Debunking Russian Disinformation NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro speaks with Nina Jankowicz, disinformation fellow at the Wilson Center, about why we're hearing so much about Russian disinformation during the impeachment hearings.

Debunking Russian Disinformation

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President Trump repeated again on Friday a debunked conspiracy theory that it was Ukraine and not Russia that intervened in the 2016 election - this, even after multiple U.S. intelligence agencies have repeatedly stated that that's simply not true. In her testimony in the impeachment hearings this past week, former National Security Council officer Fiona Hill said that the president and his supporters are parroting Russian disinformation.


FIONA HILL: This is a fictional narrative that has been perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services themselves. The unfortunate truth is that Russia was the foreign power that systematically attacked our democratic institutions in 2016. This is the public conclusion of our intelligence agencies, confirmed in bipartisan congressional reports. It is beyond dispute, even if some of the underlying details must remain classified.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The second installment of the report she's referring to was written by the Senate Intelligence Committee and released last month. Nina Jankowicz is the disinformation fellow at the Wilson Center Science Technology and Innovation Program (ph) here in Washington, D.C. And she joins me now. Welcome.

NINA JANKOWICZ: Thanks for having me, Lulu.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right. Let's start with this. It was kind of extraordinary to see in these impeachment hearings the need to repeat over and over and over again that it was the Russian government and not Ukraine that interfered in the 2016 elections. Did that strike you as significant?

JANKOWICZ: It struck me as significant because by spreading the rumor that Ukraine interfered in our elections, it's undermining the unanimous conclusions not only of the intelligence community but of this bipartisan Senate report. The Kremlin is stoking these divisions in our society. And, of course, they don't want to see Ukraine reach its goals of Euro-Atlantic integration. They want to see Ukraine thought of as a corrupt nation. And right now the folks who are peddling those theories are helping the Kremlin in that goal.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, we should say for sure that we don't know that it was Russia that started the Ukraine rumor. I mean, we do know that Russia interfered in our election. But we don't know that it was Russia that started the rumor that Ukraine was the one that did it instead of them, do we?

JANKOWICZ: Well, there is reporting that just came out from The New York Times at the end of this week that said the intelligence community was briefing members of Congress over the past couple of months, saying that, indeed, Russian intelligence did plant that rumor among journalists and Ukrainian oligarchs. And that's how it made its way into our discourse.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right. Let's talk about the last installment of the Senate intelligence report on Russian interference. You know, I've read it. It makes chilling reading. The last installment of the report states that Russians, quote, "conducted a vastly more complex and strategic assault than was initially understood," that they seized on "socially divisive issues, such as race, immigration, Second Amendment rights, in an attempt" - again to quote here, "to stoke anger, provoke outrage and protest, push Americans further away from each other." And they say that this disinformation basically swamped social media. It said intentionally false stories on Facebook actually outperformed the top stories from 19 major news outlets. So people were just sharing stuff that was complete disinformation. And legitimate news wasn't getting the same visibility. What does that say?

JANKOWICZ: Well, I think it speaks to the ability of the Russians and other disinformers, it has to be said.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Of course. They're not alone.

JANKOWICZ: Domestic disinformers use the same tactics - stoking, manipulating our emotions, using these divisive issues to get people to click, to engage. And the other thing the report says that's really important is that this activity took place over a number of years and actually was even more engaging after the election. We often think of elections as that inflection point. But these are communities that are built up over time. And then often, they spill off the pages of the Internet. The Russians had people out there protesting, signing petitions, et cetera. And that's what's really scary. These are real people who are out there doing it, who are duped into these Russian narratives.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And it's still happening. I mean, that's what the report says, essentially. This isn't something that happened in 2016. It's continuing. Have we seen any disinformation activity coming from Russia during the impeachment inquiry?

JANKOWICZ: I think so. You know, it's much more difficult to find that same sort of troll and bot activity than we used to find. Russia and other disinformers have - by nature of the fact that the social media companies have wised up a bit to their tactics - had to kind of dive underground. And a lot of this activity now is happening in secret groups on things like Facebook or on message boards, where it's a little bit less visible than it used to be but still having that same impact.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: When you read that the goal was to further divide us, some would suggest that it has succeeded - looking at the state of our discourse in this country. What do you do?

JANKOWICZ: Well, I'm a big proponent of civics and media and digital literacy. And a lot of people might shrug those off as buzzwords or say...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Nope. Not here.

JANKOWICZ: (Laughter) But, you know, a lot of people say that we need a solution now. And actually, I think when you look at the generational impact that these campaigns have had - they've been going on for many years in the United States but over a decade in Eastern Europe - we need to make that generational investment.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What do you think the impact of the ongoing disinformation campaign by foreign actors principally but also by internal actors, will have on the 2020 election?

JANKOWICZ: The thing that most worries me is that it will affect turnout. When people are, you know, walking around in dismay, when they're tired, when they don't want to engage with the news and the things that are going on in our political life, they're going to be less likely to go out there and make their voices heard. And that's exactly what bad actors want. They want our democracy to fail. Democracy doesn't work without participation.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Nina Jankowicz with the Wilson Center. Thank you very much.

JANKOWICZ: Thanks for having me.

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