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Experts Criticize Russian Disinformation


US Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) director John F. Lansing discusses countering Russian propaganda during testimony before a Senate panel, Sept. 14, 2017.

An independent group says it has documented Russian interference in the elections or political activities of at least 27 countries since 2004.

The group, the non-profit German Marshall Fund, studies public policy around the world.

It said that Russia has been involved in disinformation campaigns on Facebook, Twitter and other social media, in addition to attacks on computers.

The German Marshall Fund reported these claims at a hearing of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also called the Helsinki Commission. The meeting took place last week in Washington, DC.

The Helsinki Commission met to discuss what it called the “scourge” of Russian disinformation being spread both at home and overseas.

Corey Gardner, a member of the United States Senate, spoke at the hearing. He said, “Through its active measures campaign that includes aggressive interference in the Western elections, Russia aims to sell fear, discord, and paralysis” that harms democratic institutions and weakens critical Western alliances.

US election interference

Other experts agreed with Gardner during the meeting, which included few, if any, defenders of Russia. This was a sign of the increasingly aggressive relationship between the two countries.

Molly McKew works with the communications advisory service Fianna Strategies. She spoke with VOA about reports that Russia targeted U.S. voters on social media during the 2016 election campaign.

“I think even the Kremlin is surprised at how easy it is to use social media as an amplification tool for the kind of narrative that they do,” she said.

McKew said opinion studies show that most Americans do not believe disinformation could work on them. But she says the Russian government uses advertising and basic psychology to get people to vote for a given candidate or to stay home on election-day.

She noted that nowadays, many people get personalized news feeds on social media. So people can be targeted individually with what she calls ads or lies.

RT, Sputnik broadcasts

U.S. officials have often directed criticism of Russian disinformation at the broadcasts of the Russian government-supported RT television and Sputnik news agency. Both have denied they are spreading propaganda.

Several news agencies reported last week that the Federal Bureau of Investigation recently questioned a former White House reporter for Sputnik. It did so as part of an investigation into whether the news agency is acting as an undeclared propaganda arm of the Russian government.

Sputnik reacted by releasing the following statement: “We are happy to answer any questions the [Department of Justice] or the FBI might have. Sputnik is a news organization dedicated to accurate news reporting. Our journalists have won multiple awards throughout the world. Any assertion that Sputnik is anything but a credible news outlet is false.”

However, the head of the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors or BBG John Lansing, also spoke at the Helsinki Commission hearing. BBG supervises Voice of America and several other government-financed broadcasters.

Lansing agreed with others on the severity of the Russian threat. He also said the U.S. must work against Russian disinformation with fair and balanced news and information.

Lansing said he has a seen a worldwide “explosion of propaganda and lies.” He added that his agency works hard to get factual information to Russian speakers around the world.

Germany, France elections

Melissa Hopper is with the non-profit organization Human Rights First. She said Germany appears set to defend itself from Russian attempts to interfere in its election later this month. She said the German government acted early, following the U.S. election last November. The country has created a government-wide program to answer Russian efforts to make use of social media.

Hopper also said France was successful in preventing Russian interference in its elections in April and May. The French media agreed not to report on information that came from cyberattacks.

But Hopper warned Russia has a lot of tools it can use. Its worldwide media program has a budget of more than $300 million a year. She said the country’s internet-based media uses this to “weaponize” false narratives about minority populations.

I’m Dorothy Gundy.

Joshua Fatzick and Cindy Caine reported this for VOA News. Pete Musto adapted it for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

We want to hear from you. What do you think about governments becoming involved in the elections of other countries? Write to us in the Comments Section or on our Facebook page.

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Words in This Story

scourgen. someone or something that causes a great amount of trouble or suffering

discordn. lack of agreement between people or ideas

institution(s) – n. an established organization

amplification - n. something that is done to make something else stronger

narrativen. a story that is told or written

psychologyn. the science or study of the mind and behavior

dedicatedadj. having very strong support for or loyalty to a person, group, cause

accurateadj. having very strong support for or loyalty to a person, group, cause

assertionn. a statement made in a strong and definite way

credibleadj. able to be believed

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