By Nandita Bose
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – As the United States and Western allies grapple with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Biden administration is taking a unique approach to fighting a surge in Russian disinformation and propaganda.
Unlike its European allies, the White House is not directly pushing the giant U.S.-based tech and social media companies that control the flow of information to billions of people to take down disinformation or accounts that spread it, administration sources with direct knowledge of the matter say.
U.S. officials are instead focusing on calling out pro-Russian media outlets for spreading disinformation, rapidly sharing intelligence about Russia’s military moves and propaganda, and exposing what it calls Moscow’s plans to stage “false flag” attacks designed to provoke sentiment against Ukraine.
“We are proactively putting out information on the intelligence we have gathered, what we are seeing, debunking claims that are false, making sure our allies and partners have the right information,” one such source said. “The idea is to counter Russia’s narratives and make people understand that things being pushed to them is disinformation.”
That is an extension of a strategy of releasing to the public U.S. intelligence information about the Russian military build up near Ukraine before the invasion.
“Preempting what the Russians were doing and pointing things out and being bold in the way the administration revealed intelligence was very valuable,” said Brian Murphy, former head of the Department of Homeland Security’s intelligence branch, and now vice president for strategic operations at Logically, a firm that offers services to reduce the spread of disinformation.
A White House National Security Council (NSC) spokesperson said the administration is “extremely careful” with what it declassifies but “there is value to the public” in exposing disinformation operations.
Tech platforms like Alphabet’s YouTube, Twitter and Facebook have become virtual battlegrounds during the Russian invasion, as Kremlin-backed media publish information that often contradicts reporting from fact-based news outlets on the ground in Ukraine.
Facebook owner Meta has blocked Russian state media outlets from users’ feeds in Europe, under pressure from EU officials. Twitter and other social media are being restricted in Russia, and the tech companies face further punitive measures there. Several tech giants are also restricting Russian state media from making profits from ads on their platforms, and Meta is demoting posts from Kremlin-related outlets.
The Biden administration has identified outlets that are publishing information it believes to be Russian propaganda through accounts with millions of followers, but has not pressured tech companies to block or remove them.
For example, conservative financial news website ZeroHedge, was named last month by U.S. intelligence as one such vehicle. The outlet is still tweeting information to over one million followers.
The account doesn’t violate Twitter’s rules of service, the tech company says – and the White House is not pushing for a ban, sources say. That would raise questions about American press freedom, free speech issues and could start a fight with the tech giants that the administration does not want.
The White House also views Russian disinformation differently, sources said, than for instance, the spread of vaccine misinformation, which was killing Americans and pushed Biden to fight social media companies, albeit briefly.
In this instance, the State Department, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the FBI are working with the NSC to stop Moscow from peddling false narratives about Ukraine, the sources said.
The State Department’s Global Engagement Center (GEC) has been sharing information with U.S. agencies and foreign governments about Russian disinformation on social media, news outlets, and Russian proxy websites, a State Department official told Reuters.
GEC has been in regular contact with social media companies, “who have updated the department on their actions to cease monetizing sanctioned Russian individuals on their platforms,” the official said.
While GEC does not request the removal or labeling of content it shares its analyses with the platforms to identify and counter Russian disinformation.
WORKING IN AMERICA, BUT NOT RUSSIA
So far, the approach has been effective in the United States and Europe, experts say, but not in Russia where the Kremlin has tight control over the media.
“Russian propaganda did not quite take off inside the United States in this instance…because of some of the work the Biden administration has been doing,” said Larissa Doroshenko, a researcher at Northeastern University.
But, she added, “it wasn’t as effective in Russia obviously because of how thick the propaganda from the Kremlin is.”
The situation highlights the asymmetric battle democratic governments face against autocracies in information wars. Beijing and the Kremlin regularly demand local news and social media companies censor information they consider critical of the government, or that runs contrary to the official point of view.
Last month, the United States alleged Russia has been preparing to fabricate a pretext for an invasion of Ukraine by creating a very graphic propaganda video that would depict a fake attack by Ukraine against Russia.
That video has not surfaced, because, U.S. officials believe, they pre-empted it.
The Kremlin and pro-Moscow news outlets have accused Kiev on television and social media of carrying out bombings and other non-existent attacks and warned of an alleged attempt by Ukrainian saboteurs to blow up a chemical storage facility in eastern Ukraine.
Russian reports accuse Ukraine of plotting a genocide against ethnic Russians and the United States of using proxy forces to plot a chemical attack – examples Biden called “outlandish and baseless claims” in a Feb. 22 speech.
The proactive U.S. moves represent an advance from 2016 when officials in the Obama administration, some of whom now work for Biden, and U.S. intelligence agencies failed to identify and stop Russia from launching a disinformation campaign and interfering with the U.S. elections.
Back then, Russian trolls used a large network of fake accounts to spread incendiary political content to millions of Americans, took advantage of existing divisions in American society and sowed doubt about the election process.
(Reporting by Nandita Bose in Washington; Additional reporting by Simon Lewis and Elizabeth Culliford, Editing by Heather Timmons and Alistair Bell)