Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February has brought renewed focus on America’s ability to defend itself against the Kremlin’s narratives, which seek to justify its continued aggression. The State Department’s Global Engagement Center (GEC), tasked with coordinating America’s response to the “disinformation war,” is a six-year-old department with a changing mission, an unstable staff and a limited budget. Despite significant headwinds, the new center’s modest efforts to counter propaganda through strategic partnerships with foreign governments and journalists, as well as its sponsorship of new counterpropaganda and disinformation (CPD) technologies, remain promising as the war in Ukraine is heating up and escalating. Russian disinformation grows.
After the end of the Cold War, the US Information Agency (USIA), originally created to counter Soviet propaganda, ceased operations in 1999. Its counter-propaganda functions were later taken over by two agencies: The The United States Agency for Global Media (USAGM) assumed the USIA’s outreach role, while the Global Engagement Center, created in 2016 and housed at the State Department, was tasked with leading the USIA’s efforts government against disinformation.
The GEC is tasked with an expansive mission: to identify and counter all state and non-state disinformation that seeks to “undermine” the objectives of the US and its allies. This may interest you : Factsheet on US security assistance to Ukraine. However, the Centre’s mandate is practically limited by its budgetary and personnel issues.
Its budget is approximately $70 million compared to the USAGM’s budget of $810 million. As of 2020, the center had a limited workforce of 120 people. GEC employees are thinly spread across all of the Center’s global initiatives. For example, it has historically employed too few Russian speakers to meet the challenge of the Kremlin’s sophisticated propaganda operation. In addition, its staff relies heavily on contractors and currently has no permanent staff.
Despite its limitations, the GEC remains the only national mission tasked with coordinating the government’s response to Russian disinformation. Recently, Russian narratives have claimed all of Ukraine and cast NATO as an aggressor against Moscow. This obviously harmful and revisionist propaganda continues to destabilize the US and its allies, who fear that Russia’s expansionism will spill over into Western Europe and threaten the security of NATO allies.
Countering Russian Disinformation: Advantages of the GEC
In the wake of the Russian invasion, the GEC’s key value lies in public diplomacy. The Center serves as the US liaison for knowledge-sharing initiatives, such as the Technology and Trade Council forum, which pairs US analysts with their EU counterparts, and the Understanding and Engaging ” of NATO. The GEC’s public role also extends to its cooperation with more localized organizations. With more than 400 partners in 29 countries, the GEC stands as the “primary information-sharing platform” for counter-disinformation efforts and mitigation strategies.
The GEC has also increased its research and messaging efforts over the past two years raising awareness of the methods and key actors involved in Russia’s ongoing propaganda campaigns. For example, the GEC directly linked the systemic spread of false anti-Ukrainian narratives, such as “blatant” neo-Nazism in Ukraine, to actors in the Russian government and state-funded media such as Sputnik and RT. This may interest you : United States to buy 150,000 tons of Ukrainian wheat from the UN World Food Program | Press release | US Agency for International Development. Functioning as “pillars of Russia’s disinformation ecosystem,” these outlets amplify Russian narratives and disinformation on social media platforms and local language broadcasts. By highlighting how misinformation is crafted and disseminated in real time, the GEC equipped Ukraine and neighboring states with the means to identify and question the accuracy of biased media coverage of the war.
In keeping with its more “removed” investigative and diplomatic roles, the GEC has increasingly sought to present itself as a “data-driven” organization with the potential to directly support others at the intersection of technology and messaging against disinformation. The center’s technology team, for example, has historically funded anti-censorship tools. After the invasion, Russia cut off access to most national social networks and criminalized critical reporting by traditional media. Since approximately 85% of Russia’s 144 million citizens have access to the Internet, VPNs and similar tools, which allow users to bypass government media “blackouts,” would have the potential to allow Russian citizens to access independent journalism and accurate reports about the war. By identifying and channeling more of its direct funding and subsidies to these censorship evasion tools, the GEC’s work has the ability to disrupt pro-invasion narratives in Russia.
A Supporting Role
Along with a leadership role on the global stage and technology support, the GEC also has the ability to assist US agencies in the continued development of Ukraine’s national counter-disinformation architecture. See the article : Medical Issues Weekly welcomes a lifestyle medicine physician.
Despite claims last May that Zelenskyy required the cooperation of the GEC to establish a disinformation center in Ukraine, two such centers already exist: the Ukrainian Center for Combating Disinformation and the Council’s Center for Disinformation of Security and National Defense. These centers emerged from initiatives spearheaded not by the GEC, but by the State Department’s Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI). OTI’s Ukraine Confidence Building Initiative II partnered with a broad coalition, including GEC’s sister organization USAGM, as well as the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office. This effort allowed Ukraine to “raise” its disinformation departments almost a full year before the Russian invasion. More importantly, it demonstrates the breadth of expertise needed to build counter-disinformation capabilities in Ukraine. As a stand-alone organization, the GEC would not have been up to the task.
Although the GEC did not deal with efforts to establish Ukraine’s disinformation architecture, it may still engage with its government and counter-propaganda centers in a more targeted effort. Their counter-propaganda mission in North Macedonia serves as an example of the type of campaign that could be carried out in Ukraine. Amid Russian interference in North Macedonia’s NATO membership vote, the Center’s month-long mission provided analytical support by identifying the actors responsible for the false narratives and educating the government about Russian tactics and effective counter-messages. These initiatives hold promise not only for Ukraine, but also for future cooperation with other governments vulnerable to Russian influence campaigns, such as Georgia, Bosnia, and Moldova.
The United States also sponsors a grassroots disinformation initiative in the country. Since 2018, USAID has funded a six-year, $35 million media support program (the largest such program in Ukraine’s history), which aims to promote the resilience of journalists from all sectors of Ukrainian society to Russian propaganda.
The GEC once again has the opportunity to play a vital role in this journalism-focused approach to countering extremism. It can partner with both those supported by USAID funding and alternative outlets to expose state-sponsored actors and narratives that drive Russian disinformation campaigns.
Forecast: The GEC’s Circumscribed Role
Although the Global Engagement Center is equipped to carry out smaller partnerships, it cannot foster larger, sectoral reforms on the scale that its predecessor, the USIA, and better-funded agencies are currently undertaking. The Center’s counter-disinformation efforts in Ukraine will continue to depend on the work of sister agencies, NGOs and foreign partners to help the country withstand Russia’s narratives.
The GEC’s public diplomacy efforts and knowledge sharing initiatives will likely continue as the war progresses. The Center’s capabilities to analyze local media environments, identify propagators of disinformation campaigns, and coordinate counter-disinformation strategies with local actors will also allow for continued (albeit limited) support to the Ukrainian government and independent journalists. Its modest ability to invest in and rely on emerging CPD technologies, such as censorship evasion tools, bot detection, and media content authentication, will continue to hold great potential for the digital fight against disinformation.
Any future expanded role of the GEC would require significant capacity building and funding efforts by the Center and the Administration. The GEC should convert its workforce from one dependent on contractors to a permanent workforce and increase the number of Russian speakers it employs. For its part, the administration should expand the GEC budget in fiscal year 2024; something he has expressed willingness to consider. That funding, however, may come too late to be useful in the current conflict.
Amidst the pressures of a wartime disinformation environment, the GEC must make the most of its resources, crafting counter-message campaigns and assisting, where possible, local counter-propaganda efforts.