In A War Of Misinformation, Everybody Loses

Foreign Policy Journal | 14 Aug 2015

There is a re-emergence of the dirty tactics of the Cold War, where information is weaponized and truth becomes the first casualty.

ormally, a Russian worker suing their employer on the grounds that they failed to provide her with the requisite paperwork detailing the terms of her contract and subsequent dismissal would not make international news. But when that worker, Lyudmila Savchuk, was a self-confessed internet troll, and the firm she worked for, Internet Research, is , then one can understand why this would become a matter of international interest.

Savchuk is rightly being feted as a brave whistleblower, casting a light into the dark heart of the Kremlin´s campaign to bombard international news sites with pro-Putin rhetoric and drown out opposing voices.

If only she had a Western counterpart who could likewise reveal the extent of digital foul play being perpetrated by the West in its ongoing propaganda campaign against Russia and other perceived enemies….

But she does, of course, and his name is Edward Snowden, who is ironically seeking political asylum in Russia for exposing very similar tactics on behalf of his own government.

Part of the treasure trove of files leaked by Snowden relate to the existence of a number of clandestine programs aimed at doing exactly the same thing as the Russian troll factories: manipulating online debates to cast the Western foreign policy in a more favorable light.

Included in these are project Gateway, a tool for artificially increasing traffic to a website; Clean Sweep, a program aimed at creating fake Facebook accounts to post pro-Western messages to websites (essentially performing the same function as the Russian Troll factory); Scrapheap Challenge, for sending fake emails from targeted Blackberry users; Underpass, for changing the results of online polls; and Spring Bishop, for accessing the private Facebook photos of targeted individuals.

What this points to is the re-emergence of the dirty tactics of the Cold War, where information is weaponized, and truth becomes the first casualty.

Added to this toxic mix is the Trans Regional Web Initiative emanating from the US Department of Defense and constituting a more nuanced approach to guiding public opinion. The TRWI consists of several websites located in strategic hotspots around the world like the Middle East, the horn of Africa, and central Asia which purport to deliver an unbiased view of global events to counter radical opinions. That would be all fine and dandy, if it were in fact the case, but the reality is that these US government funded news websites tend to keep silent about human rights abuses committed by client states like Uzbekistan while making much of perceived Russian aggression.

Perhaps even more pernicious than the manipulation of the online political discourse, however, is the use of NGOs to do the same thing in the real world. When the Kremlin made foreign NGOs operating in Russia register as foreign agents it was easy to paint this as a throwback to the paranoia of the Cold War;but this is one conspiracy theory that Putin could be forgiven for indulging in. This is not tinfoil-hat political science. Even respected academics are calling on Washington to pack up its bags. A recent study conducted by two professors from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the ex-Soviet space called on the U.S to stop funneling money into local civil society organizations, as aiding NGOs has made it easier for local strongmen to accuse the U.S of fomenting regime change.

USAID, which explicitly states on its website that its “foreign assistance has always had the twofold purpose of furthering America’s interests while improving lives in the developing world”, was expelled from Bolivia, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Ecuador, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic on the grounds that it was being used as a tool to destabilize those governments.

In Russia itself, leaked emails surfaced showing that Russian opposition groups were receiving funding from USAID, despite their claims to independence.

What good can come of all this subterfuge? What little trust people have in the Internet will be completely destroyed as genuine citizens are left to wade through reams of misinformation being churned out by biased websites and commented on by fake account holders. Using agencies like USAID for these kinds of purposes in the real world is especially underhanded and counterproductive as it compromises the work of genuine aid agencies that will come under suspicion of being Trojan horses for political meddling.

If the West was really interested in selflessly helping emerging democracies, it would have left those countries to find their own way. Intervening in a country’s political evolution hijacks the process and blocks new elites from rising up and standing on their own two feet.

in the aftermath of the Euromaidan, real, homegrown NGOs (in contrast to “Ukrainian NGOs” that are heavily financed by the West) sprang up and managed to keep the country on an even keel. When the state foundered, civil society stepped in: grassroots volunteers kept order and distributed aid alike. Volunteerism is on the rise, especially in Eastern Ukraine, where youth platforms such as Freedom Home, Teplytsia, Center UA or the Lviv Education Foundation have helped businesses and IDPs to cope with the fallout from the war. One such homegrown initiative, Restoring Donbass, has sought to unearth such groups and give them a bully pulpit to reach out to Ukrainians in need. People rallied round the flag out of the sheer desire to help their compatriots, building patriotism and hope for a better tomorrow in the process—you don’t need USAID for that.

If the claim that America is the leader of the free world claim is to be anything more than the obnoxious, self-serving, lie that all empires spout to legitimize might over right, then Washington would do well to lead by example. The problem until now of course is that they have been doing just that: setting an atrocious example which their vassal states and adversaries have been only to eager to follow to further their own ends.

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