afternoon everybody from London and we are just going to leave it a couple of minutes until everybody’s had the chance to join us. So, do use the opportunity to get a drink, make a cup of tea, a glass of water, and otherwise make yourselves comfortable for what promises to be a rather timely and interesting discussion. Well, we just hit two minutes past three here in London, so I think it’s a, it’s a good opportunity to start. Welcome to today’s Henry Jackson Society event on countering Russian disinformation and malign influence and it seems like there is, would scarcely be a better time to be discussing this topic than done today. As many of you will undoubtedly be aware, earlier this week, the UK Intelligence and Security Committee released its report, its long awaited report into Russia, and it described Russia as, quote, an all-encompassing security threat to the UK, further adding what is now a much quoted phrase, that quote, Russian influence in the UK is the new normal, end quote, and to my mind, indeed, as I argued in a piece of the telegraph earlier this week, the report does paint a clear picture and tell a clear story of Kremlin subversion and malign influence in the UK over a number of decades. In addition, of course, as many of you will also be aware, last week the Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab alleged that Russia had interfered in last year’s UK general election. And last week as well, we heard allegations from GCHQ (government communication headquarters) that Russian state sponsored hackers had targeted researchers in the UK working on a covid-19 vaccine. As I, as I mentioned, today’s event focuses on these, on these issues. And here to talk about those issues, and to put it into a much broader and longer context are two excellent speakers. And indeed, as I said earlier, if there’s scarcely a better time to be talking about these issues, then there’s also scarcely two better people to be talking about them. The first of our speakers is dear friend, Neil Jankowicz, who is disinformation fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center in the United States and also author, as many of you will know, of the excellent new book:” How to Lose the digital”, sorry “How to Lose the information war”. I would wait a copy of the book in front of my screen, but the publishers only made an electronic copy available to me. So Nina, as if on cue, is shamelessly waving a copy of the book in front of her screen. The second speaker is Brian Whitmore from the Center for European policy analysis in DC, where he is director of the Russia program. Brian, as many of you will be aware, formerly worked at Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty, and has been ubiquitous to discussions about Russia and Russian foreign policy since he launched the brilliant, the ever brilliant, power political podcast back in 2008 I think it was. So welcome Nina and Brian, welcome also to the attendees, our viewers. Nina, what I’d like to do is really get the conversation started with you please if I may, we appeared on a TV panel discussion earlier this week talking about the Russia report. And I suppose what I what I would want from your perspective as you know, a disinformation fellow, I wonder if you could just you know, pick out what you see as the as the key points that flow from that. You know, what the report reveals and crucially also what it means, and once you’ve done that we can then bring Brian in for his thoughts on what that means broadly, but Nina for the moment over to you.

Nina Jankowicz  04:46

So, thank you so much drew for convening us today. Of course, I wish that we were all in London together, but until that can happen, this will have to suffice. So, thanks everyone, for tuning in. The press report was really interesting to me as an American frankly. Because I think in many ways the United Kingdom has stepped into the vacuum created by the US, which has abdicated its role on countering disinformation. I really respect a lot of the stuff that the UK Government has doing, has been doing particularly abroad with regard to Russian disinformation. But it appears, at least according to this inquiry that, you know, the UK Government has dropped the ball at home, especially interesting was to see the laudatory comments about, for instance, the Muller report and our intelligence committee’s assessments here in the United States, which, of course, have all gone all but unheated here. And in the UK, you’ve not quite gotten even that far, even to in conducting these inquiries into Russian interference. Of course, there is a broad pattern of this interference. And I know we’ll get to some of the Central and Eastern European case studies. But even if you look at the open-source evidence of Russian interference in the UK over the past four to five years, there’s plenty of that. I know on the AlJazeera panel that we did earlier this week, Drew, I had mentioned the ads that came to light as a result of the House Democrats releasing Facebook ads that were purchased by the internet research agency in 2018. Or sorry, in 2016. They released them in 2018. And not only is the United States targeted there, but there are several ads that I guess were swept up in, in that dump of information that also target the European Union and the UK and target anti-immigration messages to people who are going to be most likely to be vulnerable to those messages. So that is clear, open-source evidence of that sort of interference and of course, and you can speak to this much more in depth than I can Drew, but you know, there’s evidence of illicit financial flows in especially in the City of London, certainly media influence in the United Kingdom. And this is a clear pattern and a present danger to the UK, and it seems that, you know, the intelligence agencies in particular have dropped the ball. I really, it struck me in the report that the resulting text that Parliament received about Russian interference was six lines from MI five. And that didn’t amount to any real assessment of what the threat was. And I think that is clear among British civil servants that I know. There is a recognition of that threat. There has been a recognition of the threat from British leadership, it just has not produced that evidence, that naming and shaming that we really need to organize resources to organize public opinion in order to mount a successful response to disinformation. And one of the things that I thought was extremely interesting in the report was, we were talking about this before we went live, the voting system in the UK, which is all but impenetrable thanks to the fact that you use paper ballots, which we’re still working toward here in the United States. I also thought there was a good nod to local authorities and their role in protecting the Democratic process. You know, we often Bandy about this needs to be a whole of government solution. When we’re talking about that we often mean, at the national or here in the US and the federal level, we don’t really talk about the role that municipalities, states, local governments have to play in this. And it is important, those are, in many cases, more trusted authorities than those at the national level. And I think that is really key. The thing that I think the report is missing, and this is true of many conversations about Russian influence and interference in democratic societies, is that the report securitizes the problem. It is talking about it as the responsibility of intelligence agencies of the Foreign Office of Defense Department’s etc. But there needs to be a human element to these responses. And of course, I’ll talk about that a little bit more. It’s one of the key takeaways from my book. But I think, you know, we were missing a large part of the equation when we keep this just in the national security realm, and I would have liked to have seen a nod to the ways that the fissures in our societies are being manipulated by bad actors, not just Russia, but also China, Iran, even domestic purveyors of disinformation, and what the national governments can do to address that, because that is also a national security issue. So, I think I’ll leave it there, and we can go forward with Brian now.

Dr Andrew Foxall  09:22

Thank you, Nina. Brian, I mean, one of the, one of the key sort of takeaways that I get from the report is that basically, successive UK governments were short sighted and naive when it comes to the nature of the threat that Russia poses. But, you know, in reality the UK perhaps more than any other western country ought to have been acutely aware of this. You know, could you talk to us on that, you know, a much broader context of Russian malign influence.

Brian Whitmore  09:52

I agree. I mean, the report I mean, the main, the big takeaway for me was the UK was too slow to react, that UK was slower than the US and it seems to be contrasting the US as a positive example here. And as far as that goes, I guess that’s right. US law enforcement was quicker to see the threat in 16 than than the UK. But on the other side of it in the US, to a degree, I think larger than the UK and anyplace else, the issue has been turned into a domestic political football. And if you raise the issue of Russian interference, you’re going to be called a McCarthyite from the left or a, you know, an anti-Trump fanatic from the right. And that the issue is, I find it interesting enough that it was over securitize in the UK document and the way you, you said this, Nina, I agree with you. But I think in the US it’s under securitized in the sense that this is treated like a domestic political issue that’s just like anything else. We could be talking about taxes or health care or anything else. When this is an issue of national security, there’s as Americans, we should all agree on and I think this is a shortcoming in the United States, so I would welcome kind of opening up the discussion on that part of it as we move forward. The other point I would make is that none of this should have come as a surprise to either us in the United States or you in the United Kingdom. If you go back to the end of 2013, before anybody was talking about these issues, a Kremlin base the Kremlin back think tank called the Center for Strategic Communications, put out a white paper, which created policy recommendations from Vladimir Putin. That said, there are these wedge issues, they didn’t mean to say wedge issues, but they said there are these issues in Western societies that can be exploited along issues of gender identity, along issues of multiculturalism. And so then Russia should kind of position itself as the champion of traditional values and drive wedges into the, into the West. This was no secret, the Kremlin created a Kremlin based Think Tank and wrote a report on this, it was covered in the Russian media. This coincided with the kind of rise of Dmitry Kiselyov as the kind of meeting television anchor in Russia, who was kind of became a cultural warrior along these times. It came at the time when Putin made a speech, lambasting the gender and I’m quoting now gender ,listen, in fertile liberalism of the West that Russia stands superior to, so this is an, we should have been ready for this. I was writing about this at this time at the time, quite frankly, I didn’t take it as seriously as I should. I saw this report that came out and I wrote a blog post saying  isn’t that funny. The Russians are gonna, you know, exploit wedge issues in the West. I’m not laughing anymore, right. But I was laughing initially in 2013 when I read this. Finally, the point I would make is that Russia has very successfully created a broader equivalency narrative, that everybody does this in what they are doing isn’t any different than what we are doing. And that this is a really important meta narrative that I think we in the West need to learn how to address, because it’s corroding the way we approach this domestically. Again, this is why this has become such a political issue in the US. So, I think this is something we need to focus on. I mean, the biggest mistake we’ve all made here is that assuming this information war is actually about information, it’s not, it’s about democracy. And that’s, this is something that comes out loud and clear in Nina’s book. And I think we have to we have to, we have to push that, that issue. So, I will stop there. I tried to be very, very brief. I think you should always be polite, be brief, and be seated. I’m already seated. I’m always polite. And so now I’m going to be brief.

Andrew Foxall  13:52

Thank you, Brian. First of all, just say to our participants, if you have questions of your own, please do use the q&a facility, which will be at the bottom of your screens. And as and when they come through, I will either invite you to post the questions yourself or put them to Brian, and Nina myself. But while that’s happening, and Brian you mean, you touched on it, you know, your comments finished, I think, at an interesting point. And I’d like to bring Nina in here, because much of what you allude to actually is a central thesis of Nina’s book, which is, you know, what we can do about this, and as you say, you know, we in the UK,  you in the US, we’re not the first countries to suffer or experience this sort of offensive from Moscow, but actually there were countries that experienced this before. And actually, in some senses warned us that this would happen or it would come to us and we simply ignored or belittled those warnings. So, Nina, in thinking about, you know that the Russia report is good about what’s wrong, but it’s less good I think about what we can do. So perhaps, you know, drawing lessons from Central Eastern Europe as you do in your book, perhaps you can tell us exactly, you know, what, what we need to do about this?

Nina Jankowicz  15:12

I don’t know about exactly. I think the things that I highlight in the book are neglected parts of the solution. You know, we’ve gotten part of the way there, I think, everyone, we’re sort of agreeing now that this is a problem, we’re starting to generate these solutions. But I think we’ve in many ways squandered the past four years in the US and in the UK in terms of healing those societal fissures that are exploited. So, three key lessons, I think, emerged from the case studies and I think our audience today is familiar enough with, you know, the information environments in Estonia and Georgia, Czech Republic, Poland, Ukraine, which I cover in the book that I don’t need to go into detail, but happy to answer questions about them, if you’d like at the end. The three things  that come out most starkly that I think are either misconceptions or again deserve our attention and investment are: first of all, there’s always a homegrown element to disinformation operations. Not only do they run on emotion, and really, you know, we’re not talking about cut and dry fake news anymore. We’re talking about stuff that these grievances that are really deep seated in society, but increasingly, especially with Russian disinformation, it’s getting laundered through homegrown elements. And one of the little vignettes in the book is about a flashmob. that occurred outside of the White House in July 4 2017. That was a bunch of American liberals, super progressive anti Trump liberals, who unknowingly had been supported by the internet research agency through the purchase of ads for their flash mob outside of the White House even after the election, even after these revelations. Right. And that’s true in many of the case studies across Central and Eastern Europe. You know, it makes it much more difficult to play what I call whack- a-troll when we’re doing content moderation online when those posts and, you know, those ideas are coming from authentic local voices. And that is something we need to recognize. Recognizing that, it leads you to the fact that we need to invest in people in order to really solve this problem and address the fissures that bad actors are exploiting. And through that, you know, there’s a lot of a lot of things we need to do. We need better governance, first of all, but, you know, you can’t legislate that, so, looking at things like media, literacy, civics, and just general awareness building. That’s why these reports, the rescue report, the Moller report are so important because they, they establish a standard or shared understanding of what actually happened in all of these instances. So, investing in people, education, media, public journalism, journalism as a public good, these are all really important things. They are not instantaneous solutions. They, you know, are going to take generations, but if you look at the pattern of Russian interference across Central and Eastern Europe over the past decade plus, it’s clear that Russia understands that this is a general generational game, and we haven’t quite gotten there yet. And the third thing, which isn’t necessarily a recommendation for how to solve it, but it is a recommendation for our conception of this problem, and Brian was touching on this a little bit in his opening remarks, is that we cannot fight foreign disinformation when we are embracing its tactics ourselves. That’s clear from case studies in Georgia, it’s certainly clear with what’s going on right now in Poland with the Law and Justice Party, which is a stark example for the United States and what we are dealing with right now. We still haven’t disincentivized to the use of disinformation in our democratic discourse. In fact, the folks who have taken pledges against the use of disinformation are often at a disincentive themselves, because they’re on an equal footing in terms of the campaign environment. We’ve not taken the, you know, the very low hanging fruit steps of even making advertising transparency regulated here in the United States. And so, we really need to recognize that disinformation is a threat no matter the vector foreign or domestic and the nations that have done that are, you know, miles ahead of our two nations, which seem to be struggling with that very basic pronouncement. And so, I hope that we can depoliticize this topic as Brian was speaking about in his earlier remarks, because that is key to really shepherding a whole of government, but also hold of society response. And I know those are, you know, kind of blob terms that we throw around a lot. But but they are really true. If you look across any of the countries that have a resilient response, it’s not just something that exists in their, you know, their Ministry of Foreign Affairs or their intelligence community they involve, they involve schools, they involve libraries, they involve civil society, organizations, media, it’s about creating a more vibrant fabric of democracy. And I know that sounds a bit anodyne, but it’s something we really need to drive home and get out of our normal national security thinking. Get the Department of Education in the room. Get departments of culture where they exist in the room. It’s critically important. And I will say, I think that is one thing that the UK has actually done well, for all, all of the, you know, issues with the Russia report, the fusion doctrine and the response to the Skripal poisoning, I think, are an example of how that whole of government response whole of society response can work. I would just like to see it employed on a longer-term scale more proactively rather than in reaction to crisis events like that.

Andrew Foxall  20:37

The, I mean, the story in a sense , the story you seem to be to be telling us is that, you know, it’s less that Russia is strong, and actually more that we are weak. I mean, Brian, is that is that something you would go along with?

Brian Whitmore  20:52

I would agree, I would phrase it differently. I would say that Russia is using asymmetrical tactics against the West. I mean, we’re talking about an economy let’s face it, that’s like, you know, smaller than the state of Texas, or smaller than the state of New York. So, they’re using asymmetrical tactics and exploiting our weaknesses just like a terrorist group might do. And I don’t use that term lightly. But it’s, the principle is similar. I’m also very glad that Nina raised the issue of information laundering because I love, I mean, this is a great concept. I’m not sure who coined it first, but that person should get an award because we see this all over the place. And I like the example you use of the demonstration in front of the White House. I noticed this in my time in Central and Eastern Europe all the time, you would see a narrative, and it would start in a place like Sputnik or RT where nobody, nobody respectable is really going to take it seriously. But then it would get picked up by some so called alternative news site, right, that’s kind of quasi respectable, and then it would get picked up by something a little bit more respectable. And then the next thing you know it’s in the mainstream media. I mean, one of my favourite things about this came along with the Nord Stream two debate in Europe. And it was, the narrative was that well, the Americans just don’t want Nord Stream two because they want to sell us their gas. Ignoring of course the fact that until very recently, it was against US law for the US to export hydrocarbons. And actually, special legislation had to be passed in the United States Congress in order to do this. But this narrative, which began in places like Sputnik and RT, weaved its way through these so-called alternative news sites. There were a couple in the Czech Republic that I, that I used to monitor like arrow news, and I’m sure Nina is familiar with those, and then it would pop into a lot of fronton Yes, or literally nobody or one of the mainstream like Czech newspapers and suddenly Bing, it’s true, right, because its been laundered. And I think we, there’s a lot more work needs to be done on this concept. I’m really glad that Nina brought up the issue of media literacy and I think here we have a lot to learn from our Finnish and our Estonian friends, because they are teaching media literacy from like, like primary school. And your average Estonian like first grader is probably better at spotting fake news and disinformation narratives, then your average adult American or UK citizen and I think there’s a lot to learn there. We got to get better at rapid response. And this is where our Lithuanian friends can really teach us a lot. I mean, they have a disinformation, hybrid warfare war room in their MOD, where they are monitoring narratives that are popping up on social media, investments, suspicious investments that can be used as kind of amplifiers of disinformation and other hybrid threats. And they’re, it’s almost like they have a DEF CON level, where they are like seeing when is this rate rising to the level of a threat that we have to respond to. So, we can learn a lot from our allies that have been facing this for much longer than we have. I think the Baltic states and the Finns have been very good at this. And again, this holistic approach, I mean, kind of siloing cyber information and financial crimes, I think these things need to be put pulled all together, the Lithuanians brought their cyber defence under their defence ministry, and its actually proven to be very effective. Um, in terms of the broader like, what is to be done the (что нужно сделать) aspect of this, I think we need to really focus on the broader narratives. I mean, there are some very broad meta narratives that the Russians have put out there that we have to address one by one. I identified five of them in Central and Eastern Europe in a report I did last year. The betrayal narrative, that the West somehow unfairly snatched these countries into NATO in the EU after promising Russia they wouldn’t do this. Never happened. These promises never happened, but most people believe this. The equivalency narrative, the idea that countries like the Czech Republic and Poland are this arena for the United States, and Russia to compete. No, these are countries with their own agency which have made their own choices. But yet this equivalency narrative has taken, taken hold. The moral decline narrative that the European Union is this decadent place that has no respect for traditional values and that Russia is the defender of traditional values. The failed state narrative, the idea that the EU or the US depending on who you’re talking to, is, ill-equipped to to fulfil the functions of a modern state, and finally the Russophobia narrative. And that any criticism of Russia is inherently Russophobic and therefore racist. So, it’s kind of stigmatizing any criticism of the Kremlin, these are the five that I identified in Central Europe but we can find more in other parts of the world, but we have to focus on addressing these broader narratives. And along those lines, we have to learn to tell our Western story again, there has to be a counter offensive. When I was growing up my favourite class in school was Western (inaudible), because it taught me about how our American story is part of this bigger Western story, right? And to take kind of pride in that broader Western story. Now, we don’t teach Western (inaudible) even in our schools anymore, in a lot of school districts and people have forgot, people don’t know the western story and don’t talk about it, let alone are not proud of it. I recently saw a poll that only 52% of Americans in their 20s today believe it’s essential to live in a democracy. This is a poll conducted by the Journal of democracy, only 52%. That was that number when I was growing up was in the 90s. Right? I want to ask that you know, the other 48%, what exactly do you want to live under if you don’t want to live under a democracy? I think we to get the message out there that democracy is supposed to be messy. It’s not supposed to be this utopian end of history system. If you read the founding documents of the American Republic, democracy was designed to mitigate against human frailty. But humans are expected to be greedy and humans are expected to even sometimes be evil. And we build institutions that mitigate this and manage this. Right. I think we’ve gotten away from an understanding of what this is all supposed to be about. And the final thing I would say is that we have to address the broader ecosystem. Disinformation does not operate in a vacuum. It operates in, and Nina you do a great job in your book above addressing this, it works in countries that are polarized. It works in countries that have low public trust. It works in countries that have high inequality. It works in countries that have high levels of corruption, or any combination thereof of all of these things. And we need, the good news is it’s in our power to begin addressing these things. We can address the polarization issue if we had the political will to do so. We can address the public trust issue if we had the political will to do so. Inequality is another. I mean, one of the things I’m doing right now is really comparing this period to the late 40s, early 50s, when the kind of cold war consensus was being forged in western societies. And there was, there was a notion then, that we had to bring in these disenfranchised groups that were susceptible to communist propaganda, and make them have buy in into the system. So, you had and I’m not making a welfare state argument here for the sake of a welfare state. But you had this Keynesian economic consensus that kind of took the American working class and made it part of the great American middle class, and they were no longer susceptible to communist propaganda. And now in this winner take all economy, I mean, there is a national security piece here, that we have to we have to address and again that is not a political statement as much of a national security statement. And I think I probably talked a little too long. So, I’m going to stop now and let him send it send it back to you, Drew.

Dr Andrew Foxall  29:11

Thank you, Brian. I think you mentioned the word corruption, which is something, certainly a theme that that comes through in the Russia report and the report itself that, you know, it’s quite clear actually,  that again, successive UK governments turned a blind eye to this, you know, allegedly politically dodgy clothes to put in money flowed into the United Kingdom, created network of influence in society and politics that other notions or areas that we might, you know, refer to as a big example of elite capture. And, but so bad is the issue now, so severe is the issue, that actually, we can’t do anything about it right? All you can do now is mitigate the worst excesses of it. So, I want to come back to the question that I posed after I started off asking Nina, which is, you know, what can be done? Certainly, in respect of corruption, but also here in the UK as well, you know, when, when there are discussions about Russian influence, and there are discussions about Russian influence on a relatively regular basis. And, you know, the three of us usually feature in some of them, if not all of them. A suggestion that comes round almost every discussion is well, you know, the most visible manifestation of this is RT, right? It’s Russia today, or the artist formerly known as Russia Today, the Kremlin propaganda outlet propaganda channel. And so, what we should do is simply take its license away from it, you know, does that work? You know, Nina, drawing on your experiences of Central East Europe, you know, simply shutting down the avenues of disinformation does that, you know is that in any way effective? And at the same time, I might throw another sort of point in, after 2014 and the annexation of Crimea, a lot of time and effort and money was devoted to debunking. Right? We saw the brilliant work, for example of StopFake, Yevhen Fedchenko’s initiative in Kiev, in Ukraine, devoted to this, the you know, the idea that actually all you needed to do was disprove a Russian lie in order that people then cease to believe it. But actually, the more recent evidence suggests that that’s not the case. That the effort needed to debunk the lie, you know, just does not reap the rewards that you might hope for. Nina, your book touches on this. I wonder if you could just, sort of speak around that broader issue for us please?

Nina Jankowicz  32:03

Yeah. So, in Ukraine, they’ve tried to block a couple, for instance Russian social media sites as well as the search engine Yandex. And this happened, I remember very clearly this day, I was actually in Prague at a conference sponsored by the European European values think tank that day, and there were a couple Ukrainians in the room when this news broke that RT, sorry not RT, that OdnoKlassniki and VKontakte as well as Yandex were going to be blocked. And the immediate reaction by the Westerners in the room was, you know, this is a very bad thing, and we shouldn’t be blocking things. That’s how I feel about RT as well, RT and Sputnik. I actually think that even the what we did in terms of forcing them to register under FARA, the foreign agents Registration Act here in the United States, was a little excessive. And if we were going to do that, it would have been better to have equitable enforcement of FARA across the board, which has poor enforcement generally, and target all of the state run agencies that might have run afoul of FARA at the time. But getting back to Ukraine, what we’ve seen in response to this block of VKontakte, OdnoKlassniki and Yandex, is the widespread adoption of VPNs in Ukraine so that people can get around those blocks. And yes, a lot of people have migrated from the VK to Facebook, but they’re still using VK for some things. And those sites are still among the top 10 most access sites, at least the last time I checked, this may have changed now in Ukraine. And so, I think the question there of what you’re doing, besides, you know, putting restrictions on people’s speech and access to information is a question. There’s also a question in terms of, at least in Ukraine, this is less of an issue here in the United States or in the UK. And in Ukraine, they’re aiming for reconciliation one day, right? We’d all like to see peace, and we’d like to see friendly relations between Russia and Ukraine. A lot of Ukrainians have relatives in Russia, have relatives who are still living in Donbass and what does that do? What does that do to the connecting fabric that, you know, that was the way they communicated for a very long time. So, I think, you know, more awareness building in that sense would have been a smarter move than just a blanket ban. Interestingly, we haven’t seen the Zelensky administration roll back those bans, even though he had said that during his campaign that he was going to look into that sort of thing. So personally, I’m against. I think that’s just whack a troll on a larger scale. It also fuels the What about ism of the Russian Federation. It says that, you know, the West doesn’t like press freedom when we do things like that. I would much prefer just greater awareness building. I think the labelling that YouTube and Facebook have done with state sponsored propaganda, giving people more information so they understand where it’s coming from is great because especially in terms of RT, and what they’ve done is kind of launder trust, especially after they changed their name from Russia Today. They’ve used cute cat videos and what we call disaster porn, like videos of tsunamis and things like this on their YouTube channel to build trust as like a, you know, trusted source of information, and then they throw in the political narratives under the gun. And sometimes they do actually, I wouldn’t call it good reporting, but they shine light on issues that aren’t getting covered in the mainstream media here, which also helps with the fringe groups. And so, we shouldn’t be just blanket banning. And in terms of debunking, I have had a lot of frustration with the debunking industry as a whole. I think they add something to the general research and understanding of how disinformation works. But I think especially early on when the West was finally waking up to the threat of Russian disinformation, after the annexation of Crimea and invasion and war in the Donbass, we were all in on debunking, and to me, the research doesn’t show the utility yet. I think, again, it’s great to establish those narratives and track them, but in terms of people that they’re reaching, that if and if they’re changing minds, I’ve not really seen compelling evidence about that. And if you look at the  psychological research, we actually see, this dates back to the 70s, I’m not even talking about social media era stuff. When someone is told a falsehood and then corrected, sometimes the correction, often the correction, actually reinforces that falsehood over correcting them in their minds. And social media, there’s been kind of mixed studies about this, there was the implied truth effect early on and Facebook’s labelling, where if something was marked as false, people were more likely to believe that things that didn’t have a label were true. That speaks to problems of scale. What I would prefer to see and I think what the social media firms are airing toward these days and I think this is a good thing, is creating friction in terms of sharing, you know. We’ve seen on Instagram when things are rated as false, a pop up and interstitial, especially for young people, that says, a third party check fact checker has rated this as false are you sure you want to see it? Similar things for sharing, that’s really important. We’ve also seen Twitter roll out something where if you haven’t opened a link you’re about to retweet, it is now testing whether asking the user if they want to retweet that stops that information being shared farther and faster than it might otherwise. And that’s not an impingement on freedom of speech. It’s just nudging you toward good behaviour and changing behaviours online. Ultimately, that’s what we’re talking about, at least in the online realm, right? We all know now that when we get an email from a Nigerian prince who’s trying to make us rich, we know not to trust that. We know that when we get a phone call asking here in the United States, this happens all the time, maybe it doesn’t in the UK, asking about your social security information. We know that that’s a scam as well. We need to instil that same sort of kind of behaviour change here, and conception change of the information that we encounter online. And I think that over time, it’s harder to do than a simple debunk, but it’s going to have a broader effect.

Dr Andrew Foxall  37:52

Brian, I could see you nodding along with almost…

Brian Whitmore  37:54

Yeah, no, I couldn’t agree more with what Nina is saying. I mean debunking, with all due respect to those who’re doing it because I don’t want to disparage their important work. It’s necessary but not sufficient. And you’re even seeing places like StopFake move away from the kind of micro debunking and moving into macro debunking. And that’s, I think, where we need to move. I wouldn’t call it debunking, I would call it pushing back on these broad meta narratives. And I think that’s important. I like that, and we have to get much more sophisticated about debunking along those those lines that Nina was suggesting. But Drew, I wanted to return to your issue of corruption, because I think this is, everybody who knows me knows this is one of my hobby horses. And I think it’s actually really important and relevant to this discussion, because what corruption does is it creates a ready made audience for disinformation, who have a vested interest in believing it either wittingly or unwittingly and  spreading it either wittingly or unwittingly. If you are making money from Russian sources, either above or below board, you’re going to have a vested interest in not countering the lies that Russia is pumping into our disinformation space. So, these things are working kind of hand in glove, and together. And we have to, and the problem isn’t only when I say corruption, what’s illegal, the problem is largely what’s legal. Because we in the West, particularly in the UK, and the US, have deregulated our economies to the point where they are now a security threat, where malign dark money can get into our system and create security threats. And the way I like to brand this, so people remember it, is we have to clean up the City of London, and we have to clean up the state of Delaware. Right? Because Putin didn’t invent money laundering and Putin didn’t invent offshore, but he’s using it against us as a weapon. And I think we have to get really smart about this. We have to have better beneficial ownership legislation. And a lot of good work has been done on this in in the UK. We have to in the US. Nina raised the issue of FARA, we need FARA on steroids. I mean, FARA was written in the 30s, was written for a different era in a different problem. And I think the Australians have recently redone their Foreign Agent Registration Act. And I think that’s a model we should all study. I mean, it’s on my to do list, to read very carefully the fine print of Australia’s new foreign legislation, which was based on the US, but updated for the 21st century. And I think this is where we need to address both the supply side and the demand side of this problem. You know, I’ll stop for now.

Dr Andrew Foxall  40:39

Thank you, Brian. I couldn’t agree more with what you say. You know, I think our mutual friend Ollie Buelow usually puts it in the terms of what we need is European style legislation, but US style enforcement of that legislation,

Brian Whitmore  40:52

Right. And a lot of this has to be like international regimes that has to be almost trans. We have to do this almost in a transatlantic way. So, we’re all on the same page about this and we had during the Cold War, you had co com right, the Coordinating Committee, which was basically export restrictions to the Soviet Union as allies, but we can create kind of international regimes, that maybe it’s easier said than done politically, that can address a lot of these issues. So, they’re not just addressed at the at the at the micro national level.

Dr Andrew Foxall  41:21

Thank you. At this point, I’d like to bring in one of our attendees, John Dobson. John are you able to unmute yourself and to and to ask your question, please?

John Dobson  41:36

I am Andrew. Is that working? Good. Thank you. I don’t know how many people think about RT. I don’t know how many people watching realize that the Henry Jackson society is on the 26th floor of the same building where RT broadcasts on the 16th floor. So maybe the solution of RT is for the Henry Jackson society people to find out what the fuse box is for RT, and that may solve the problem. But anyway, I guess my question really is, what can you do about all these useful idiots who amplify disinformation? I was watching a program on TV last night, BBC with QAnon. Is that what it’s called? And these people, they really are useful idiots who are simply rebroadcasting and believing all the nonsense that’s put out by disinformation. What can we do about that?

Dr Andrew Foxall  42:31

Thank you, john. Simply for the benefit of Brian and Nina and the other attendees, I should say that John is a former British diplomat in Moscow, Nina, do you want to respond?

Nina Jankowicz  42:44

Sure, um. I’ve been doing some work on QAnon and other conspiracy theories recently, and they’re very, very disturbing. And these are exactly the sorts of things that bad actors; Russia, China included are playing on and amping up right now. And in terms of what we can do, I mean, there’s always going to be some part of the online discourse that is going to occupy the fringe. I think we need to focus our efforts on the people in the middle and ensure that they are, that they’ve got the resources and the tools necessary to make their way in this information environment. What I’ve been seeing and this will come out in a piece in The Atlantic next week, so keep an eye out for that, is the glomming on of all of these conspiracy theories and movements on to people’s pre-existing uncertainties and worries which are prevalent during the Covid crisis, certainly. These people are already vulnerable. And so, these hucksters whether they’re, you know, hawking snake oil cures or pushing anti Vax narratives or QAnon see them as prime targets and that’s about shoring up our societal resilience so that kind of rot unfortunately, I will call it rot, is not able to spread further. And I, know it’s what I’ve already said, but I really do think that that comes down to, you know, teaching people about how to verify information online, there are simple heuristics that everyone can conduct to kind of make an assessment of the discourse in a particular area. And it also means building more responsive governments over time because people are looking for something to, to some easy answer in this environment to kind of assuage their fears. And if that is a global conspiracy of podophiles that are trafficking in children, then that all ties it together and makes sense in their brain. Unfortunately, that’s appealing to some people. And finally, I’ll just do my little bit about local journalism that I always do. I think a lot of the areas where we’re seeing these conspiracies really make headway are places that, and I’m talking from experience as an American here, I would be interested to hear more about the UK experience but you know, you’ve got the BBC and I adore the BBC and the BBC still has a high level of trust in British society which I think is something we can all aspire to. But here in the United States, we have news deserts. And sometimes the only local news that they have is either a for profit company that has, you know, very little editorial integrity. Or on the more positive side of the spectrum, they have a local National Public Radio or PBS public broadcasting stations station that is responsible for them, but very little of their local news. And IV local news is the connective tissue between people and their governments, between people and the events that are happening in larger cities that they may not travel too frequently, if ever, and when those local news sites and papers and entities atrophy, that means that there’s a vacuum that bad information can fill. And unfortunately, here in the United States, we just don’t see journalism as a public good. And I really hope to change that. We only spend $3 per person per year on our corporation for public broadcasting. And it’s really embarrassing, frankly, and I think when you look at the more resilient societies, Brian mentioned Finland and Sweden and Estonia, all of them have made investments in media as well. And I think that’s a key part of the equation. Again, it’s a whole of society. And just recognizing that there’s not always going to be a 100%, you know we can reach everyone, we can’t reach everyone. It’s never going to be perfect. But if we can inspire some people to be a bit more critical, and thoughtful in their consumption and sharing of information, I think it will really improve the way things are flowing online.

Dr Andrew Foxall  46:30

Brian over to you please.

Brian Whitmore  46:32

Yeah, no, I mean, I would concur with a lot of that. I mean, basically what I’m hearing and what I would say is that these kind of things, again, flourish in an ecosystem, right? If you’re, if you keep your flat  messy, you’re going to have rats and cockroaches. If you don’t tend to your garden, there’s going to be weeds. And that, this like proliferation of these conspiracy theories like QAnon, I see as a symptom of societies that are unhealthy right now. Now that have, we have not kept our flats clean, we have not tend to our garden here. We have low public trust. And we have to address that. I don’t have a magic bullet about how to address it, but I think it really should be job one to deal with this low pub. I’ve never seen lower public trust in my lifetime. And I’m, I mean, I’m 57 years old. I grew up in the post-Vietnam post-Watergate era when public trust was pretty damn low, but compared to now I think it was sky high then. I think the numbers would support me on that. We need to address that. I mean, going back to the point I made earlier, this ability to like, tell our Western story again. Keep teaching citizens civics in high school, again. Nina’s correct, reviving local journalism as somebody that used to work for a metro daily, you know, years ago. Yeah, we’ve seen local journalism just kind of fall by the wayside. And so, there’s a lot of small steps. They’re unglamorous right, we’re not going to have like internal national conferences about these kinds of things, but these are all part of the solution of cleaning up our flat, you know. Tending to our garden, creating more healthy societies where you don’t have such high public trust, where you don’t have such high polarization, where we can get into a situation where we can have where our politics is not a Jihad anymore, where it’s been in the US for some time. And it’s quickly becoming such in the UK and in Western European societies. I saw this beginning to develop in the Czech Republic in my in my time there, where you had kind of a replica of the US red state blue state kind of cultural divide going on there. There was a derisive phrase that people from the countryside used for people, intellectuals in Prague, the Prussia cavarner, the Prague Cafe. Right. And so, we have to move away from this to a sense that we’re all part of this one society, and we could have reasonable disagreements about taxing and spending in healthcare without hating each other. And so, this QAnon is a symptom. It’s not the disease, and there’s very little we can do about it when it exists. I’m certainly never going to advocate curtailing somebody’s first amendment rights. But what we do need to do is say, who are the useful idiots? And who are the knowing foreign agents because you do have a mix of these two things existing in this situation. And we have to be careful about sliding into McCarthyism. Right, because we never want to go to that place ever again in our history, but we also don’t want to be pollyannish and that there are useful idiots there. But there are also those that are not so useful idiots. They’re more fellow travellers. And I think that there can be. There is legislation that prevents spreading disinformation on behalf of a foreign government, in our societies, and I think we have to take a good hard look at that legislation, but again, being very careful not to infringe on anybody’s first amendment rights. So, it’s a tough needle to thread. I don’t have a magic bullet. I don’t know if maybe Nina does.       If she does, I’m all ears.

Dr Andrew Foxall  50:14

Thank you, Brian. In part that goes back to the point that you made earlier on actually, and also that you might as well Nina, which is that, you know, that some of these narratives and stories are genuinely held within our national boundaries by people who are not exposed to Russian or Chinese or Iranian or French or Canadian, or whatever, you know, whoever’s disinformation is at play here. So, you know, it’s guessing they will be useful idiots, but then they will be domestic reasons for them, you know, genuine domestic reasons for them holding these views. I wanted to ask a question on behalf of one of the attendees, so this is a question from Paul Maddrell. He asks: to what extent is Russian disinformation defensive? To what extent is it a defensive measure against the influence of Western mass media over Russia and public opinion? Right, you know, we’re aware that Putin fears a colour revolution style scenario in Russia. Is Putin going on the offensive fundamentally about trying to protect the Russian population and almost uphold his hold on power? Nina, do you want to go first please?

Nina Jankowicz  51:33

Yeah, there is. There is some sort of reflexive element here. I wouldn’t say it’s a defensive measure. I think he could defend his own information environment without you know, having GRU agents and internet research agency trolls impersonating Americans online. But the goal of Russian disinformation in attacking the West is to denigrate the western system, the Western world order, the functioning of democracy so that Putin can point to our failings, our you know, internal squabbles and say: look, that’s your shining city on a hill. Is that really what you want? We know that Russians really prefer order to freedom, right. And polling for many, many years, that’s been the case. And especially post Maidan, some of the opinion polling that was conducted, people don’t want a Maidan in Russia. And so being able to point to that sort of thing that has been largely fuelled by by Russian disinformation, is very useful to Putin. But again, I don’t see it as a defensive measure, because I think there are ways to defend your own information environment, even in a democratic way, that don’t involve impersonating people. And of course, Putin is very practiced at manipulating the domestic disinformation environment. And, of course, a great book on that is Peter Pomerantsev’s:” Nothing is true and everything is possible.”

Dr Andrew Foxall  52:56

Brian, over to you.

Brian Whitmore  52:57

Yeah, I would say yes, and not Yes and no because, and this gets to one of the questions that’s like, really is a thorn in our side. All Russia watchers are grappling with this question. To what degree do does Putin and his people, do Putin and his people believe their own hype? Right? I am quickly moving to the to the place that they do believe a lot of their hype. And the way I would put this is, Russia is doing to us what they believe we are doing to them. So, they believe their own whataboutism narratives, if you will, right? And there’s a reason for this because the current occupants of the Kremlin do not understand civil society. It is beyond, it’s just they can’t wrap their heads around the idea that you can have independent actors in the society binding together because of their own shared beliefs and values to push an agenda that is not directed from some, I don’t know, basement in Langley. Because they believe their societies, they all came out of the culture of the KGB, and that they were always creating fake movements and fake, you know, fake parties and so on. So, they just think that’s the way the world works. So, you have a genuine middle class uprising in Ukraine. This is not possible. You can’t have these Ukrainians just standing up for their rights. This must be some plot. It’s directed from some basement in Langley. And so, we have to counter, and we have to do the same thing to the Americans who do the same thing to the Brits, so that they don’t understand that the such a thing as independent media exists. Media must be directed by some state or oligarchic actor. So, they’re doing to us what they believe we are doing to them. And if you want to say that is defensive, yeah, it’s a misguided view of defensive but that is what’s happening. I remember when I was working in the Russian Federation in the early 1990s for an NGO, and I was making about $400 a month, and I was working in St. Petersburg University and my Dean said to me, like, I keep having to go over to the FSB and explain to them that you are not some American spy. And they’re like, well, how could somebody possibly be just here working here for that little money? It began, yeah, I was a kind of a naïve, idealistic kid, right? But they just couldn’t, they couldn’t wrap their heads around the fact that they thought I must have some other agenda and some other paymaster. And I think these, I’m increasingly believing that these things, these beliefs are sincerely felt, misguided, but sincerely felt. And if you read Catherine Belton, to plug another book on the air right now, I mean, Catherine Beton’s :” Putin’s people” is just fantastic and worth reading. And you can’t walk away from that book without the feeling that my god they actually believe their own hype. So, I think that’s how I would address that. It’s not defensive, in the sense that I think the question was asked, but I think they believe it’s defensive.

Dr Andrew Foxall  56:08

Thank you, Brian. What I want to do now is very quickly bring in Bob Service, Robert service, to ask our last question. Bob, as many of you will know, is an emeritus professor of Russian history at the University of Oxford. Bob, I’m going to let you in now if you could ask your question, please. Remember to unmute yourself.

Robert Service  56:37

Not so much a question as a point I wanted to make. RT is pernicious, but RT works well with people like us. Most people in the West don’t watch it, barely even heard of it. We’ve seen it and I would suggest that one of the reasons that it is effective in annoying us is that it uses a lot of humor about Western politics. We never use humor against the Russians. When has anyone last seen a cartoon of Vladimir Putin looking like a clown? And that’s the normal thing with Donald Trump or Boris Johnson. We should use the weapons symmetrically that they are using against us. We should confront this threat not just by getting angry about it. We need to get angry about it. But we should be doing things that they have very effectively used against us. That’s my point. I very much enjoyed both contributions today. But I think that both has to be multi-dimensional in countering this threat. We need a sense of humor.

Andrew Foxall  58:07

Thank you, Bob. A nice point to finish on. Brian, I know you want to respond to this.

Brian Whitmore  58:13

I mean, professor, you’re right that we don’t use humour enough, but I would take issue that we are not using it at all. And I would suggest a wonderful Twitter feed ,Darth Putin KGB, and it’s one of the best Twitter feeds out there on Russian affairs. It’s somebody who poses as Putin, follows the news very closely, tweets about the news in the most hilarious way possible. He’s got a lot of followers, and somebody should be funding him because I know he’s doing it on his own, because it’s a labour of love for him. But I mean things like you know, he’s coined the immortal phrase never believe something until the Kremlin denies it. Ukraine has again refused to move its borders away from our troops. And these are just some of the couple ones that just come to mind immediately on that, but humour is being used. I would agree with you not nearly enough. But there are people that are doing it really, really well, and I would highly recommend the Darth Putin KGB twitter feed. On the RT thing. I mean, I just did a story that came up. Your remarks reminded me of a story a friend of mine told me, where he came into a café in the US and saw that RT was being shown on the television set in the café. And he asked the owner, why are you showing  this trash on your television? And the owner said, well, when the Republicans came in, and I was showing CNN, they complained. When the Democrats came in, and I was showing Fox they complained, so I decided to put RT up because it was neutral. So again, this is just a misunderstanding of what RT is. So that those are the two kind of things that came to my mind there.

Dr Andrew Foxall  59:58

Thank you, Brian. I’m conscious of the time and we’re a minute over, but Nina, your book is out. You know so much about these topics. Do you want to touch on and respond to what Bob said, or perhaps  just leave us with it with a with a final message?

Nina Jankowicz  1:00:16

Sure. I think that humour message is one that I wholeheartedly agree with. There was some research done by the NATO stratcom Center of Excellence on humour and disinformation that I’d recommend. But I think the challenge with using humor, and as you know, and saying that this is going to be part of our counter disinformation doctrine, is that it really, to be resonant, needs to come from actual comedians and civil society and people who are independent from the government and the apparatus. And so how do we engender that and I think there we need to get creative about how we hook in with trusted third parties that have nothing to do with government service, and are just genuine communicators. And  that’s going to deserve some thinking. And it speaks to, again, that necessity for a holistic solution and I wholeheartedly agree.

Dr Andrew Foxall  1:01:06

Well, thank you, Nina. Thank you too Brian and thank you as well to all the attendees. It has been a very interesting discussion and also, of course, an incredibly timely one, as well. Thank you all very much indeed. And good afternoon from London and enjoy the rest of your days. Thank you.


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