As four of Washington’s most knowledgeable experts on Russia outlined their plan to fight Russian political disinformation, a young college student rose, prefacing his question with the thought that maybe he was naive.
“I'm not really sure that the West and the democracies really have a monopoly on the correct information,” said 21-year-old Joshua Brown, a student at the College of William & Mary, located some 150 miles southeast of Washington DC. “I was just wondering if you all seem to believe that we do have some sort of monopoly on information.”
The exchange took place at a March 7 forum in Washington organized by the Atlantic Council, a forum for research and discussion of transatlantic issues. The "think tank" was launching a report, titled "Democratic Defense Against Disinformation." The panelists -- a top State Department official, a former U.S. diplomat who served in Europe and crafted policy in the White House, the EU ambassador to the U.S. and two leading scholars -- agreed that Western democracies need to find "concrete solutions" to the problem of disinformation from Russia and other "bad actors."
Brown, however, said he thought the Kremlin's international media arms, RT and Sputnik, had done a better job than the U.S. mainstream media in covering issues important to young Americans, such as the Black Lives Matter movement and the related protests in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014. He said mainstream U.S. news organizations have “painted” people who participated in those as “thugs and criminals,” while RT showed them “for who they are – protesters.”
It was, perhaps, the existential question at the forum, during which the panelists discussed fairness, bias and the “hollowing out” of Western media’s ability to produce investigative journalism.
“Our adversaries have exploited this,” said Alina Polyakova of the Brookings Institution, who said the boundaries between opinion and fact have become blurred on the U.S. airwaves.
“The Kremlin has gotten really really good at spreading this doubt that journalistic truth actually exists,” added Corina Regebea, resident fellow at the Center for European Analysis.
Among the recommendations made in the Atlantic Council report is that the Kremlin's media outlets be labeled as state-sponsored propaganda. The report includes a wider menu of steps for governments and the tech industry to take to battle disinformation.
It was unclear whether the panel convinced Brown. His concerns, however, echo the themes of Russian disinformation, as laid out in last month’s indictment of 13 Russians for interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
“[The] Defendant organization [the Internet Research Agency] had a strategic goal to sow discord in the U.S. political system, including the 2016 U.S. presidential election,” Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s indictment stated, accusing the conspirators of violating the federal law prohibiting foreign involvement in U.S. elections.
The federal charges were leveled against Russians who operated a “troll farm” in St. Petersburg, Russia, that produced social media content aimed at heightening political divisions in the U.S.
Critics of the Kremlin’s Web-based and broadcast news organizations say focusing on divisive issues and pitting Western political adversaries against each other has long been part of the Russian government media playbook.
Russia's broadcasters in the U.S. – Sputnik and RT -- both operate as Russian government agencies, according to a 2016 report to President Vladimir Putin, whose function is “propagating and promoting the formulation of Russia’s positive image globally.”
“The instruments of propaganda, you know, are an essential attribute of any state,” said Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov when asked about the creation of the government media.
Mueller's indictment charged that the Russians interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and also “controlled (social media) pages addressing a range of issues,” – specifically religion, immigration and the Black Lives Matter movement, the issue that Brown brought up to the panel.
"We have to fight disinformation within the norms of our government,” said Ambassador Daniel Fried, an Atlantic Council fellow whose diplomatic career spanned 40 years, including a stint at the White House, where he helped design U.S. foreign policy in the post-Soviet era. “We have options consistent with our values."
Editor’s note: Polygraph’s managing editor moderated the event, but did not contribute to the Atlantic Council report.
Copy corrected on March 9: Joshua Brown is currently 21 years old, not 18 years old, as it was stated in the article earlier.