Lawmakers Struggle for Upper Hand in Global Information War

Russia’s use of information as a weapon of war has helped the Kremlin eat away at Ukraine’s territory and undermine the NATO alliance in Eastern Europe.

Now, with China and the Islamic State adopting many of the same tactics, lawmakers say it’s time for the United States to up its game to counteract them.

“The United States needs its own strategy to deal with this and we need it now,” said Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y. “This can’t come soon enough.”

Engel, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and panel Chairman Ed Royce, R-Calif., plan to introduce legislation to counter the Kremlin’s global campaign by revitalizing the Cold War-era structure of U.S. international broadcasting, which Royce said is currently just “a thimble of journalistic credibility in an ocean of Russian-driven news distortion.”

A previous effort by the two foundered last year on concerns it would turn respected names such as the Voice of America into propaganda outlets, but the problem has become more urgent since then, spreading across the globe.

In the past few years, Russian state media have vastly expanded into the global arm of a campaign of psychological and information warfare that has become an integral part of the Kremlin’s military strategy. That became evident last year as Russia began its campaign to seize territory from Ukraine, with Russian media reports playing a major role in building support for Russian-backed rebels there.

“During the war in Ukraine, the Russian-funded television channel RT was mobilized as a weapon,” said Liz Wahl, a former RT anchor who famously resigned on the air in March 2014 at the height of the crisis over Russian occupation of Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula.

She said the channel’s managers actively seek to spread disinformation and promote conspiracy theories to create confusion in the minds of viewers. RT also actively seeks out extremists and provides a space for them to air their views in the mainstream of political discourse, she said.

“They shape the discussion whether we like it or not,” Wahl said.

Russia’s information warfare is part of a strategy to defeat Western society by exploiting its openness, since Kremlin military planners have concluded NATO is too strong to confront with force, said Peter Pomerantsev, a British television producer and author of a book about modern Russia, Nothing is True and Everything is Possible.

“The age of information is becoming age of disinformation,” Pomerantsev said. “In the 21st century wars might be decided by whose storyline wins, not what happens on the ground.”

And not only has Russia’s information network gone global, it has become a model for other U.S. adversaries, taking both military and political leaders by surprise. Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, NATO’s supreme allied commander for Europe, called Russia’s efforts in Ukraine “the most amazing information warfare blitzkrieg we have ever seen in the history of information warfare.”

China has followed suit, expanding its state-controlled media across the globe, including into the United States, while at the same time keeping a tight rein on what its own citizens can see.

And the Islamic State has a slick Internet propaganda campaign aimed directly at convincing Muslims in the West that the time has come for a global caliphate ruled by Islamic law. The group’s social media presence has resisted efforts to defeat it, inspiring like-minded people in the West to commit acts of terrorism and providing a steady stream of recruits, including from the United States and other Western nations.

Meanwhile, a group of retired U.S. military officers found in a report released March 10 that Hamas, the Islamist terror group that controls the Palestinian territory, was able to skillfully use modern technology and sophisticated media tactics to gain the strategic advantage in its 2014 conflict with Israel, in spite of Israeli tactical successes.

The report for the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs recommended that the U.S. military adapt its training and planning to deal with such conflicts, including more sophisticated information operations aimed at preventing attempts to delegitimize its actions in international public opinion.

Royce and Engel’s legislation would move U.S. policy in that direction, overhauling the current structure that places the operations of all government-funded international media under the control of a Broadcasting Board of Governors. Instead, their proposal would divide responsibilities, with Voice of America charged with reporting on U.S. policy and other global news, and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty targeting audiences inside Russia and other repressive regimes.

The proposal also would provide dedicated funding and reduce bureaucracy so more money can be spent on disseminating information, which, Royce noted, would be produced in accordance with accepted journalistic practices.

“Our international broadcasting is in disarray,” Royce said. “The journalists of the BBG risk their lives reporting from the front lines across the world. They deserve better support. And the American people need much more from this agency if we’re going to respond to the rapidly evolving media environment and better secure the long-term security interests of the United States.”

Originally appeared in theĀ Washington Examiner on April 20, 2015.