Modern field guide to security and privacy

Estonia's lessons for fighting Russian disinformation

The Baltic nation has long had an adversarial relationship with its Russian neighbor. As a result, its press and public have become adept at recognizing and debunking Kremlin propaganda.

Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters
Russian President Putin seen on a viewfinder during his annual end-of-year news conference in Moscow on Dec. 23, 2016. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin

This fall, a few weeks after Donald Trump won the election, news surfaced on Russian websites that the newly elected president lashed out at the leaders of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, telling them to "shut up" and slammed down the telephone in outrage.

An online Russian news portal 4esnok that initially published the story cited a CNN interview about the phone call with President Trump's counselor Kellyanne Conway, but links within the article to the original source revealed nothing about the irate exchange.

The phone call never even happened. A day after the story surfaced, an Estonian blog called determined the story was bogus. However, it had already appeared on at least nine other online news outlets.

That's just one example of the type of bogus news originating from within Russia and spreading throughout Eastern Europe. While those sorts of phony news stories became a staple of the recent US presidential race, in a propaganda campaign the US intelligence community says the Kremlin carried out to support President Trump, countries such as Estonia have long felt the powerful influence of Russian disinformation.

"Media is a weapons system" for the Russian government, says Maj. Uku Arold, who teaches a course called "Subversive Leverage and Psychological Defense" to master's degree students at the Estonian Academy of Security Sciences preparing for positions in the Estonian Internal Security Service.

"Estonian politicians and Estonian public administration officers never give interviews to Russian state-controlled broadcasting channels because it's not media. It's not journalism ... there is no point to giving interviews because the story is already made before the interview is given."

Estonia and Russia still share bad blood from the Soviet occupation of the tiny Baltic country and the independence Estonia declared from Russia in 1991. The country has also moved away from Moscow's sphere of influence through it alliances with NATO and the US.

As a result of that history, the Estonia press and public remain vigilant when it comes to Russian propaganda efforts. Propastop regularly debunks news coming out of Russia and is able to defuse the propaganda before it spreads too far.

The Estonian government also launched a Russian-language public broadcasting channel in 2015. The station caters to Russian nationals living in Estonia and attempts to counter much of the pro-Moscow news that broadcasts on stations across Eastern Europe.

Some experts say that the US government could borrow from Estonia's approach to more vigorously find – and expose – Russian propaganda that poses as legitimate news.

"All of these are good efforts, and the challenge for a small country is easier for a big country, so the US needs to do more to be effective," said James Lewis, a cyber policy analyst at Center for Strategic and International Studies. 

In the US, congressional leaders at a March 9 House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing sat down with former diplomats and Estonia's past president, along with experts, to learn more about all manner of strategies for countering Kremlin-manufactured information.

"We've got to move quickly to have a better handle on how Russian propaganda works and specifically the impact it's having," testified Peter Doran, executive vice president at the US-based nonprofit Center for European Policy Analysis.

He said one approach could be increasing funding for US-backed broadcasters such as Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. A larger platform for factual reporting combined with continued independent journalism would help drown out Moscow's fake news, Mr. Doran said.

"It means leveraging humor and satire – this is something that Vladimir Putin and the Russian leadership are very vulnerable to," he said. "This is something society down to journalists and news outlets have to come to grips with to restore trust and credibility in our free press."

Taking it one step further, American-sponsored news should go negative on Putin and his coterie to nullify the propaganda machine, one key lawmaker said. "And why not go on the offense to release information exposing corruption at the Kremlin?” said House Committee Chairman Rep. Ed Royce (R) of California.

While the US has maintained its world military power through building a physical armed forces and keeping bases around the world, many experts say it has fallen far behind many smaller countries and its traditional rivals in the the digital realm.

For instance, thousands of paid Russian humans and automated bots flood social media with fictitious stories and images under false identities, according to Lincoln Bloomfield, former State Department assistant secretary for political military affairs.

"Recognize that what Russia tries to do works best if no one ever figures it out," added Bloomfield, now a fellow at the Stimson Center. "So flip the lights on, let the sunlight of transparency shine on all of his sins, punch it through their firewalls, and let 143 [million] Russian people know everything about Vladimir Putin and what his circle has done."

Following the US presidential election, social media companies have woken up to the problem of fake and misleading news spreading on their platforms.

Facebook is experimenting with algorithms designed to sniff out bogus news. One of its newest features flags posts that have been debunked by third-party fact-checkers as "disputed content." Many users first observed the alerts while trying to read an article shared ahead of St. Patrick's Day that falsely claimed hundreds of thousands of Irish people were brought to the US as slaves, according to The Guardian.

Facebook will vet news content in France and Germany, in the run-up to elections in those countries later this year. German lawmakers last week proposed legislation that would fine social networks for failing to delete fake news.

Some experts cautioned that the US shouldn't go too far in attempting to rid the internet of false information originating from Russia.

“There is probably nothing the United States can do to stop low-level Russian information warfare and political interference in the West, except to be aware of it and call it out when it happens. Overreaction could lead to dangerous escalation,” Barnard College political scientist Kimberly Marten said in a new Council on Foreign Relations report.

But the US could more quietly challenge Moscow by establishing an independent commission to document Russia’s digital salvo against the west, said Daniel Baer, former US ambassador for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe under the Obama administration, during the recent House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing.

It could teach policymakers, he said, and "help American citizens educate themselves about the nature of these attempts to manipulate us, through taking advantage of some of the asymmetries that are based on our greatest strengths," including free and fair elections.

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