The United States’ War Against Russian Disinformation: Is the GEC Fit for Purpose?

The United States’ War Against Russian Disinformation: Is the GEC Fit for Purpose?
Ukraine army cuts off main road to Sloviansk” by snamess is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February has brought renewed focus to America’s ability to defend against the Kremlin’s narratives, which seek to justify its continued aggression. The State Department’s Global Engagement Center (GEC), charged with coordinating the U.S.’ response to “disinformation warfare,” is a six-year-old department with a shifting mission, unstable staffing and a limited budget. Despite significant headwinds, the fledgling Center’s modest efforts to counter propaganda through strategic partnerships with foreign governments and journalists, as well as its sponsorship of emerging counter propaganda and disinformation (CPD) technologies continue to hold promise as the war in Ukraine escalates, and the scale of Russian disinformation grows


Following the end of the Cold War, the US Information Agency (USIA), originally created to counter Soviet propaganda, ceased to operate in 1999. Its anti-propaganda functions were subsequently filled by two agencies: The US Agency for Global Media (USAGM) assumed the broadcast function of the USIA, while the Global Engagement Center, created in 2016 and housed within the Department of State, was charged with leading the government’s counter-disinformation efforts.

The GEC is tasked with an expansive mission: to identify and counter all state and non-state disinformation which seeks to “undermine” the objectives of the US and its allies. However, the Center’s mandate is practically limited by its budgetary and staffing issues.

Its budget stands at roughly $70 million compared to the USAGM’s budget of $810 million. As of 2020, the Center had a limited staff of 120 personnel. GEC employees are thinly stretched across all of the Center’s global initiatives. For instance, it has historically employed too few Russian speakers to meet the challenge of the Kremlin’s sophisticated propaganda operation. Furthermore, its staff relies heavily on contractors and currently lacks a permanent head

Despite its limitations, the GEC remains as the only domestic mission charged with coordinating the government’s response to Russian disinformation. Recently, Russian narratives have laid claim to all of Ukraine and have casted NATO as an aggressor against Moscow. Such patently harmful and revisionist propaganda continues to disrupt the stability of the US and its allies, who fear that Russia’s expansionism will spill over into Western Europe and threaten the security of NATO allies.

Countering Russian Disinformation: Advantages of the GEC

In the wake of the Russian invasion, the GEC’s key value lies in public diplomacy. The Center serves as the US’ liaison for knowledge-sharing initiatives such as the Technology and Trade Council’s forum which pairs US analysts with their EU counterparts and  NATO’s  “Understand and Engage”  initiative. The GEC’s public role also extends to its cooperation with more localized organizations. With more than 400 partners across 29 countries, the GEC stands as the “premier platform for information sharing” of counter-disinformation efforts and mitigation strategies. 

The GEC has also ramped up its research and messaging efforts over the past two years by increasing awareness of the key methods and actors involved in Russia’s ongoing propaganda campaigns. For instance, the GEC directly linked the systemic spread of false anti-Ukrainian narratives, such as “rampant” neo-Nazism” in Ukraine, to Russian Government actors and state-funded media outlets like Sputnik and RT. Functioning as “pillars of Russia’s disinformation ecosystem,” such outlets amplify Russian narratives and misinformation across social media platforms and local-language broadcasts. In highlighting how misinformation is crafted and spread in real-time, the GEC equipped Ukraine and neighboring states with the means to identify and to question the accuracy of biased outlets’ coverage of the war. 

In line with its more “removed” research and diplomatic functions, the GEC has increasingly sought to cast itself as a “data-driven” organization with the potential to directly support others at the intersection of technology and counter-disinformation messaging. The Center’s Technology Team, for example, has historically funded counter censorship tools. Following the invasion, Russia cut off access to most social media domestically, and criminalized critical reporting by traditional media. As roughly 85% of Russia’s 144 million citizens have access to the internet, VPNs and similar tools, which allow users to circumvent government media “blackouts,” would have the potential to allow Russian citizens to access independent journalism and accurate reporting on the war. In identifying and channeling more of its direct funding and grantmaking into such censorship evasion tools, the GEC’s work has the ability to disrupt pro-invasion narratives within Russia.

A Supporting Role

Along with a leading role on the global stage, and technological support, the GEC also has the capacity to aid fellow US agencies in the continued development of Ukraine’s domestic counter-disinformation architecture.

Despite claims this past May that Zelenskyy required the cooperation of the GEC to establish a disinformation center in Ukraine, two such centers already exist: Ukraine’s Center for Countering Disinformation and the National Security and Defense Council Disinformation Center. These Centers grew out of initiatives spearheaded not by the GEC, but by the State Department’s Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI). The OTI’s Ukraine Confidence Building Initiative II partnered with a broad-based coalition, including the GEC’s sister organization, the USAGM, as well as the UK’s Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office. This effort allowed Ukraine to “stand-up” its counter-disinformation departments nearly a full year prior to the Russian invasion. More crucially, it demonstrates the breadth of expertise needed to create counter-disinformation capabilities in Ukraine. As a lone organization, the GEC would not have been equal to the task. 

While the GEC did not front efforts to establish Ukraine’s disinformation architecture, it may yet engage with its government and anti-propaganda centers in a more targeted effort. Its counter-propaganda mission in North Macedonia serves as an example of the type of campaign that might be undertaken in Ukraine. Amidst Russian interference in North Macedonia’s vote on NATO accession, the Center’s month-long mission delivered analytics support by identifying the actors responsible for false narratives and educating the government on Russian tactics and effective counter-messaging. Such initiatives hold promise not only for Ukraine, but also for future cooperation with other governments vulnerable to Russian influence campaigns, such as Georgia, Bosnia and Moldova.

The U.S. also sponsors a grassroots-led counter-disinformation initiative in the country. Since 2018, the USAID has funded a six-year, $35 million media support program (the largest such program in Ukraine’s history), which aims to promote the resilience of journalists from all sectors of Ukrainian society to Russian propaganda. 

The GEC again has an opportunity to play a vital role in this journalism-centered approach to countering extremism. It may partner with both those supported by USAID funding, and alternative outlets to expose state-sponsored actors and narratives propelling Russian disinformation campaigns. 

Forecast: The GEC’s Circumscribed Role

While the Global Engagement Center is equipped to undertake smaller partnerships, it cannot foster larger, sector-wide reforms on the scale that its predecessor, the USIA, and better-funded agencies currently undertake. The Center’s counter-disinformation efforts in Ukraine will continue to depend on the work of sister agencies, NGOs, and foreign partners to aid the country in withstanding Russia’s narratives.

The GEC’s public diplomacy efforts and knowledge sharing initiatives will likely continue as the war progresses. The Center’s capabilities in analyzing local media environments, identifying propagators of disinformation campaigns, and coordinating counter disinformation strategies with local actors will also allow for continued (albeit limited) support for the Ukrainian government and independent journalists. Its modest ability to invest in and feature emerging CPD technologies, such as censorship-evasion tools, bot detection, and media content authentication will continue to hold great potential for the digital fight against disinformation.

It is clear that any expanded future role for the GEC would require significant capacity building and funding efforts from both the Center and the current administration. As mentioned above, it appears that the lack of a permanent director, coupled with significant staffing issues, has substantially weakened the GEC—a weakness likely to continue if these issues are allowed to persist. Given that its resources pale in comparison to that of its predecessor, the GEC would very likely be better equipped to meet its mandate if it were to convert its workforce from one dependent on contractors to a permanent staff, and if it were to increase the number of Russian-speakers it employs. For its part, the Biden Administration would most likely need to expand the budget of the GEC in FY 2024; something it has expressed a willingness to consider. Such funding, however, may arrive too late to be of use in the current conflict.

Amidst the pressures of a wartime disinformation environment, the GEC is left to make the most of its resources, crafting counter-messaging campaigns and aiding, where possible, local efforts to combat propaganda. 

Categories: Europe, International, Security

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