By: Jung-Hwa “Judy” Kang
“The threat today is remarkably different from what we were facing when the Soviet Union existed,” described Scott Rauland, Senior State Department Advisor at the U.S. Helsinki Commission, in his presentation “From Soviet Propaganda to the ‘Firehose of Russian Falsehood” at the monthly CCLP Washington D.C. forum. His lecture focused on how Russian propagandists, dedicated to spreading doctrine and disinformation on the internet and on social media, have developed an increasingly influential presence online over the last few years.
Rauland, speaking at the American Foreign Service Association in downtown Washington, drew a large audience of over 50 D.C. officials and community members. In the opening remarks of his speech, Rauland explained that research shows “there are thousands of fake accounts on Twitter, Facebook, LiveJournal, and Kontakte” maintained by Russian propagandists. According to a former Russian Internet troll, Rauland said, the propagandists are required to stay active online 24 hours a day, in 12-hour shifts, and each individual has a daily quota of 135 posted comments of at least 200 characters.
Rauland gave one illustrative example of an investigative reporter Jessikka Aro, who broke news of a “troll factory” from which Russian propagandists created fake news and comments related to Ukraine. Since then, Aro was labeled a pro-NATO extremist by mainstream Russian media; she received death threats and became a target of the Russian trolls that vilified her as a drug dealer on social media.
During his lecture, Rauland explained in-depth the danger of abundant fake news created by Russian trolls and how the global public can be more easily swayed and misled by the increased volume and persistence of the propagandists. “When the information volume is low, the recipients tend to favor the experts,” Rauland said, “but [when] the information volume is high, the recipients tend to favor the information from the other users.”
For more details, Rauland referred his audience to the RAND Corporation’s study from 2016, “The Russian ‘Firehose of Falsehood’ Propaganda Model”, which analyzed some of the distinctive features of Russian disinformation, including the high number of “rapid, continuous, and repetitive” messages flowing from several channels.
Rauland also shared his first-hand experience with Russian propaganda when he served as the Chargé d’affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Minsk, Belarus. “It was challenging to go into the country where they highly depend on the Russian propagandists’ disinformation,” he said. To connect with any Russian audience or to spread any Western messages, Rauland emphasized the importance of using local language and the media platforms that are accessible for the public.
Furthermore, Rauland claimed he witnessed firsthand the damaging lack of communication between U.S. government-funded organizations and the U.S embassies and diplomats in the region. He pointed to the launch of Current Time TV, a 24-hour Russian-language television and digital news that produced jointly by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and the Voice of America (VOA). The service’s launch was widely publicized in the U.S., but word never reached diplomats in Ukraine or Belarus, where Rauland was based. He said he came across of the program by accident and then informed his counterparts in the U.S. Embassy in Kiev.
However, Rauland did note the positive effects of the cultural diplomacy practiced by the U.S. embassy to diffuse the impact of Russian propaganda. According to him, one of the most successful events held by the embassy was the ‘get-together pizza night.’ The turnout of the local neighbors was significant and local residents were able to mingle with the U.S. embassy staff in a casual setting. The event helped introduce the Russian community members to U.S. embassy officials and encouraged the two groups to build strong relationships.
Music diplomacy has been another successful tool. In June of 2016, the U.S. embassy invited the U.S. Air Force Band to perform at the main public square in Minsk. Scott described how the jazz concert attracted one of the largest crowds ever, and people in the square began dancing to the music. Rauland quoted one attendee’s reaction to the Air Force Band performance: “’We love your ‘little blue men!’” The line was a reference not only to the band members’ blue uniforms, but to the feared Russian invaders, nicknamed “little green men.”
The Scott Rauland program was part of a series of monthly forums presented jointly by CCLP and the Public Diplomacy Council. The next CCLP/PDC lunch forum will be held on Monday, July 10, with Holly Cowan Shulman, the Visiting Research Professor of History at the Corcoran Department of History at the University of Virginia. Details and RSVP are available here.
To listen to Scott Rauland talk about the distinctive features of Russian disinformation on video, please click HERE.
To watch a video clip of Rauland discussing Current Time, please click HERE.
Photos from CCLP’s Washington D.C. forum “From Soviet Propaganda to the ‘Firehose of Russian Falsehood’”, held on June 5, 2017, were taken by Jung-hwa “Judy” Kang.