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Prof. Mietek Boduszynski Discusses What U.S. Diplomacy Can Do to Counter Russian Disinformation

Russian flag, binary code, fake news

The 2016 presidential campaign is still big news, with ongoing revelations about Russian efforts to influence the vote, and recent congressional hearings involving Facebook, Google and Twitter. Here, former diplomat and current Pomona College Politics Professor Mietek Boduszynski discusses the effect that disinformation has on U.S. diplomacy and what the U.S. can do to counter fake news.

Russian disinformation is currently a hot topic. Is this the first time that we have seen this phenomenon coming from Moscow?

No, it is a well-honed tactic in Moscow, used extensively during the Cold War to attempt to discredit the U.S. and its policies. Some people say that Stalin himself coined the term "disinformation."

The best-known example today is the Russian effort to discredit Hillary Clinton during last year's U.S. presidential campaign. But as Philip Breeden and I note in a recent piece, Russian disinformation also has another goal: to make people question what they read in mainstream media, even in credible outlets like The New York Times, and to make them doubt that there is an objective truth out there.

How do disinformation campaigns affect public diplomacy?

First, we should define public diplomacy: it is the tools of diplomacy that aim to inform, engage, and influence foreign publics. This can involve classic tools, like issuing State Department press releases or holding press conferences for senior U.S. government officials. But there are other tools, such as exchange programs, which allow foreign students and professionals to experience the U.S. firsthand.

Public diplomacy is somewhat equipped to deal with disinformation (outright lies and fabrications), but it is much harder to deal with campaigns that compel people to question whether there is truth out there at all. Especially when the U.S. president -- who is the chief executive and therefore the "boss" of U.S. public diplomacy practitioners around the world and the "chief messenger" for the U.S. -- questions the credibility of the American press. 

What role does the Internet and social media play in disinformation campaigns?

A huge role. Whereas before the Soviet Union had to rely on newspapers and television news to place its "disinformation" stories, now they can be easily placed, under cover, on social media and it can quickly become viral. And we are only now learning how much of the anti-Hillary Clinton content out there last year was orchestrated by Russia and front organizations and Internet trolls operating on behalf of Russia. 

What can U.S. diplomacy do to counter disinformation campaigns?

One option for the U.S. government is to try to ban Russia, Russians and Russian organizations from access to U.S.-controlled social media. Or ban Russian journalists from working in the U.S. But this is hard to do in practice, and runs counter to the spirit of free speech, free press and a free Internet.

U.S. public diplomats can go public and denounce "fake news." But, it is impossible to respond to every instance of disinformation--you would need an entire army of full-time monitors and responders. The U.S. government tried to do this with Islamic State messaging but it was challenging. The biggest obstacle is that many consumers of disinformation, in the U.S. and around the world, are unlikely to trust U.S. official messages. In short, the problem is the credibility of the messenger. That is why they turn to "alternative" news in the first place. 

I saw this firsthand when I was in Iraq as a U.S. diplomat, and we had to deal with Iranian disinformation in the country. We found that rather than responding to every instance of fake Iranian news about the U.S. supporting the Islamic State, for instance, which didn't work because many Iraqis did not trust what the U.S. said, we were better off building relationships with individual Iraqis and thereby building trust, or supporting the development of Iraqi media. 

What else can the U.S. do?

Philip Breeden and I argue in a recent piece that the best way for U.S. public diplomacy to counter disinformation campaigns is to promote education, media literacy and professional journalistic standards, as well as to strengthen exchange programs that give foreign journalists experience in the U.S., so they can see U.S. society (and its positive and negative aspects) firsthand. Like these programs run by the State Department.

Mietek Boduszynski is assistant professor of politics and international relations at Pomona College. He served as a U.S. diplomat for nearly a decade, with postings in Iraq, Albania, Kosovo, Japan, Egypt and Libya. His articles have appeared in Foreign Affairs, The Hill, Los Angeles Times and The Christian Science Monitor.