Participants in a congressional hearing Wednesday argued that Russia is waging sophisticated propaganda campaign that threatens American allies and interests – and that U.S. government-funded news media haven’t adequately countered that disinformation.
"Russia’s propaganda machine is in overdrive, working to subvert democratic stability and foment violence," the chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Ed Royce, said in opening the hearing.
"Russian propaganda has the potential to destabilize NATO members, impacting our security commitments," the California Republican added. "This Russian campaign – what one witness describes as the 'weaponization of information' – seriously threatens U.S. security."
The committee’s ranking Democrat, Congressman Eliot L. Engel of New York, described propaganda as "a critical element of Russia’s so-called hybrid warfare strategy – a strategy on devastating display in occupied Crimea and war-torn eastern Ukraine.
"Coupled with cyberattacks and other covert operations, these new capabilities and [Russian President] Vladimir Putin’s belligerence pose a direct threat to our allies and our interests," Engel said. "These measures are well financed. These measures are working. And these measures demand a robust response from us."
As an antidote, Royce called for "righting [U.S.] international broadcasting" and "clarifying" the mission of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG). The independent federal agency oversees government-supported, civilian international media. Its networks include Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the Middle East Broadcasting Networks (Alhurra TV and Radio Sawa), Radio Free Asia, and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (Radio and TV Marti).
Andre Mendes, BBG interim chief executive, issued a statement after the hearing saying the BBG shares the committee’s concern about the intensification of Russian propaganda. He said the agency "is deploying a flexible, innovative, aggressive multimedia effort aimed at Russians and Russian-speakers in the former Soviet Union, Europe and around the world."
In the last Congress, Royce and Engel co-sponsored a bill to reform the BBG, a measure that passed the House on a voice vote but was not taken up by the Senate. The two are expected to reintroduce the legislation.
Peter Pomerantsev, a senior fellow with the Legatum Institute, testified to the committee that Russia crafted an "information-psychological war" almost a decade ago. He said the Kremlin targeted Estonia in 2007, when authorities there wanted to move a Soviet war memorial.
"Russian media went into a frenzy, accusing the Estonians of fascism," said Pomerantsev, whose London-based think tank promotes capitalism. He said the Kremlin also sponsored a crippling cyberattack on Estonia’s government and banks, in a show of force designed to demonstrate that NATO was unable to protect its member-state.
Pomerantsev said Russian state-sponsored media exert outsized influence with domestic and international audiences.
Kremlin media reach "30 million Russians outside the country [and] in NATO countries such as Estonia, Latvia and Ukraine,” Pomerantsev said in prepared testimony. "The Kremlin has also invested hundreds of millions of dollars into foreign-language media, including the multilingual news channel RT, or Russia Today, which reaches millions of watchers in English, Spanish, German and Arabic, just for a start."
He said the Russian government also hires people to put out fake news and slanted messages on social media.
Pomerantsev said Putin’s administration is "bankrolling and lending political support to both far-right and far-left parties in Europe" as part of its destabilization effort. Information is twisted and manipulated "to sow divisions," he said. "This is not merely an information war but a war on information."
The committee also heard from Elizabeth Wahl, a former RT anchor. Frustrated by the channel's coverage of Ukraine, she resigned on air in March. She said that RT and other Kremlin-backed outlets have added to audience confusion or mistrust by including some legitimate coverage, as well as by adopting the look and feel of Western news media.
"We’re dealing with an organization that doesn’t play by the rules," she said.
Helle Dale, a former journalist, told the committee the U.S. government "became complacent in the battle for hearts and minds in Russia and its neighboring countries after the end of the Cold War."
Now it’s scrambling to catch up, said Dale, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank. She, too, called for reform.
In written testimony, she cited lopsided spending. The U.S. administration’s "budget request for 2016 is $751,436,000 for U.S. International Broadcasting," she said. "Reportedly, RT has a budget alone of $400 million for its Washington bureau."
Royce said Russia is spending an estimated $600 million a year on its media campaigns. The BBG’s most recent allocation was $742 million, including $212 million for the Voice of America.
VOA’s outgoing director, David Ensor, recently noted that VOA’s international radio, television and online audience has increased to 172 million people a week, an increase of 49 million over four years.
In his statement, Mendes said the panelists had failed to mention "noteworthy successes of U.S. international media such as doubling our audience in Ukraine and launching 25 new programs to Russia and neighboring countries since the start of the Maidan protests" in November 2013.
He said: "BBG has also increased its audiences by 2 million in China through innovative satellite TV delivery and usage of online tools to circumvent Internet censorship. In addition, we welcome the results of a recent private survey showing 20 percent of those surveyed in Cuba tune into the Martís.
"We can all agree that in our current world environment, BBG’s mission to inform, engage and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy is more important than ever."
The BBG says its programing has a measured audience of 215 million in more than 100 countries and in 61 languages.