WASHINGTON – The Russian government recently launched a new disinformation campaign – aimed at deflecting blame for a possible chemical attack in Syria, where Russia is fighting to prop up the brutal dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad.
Using its state-owned media outlets and its government-run Twitter accounts, the Russians put out false narratives suggesting that if a chemical attack occurred, the Syrian rebels or “foreign specialists” would be responsible – not Assad or Russia.
The Russian storyline quickly caught the attention of the staff at Polygraph, a tiny online outlet dedicated to “fact-checking” Russian disinformation. Polygraph is run by the U.S. Agency for Global Media, a federal agency funded by Congress that also operates Voice of America, Radio Liberty and other outlets dedicated to promoting American-style democracy around the world.
In an Aug. 28 post, Polygraph debunked a Russian assertion that “foreign specialists” were staging a chlorine attack in Syria – labeling it false and noting that the United Nations has confirmed the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons in dozens of cases.
It’s one example of how the U.S. government is pushing back against Russian distortions and propaganda, which is aimed not just at America but at other countries around the globe. Russia is targeting its Eastern European neighbors, in particular, as President Vladimir Putin works to destabilize Western-style democracies and expand his own reach.
“He is carefully and quietly trying to destroy democracies all around his periphery,” said Sen. Christopher Murphy, D-Conn., who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “He wants to re-establish a new version of the Soviet Union.”
Critics say the U.S. response, through Polygraph and similar initiatives, is ineffective and meager – barely causing a ripple against a tsunami of fake Russian news. Supporters say it’s a vital service – and a desperately needed tool as the U.S. adjusts to an era of weaponized information.
Both sides agree the U.S. is massively outgunned in the fight.
Experts say it’s difficult to know how much Russia spends on disinformation and propaganda around the globe. But 99 percent of Russia’s media outlets, such as Sputnik and RT, are directly owned or controlled by the government. And the Russians spend millions more on less overt messaging, such as the Internet Research Agency that worked to meddle in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and had a $1.25 million monthly budget.
Russia’s investment in disinformation and propaganda is “high impact and very effective,” said Clint Watts, a research fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and author of "Messing with the Enemy: Surviving in a Social Media World of Hackers, Terrorists, Russians, and Fake News."
“What we do in return has almost no effect … and is quite costly,” Watts said.
John Lansing, CEO and director of the U.S. global media agency, said he made Russian disinformation the organization’s No. 1 priority shortly after he came on board three years ago – after hearing complaints from lawmakers that “the Russians are eating our lunch when it comes to media strategy.”
The federal agency – which has a $750 million annual budget but is editorially independent – launched Polygraph last year, as well as a second program called “Current Time,” a Russian-language TV channel and website that promises “an alternative to Kremlin-controlled news.”
With Polygraph, “the Russians put up a lie and we put up the truth. It’s like a boxing match,” Lansing said. With Current Time, he said, the goal is to tell broader stories that can reach Russians “without having a gatekeeper.” The show produces live news, along with features on everything from cooking to travel.
The agency’s statistics offer a picture of glowing success – 400 million online views of Current Times’ videos in 2017, for example, and 1 million followers across social media platforms. Russia has barred the channel from broadcasting inside its borders, but Lansing says they try to get around that by making Current Time available digitally.
Still, the real impact of these government-funded outlets is hard to measure. Polygraph has only five staffers, and it’s often not as hard-hitting as similar private-sector sites that debunk fake news from the Russian government.
Plus, “it’s a whack-a-mole strategy,” says Thomas Hill, a former senior congressional staffer for the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “You hit one (lie) and boom, another one pops up.”
As for Current Time, Hill notes the show is a rebranded version of a program the Global Media agency had to take off the air several years ago because no one was watching it. Hill says the new version is better, but its reach is limited to pockets of Russian-speakers living outside of Russia, and it's not cutting-edge content.
“Current time is probably having a marginal impact on changing the opinions of ethno-linguistic Russians in the frontier states,” said Hill, now a researcher focusing on modernizing American foreign policy institutions. But, Hill added, the show does not have a good reputation in places such as Poland or Ukraine – countries where Russia is spreading disinformation and sowing division.
“The real question here is do you want to play defense the whole time, or do you want to play offense?” Hill said. So far, both the Obama and Trump administrations have opted for defense-only, he said, “which means only trying to help these European governments sustain attacks from Russia.”
Hill and others say the U.S. needs to go on offense – working around Russia’s blockade and airing hard-hitting investigative programs inside Russia that expose the misdeeds of Putin and Russia’s oligarchs. But policymakers in Congress and the Executive Branch have been wary of such forceful tactics.
“No one’s really given the autonomy or the authority to message in an aggressive way, the way you see the Russian state do,” said Watts. He said lawmakers seem more focused on avoiding missteps in conducting the information war than about ensuring success.
“They don’t really how effective it is,” Watts said. “They just want to say they have a program and then make it very weak because they’re scared.”
Some lawmakers have tried to revamp the U.S. Agency for Global Media into a more agile, aggressive organization devoted to waging information warfare. They argued that the U.S. agencies that helped "take down the Iron Curtain" had lost their edge. But those efforts have languished in Congress.