Briefing With Special Envoy Lea Gabrielle On the GEC Special Report: Pillars of Russia's Disinformation and Propaganda Ecosystem
Lea Gabrielle, Special Envoy and Coordinator of the Global Engagement Center
Global Engagement Center
August 5, 2020
MR BROWN: Hey, yeah, Principal Deputy Spokesperson Cale Brown here. Good afternoon, everyone, and thank you for joining us for an on-the-record briefing by U.S. Special Envoy for the Global Engagement Center Lea Gabrielle. She joins us today to discuss the GEC's Special Report: Pillars of Russia's Disinformation and Propaganda Ecosystem.
Special Envoy Gabrielle will begin with opening remarks and then take your questions. If you'd like to get into the question queue, just dial 1 then 0. I would encourage you to go ahead and do that now. As a reminder, the content of this briefing will be embargoed until the conclusion of the call, and this will coincide with the lifting of the embargo on the report itself, which was distributed earlier today.
Special Envoy Gabrielle, please go ahead.
MS GABRIELLE: Good afternoon, and thank you all for joining us on this important issue. The Global Engagement Center's Special Report on Russia's Pillars of Disinformation and Propaganda provides the first-ever comprehensive analysis of Russia's disinformation and propaganda ecosystem.
With the release of this report, the Global Engagement Center here at the Department of State is fulfilling its congressional mandate and advancing this administration and Congress's goal of countering foreign disinformation and propaganda that's aimed at the United States and its allies and partners.
The GEC, the department, and the entire U.S. Government is engaged in an intensive effort to build global resiliency against Russia's disinformation tactics.
And we're sharing this full report publicly. It can be found on the Global Engagement Center page on state.gov.
Russia is playing a significant role in creating and spreading disinformation and propaganda around many topics.
For example, recently, you may have seen in the media that Russia is using proxy sites to disseminate disinformation specifically about COVID.
The GEC has found this to be true.
But COVID-19 is not the only topic that Russia is spreading false information about. Proxy sites are only part of a much larger ecosystem of disinformation.
So our report draws on publicly available information to detail for the international public what we view as the five pillars of Russian disinformation.
These are: Number one, official government communications; number two, state-funded global messaging; three, cultivation of proxy sources; four, weaponization of social media; and the fifth pillar is cyber-enabled disinformation.
So this full combination of platforms and tactics constitutes an ecosystem in which the different elements reinforce each other.
And the interaction between the different elements creates a media multiplier effect that amplifies false narratives.
The Kremlin bears direct responsibility for cultivating these tactics and platforms as part of its approach to using information and disinformation as a weapon.
The Kremlin invests massively in its propaganda channels. Its intelligence services and proxies conduct malicious cyber activity to support their disinformation efforts. And it leverages outlets that masquerade as news sites or research institutions to spread false and misleading narratives.
Now, in addition to outlying – outlining, rather, the full ecosystem, the report provides in-depth insight on Russia's use of proxy sites, a tactic that until recently has not been a focus for many, because of the heavy public concentration on social media manipulation and malicious cyber activity.
These proxy sites serve as critical connective tissue within the broader ecosystem. We found that they promote disinformation in support of the Kremlin's goals, they're often promoted directly by the Russian Government, and they push specific disinformation narratives that are picked up by other parts of the ecosystem.
The report provides detailed profiles of seven of these proxy sites, but there are many, many more.
Now, the GEC used the seven sites in our report as examples of tactics that Russia uses to cultivate audiences, to maintain a veneer of independence from Russia, and to spread false narratives around the world. Recent news and media reporting noted several of the sites that we highlight here.
Now, as the report notes, some of the individuals and institutions behind these sites benefit greatly from an association with the Kremlin.
Others strive to maintain a veneer of separation from Russia, but as our research and our analysis show, they serve no other purpose but to push pro-Kremlin content.
Russia and its proxies aren't just promoting disinformation to the benefit of Russia.
The GEC has identified multiple instances of Russia and its proxies pushing pro-Chinese Communist Party narratives.
Beijing has also taken a page from Russia's playbook, leveraging conspiracy websites and proxy channels to push disinformation and propaganda with the goal of undermining democratic norms and institutions.
The threat of both China's and Russia's disinformation is real and it's dangerous. Authoritarian governments seek to manipulate open and free information environments.
We want the international public to know that these efforts do not stand unopposed.
The GEC is deeply committed to its mission of leading and coordinating the efforts of the U.S. federal government to counter disinformation and propaganda.
And in addition, there is a thriving counter-disinformation community that's actively working to expose and build resiliency against these activities, which includes the entire U.S. Government, allied and partner governments, international institutions, civil society, academia, the private sector, and concerned members of the public around the world.
Collectively, we must not allow the modern forms of communication that we depend on for the free flow of ideas and information to be weaponized by malign actors like Russia.
The GEC and the entire Department of State is engaged globally in building partnerships to meet this challenge.
The GEC specifically provides support to fact checkers and researchers.
We lead awareness-raising campaigns. We train partners in best practices for increasing resiliency.
And with the release of today's report, the GEC will continue to expose the disinformation that we see coming from Russia so that the broader counter-disinformation community can follow up with its own research and its own exposure efforts, and so that the international public has a clear understanding of how Russia's disinformation operates.
So thank you, and I look forward to your questions.
MR BROWN: Okay. For our first question, let's go to the line of Julian Barnes.
OPERATOR: Julian Barnes, your line is open.
QUESTION: Okay, great. Hopefully, you can hear me now. My question is: To what extent do these specific sites interfere in sort of American elections? I realize the Global Engagement Center's mandate is sort of the international propaganda, but are these the same sites that are trying to interfere in American elections?
MS GABRIELLE: Hi, Julian, and thank you for that question. So first of all, you're right, the Global Engagement Center is focused on countering foreign disinformation aimed at foreign audiences. So that is not an assessment that was done as part of this report. Rather, this report highlights the overall big picture of how Russian disinformation, the ecosystem of Russia's disinformation, operates and these five pillars that we're highlighting.
So these specific sites that we focused on in the report that we call proxy sites essentially will take a disinformation narrative and they will amplify it through other parts of the disinformation ecosystem. So a disinformation narrative that starts in one of the pillars will then bounce off of the other pillars and essentially be amplified.
So Russia typically looks to undermine democratic institutions and democratic norms, and to spread fear and confusion as well as trying to create doubts about democratic norms. They also look for divisive issues to focus on. So you certainly see that from the proxy sites, but the report is not focused on U.S. elections.
MR BROWN: Okay. For our second question, let's go to the line of Jack Robinson.
OPERATOR: Mr. Robinson, your line is open.
QUESTION: Thank you. Hello. Does your operation – do you employ some kind of gauge of how successful these efforts are? And if so, how successful are these – the Russians in their disinformation campaign based on that metric?
MS GABRIELLE: There's no way to quantify, for example, the number of proxy sites that are out there, because they're very easy to put up and to take down and to adapt and change. With this report, the intent of sharing this information is to expose to the international public how those disinformation ecosystem works. Because one of the greatest tools that we can use to counter propaganda and disinformation is to inform the public, to expose examples of disinformation and how it propagates through the information environment. So exposure is one of the first steps in countering – best practices also involve increasing resiliencies in audiences, decreasing the vulnerability of populations to disinformation by making them aware of it.
So in terms of how far reaching, I think really the question is how – when one of these proxy sites is publishing information, it's murky as to where it's actually coming from. Russia tries to hide its affiliation with these different proxy sites, and that's what makes them effective is that it's difficult for just an average person who is online to look at these sites and know that it's actually Russian disinformation.
So for example, the Strategic Culture Foundation is directly connected with Russia's ministry of foreign affairs, but it hides its affiliation with the Russian Government, and even with Russia more broadly. But it has partnerships with essentially fringe outlets.
News Front is another example. This is a proxy site that's based in Russia and occupied Crimea. It's registered with Roskomnadzor, which is Russia's state agency that oversees mass media, but at first glance you wouldn't know that this is actually a Russian proxy site, or essentially a mouthpiece for Russia.
Geopolitica.ru is one of the websites that was identified. That's led by prominent Russian far-right ideologue Alexander Dugin, who's been sanctioned by the U.S. for recruiting fighters to support Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine. But again, it's just not clear from these sites what their affiliation are, and that's intentional by Russia. The murky affiliation is essentially a way of laundering disinformation narratives so that they can spread far and wide.
And I'll give you one more – just as one example: The head of global research is Michel Chossudovsky, and he's written many articles on COVID-19 containing disinformation. One of them that was published back in March, you can just see from the headline, as it states in the report, the headline of this is "COVID-19 Coronavirus: A Fake Pandemic? Who's Behind It? Global Economic, Social and Geopolitical Destabilization."
So from that headline, calling it a fake pandemic, I think we all recognize it's not a fake pandemic; it's real. But this article alone was republished or linked by at least 70 different websites and publications. We've also seen China take articles that were written by these proxy websites and then use them. So, for example, China's foreign ministry spokesman, Zhao Lijian, tweeted two Global Research articles blaming the U.S. for the coronavirus. Those articles have since been deleted, but it shows you how far-reaching these proxy websites can actually go.
MR BROWN: Great. For our next question, let's go to the line of Nike Ching.
QUESTION: Thank you so much for the call. Good afternoon, special envoy. As we are heading to November's presidential election, is there indication or a specific example that U.S. foreign adversaries, including Russians and Chinese, either through state-sponsored actors or proxies, are engaging in activities to interfere with the U.S. elections either through illegal cyber activities – illegal cyber activities or spreading disinformation? Thank you.
MS GABRIELLE: Well, again, I would have to refer you to the domestic agencies that are responsible, that take the lead on protecting against foreign interference in the U.S. elections. The Department of State is responsible for communicating with governments worldwide the seriousness with which the U.S. views foreign efforts to interfere in our elections. We also make clear the potential consequences and the costs if foreign actors attempt to do so. The Department of State works closely with partner governments to build coalitions to counter this type of behavior and to share best practices to build resilience. The GEC works with our partners worldwide who share information on election interference and the tactics that they've seen used by Russia and others. We share that information with the domestic agencies that have the lead in protecting U.S. elections. We share a number of different best practices as well as technology tools that we're learning about with our domestic agencies. But again, that is not the GEC's lead, and I'd have to refer you to the domestic agency – the domestic agencies on protection of U.S. elections.
But I do want to reiterate, as Secretary Pompeo has underscored on many occasions, the U.S. Government will not tolerate foreign interference in our elections.
MR BROWN: Okay. Next question, let's go to the line of Amanda Seitz.
QUESTION: Hi, yes, thanks for doing this call. I was wondering if you might be able to speak to what the GEC believes the motivation is for pushing some of these very specific narratives and conspiracy theories around the coronavirus, and if you believe that they've been successful in reaching U.S. audiences.
MS GABRIELLE: So the motivations are the typical motivations that you see from the Russian Federation, which is undermining democratic institutions, undermining the U.S. and the West, looking to spread fear and confusion, and to essentially publish or push out narratives that create division among Western and democratic audiences. So really that's what Russia typically is using disinformation and propaganda to do. We've seen false narratives around COVID also being pushed out by the Chinese Communist Party. We've seen the Chinese Communist Party look to try to reshape the global narrative around COVID-19 to try to portray the Chinese Communist Party, and rather, China, as the global leader in the response as opposed to the cause of the pandemic.
So the reason for using disinformation and propaganda to – around COVID really are those – are those larger motivations that Russia, China, and even Iran have in using disinformation in general, but have adapted their disinformation narratives to the environment that we are all in around COVID right now.
MR BROWN: Great. We may have time for one or two more. Let's go to the line of Jennifer Hansler.
QUESTION: Hi, thanks so much for doing the call. I was wondering if you could tell us whether there was a specific finding from the GEC that prompted this Rewards for Justice announcement today on cyber activities interfering in the 2020 election.
MS GABRIELLE: I'm sorry, I couldn't completely hear the question. Can you please repeat it?
QUESTION: Sure. Has any of the GEC's findings played into today's announcement on the Rewards for Justice $10 million bounty for cyber interference in the election? Was the GEC involved in that at all?
MS GABRIELLE: So I would actually refer you to Cale on that specific topic, but I would say that that would take into account a much broader picture than the work the GEC does to counter foreign propaganda and disinformation.
MR BROWN: Okay, if anyone has a question, dial 1-0 to get into the queue. I think we have time for one more.
Okay, for the last question let's go to Danila Galperovich. Sorry if I butchered your name.
QUESTION: That's okay. Thank you very much. This is Voice of America Russian Service. And you've done a tremendous job. I was just reading this report. I have two questions. Some time ago, you, during your briefing with Phil Reeker, told journalists that Russia might use disinformation to undermine trust to a soon-to-be-developed vaccine against COVID-19. Do you see any confirmation of what you anticipated some months ago?
And another question. In the end of spring, the beginning of summer, Russian leaders spread disinformation about World War II, blaming Poland and European countries for provoking the war. Is it important for the United States and what's your reaction to these Russian actions? Thank you very much again.
MS GABRIELLE: Yes, and thank you for the question. And I have to say I appreciate your comments on this report. The team at the Global Engagement Center is a good number of very dedicated professionals who come to work every day very passionate about doing this work for the U.S., and I'm very proud of the team and the work that they're doing, so thank you.
Regarding a vaccine, I'll start by saying that Russia has a long history of spreading disinformation around health and science issues, looking back at Ebola, Zika, 5G. The Russian disinformation ecosystem exploits fear and confusion, as I've said, to create and amplify dangerous narratives. We've seen that around COVID. We called it out. The Global Engagement Center and the State Department has been calling out Russian disinformation around COVID since at least February. And based on Russia's track record, we've said that there's a high probability that the Russian disinformation ecosystem will act to undermine faith in a COVID-19 vaccine when it becomes available.
So the GEC is closely watching this. We are monitoring the disinformation narratives around COVID, including the efforts to undermine faith in a vaccine. Our preliminary research indicates that the Chinese Communist Party's propaganda and disinformation ecosystem is pushing positive narratives about China and the potential for China to create a vaccine and then share it globally, while trying to suggest that the U.S. plans to hoard treatments if they were to become available. So we have seen China's state outlets pushing this narrative with the implication that the U.S. might prevent other countries from getting the vaccine.
So the GEC and our partners will continue to work on how to build resiliency and we'll stay focused on exposing these efforts, but again, that's one that we do continue to see. And that narrative that I just mentioned from the Chinese Communist Party, once again, is in line with the broader narrative from the Chinese Communist Party around COVID-19, which is that they've been trying to appear to be the global leader in the response. And we also do see Russia and China converging on narratives sometimes when they benefit the other – the other party.
And then your other question was about World War II and Russian historical revisionism. We think it's very important to counter Russian historical revisionism around World War II, and in fact, we worked with a number of European partners to put out truthful narratives and to make sure that we were filling the information space with the truth about World War II to counter Russia's historical revisionism around World War II.
MR BROWN: Okay, thank you so much for taking the time to brief us today, and thanks to everyone who joined the call. This concludes the call and, as a result, the embargo of the contents of the call and the report itself is lifted. Thank you, everyone, for joining today.
MS GABRIELLE: Thank you.
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