Remarks by Assistant Administrator Brock Bierman, The McCain Institute Tbilisi Conference: Discussion on Disinformation

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Monday, September 9, 2019
AA Bierman at the McCain Institute Conference

Remarks by Assistant Administrator Brock Bierman, The McCain Institute Tbilisi Conference: Discussion on Disinformation 

(Remarks as prepared)

Before jumping into my remarks, I want to thank the McCain Institute and EPRC for including a session this important topic.

The presentation on their joint project is impressive in its scope and its goals.  

I’d like to begin by casting the threat of disinformation in a broader context. Disinformation  is not just a means of disorienting and tearing people apart. It kicks the legs out from under democracy itself.  By this, I mean that confusion over facts puts the democratic conversation and decision making on less certain foundations. 

What is disinformation?

But while these indefensible tactics remain a part of the toolkit, the Kremlin has developed new, insidious techniques to sow confusion and discord. Those who push disinformation are trying -- to use the language of online communication -- to ‘hack’ our thought processes.  

By repressing independent media outlets, and using bots to amplify Kremlin-approved narratives, the Kremlin and those who back it want to control what we think and how we think.  They want to confuse us. Exhaust us. Infuriate us. They want us to view those who disagree with us as less than fully human.   

We now live in a world where the truth is buried under a mountain of anger and competing spin zones, with cyber trolls on patrol.  The media market is flooded with glossy graphics, viral videos, likes, and shares. Today, it is hard to know who to trust.    

Disinformation can take many forms but the objective remains the same: to prevent citizens from making well informed decisions.  These falsehoods are designed to mislead audiences, pollute public discourse, and distort the political process. The Kremlin would rather have you give up.  Or give in.     

How is disinformation impacting the region?

Admittedly, the Kremlin is taking advantage of vulnerabilities already present in these societies. In truth, the media sector in Europe and Eurasia has been systematically weakened over time in many countries by powerful political actors who have captured the channels, stations, and platforms people use to understand current events. 

This is when disinformation can hijack vulnerable imaginations. 

The Kremlin devotes almost $300 million each and every year on platforms like Russia Today and Sputnik International.   Those platforms are only the public face of this approach.  

Thousands of Kremlin-paid teams flood platforms and peddle content designed to create confusion, distrust, and cynicism about democratic and Western institutions.

In Georgia we know that the Kremlin is supporting organizations and media platforms to sow social discord and create divisions within Georgian society.

The 2019 Media Sustainability Index outlines the struggles many countries have with both domestic and foreign disinformation.  

How is it impacting Georgia specifically?

Georgia is a good example of the fight currently being waged.  

This country’s media environment is showing progress, with some glaring caveats.  Finding sustainable revenue streams is difficult. The media environment is highly polarized. Journalists’ access to public information is restricted.  Traditional media outlets face competition from social media. Selective regulation casts suspicion of attempts to restrict freedom of speech and expression.  Journalists continue to receive credible threats while on the job.  

As you have learned through today’s presentation, this environment has allowed disinformation to take root through predominantly anti-Western, anti-liberal, anti-civil society, and anti-LGBT messaging. This trend is not exclusive to Georgia.  These themes are pervasive across the region.

As is true across the region, the Kremlin is exploiting existing frailties. In Georgia, the diverse media environment is sharply polarized along political lines and business interests. In the past several months, the popular Rustavi 2 channel has had a change of ownership, suspension of its news broadcasting, dismissal of journalists.   TV Pirveli, independent from both government and opposition money, has become a target of an anonymous cyber-attack as well as politically motivated prosecution. New media outlets will be launched in October, which will contribute to diversity of media, but may increase polarization even further. 

The role of media is vital for shaping a healthy democracy, which requires an informed citizenry.  

What is USAID doing through CMKI to push back on disinformation?

We will not stand by as this virus infects democratic institutions and public trust in the democratic process.  

USAID recently launched the Countering Malign Kremlin Influence Development Framework on July 4th in Paris.  Supporting an independent media environment is a fundamental pillar of this work. It is also something we have been investing in for some time.  

USAID views disinformation as a development challenge.  While malign actors are pursuing their agenda to undermine democracy, we are working with our local partners to strengthen their resilience.

USAID is helping local media to provide professional, fact-based, trusted reporting by equipping journalists and media outlets with the tools, resources, and knowledge they need to compete in the digital age.

We believe that financially strong, indigenous and independent media outlets are the most resilient to political or  financial pressures and the influence of external malign actors. We also believe they are the long-term answer to the threat posed by disinformation campaigns.   

While disinformation seeks to peel away vulnerable groups from the democratic process, USAID stresses  the importance of empowering consumers. Citizens need to be equipped with new skills for a new era. USAID is helping people to analyze and discern what is true and what is false, and to make informed decisions about whether to share content further.   

Meanwhile, USAID is also helping to build a system that allows independent, high quality media to flourish.  Unlike many malign actors in the region, we believe there should be a fair playing field for all media outlets and consumers.  

Regional Examples

At a regional level, we are supporting the latest and greatest investigative journalists to hold those in power accountable to the citizens they serve. 

For example, USAID supports the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, or OCCRP, to increase citizen demand for transparency and accountability through the production of high-quality, rigorous, cross-border investigative reporting.  This network of journalists not only provides access to essential training and resources that would otherwise be prohibitively expensive for its members, but it also serves as a model for exposing how corruption, along with organized crime, is a key entry point for Kremlin malign influence in the region and beyond.   Its members have collaborated on projects to expose Kremlin malign influence in Montenegro and North Macedonia, and have uncovered over $24 billion in money laundered from Russia through the banking systems of Moldova and Latvia into Western financial institutions and markets.

We are also helping local media to produce higher quality content, which will attract new audiences.  

In the Balkans, for example, we are equipping independent outlets with the latest tools and technology to produce high quality digital content so that independent journalists can compete in this fast growing space. 

USAID’s regional Balkan Media Assistance Program has helped media partners in five countries learn how to grow their audiences, diversify revenue, and improve their digital media presence. 

Within two months of a training workshop, one media partner showed an increase in numbers of unique visitors to its website from 540,000 to 1.2 million per month.  That is a significant increase in viewership for a digital market. 

Georgia Examples

Right here in Georgia, USAID is dedicated to helping citizens recognize disinformation efforts and to see them for what they are.  USAID is supporting an initiative to crowdsource efforts to help identify and track anti-Western disinformation. We're working with hundreds of Georgian volunteers online every day. 

USAID supports a fact-checking online platform which debunks myths and expose disinformation about Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic integration in the Georgian media.

USAID is proud to have supported Multimedia Centers at local universities that are providing training and technical resources to young journalists. This type of education improves the quality of journalism here in Georgia and the wider region. 

What CMKI is not

I want to be clear here when we talk about disinformation and malign influence, what CMKI is and what it is not.  

USAID believes in a democratic debate based on fact and free access to information.  

The Kremlin believes in doing whatever it takes to serve its own interests.

USAID is about giving people the right to choose their own future.  

The Kremlin wants to choose that future for them.    

And, in truth, disinformation hurts the Russian people who are also victims of disinformation spewed by their own government.   

In July, in addition to the imposed ban on direct flights between Georgia and Russia, the Kremlin launched a broad disinformation campaign in pro-Kremlin media, discouraging Russian citizens from traveling to Georgia, citing security concerns and Russophobia.  The measures did not only affect the Georgian economy, but have also impacted the travel of Russian citizens. Every year about 1 million Russian tourists visit Georgia and reductions in travel will have a significant and adverse economic impact on Georgia’s tourism industry

I am proud to announce that USAID was able to rapidly respond by helping the Georgia National Tourism Agency redirect funding to build a new tourist base from the US and EU. Our Embassy has further promoted tourism in Georgia through the “Summer in Georgia” campaign.  

By supporting independent, high quality journalism, we are providing citizens with a valuable tool to strengthen democracy in the region.  And by doing this, we are also providing Russian citizens with examples of what their country could be if they had access to the truth; what they could achieve if they could debate freely; what future they could have if they were better informed with objective, factual information.  

Last updated: December 13, 2019

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