As President Biden seeks to take a stronger stance against Russian aggression, he must resolutely address Russian disinformation campaigns and cyberattacks against the U.S. and take steps to safeguard Americans from foreign interference.
Disinformation: A Hallmark of Russian Tactics
In recent years, Russian disinformation operations have exponentially grown in the digital space. While Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election was a wake-up call for the United States about the credible dangers of disinformation, other countries have been battling Russian information warfare for years.
Following the Russian election interference in 2016, social media companies took steps to curb disinformation and coordinated inauthentic behavior on their platforms. However, in 2020 Russia adjusted tactics, finding it more fruitful to inflame the hyper-partisan divisions exposed during the 2016 election. Turning attention to focus widely on sowing discord across the U.S., Russia fomented racial tensions during the Black Lives Matter movement and even encouraged white supremacy violence. With the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, Russia has spread disinformation about the COVID-19 virus and subsequent vaccines to stoke panic among U.S. and European publics.
A Blueprint for a Stronger Response to Foreign Disinformation
Evidence of Russian influence campaigns and cyber-operations against the U.S. has fostered support for U.S. cybersecurity measures that address foreign interference online. In a cross-party vote to overturn a presidential veto, Congress passed the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) which incorporated 26 cybersecurity provisions proposed by the bipartisan Cyberspace Solarium Commission. These provisions included the creation of a national cyber director and expanding the authority of the Cyber and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA). This concern from across the aisle over U.S. cyber vulnerabilities represents an opportunity for the Biden administration to take definitive action to strengthen the U.S. response to foreign information campaigns seeking to sow public discord, discredit the U.S. electoral system, and undermine U.S. interests.
To address foreign disinformation the Biden administration should:
- Invest in, expand, and coordinate agencies at the forefront of U.S. counter-disinformation efforts, such as CISA’s Countering Foreign Influence Task Force (CFITF) and the Department of State’s Global Engagement Center (GEC). Failing to empower these agencies with adequate resources hampers the U.S.’s ability to face emerging digital threats.
- Forge stronger multilateral coordination of counter-disinformation strategies with NATO nations and the EU, who have been particular targets of Russian attempts to undermine Western leadership. Yet, coordination of multilateral counter-disinformation efforts have been constrained by national political pressures. Presenting a united front against disinformation campaigns, is vital in ensuring collective security.
- Collaborate with social media companies to provide policy-informed guidelines. While social media platforms have largely been blamed for the spread of disinformation, governments have left these companies with little to no guidance. Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter have all taken steps to label state media, fact-check posts, and stop disinformation, but the onus to craft responses to foreign threats should not rest fully on these companies. Even Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg called for government guidance to inform platform policies for a consistent global framework.
- Partner with civil society organizations (CSOs) to foster a resilient information space at home and abroad. CSOs are valuable partners in the fight against disinformation. These organizations can help address community vulnerabilities and build resilience through public outreach and engagement, policy advocacy, and disinformation exposure and fact-checking. Successful examples of countering Russian misinformation include Czech Republic’s and Estonia’s partnership with CSOs and think tanks for public outreach or Finland’s media literacy campaigns.
- Finally, the U.S. must find a way to hold foreign actors responsible for disinformation activities.
Now that the U.S. recognizes disinformation as a credible threat with serious consequences, it must take action to secure the online space at home, reduce citizen vulnerabilities, and find a way to hold Russia accountable for its actions in conjunction with global networks and allies. While Russia is not the only nation conducting disinformation campaigns, its tactics abroad are often more systematic and larger in scale than those of China or Iran. For example, China is already taking cues from Russian tactics to expand its disinformation efforts. Failure to act now, may encourage other malign actors to similarly adopt Russian tactics to pursue their own interests.
As the Biden Administration weighs how to take a tougher approach to Russia, Moscow’s broad foreign interference and disinformation must be addressed to protect American security now and in the future by deterring other actors from capitalizing on American vulnerabilities.