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Author Nina Jankowicz On Disinformation And Her New Book


We're going to turn our attention back to the 2020 election to focus on external forces trying to shape it.

Earlier this month, the U.S. intelligence community warned that, quote, "foreign states will continue to use covert and overt influence measures in their attempts to sway U.S. voters' preferences and perspectives and undermine the American people's confidence in our democratic process." The warning named Russia in particular, adding that the country is, quote, "using a range of measures to primarily denigrate former Vice President Biden and what it sees as an anti-Russia establishment."

Nina Jankowicz knows a lot about this. She spent years in Central and Eastern Europe studying Russian disinformation and how to tackle it. Jankowicz says that while warnings from the intelligence community are a good start, a lot more needs to be done. And in a new book, she argues that the U.S. can learn a lot from European countries that have been putting up with this for years.

The book is called "How To Lose The Information War: Russia, Fake News, And The Future Of Conflict." And when I spoke with Jankowicz, we began by talking about the term fake news and why it's not useful when thinking about Russian disinformation.

NINA JANKOWICZ: It's not necessarily just about cut-and-dry fakes. It's not something that is entirely fabricated. Disinformation - the best types of disinformation - run on a kernel of truth, whether that's an emotional, visceral truth and the way that people are interpreting their current environment, current events, and reacting to them or something that is grounded in a kernel of truth, something that actually happened.

So a good example of that is the disinformation narrative surrounding President Biden's son Hunter and his work in Ukraine on the board of a Ukrainian energy company. All of these conspiracy theories have been glommed on to the fact that Hunter Biden did work for a Ukrainian energy company, and this has been absolutely blown out of proportion to include things like, you know, the crowd strike conspiracy theory, which says that groups in Ukraine hacked the DNC in order to undermine President Trump, for example.

And this is how disinformation works. At the center of this snowball is that kernel of truth.

FADEL: You compare the U.S.'s approach to tackling disinformation to playing a game of Whac-a-Mole. Can you explain what you mean?

JANKOWICZ: Yeah. So, so far, because we have left the response mostly to our social media platforms, we've really made this a political issue - any sort of talk of content regulation or content moderation or how they deal with disinformation on campaign ads and things. That has become a political issue. And as a result, the social media platforms have had to deal with this themselves. It's not an easy issue. Despite being multi-billion-dollar corporations, it's difficult even for them.

But also, there's a lack of political will. And so what they've tended to do is just remove the fake content or the problematic content. It's easy to do when it's coming from a foreign source. And, of course, you know, our foreign adversaries are all too happy to create more of that content. The return on investment is huge for them to do that. And so it just keeps popping up.

FADEL: As you mentioned, your book is full of examples of how countries in Eastern and Central Europe were threatened by Russian disinformation campaigns and how they responded, and the playbook's pretty similar across the board. You write, though, about the way that Estonia learned to deal with it. Can you talk a little bit about what they learned, what they did and what others can learn from them?

JANKOWICZ: Absolutely. So the Estonian example is really interesting, particularly for this moment in the United States. It had to do with a statue in the center of Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, to Soviet war dead. That became kind of a flashpoint for protests, for violence that was egged on a little bit by Russia - again, through Russian-language media.

And a new government in 2007 decided it was time to move that statue to a better location, to a cemetery, a military cemetery on the outskirts of town. And that led to increased protests. It led to riots. It led to cyberattacks. And this was when the Estonian government realized that Russia was manipulating the ethnic fissure in its society between ethnic Russians who had moved to Estonia during the Soviet period and were left there after independence and ethnic Estonians.

And so what it did, slowly but surely - and, you know, this is 13 years ago, so they've had time to invest in this stuff - but they really invested in integration and in repairing that fissure, so not only through things like increased dual-language kindergartens, increased investments in Russian-language media - because before, the Russians were depending on media coming over the border from St. Petersburg and Russia. All of these things were extraordinarily important. And it wasn't just about, you know, hermetically sealing their information environment but actually healing that fissure at its core.

And then, you know, in 2014, when Russia annexed part of Ukraine, the Crimean Peninsula, I think this was a second wake-up call for the Estonian government. They really doubled down on kind of cultural integration, awareness-building and outreach. So one thing I love that the Estonian government did was move the presidential administration for a short period of time to a Russian-language area of the country to kind of tell those people, you know, we see you. And so I think it's a really interesting case study.

And, of course, Estonia has fewer fissures in their society than we do. They're a smaller country, only 1.3 million people. But we've never shied away from a challenge like this. And so I think it's really important to look at those success stories and try to figure out how they can fit into the American context.

FADEL: You know, this summer, there's no shortage of things that divide Americans. When you talk about the United States these days, people talk about divisiveness, partisanship. And those divisions are about the election, racial justice, even whether or not to wear masks in public in the midst of this pandemic. What do we know about how Russian disinformation is already showing up in this election? And what, based on what you've learned, are the tactics and the approaches that you think need to be implemented?

JANKOWICZ: Yeah. Unfortunately, there is just a treasure trove for Russia. It is fertile ground to see disinformation narratives. And we've seen reporting about Russian propaganda videos coming from agencies like Ruptly, which is a subsidiary of RT controlled by the Russian government, that have been shared by, you know, influential figures, including Donald Trump Jr. and other folks on the Republican side. Of course, the issues with coronavirus response have also been exacerbated by Russian-language media.

So my message, I guess - because I think unfortunately, it's already too late for massive action on behalf of the government - is that it's up to each of us ahead of the election to be really vigilant about the information that we're consuming, to try to cross-check it, to not share things that aren't confirmed.

And if you feel yourself getting emotional, practice informational distancing. Just like we're practicing social distancing, we need to say, OK, I'm feeling really, really emotional. I'm reacting very strongly to this piece of information. Disinformation runs on emotion, so the best thing that we can do is to put our device down and walk away for a little bit and then do some due diligence.

And then on election night and in the days and perhaps the weeks following, when things might be a bit uncertain, given the number of mail-in ballots that we are expecting, I would just urge everyone to get their information from the source, if possible. So that means your local and state election officials.

And try not to get swept up in the punditry and whatever politicians are saying because that's a really vulnerable time. It is certainly a time that a nation like Russia or China will use to exploit our vulnerabilities, just as they've been doing with issues like masks and the protests over the past couple of months.

FADEL: That's Nina Jankowicz, disinformation fellow at the Wilson Center. Her new book, "How To Lose The Information War: Russia, Fake News, And The Future Of Conflict," is out now.

Nina Jankowicz, thanks so much for your time.

JANKOWICZ: Great to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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