President Donald Trump’s twitter tirade against MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski last week revealed more than his continued willingness to demean his office – and women. He lambasted Brzezinski, co-host of Morning Joe, as “low I.Q., Crazy Mika” claiming she’d been “bleeding badly from a face-lift” when she briefly attended a social gathering at Mar-a-Lago on New Year’s Eve. On the surface, this was one more meltdown by a thin-skinned president who can’t stand criticism from mainstream journalists – which he labels fake news.
But this tawdry tweet points to a much more dangerous consequence of Trump’s war on much of the media. His attacks on journalists blind him to the real onslaught of fake news.
I refer to the campaign of disinformation, propaganda and cyberwar being waged by Russia to undermine U.S. and European democratic institutions. That includes covert, and overt, meddling in elections.
European leaders recognize the threat, U.S. intelligence agencies have described it and U.S. senators, in rare bipartisan agreement, want to confront it. Yet, as Trump prepares to meet Vladimir Putin at the G-20 summit in Hamburg that begins Friday, he still denies that Russia’s fake news campaign is real.
That threat, and possible countermeasures, were detailed in a fascinating conference in Washington last week, part of a weeklong series of events called “Disinfoweek” co-sponsored by the Atlantic Council, Germany’s Konrad Adenauer Foundation, and other U.S. and European organizations.
Sens. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., and Rob Portman, R-Ohio, in a heartening display of bipartisanship, argued that Russia’s disinformation campaign in 2016 election was about something much bigger than undermining Hillary Clinton.
“Vladimir Putin and his disinformation network are not Republicans, they are opportunists,” Murphy said. “It is just a matter of time before they train their sights on the Republican Party.”
The focus on day-to-day investigations into the Trump administration and Russia, said Murphy, distracts attention from the story of what actually happened. There were “rooms (in Russia) filled with hundreds and hundreds of Russian-paid trolls, troll factories, people that were every single day in enormous numbers standing up fake news, fake accounts inside the United States to try to spread a series of lies to influence our election,” Murphy said.
“The threat is much bigger than one president,” added Portman. “It is much broader than that.”
Portman is correct. The use of disinformation as a KGB foreign-policy tool dates to the Soviet Union but has become more central to Russian foreign policy. The spread of social media platforms and technology means that misinformation can be spread like wildfire while covering up the original sources. Moreover, websites on the far left and far right often echo the antidemocratic themes promoted by the Kremlin.
Portman is also correct that the public debate over Russia’s role in the 2016 election has “too often devolved quickly into partisanship and sometimes hysteria” rather than letting the ongoing investigations get to the bottom of Russia’s involvement. However, that’s largely because Trump insists that the investigations are a “witch hunt” and coverage of the investigations is fake. He refuses to recognize Portman’s point: This is about something much bigger than him.
U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, R-Texas, who previously served as a CIA officer, laid out the Kremlin’s intentions: “The goal of Russian disinformation (is) to undermine our trust in our institutions, to drive a wedge between the president and our intelligence agencies.”
With the help of Trump – who angrily disputes U.S. intel agencies’ conclusions that Russian meddling is real – the Russians may be reaching that goal.
Europe is far ahead of the United States in confronting the Russian threat because European leaders recognize the problem. On the continent, the Kremlin openly funds far-right and far-left political groups that are anti-American, anti-NATO and anti-European Union. The Russians meddled in May French elections and in preparations for German elections in the fall.
The Kremlin has bought up European media and contributed to anti-NATO candidates and nongovernmental organizations. Moscow spreads fake news via the Kremlin-owned Russia Today (RT) television network and Sputnik news service; both operate in multiple languages and are often confused with independent media outlets.
The Kremlin’s goal, European participants said, is to undermine faith in democratic governments and promote anti-Americanism. It seeks to promote Putin’s semiauthoritarian model as a nationalist, religious conservative alternative to pluralist democracy. (Think this is nuts? Just read what key Trump adviser Steve Bannon has written praising Putin along these lines.)
However, many European leaders have fought back, organizing agencies to track Russian disinformation. When Putin visited Paris in May, new French President Emmanuel Macron bluntly denounced RT and Sputnik as “organs of influence and propaganda that spread counterfeit truths about me.” (Candidate Trump, on the other hand, did an interview on RT.)
Portman and Murphy believe the United States must fight back, too. They co-authored the 2016 Countering Disinformation and Propaganda Act, now law, which will provide millions of dollars to counter propaganda from Russia and China, and help U.S. allies to do likewise. “This is about our democracy,” Portman said. “It is about our shared values with democracies around the world, and it is about our values.”
Trudy Rubin is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.
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