Last week, videos of prominent American celebrities such as Elijah Wood and Mike Tyson surfaced describing Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky as a drug-addicted neo-Nazi—except these videos were not real. They were Russian deepfakes, an element of Russia’s broader disinformation operations against Ukraine and its supporters in the West. Russian disinformation is a threat to American national security, and combating it demands a multi-pronged approach. Public diplomacy is an underappreciated method in the American toolkit, which, combined with appropriate policy, can reemerge as a truly effective tool of American national power, particularly in the Global South.
Since the Cold War, the then-Soviet Union and now Russia have engaged in information warfare against the United States and its supporters. By spreading disinformation, Russia aims to muddle objectivity and construct a society where people do not trust facts, since Russia views facts as a means to an end rather than as an end in itself. One way the United States has historically countered Russian disinformation is through public diplomacy programs such as media broadcasting entities and cultural exchange programs. In ideal conditions, these entities’ truthful and accurate reporting and people’s first-hand experience would build trust with foreign audiences. It can help lessen perceptions that lead to discontent with the U.S., which Russia wedges in its disinformation operations.
Even so, Russian disinformation remains a serious threat to U.S. national security. Russia uses an assortment of updated Cold War narratives against the United States, portraying itself as a victim of American aggression while also claiming the collapse of Western civilization is imminent. Disinformation operations have adapted to the digital age, with many newer operations transpiring via social media. Using bots and trolls, Russia can distribute its falsehoods to more people far faster and at greater volume than before. These operations work alongside Russian-owned media companies such as RT and Sputnik, which pushes the Kremlin’s anti-American agenda and makes it harder for foreign governments to cooperate with the US.
Noting that Russian influence is creeping more broadly into Africa and Latin America, the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM) should consider forming a “Radio Free Africa” and morphing the Office of Cuba Broadcasting into a broader Latin American news outlet. Growing the presence of reliable and trustworthy reporting in these regions is important to prevent Russian narratives from turning larger swaths of Africans and Latin Americans away from the U.S., which could ultimately affect wider relations between the U.S. and the countries of those regions. The upside to these forms of media programs can be seen through Radio Free Europe, whose efforts were an aspect in bringing democracy to Eastern Europe.
Cultural exchange programs like the Youth Ambassadors (YA) program should also be expanded. YA offers young high schoolers an opportunity to come to the U.S. for three weeks to receive training on civic education, community service, and youth leadership development. Countering disinformation is a significant theme in the program. Through a trickle effect, this helps counter Russian disinformation, where positive perceptions of the U.S. and information literacy are spread from these ambassadors to their communities. However, YA is only for countries in Latin America, limiting its full impact. Expanding the YA program to Africa and the Middle East would help bridge the systemic gaps between the U.S. and the people of these regions.
But perhaps the most necessary change in the effectiveness of American public diplomacy comes from a change in America’s actions. In an American Security Project white paper on public diplomacy, the critical recommendation for American policymakers is that the United States Government must act on the ideals it claims to hold. Russia does not claim to live by any principles in the information war. Instead, by engaging in effective forms of “whataboutism” and pointing out the disparities in America’s words and actions, it seeks to show that the U.S. does not either. If the U.S. wants its public diplomacy operations to work, it must act on its domestic and foreign front to eliminate inconsistencies between its ideals and actions, thereby increasing the credibility of its messaging.
Countering Russian disinformation will be essential in the outcome of the war in Ukraine and the course of modern great power competition. The stage is set where China and Russia will try to revise the global order the U.S. founded after World War II in their image. If the U.S. wants to prevent that, it will require an increased focus on winning over the Global South, and thus the countries hedging between the two blocs.
As the war in Ukraine drags on, the United States must be prudent in countering Russian disinformation operations and establishing new credible narratives that are resilient to foreign efforts. Through new and expanded public diplomacy programs, of which the benefits would vastly outweigh the costs, and ensuring American policy writ large follows its principles, the U.S. could better counter the erosion of truth and norms in which Russia is so heavily engaged.