FEED issue 30 Web

29 GENIUS INTERVIEW Nina Jankowicz

FEED: How did you come to write your book?

FEED: Are the problems solely caused by foreign actors? What about internal disinformation? NINA JANKOWICZ: As I was researching and writing the book, it became an even bigger issue inside the US. It’s not just about foreign disinformation now. It’s also about domestic disinformation. If there’s one thing to understand about online disinformation, it’s that these tools are democratised and that anybody can use them. You don’t have to be a government, or even organised. One person or a small group of individuals can have a big impact. But we’re now inadvertently – or sometimes knowingly – supporting the goals of malign foreign actors. That’s where we’re headed now – to ‘information laundering,’ where, rather than placing ads and creating fake personas on the internet, bad actors can seed narratives in groups and private channels – encrypted messengers, for example – and those then get put out through authentic local voices. That’s a pattern I’ve seen in a couple of the Eastern European countries. The most important takeaway is that we can’t fight foreign disinformation unless we recognise the domestic disinformation problem as well. That gets us into quite a quagmire in the US. President Trump is a source and amplifier of all of this disinformation and that has stopped a lot of the common-sense, easy solutions we could be implementing by politicising the entire concept. FEED: How is this different from what governments have been doing for decades? NINA JANKOWICZ: There’s a difference between what the Soviet Union did during the Cold War, and what Russia does today. The USSR created spurious publications and fake experts to seed these narratives. If you look at, for instance, the fake story about the US creating AIDS, it got some traction, but compared to what can be done with social media using fake personas, it’s night and day. The tools that allow them to drill down and target the most vulnerable people is incomparable to what was going on in the 1980s. They also put out what the RAND Corporation calls a “fire hose of falsehoods”. It doesn’t matter if it’s supporting one ideological goal or another. We’ve seen support of candidates on the left and the right in the United States. The same has been true in other countries, including Germany. It’s not necessarily in support

NINA JANKOWICZ: I started my career in the democracy support space and my degrees are all in Russian studies. After I left graduate school, I was working for an organisation called the National Democratic Institute, a non-profit NGO that works to support democratic activists in Russia and Belarus. This was as the United States Agency for International Development was getting kicked out of Russia. Since we were partially USAID funded, we left, too. The Russian government did their propaganda gambit against us and that’s where my interest in all this stuff came about. While I was still working at NDI, the Ukraine crisis began, with Russia annexing Crimea and invading the Donbass. NDI was a fairly old-school organisation and they were happy to just stay out of it and let things be said about us. But I thought we should be taking a more proactive approach. In 2016-17, I got this Fulbright fellowship in Ukraine where I was advising the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs on strategic communications – in the belly of the beast. I worked with the spokesperson at the Ukrainian MFA on messaging and how to keep western attention on Ukraine after ‘Ukraine fatigue’ was setting in. But more formative was the fact that the US election was going on while I was in Ukraine. The perspective of being able to see tactics that were already in use on the ground in Ukraine being done to the US information ecosystem was extremely alarming. As more came out through the US Russia investigation, it became clear that this was not going to go away. I was getting really frustrated with the way the US was looking at things, as if we were the first country this had happened to. People were ignoring the fact that this sort of manipulation had been happening in Eastern Europe since 2007. That’s what my book looks at, how five countries in Eastern Europe – Estonia, Georgia, the Czech Republic, Poland and Ukraine – responded to these influence operations. It’s important to look not just at the disinformation, but at how countries responded and what the best practices for responding are. Right now, the US is still very much playing whack-a-troll. We’re not imposing enough of a cost to make foreign actors stop, as we’ve seen over the past couple of months with not only coronavirus disinformation, but with the George Floyd protests, which bad actors are certainly taking advantage of.

Nina Jankowicz is an American expert on the intersection of technology and democracy with a speciality in Eastern Europe, as well as the Disinformation Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Her debut book is called How to Lose the Information War: Russia, Fake News, and the Future of Conflict THE US IS STILL PLAYING WHACK- A-TROLL

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