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“Perception Hacking” and “Information Laundering” Discussed at First Monday Forum

by Joe B. Johnson

Participants in the July 6, 2020, First Monday Forum heard from Bret Schaefer (upper right), of the German Marshall Fund, discuss “perception hacking” by China, Russia and Iran. Dr. Sherry Mueller (lower left) and Joel Fischman (lower right) represented the Public Diplomacy Council and the Public Diplomacy Association of America. Mike McCurry (upper left) moderated.

Attendees at First Monday Forum got a data-drawn picture of the extent to which the world is being assaulted by disinformation and propaganda, with the United States in the bullseye. What is public diplomacy’s role?

“Perception Hacking: How Russia, China, and Iran Use (and Abuse) Western Information Platforms” was the title. Bret Schaefer, Media and Disinformation Fellow of the Alliance for Securing Democracy at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, spoke at First Monday Forum on July 6, 2020.  You can view the entire program on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cqnCrMCEK94&feature=youtu.be.

Schaefer drew on the Alliance’s Hamilton 2.0 dashboard to trace the growth of content from often-deceptive digital media sponsored by the United States’ biggest adversaries. The Hamilton 2.0 Dashboard  tracks official statements and state-funded media output “to increase our understanding of the focus and spread of state-backed government messaging across various information mediums.”

Both Russia and China fund large global media networks. For example, Russia’s RT television service in Spanish is very successful throughout Latin America. Official social media accounts for their embassies as well as legions of fake social media accounts (detectable in Schaefer’s charts) are well known.

Schaefer presented charts showing the volume of comment from these sources over recent years, comparing all three countries, showing when comment rose and fell, and measuring how much attention was devoted to various topics.  The data tell how digital media connects to foreign policy for these rival powers.

  • Iran’s Twitter posts spiked when the United States pulled out of the The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
  • China’s official output surged during the Hong Kong riots.
  • Russian and Chinese content on the covid-19 virus covered the United States more than with other nations.
  • Mostly, Russian output about the U.S. seeks to cause or increase division and conflict, while China tries to show the superiority of its system and promote its narratives on world affairs.

Information Laundering by “perception hackers” illustrated. Screen shot c/o Bret Schaefer, German Marshall Fund.

Schaefer coined a term that was new to me: information laundering. Online propagandists aim to introduce half-truths and falsehoods into mainstream news media in the same way that illegal drug cartels launder money: by moving it to and fro to hide its origin. They put out the stories on their own digital or social media, and then repeat and amplify those stories until they find their way into, say, a news aggregator from some third country. After some time, the bogus article or photo gets picked up by search engines.  In some cases, it will be cited by a reputable news publication as a claim or rumor.

Schaefer noted: “A lot of what Russia does well is not the message; it’s the distribution.” Russian programmers use Twitter robots to retweet media stories they like, posting those stories in multiple places and platforms, and filling “data voids” — search terms for which relevant data is not available. For example, internet searches for White Helmets, Nord Stream II, Sergei Skripal or Ukraine, which don’t get much Western coverage, are likely to turn up mostly results sourced to Russia.

Playing Defense

How can public diplomacy organizations oppose these campaigns? Fighting fire with fire would destroy our very concept of public diplomacy. We are vulnerable on defense.

Schaefer called for aggressive policing of social media platforms to minimize bots and fake accounts, and ventured that organizations could take legal action against sponsors of false information. For example, all platforms now ban impersonation; a suit against state entities that set them up might work. The social media giants still fall short on self-policing, he said.  Facebook has condemned “coordinated inauthentic behavior,” but Twitter has shared publicly much more information about the phenomenon. Schaefer called for more transparency about false accounts by the social media including Google, and said that a “fusion center” to “monitor bad actors” would be helpful.

PD on the Offense

The United States’ public diplomacy also possesses powerful offensive resources. Here are some that come to my mind.

  • The Global Engagement Center, State’s inter-agency team that has the lead mandate on countering false narratives. The GEC does not share much publicly about what it’s doing – probably for good reason.
  • Independent USG-owned news media starting with the Voice of America. Their traditional independence from government has made them more successful than Chinese or Russian media. That’s why so many are watching the new CEO of the U.S. Agency for Global Media with concern.  (See Alan Heil’s recent post.)
  • Long-standing allies. Schaefer pointed out that British and Baltic diplomats in particular are faster to respond to and correct false stories than the large, process-oriented State Department. Schaefer’s sponsor, the German Marshall Fund, is an example of the relationships built over 75 years by U.S. public diplomacy.
  • Nearly 200 U.S. missions and consulates, which operate their own websites and social media accounts tailored to the interests of their host countries. All fully attributed and identified, those digital media magnify themes and messaging from the Department of State.

What’s Really at Stake?

Afterward, considering Schaefer’s presentation, I asked myself: which is scarier? The deterioration of the United States’ image and damage to foreign policy goals under attack by China, Russia and Iran? Or the corrosion of American society and political norms? With the advent of our national elections in the middle of a pandemic, racial tensions, and political hostilities, I’m personally a lot more worried about the latter.

I asked Schaefer what he thought Russia would do between now and November. He couldn’t offer a crystal ball, but laid the ultimate responsibility for an orderly and fair election season on American voters and the general public.  He’s right. Public diplomacy cannot cover up the flaws in our society. But it must be preserved and not distorted if it is to defend U.S. interests and values abroad.


Joe B. Johnson consults on government communication and technology after a career in the United States Foreign Service.  He is an instructor for the National Foreign Affairs Training Center, where he teaches strategic planning for public diplomacy. Read More.

Reprinted by permission of the Public Diplomacy Council.

First Monday forums are cosponsored by PDAA, PDC, and USC’s Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership and Policy.

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