The State Department is ramping up a secretive counter-propaganda center to fight Russian disinformation efforts in nearly two dozen nations as part of what Trump administration officials say is an expanding push to crush Moscow’s “fake news” influence operations around the world.
While Russian disinformation is a core target, officials say the push is tied to a wider overhaul of the department’s Global Engagement Center — an outfit that had been plagued in recent years by bureaucratic bungling and an unclear mandate — to target aggressively “big-power propaganda” undermining America’s image abroad.
“We’re going on offense and we’re going on offense against major state adversaries in the propaganda and disinformation realm,” the center’s acting Coordinator Daniel Kimmage said Tuesday. “Russia looms large in our priorities and after that, China and Iran.”
It’s an initiative quietly backed by President Trump, even as he has faced sharp criticism from many Democrats and some Republicans who claim the administration is “soft” on Russia, despite Mr. Trump’s record of leveling sanctions against Russian officials and stepping up U.S. military aid for Ukraine in its clash with Moscow.
The Global Engagement Center (GEC) previously focused exclusively on countering jihadist propaganda around the world. Mr. Kimmage, who speaks fluent Russian, said the initiative has been bolstered by an influx in funding in recent months.
“We have created new teams,” told reporters in a small, roundtable discussion at State Department headquarters. “We have teams focused on Russia, Iran and China. We have a very active science and technology team that does data analytics and this feeds into this effort, where the priorities have shifted.”
Center officials describe an expanded workload that includes countering Russian disinformation in Eastern Europe, Chinese propaganda across East Asia, and Iranian and jihadist efforts in the Middle East.
While the GEC is also “still quite focused on the counterterrorism piece,” Mr. Kimmage stressed the new mission to counter Russian propaganda in nations that could move closer to the U.S. but face Russian pressure through subversive social media and state-backed propaganda masquerading as news. He said the Center now has 25 initiatives in 21 countries to counter Russian propaganda efforts, supporting independent local news and civil society organizations with everything from propaganda-sensitivity training to data analysis exposing Russian subversion.
While he declined to name the countries in play, Mr. Kimmage said foreign news readers “are eventually going to see …much harder-hitting coverage, more detailed coverage, much more frequent coverage exposing propaganda and disinformation.”
“You’re going to see exposes, you’re going to see infographics, you’re going to see dissections of how this stuff works,” he said. “You’re going to be getting it through your own media environment through the sources you know and you trust.”
Cold War-style ops
State Department officials deny the Center’s efforts amount to an American government propaganda push to match the Kremlin’s.
Mr. Kimmage said he had no problem with it if “shedding light and exposing the truth” means “going on offense.”
He compared the GEC mission to a Cold War initiative pushed by the Reagan administration in the 1980s known as the “Active Measures Working Group” — an inter-agency that saw U.S. officials expose and undermine Soviet propaganda and subversion operations in Europe at the time.
“That’s how we went on offense against the Soviets,” Mr. Kimmage said. “We shined a light on all their proxy organizations in Europe, we shined a light on all their active measures and that really set them back on their heels.”
“Victory here is going to be incremental,” he said, asserting that the current push is only its “initial stages” and that “in the next two to three years there will be a tangible impact.”
“A lot of this is going to be dogs that don’t bark,” Mr. Kimmage said.
The State Department declined to comment on the number of personnel working inside the GEC, although sources say the figure is significantly greater than the roughly 70 employees who staffed a predecessor organization, the now-dissolved Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications.
The CSCC had a rocky existence at the State Department almost from the moment it was created by the Obama administration in 2011. At its height, the CSCC was a hub through which U.S. officials used Facebook and Twitter to disseminate anti-Islamic State messaging and videos. Critics slammed center for too openly engaging in propaganda because the content was all branded as having come from the State Department.
The CSCC came under particular scrutiny in 2015 when one of its anti-extremism videos — a clip that had copied and re-purposed grisly footage from Islamic State’s own propaganda materials — suddenly went viral and attracted nearly 1 million views on YouTube. Analysts questioned whether the move had backfired by giving new visibility to violent jihadi imagery in a video clearly identified as has having come from a U.S. agency.
More recently, the U.S. government has largely farmed out the counter-jihadist messaging operation out to U.S. allies in the Middle East and Europe.
In response to American intelligence findings that Russia had used social media to meddling in the 2016 U.S. election, Congress pushed through legislation giving the reconstituted GEC with a new, broader mission: expose and counter foreign state and non-state propaganda aimed at undermining the U.S. and its allies around the world.
However, the GEC languished at the start of the Trump administration, amid the president’s call for sharp budget cuts at the State Department and a confusing department reorganization pushed by then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
Countering ‘deep fakes’
Events of recent months, according to Mr. Kimmage, have breathed new life into the GEC. The Center, he said, now has a clear focus on targeting not only Russia but also Chinese and Iranian disinformation around the world, as well as an ongoing campaign against jihadist propaganda.
The budget for the center this year reached $95 million in September when a cash infusion of $20 million was shifted from the Pentagon to the State Department. Mr. Kimmage said the GEC is in position to have a similar budget for 2019, with roughly $55 million already called for in the State’s core budget and a potential $60 million that could again be freed up from the Pentagon to back the anti-propaganda efforts.
Among the GEC’s operations is a push to get ahead of foreign adversaries, including Russian, Chinese and Iranian cyber operatives, on the rapidly changing digital technology advances.
National security officials are increasingly concerned about the use of so-called “deep fake videos” to sow chaos and confusion on social media.
The eerie process, which relies on cutting-edge, deep-learning algorithm technology, produces high-quality audio and video of individuals saying things they never said or doing things they never did. The phony videos, analysts say, could eventually be virtually indistinguishable from real footage, mimicking voices, speaking patterns, facial expressions and surroundings to a frighteningly realistic degree.
“We’re very aware of deep fakes,” Mr. Kimmage said. “We are deeply engaged in a whole tech sector initiative … to identify technologies” that can spot doctored video.
But the center’s bread and butter operations are more basic: help local partners in foreign countries to expose and derail Russian, Chinese, Iranian and jihadist disinformation campaigns.
“We’re mapping the online disinformation networks and we are giving media organizations in key regions tools so that they can identify these narratives and go out and counter them,” Mr. Kimmage said.
A core tenet was the establishment early this year of a so-called “Information Access Fund” — a mechanism through which the State Department is now channeling money to organizations that engage in a range of counter-propaganda efforts in several countries. The international response was rapid.
“When it comes to the shared recognition that Russian propaganda and disinformation are a threat, we have found great receptivity,” Mr. Kimmage said. “We received over 150 applications to the Information Access Fund almost as soon as we opened.”
“It’s now funded to a tune of $10 million,” he said. “We’ve awarded a million dollars already.”