- - Sunday, April 8, 2018

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The Russians are using cyberspace to manipulate public policy outcomes by changing what people believe is real. This time it’s about their brutal nerve agent attack against former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, in Salisbury, England.

They have taken to the Internet to spread conspiracy theories suggesting it was the British government that poisoned Mr. Skripal. It was done to smear Russia, or maybe damage Vladimir Putin ahead of the recent Russian elections, or maybe divert attention away from an emerging British sex scandal. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov suggests it was done because 10 Downing Street can’t keep its promises about Brexit.

It’s all hogwash, the “big lie” theory of propaganda, using a lie so preposterous, so outrageous, so contemptible that people think there must be something to it because no one “could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously.” Moscow is propagating it on a global scale in an effort to avoid global condemnation for its murderous behavior.

Mr. Lavrov says the U.S. is involved in Britain’s skullduggery, of course. It would be laughable, except as the Russians know well, the “big lie” works unless it is countered effectively. In the age of radio and television, the United States had the tools to expose Russian whoppers, not so much in the age of the Internet.

Washington’s ability to respond to Russia’s fake news rests with the Board of Broadcast Governors (BBG), a small but important U.S. government agency that carries America’s message of freedom and democracy around the world.

Born during World War II when radio was king, the BBG has failed utterly to recognize the profound changes brought about by the Internet. Former Sen. Tom Colburn called it “the most worthless organization in the federal government.” Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said it “is practically defunct in terms of its capacity to tell a message around the world.” It is hard to find such consensus in Washington.

The BBG’s history is the history of Eastman Kodak, the giant U.S. camera maker, that as late as 1975 sold 90 percent of the film and 85 percent of cameras in the U.S. That same year Kodak developed the world’s first digital camera, but didn’t bring it to market for fear it would threaten its photographic film sales. In 1986, Nikon introduced the first digital camera, and by 2012 Kodak was in bankruptcy. The lesson is clear, adapt or die.

The BBG, like Kodak, clings to legacy technology because radio broadcasting is comfortable, and provides well paying sinecures. Yet by 2021, 54 percent of the world’s estimated 7.8 billion people will be connected to each other by the World Wide Web. That percentage will continue to grow and if the U.S. is to be effective in countering Moscow’s aggressive effort to weaponize information in cyberspace, it must change the BBG to focus on how today’s world is communicating.

When it comes to coverage, speed, saturation and content, radio simply cannot compete with the Internet. Radio takes longer to produce, is more costly, has a limited footprint relative to the Internet, and most often covers events that have already occurred.

The Internet on the other hand reacts instantly, doesn’t require expensive programming, can reach a global audience, and is proactive. Radio can be used to gather information, shape it and report on demonstrations in Russia. The Internet can be used to create and organize such demonstrations, and then feed radio with descriptions of what it has done. The Russians aren’t worried about radio exposing their fake news. They are worried about the Internet.

We are engaged today in a battle for individual liberty and human freedom that is every bit as dangerous as was the last century’s battle to defeat the terrible “isms,” Fascism and Communism. This time, however, the tool we must use is not short wave radio, and it is dangerous to continue thinking so.

We are trying to scream liberty at the world through a cardboard megaphone while the Russians are using websites and cell phones to persuade people of things that are simply not true. Why in the world do we continue to cling to celluloid film when the world has switched to digital cameras? Our Kodak moment is now.

Bruce M. Lawlor, a retired U.S. Army major general, is a former member of the Homeland Security Advisory Council and chief of staff of the Department of Homeland Security.

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