This Week in Info War

Editor’s Note: 16 January 2017

Experts and policymakers have reached little consensus so far in their continuing debate on how best to respond to Russian information operations. Most agree that Western efforts at pushback have been ineffective at countering the Kremlin’s messages. Some argue that the best response would be to disseminate fact-based responses to Russian disinformation. Others think that’s impractical, since it is physically impossible to respond point-by-point to the flood of Kremlin propaganda. They say it’s far more effective simply to increase public awareness of Russian information operations as widely as possible. Still others go further, arguing that any approach emphasizing only “news” would fail because target audiences respond to Kremlin messaging based on their social and cultural experiences. An effective response to the threat, therefore, would use humor and entertainment.

Nevertheless, a wide variety of response has emerged in the past few months.  With national elections approaching in Germany, France, and the Netherlands in 2017, the European Union has made extra resources available to the EU’s East Stratcom task force, which is seeking to collate and counter Russian attempts to influence votes through disinformation and propaganda. In early January a group of US Senators, led by Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, introduced a bill that would authorize $100 million for the State Department and other U.S. agencies to fight Russian propaganda, including by supporting programs to counter “fake news.”  Other approaches also have been proposed, most notably in CEPA’ 2016 report, “Winning the Information War.

In a recent article Elena Postnikova, a law student at Georgetown University takes a unique legal approach.  She argues that RT, Russia’s state-sponsored television channel, should be required to register as a foreign agent under the Foreign Agents Agents Registration Act of 1938 (FARA).  The US government, according to Postnikova, should enforce FARA against RT to ”alert the American people to Russia’s efforts, and limit Russia’s ability to disguise its ‘information warfare’ a legitimate media activity.”  As a disclosure statute, FARA does not prohibit, edit, or restrain an agent’s ability to distribute information.  Instead, it compels disclosure of the origin and purpose of the information to help the audience develop an accurate understanding of the source.  Thus, such registration of RT would not suppress freedom of speech but actually serve the First Amendment by adding to information available to the public.  Registration would require RT to label its information as being “distributed by agent on behalf of a foreign principal.”   But it would have no effect on RT’s ability to continue working in the United States, conduct broadcasting from Washington, or otherwise operate as it did prior to registration.  In any case, Postnikova concludes, RT “journalists” would continue to enjoy more press freedom in the United States than US journalists in Russia.

When former US Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul suggested last month that RT’s employees should be accredited as foreign agents rather than journalists, RT responded with personal attacks and threats of retaliation against US journalists, accusations of violation of press freedom, and complaints that Russian media are treated unfairly.  Such petulance should not obscure the fact that RT, like other instruments in Moscow’s information warfare arsenal, often turns the openness of Western societies against itself.

This week’s CEPA briefs illustrate common recent and related Russian narratives: the uselessness of NATO’s security guarantees and the prospect of better relations between Russia and the United States under Donald Trump. This media message contrasts with the more cautious comments issued by Kremlin officials about Trump in recent days.