Russian disinformation is a grave transnational threat, facilitating unacceptable aggression by Russia both at home and across the 57-nation OSCE region. Russian disinformation helps support rampant violations of OSCE norms by the Putin regime, ranging from internal human rights abuses to military intervention in neighboring states to interference in elections in several countries.
On Thursday, September 14, 2017, the U.S. Helsinki Commission held a hearing on Russian disinformation in the OSCE region. Sen. Cory Gardner (CO) presided over the hearing on behalf of Commission Chairman Sen. Robert Wicker (MS). Witnesses included Mr. John F. Lansing, CEO and Director of the Broadcasting Board of Governors; Ms. Molly McKew, CEO of Fianna Strategies; and Ms. Melissa Hooper, Director of Human Rights and Civil Society Programs at Human Rights First.
In his opening statement, Sen. Gardner described the serious threat that Russian disinformation poses to the liberal international order, and underscored “how it undermines the security and human rights of people in the OSCE region.” Russia’s goal, he said, is “to sow fear, discord, and paralysis that undermines democratic institutions and weakens critical Western alliances such as NATO and the EU.”
Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) highlighted the impact of Russian disinformation campaigns in Ukraine in conjunction with the recent invasions of Crimea and the Donbas. He also noted the extent of Russian efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election in the United States, and observed that such disinformation campaigns take advantage of our democratic institutions to advance Russia’s strategic agenda.
Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) characterized Russia’s disinformation efforts as a part of a strategy of “hybrid war,” and emphasized the need for the United States and its allies to develop counter-disinformation strategies as part of a “hybrid defense.”
Mr. Lansing, the first witness to testify, outlined the structure and scope of the BBG’s broadcasting operations, and the role it plays in countering disinformation abroad.
“The Russian strategy seeks to destroy the very idea of an objective, verifiable set of facts,” he said. “The BBG is adapting to meet this challenge head on by offering audiences an alternative to Russian disinformation in the form of objective, independent, and professional news and information.”
He also described the BBG’s recent expansion of programming in the Post-Soviet space, and its flagship Russian-language program “Current Time,” launched in February 2017.
In her testimony, Ms. McKew described Russia’s disinformation campaign as “the core component of a war being waged by the Russian state against the West, and against the United States in particular.”
She noted, “These manipulations don’t create tendencies or traits in our societies. They elevate, exploit, and distort divides and grievances that already are present.”
She also emphasized the need for a coordinated response from the United States Government and its allies, and proposed an increased role for the U.S. military in countering disinformation.
Ms. Hooper reminded the Commission that, while Russian disinformation has taken center stage in recent U.S. policy debates, it is only one of many methods employed by the Russian government to advance its agenda. “It’s part of a coordinated effort to disrupt and attack liberal norms wherever the opportunity arises using economic influence, electoral disruption, [and] the weakening of multilateral institutions,” she said.
She also discussed the upcoming German parliamentary elections, and the potential for disinformation to influence its outcome. She commended the German government’s efforts to warn the public about disinformation, but criticized recent legislation that would increase censorship on social media.
In response to a question from Sen. Gardner, Ms. Hooper noted that countering disinformation requires more than fact-checking false claims, and emphasized the need for a strategy of proactive narrative communication.
Rep. Gwen Moore (WI-04) concurred with Ms. McKew’s statement that, in order to combat the threat of Russian disinformation, it is necessary for the Administration and Congress to come to a consensus on the existence of Russian meddling in the 2016 campaign.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (RI) inquired about the potential for Russian influence in upcoming elections by means of anonymous campaign spending, and about the role that the international banking system plays in sustaining corruption in Russia and neighboring states.
Rep. Smith and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (NH) sought the witnesses’ opinions on the recent news that Russian state-owned networks RT and Sputnik are being investigated for possible violations of the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). Ms. McKew spoke in favor of stricter enforcement of FARA, while Mr. Lansing responded that he has concerns about retaliatory restrictions on U.S.-funded media in Russia.
“I believe that this disinformation is one of the biggest threats that our democracy faces today,” said Sen. Shaheen. “This is a threat to the foundations of American democracy. It has nothing to do with Republicans and Democrats.”