June 30, 2017
US President Donald J. Trump’s proposed cuts to the State Department’s budget would deprive the United States of the tools it needs to combat Russian hybrid warfare, Madeleine K. Albright, a former US secretary of state, said at the Atlantic Council on June 29.

Trump’s proposed budget would sharply cut funding for diplomacy and development. With these cuts, “we are losing a tool to deal with what is hybrid warfare,” said Albright.

US Rep. Will Hurd (R-TX), meanwhile, echoed Albright’s call to bolster diplomatic efforts in the fight against disinformation stating: “We can’t cut the State Department 30 percent because we need our diplomats out there working with their partners,” to counter the spread of disinformation.

Albright and Hurd spoke at the DisinfoWeek conference jointly hosted by the Atlantic Council and Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung in Washington, DC. The weeklong conference featured discussions and meetings held at Stanford University in California and in Washington, DC.

“We have a very serious problem,” said Albright. She described how computational propaganda—commonly referred to as disinformation—“is a key part of Russia’s strategy of hybrid warfare.”

According to Albright, who also serves as the chair of the National Democratic Institute, “we need to spend more time dealing with this issue,” however, “the State Department cannot operate without money.”

Recently returned from a trip to Ukraine, a country on the front lines of Russia’s digital disinformation campaign, Albright described how the United States can learn from its partners abroad to devise an effective strategy to counter false information spreading through cyberspace. However, to do so requires close coordination between people on the ground, she said.

“We need to learn more from countries on the frontlines…. [and] we need to move from talk to action,” said Albright. She described how, by employing the same means used by the Kremlin to undermine Western governments, democratic nations can spread their own, affirmative message. “The same tools that are used to sow disinformation are also available to those who want to spread the truth,” she said.

Hurd said the goal of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s disinformation campaign “is to undermine our trust in our institutions.”

“We can’t let that continue,” he insisted.

According to Hurd, fighting disinformation should carry the same weight as counterterrorism, an issue that Trump has deemed his top foreign policy priority.

“We need to put more pressure on the most egregious offender,” said Albright, referring to Russia. 



“We have a very serious problem,” said Albright. She described how computational propaganda—commonly referred to as disinformation—“is a key part of Russia’s strategy of hybrid warfare.”

According to Albright, who also serves as the chair of the National Democratic Institute, “we need to spend more time dealing with this issue,” however, “the State Department cannot operate without money.”

Recently returned from a trip to Ukraine, a country on the front lines of Russia’s digital disinformation campaign, Albright described how the United States can learn from its partners abroad to devise an effective strategy to counter false information spreading through cyberspace. However, to do so requires close coordination between people on the ground, she said.

“We need to learn more from countries on the frontlines…. [and] we need to move from talk to action,” said Albright. She described how, by employing the same means used by the Kremlin to undermine Western governments, democratic nations can spread their own, affirmative message. “The same tools that are used to sow disinformation are also available to those who want to spread the truth,” she said.

Hurd said the goal of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s disinformation campaign “is to undermine our trust in our institutions.”

“We can’t let that continue,” he insisted.

According to Hurd, fighting disinformation should carry the same weight as counterterrorism, an issue that Trump has deemed his top foreign policy priority.

“We need to put more pressure on the most egregious offender,” said Albright, referring to Russia.

Accusations of Russian meddling in the 2016 US presidential election, as well as subsequent efforts to interfere in European elections, have led to a focus on concrete, punitive steps against the Kremlin and more widespread efforts to counter the disinformation campaign’s efforts to weaken Western democracies.

On June 15, the US Senate approved new sanctions on Russia over its interference in the elections, a move which was “overwhelmingly bipartisan,” said Albright. “The biggest mistake we could make would be to turn the issue of disinformation into a partisan matter,” she said.

As part of the DisinfoWeek conference, Hurd joined Susan Glasser, chief international affairs columnist at POLITICO; Jennifer Lambert, deputy director of the Office of Analytics in the Bureau of International Information Programs at the US Department of State; and Clinton Watts, a senior fellow at the Center for Cyber and Homeland Security at George Washington University, to discuss means of responding to digital disinformation. Alina Polyakova, director of research for Europe and Eurasia at the Atlantic Council, moderated the discussion.

While propagating false information is not a new concept, “the spread of fake information is so much faster and the time horizon so compressed because of the medium we are operating in,” Polyakova said.

However, “just because something happens in the digital domain doesn’t mean our response has to be in the digital domain,” said Hurd.

“The mistake we’ve made in recent years [is that] we consistently and persistently detach the physical realm from cyberspace,” according to Watts. “There is a physical component to the propaganda,” he said.

Albright described how social media and the spread of information through digital means played a key role in the orchestration of the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa. “It was easy to believe after the Arab Spring that these new tools of communication have only transformed politics for the better,” said Albright. However, she added: “Technology is a double-edged sword.” While Western politicians and diplomats use social media to connect to the public, democracy’s enemies have become equally adept at the manipulation of these platforms, “prompting the same people who heralded the social media age to question whether democracy can survive it,” said Albright.

“Online discourse is becoming central to how people form their political identities,” she said, “but the way information is transmitted is not often understood, nor is it transparent, and that means it can be manipulated.”

While the panelists and Albright delivered similar messages calling for government involvement and legislation to punish perpetrators of disinformation and try to regulate its spread throughout social media, Glasser said that legislation alone is not enough. “In the end, you have to look at the human behavior piece of this,” she said.

“We are existing at a moment where you can’t separate disinformation [from] true information,” said Glasser. This confusion is compounded by “the radical shift in ourselves that makes us open and vulnerable to this in ways that we weren’t before,” she said. However, said Glasser, “it’s not the Russians talking about fake news today in Washington, DC.”

“People don’t seem to have yet developed a healthy skepticism about what others are sharing online,” Albright cautioned, calling for a renewed focus on education on credible sources of information.  “We have no choice but to embrace the new era,” she added.

Consequently, according to Lambert, the State Department is making great strides toward combining forces with civil society groups to inoculate societies against false information about the United States and Western democracies. The State Department’s mission of spreading the message of what the United States represents has not changed, said Lambert, “it’s just a slightly different playing field.”

To undermine disinformation before it spreads, “use tactics [Russia is] using, and flip it on them,” said Hurd.

“Computational propaganda is a twenty-first century problem, so we need twenty-first century solutions,” said Albright, calling for engagement between all stakeholders in the problem—government, civil society, and technology firms.

The State Department has focused its efforts on the dissemination of affirmative messaging, according to Lambert, while working with civil society groups abroad “who can take on the disinformation in a more direct way.” The result is not a whole-of-government approach to the problem, but a whole-of-society solution, she said.

“This is a golden age, not only for falsehood, but also for truth,” said Glasser, adding: “I hope we can get back to how to fight falsehood with truth.”

According to Albright: “The real solution lies in shoring up our society by rebuilding trust in democratic institutions and processes, and by inculcating in people a healthy skepticism and a curiosity to search for facts.”

Rachel Ansley is an editorial assistant at the Atlantic Council.

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