Home WORLD NEWS One tiny corner of the U.S. government fights back against Russian propaganda

One tiny corner of the U.S. government fights back against Russian propaganda


Not the White House, the State Department or the CIA. The recordings were published by a U.S.-government-funded website called Polygraph.info, whose reporter says she got them from a source close to the Kremlin.

Polygraph is a relatively new fact-checking arm of an obscure, diminutive media effort by the U.S. to highlight Russian misdeeds and counter Russian propaganda.

It’s an anomaly in the Trump administration — perhaps the only part of the U.S. government whose job is to regularly punch back against what experts say is a stream of Russian disinformation aimed at America and the West.

“At the end of the day, the Russians are engaging in information warfare — they’re telling lies,” said John Lansing, a former television executive who oversees the effort. “And we’re confronting them toe-to-toe with fact-based, truthful, professional journalism.”

 Outside the headquarters of the Broadcasting Board of Governors in Washington and its five broadcasting services, including the Voice of America. NBC News

Russia’s proficiency at information war has been on display in the wake of the U.S.-led military strike Friday night in Syria. Russia called the strikes illegal and said the chemical weapons attacks that prompted them were staged. To get that message out, there was a 2000 percent spike in activity in the hours since the strike by fake Russian propaganda accounts on social media, a Pentagon spokeswoman said Saturday. A website that tracks a slice of those accounts, Hamilton 68, found that they were pumping out the Russian government narrative in English.

They’re “eating our lunch”

The U.S. is ill-equipped to respond. Polygraph, part of the tiny corner of the government that’s trying, has a staff of five that doesn’t usually work on the weekends.

“We focus mostly on Russia right now because there is a large flow of disinformation that’s coming from Russia,” said Jim Fry, a former Dallas television reporter who runs Polygraph from Washington.

 Irina Van Dusen is chief of the Russian Service of the Voice of America, which runs the Russian-language television news program “Current Time America.” NBC News

Polygraph is a joint venture of the Voice of America and Radio Liberty, which are funded by — but independent of — the U.S. government. They fall under the umbrella of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, whose mission is to promote freedom and democracy and “tell America’s story” around the world. But they are walled off, editorially, from the administration in power.

“The law protects us from interference by U.S. government officials,” said Tom Kent, who spent 44 years at The Associated Press before becoming president of Radio Liberty and Radio Free Europe. “They can’t tell us what to broadcast.”

During the Cold War, the VOA and Radio Liberty sought to counter communist propaganda and funnel information to the news-starved citizenry behind the Iron Curtain.

Those muscles — and budgets — have long since atrophied. But in recent years, there have been growing calls for a new twist on that old mission.

When Lansing became CEO of the Broadcasting Board of Governors in 2015, he said he was confronted on Capitol Hill and throughout the government with a single question:

“Why are the Russians eating our lunch in terms of information warfare?”

People were talking mainly about RT, the former Russia Today, which spends hundreds of millions of dollars a year on an English language broadcast and web platform that regularly skewers American and the West. The U.S. government has labeled RT a propaganda operation.

The State Department came under criticism earlier this year when news reports highlighted its failure to spend $120 million that had been allocated to push back on Russian propaganda abroad.

Lost in that conversation was the fact that one month into the Trump Administration, Lansing and his team launched Current Time America, a 24-hour Russian-language broadcasting and web platform. The budget was $20 million — around one-tenth the size of RT’s budget, Lansing says. But one year later, Current Time America is available on TV screens in 30 countries, and officials counted 400 million view views on social media last year.

Still, U.S. information efforts are minuscule compared to the Russian campaign. While Current Time America is available in Russia, the Russian government makes it difficult to find — keeping it off cable systems and requiring special tuning for satellite reception.

The broadcasting board’s total budget this year is about $660 million dollars, about a third of what was spent in 1991, adjusted for inflation.

“I think we should be investing more,” Lansing said.

“There are facts”

The Russian government labels the entire U.S.-funded journalism operation “propaganda” that is “part of a broader, wide-reaching American system of pressure on our country.”

Irina van Dusen, who heads the effort as chief of Voice of America’s Russian-language programming, knows what propaganda looks like. She grew up in the Soviet Union, listening to the VOA on an illegal short wave radio for scraps of accurate reporting.

She got her journalism degree in Moscow, but decided that if she wanted to practice real journalism, she would have to move to the West.

During the Cold War, she says, the VOA was trying to break through jamming and censorship. Now there has been a proliferation of Russian TV and web channels that put out a cacophony of news, nearly all of it favorable to Vladimir Putin. The task in 2018 is trying to break through a fog of disinformation.

The prevailing view in Russia, she said, is that “There is no truth. There is only different versions, different narratives. … We stand by the fact that there is truth. And there are facts.”

 Jim Fry, managing editor of the fact-checking website Polygraph.info, says its target audience is English-speaking audiences in all of the countries bordering Russia. NBC News

From a TV studio near not far from where special counsel Robert Mueller comes to work each day, Current Time America covers Washington, offering live broadcasts of Congressional hearings with simultaneous translations.

“People can listen, see how it’s done, how policies are made, what questions asked, what facts are being brought up,” she said.

The channel also covers Russia, to “provide Russian speaking audiences with a true portrait of the society, you know? As opposed to state-run Russian television that — interprets everything that is done in the world … as some kind of a United States manipulation and United States meddling in world affairs.”

Polygraph.info, and its Russian-language counterpart, Factograph, try to be slightly edgier than a traditional news operation.

“What our reporters do every day is they begin the day looking at Russian media,” said Fry. “Looking at what’s coming out of Russia. And then we decide whether there’s something to fact check. Usually, almost every day, there’s more to fact check than we could possibly do with our staff.”

The site is modeled after other media fact check efforts, including Politifact and factcheck.org. It highlights a claim, say, by Putin or another Russian official, and brands it for veracity, with labels like “Partially True, “False” or “Misleading.”

In March, the site fact-checked a Putin documentary that alleged the Russian leader had always believed that the Ukrainian territory of Crimea was part of Russia. It highlighted remarks by Putin in 2008 in which he said something very different: “Crimea is absolutely not a disputed territory.” Six years later, Putin seized Crimea from Ukraine, to international condemnation.

Polygraph also challenged Russia’s denial that the nerve agent used to poison a former spy in the U.K. was made only in Russia, and its assertion that no chemical attack took place in Syria.

Polygraph reporters are not afraid to endorse criticism of the U.S. when it’s accurate. When Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov criticized a list of Russian oligarchs that the Treasury Department admitted it cribbed from Forbes magazine, Polygraph labeled his comments, “Partially True.”

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