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Mon 30 November 2020
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Zarina Zabrisky urges the President-elect and his team to counter one of the gravest threats to modern democracy

A number one foreign policy goal for President-elect Joe Biden must be the protection of US democracy from information warfare. To heal the nation, the new Government must urgently create a task force to identify adversaries, create a comprehensive defense plan, and build a safe information space.

For five years, the US public has been a target of the Kremlin’s information warfare attacks. General disinformation has sown discord and created a polarised political climate that threatens the basis of democracy. Make no mistake: this was a military operation that successfully weakened and demoralised American society and democracy.

During the 2020 Presidential Election, the Kremlin continued its attack. Voters were bombarded with Facebook posts, memes and cartoons that projected conspiracy theories, hoaxes about the Coronavirus, and wild slurs about the Black Lives Matter movement.

The content was often injected via Russian-American Facebook groups, in English, and then shared organically often by unsuspecting social media users to other groups and individual newsfeeds.

Yet, even after the election, the attacks have not slowed or stopped. In fact, they have accelerated. On 4 November 2020, about 6,500 anti-Biden tweets with slightly edited messages appeared on Twitter, with each user claiming they were going to leave the country due to the election result.

Meanwhile, on 9 November, Facebook groups were bombarded with a standardised, anti-Biden sermon, claiming the former Vice President had “stolen” the election.

Designed to agitate and mobilise Trump’s base, this content was synced with the President’s wild accusations of “election fraud”.

However, despite providing assistance to Trump, the Kremlin does not need his presidency to continue the information warfare. Hence, one of the major goals of the Biden-Harris administration should be to fight back.


The Task Force

Ideally, the Biden-Harris administration should initiate a global cyber league of democracies to address the ‘hybrid war’ and, in particular, information warfare.

The project should be led by military and intelligence experts, disinformation research groups, journalists specialising in disinformation, experts on Kremlin military propaganda, as well as trained linguists, anthropologists, and psychologists.

If forming an international coalition is not feasible, and national efforts are instead required, the EU and NATO should share the knowledge of countries that have been engaged in a successful fight against disinformation – namely Estonia, Finland, and Ukraine.

The first step must be to acknowledge that the West is under attack and that the Kremlin’s information warfare presents an existential threat to liberal democracies. With this in mind, a mass media and social media campaign should be developed – integrating history and media literacy – to immunise people to the Kremlin’s propaganda.

The underlying reason for the Kremlin’s military aggression should be made patently clear. Putin’s mafia state appropriates billions of dollars from Russian oil and gas exports and siphons the assets to the West. To stay in power, the oligarchs need access to these funds and control of the Western financial and political institutions, as the UK Parliament’s report into Russian interference explained.

For example, the Russian company DST Global, run by two oligarchs close to Russian President Vladimir Putin, in 2009 invested $200 million in Facebook. In 2012, a financial subsidiary of Gazprom, Russia’s largest state-owned company, financed one of these investors, Alisher Usmanov’s, and his 8% stake in Facebook. The other investor, Yuri Milner – who also invested $7 billion in more than 30 companies including Twitter, Instagram, Airbnb, Uber, Spotify, Zynga – once advised the Russian Government on technology.

Similarly, the connection between climate change denial and the Kremlin’s energy interests must be explained to the Western public. Putin’s Government needs profits from natural resources to fuel its ambitions. To protect its assets, by lobbying against crippling economic sanctions, the Kremlin invests in the hybrid war, of which information warfare is one of the most important components.

The exact nature of information warfare should also be made common knowledge: it’s goal is to hi-jack people’s minds. The Kremlin weaponises social media, turning the information space into a cesspit of anti-democratic conspiracy theories. Exploiting the emotion-based nature of human behavior, the attacker controls the political landscape of the target countries from within the citizens’ brains. The Kremlin ideologists create a negative narrative by weaponizing language and images and using a well-developed disinformation playbook.

These fears – messages that often trigger emotive reactions – spread organically through the web, amplified by people to their friends and families, altering the mindsets of those who view the propaganda.

It also provides funding for mass media giants such as RT (formerly Russia Today) and Sputnik to broadcast around the world in multiple languages. An army of trolls and bots use data as a weapon to amplify the messages of these mass media outlets and to create customised narrative in the minds of US citizens. The Kremlin’s goal is to change the overall political landscape by influencing individual and collective beliefs.


An Alternative

The Kremlin’s strategy relies on exploiting emotional vulnerabilities. Russian content consciously exacerbates fault-lines in society – racism, economic inequality, concerns over freedom of speech, nationalism versus globalism – to build a fundamental distrust in the system and the very idea of democracy.

Indeed, special attention should be paid to the Kremlin’s support for separatism, wherever it is seen across the world. For instance, Russian hackers spread information in support of the campaign for Catalonian independence, as well as similar efforts in Slovakia, Greece and Hungary.

An international task force should also push for greater media transparency. The funding sources of outlets, and the backgrounds of individual journalists, should be clearly listed online and on television. Meanwhile, Kremlin disinformation should be prominently flagged and officials should consider revoking the broadcasting rights for all Russian-Government-funded outlets.

This should be underpinned by technology – sophisticated artificial intelligence to detect overtly fake news – and legislation that compels social media companies to clamp-down on disinformation.

It is important to demand that Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms stop accepting anonymous money from anonymous corporations and agents.

Lawfare is an important component of hybrid war and should be treated accordingly.

Finally, while defensive strategies are important, a task force should construct a progressive alternative vision to Putin’s myth of nationalism, patriarchy, orthodoxy and totalitarianism.

The key to success is communicating the ideas of liberal democracy – values of individual freedom, humanity, and electoral fairness.

In 2019, the European Commission’s ‘Action Plan Against Disinformation’ called for countries and blocs to foster “a secure, trustworthy and accountable online ecosystem”. This is the course that both the EU and the US should follow. Both blocs must develop a compelling, positive culture of democratic values, rather than being swept along by the winds of authoritarianism.

The Kremlin’s narrative is based on dehumanisation and destruction. The destruction of values leads to the destruction of society. Offering an alternative narrative is imperative for the survival of Western liberal democracy. Only then will America recover.


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