THE WASHINGTON FOREIGN PRESS CENTER, WASHINGTON, D.C. (Teleconference)
MODERATOR: Thank you so much. Welcome to this morning’s Foreign Press Center teleconference briefing. The focus of this briefing is Russian disinformation. As a reminder, this briefing is on background and should be attributed to senior State Department officials. For your knowledge and not for reporting, I’m pleased to let you know that we have on the line today [Senior State Department Official One], and [Senior State Department Official Two]. Again, you can attribute this briefing to senior State Department officials.
Our briefers will make opening remarks, and then we will open for your questions. And we will start with senior State Department official number one. Thank you.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Great. Well, thank you, and welcome everybody. It’s a pleasure to be here with you this morning. Today the U.S. Department of State will expose some of the ways Russia is using hybrid tactics to further its global influence campaign.
I want to highlight a few things. First, these disinformation efforts are not individuals expressing free speech or personal opinion. These actions are a concerted effort directed by the Russian Government, using Russian Government resources, to intentionally target and destabilize neighboring countries. These are not just public statements from Russia’s MFA account, the press or cultural attachés working at embassies or through official public accounts, although they also frequently are purveyors of similar tropes. These are broader campaigns, using shell companies, false names, and layers to conceal the real backers and their intentions. And this is part of a larger campaign to orchestrate a scenario that offers an excuse for Russian Government behavior and to create a pretext for Russia to further invade Ukraine.
The United States and our NATO Allies and European partners have sent a consistent message to Russia in the past weeks: de-escalate tensions, choose the path of diplomacy, and continue to engage in honest and reciprocal dialogue. Continuing hostile and coordinated disinformation attacks is not de-escalation.
As Deputy Secretary Sherman made very clear to Deputy Foreign Minister Ryabkov during last week’s Strategic Stability Dialogue, and as our NATO Allies made clear at the NATO-Russia Council, Russia has a stark choice to make: de-escalation and diplomacy, or confrontation and consequences. We welcome the OSCE Chairman-in-Office Rau’s call for a revitalized European security dialogue at the OSCE and encourage Russia to engage there as well.
Secretary Blinken is re-emphasizing that very same message during his – this trip this week to Kyiv, to Berlin, and to Geneva. He reiterated that the preferable path – the responsible path – is diplomacy, and that is why the United States is leaving no stone unturned in trying to pursue peace through intensive consultations that we had last week and in our continued meetings and consultations this week, including the Secretary’s meeting with Foreign Minister Lavrov tomorrow.
We all hope the Russian Government will choose peace and security, but it must cease its hostile behavior and take concrete actions to de-escalate the situation it has caused.
Let me turn it over to briefer number two.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Thank you. Russian disinformation is a key component of the Kremlin’s efforts to create conditions conducive to the success of its attempted aggression in Ukraine and elsewhere, and to divide the international reaction to its actions. The Kremlin invests massively in support of its propaganda and disinformation channels. Its intelligence services and proxies conduct malicious cyber activity to support its disinformation efforts, and it leverages outlets that masquerade as news sites or research institutions to spread false and misleading narratives.
Over the preceding weeks, we have seen Russia’s military and intelligence entities engaging in this activity across Russia’s disinformation ecosystem, pushing out propaganda designed to portray Ukraine as an aggressor and build public support for a further Russian invasion. To foment this disinformation storm, Russian intelligence services use a variety of methods to create, launder, and amplify their false narratives. Here are three examples.
First, we know that Russia’s Federal Security Service, or FSB, directly tasks and influences proxy media outlets to publish content that denigrates Ukraine and falsely depicts it as an aggressor. Articles that appear on these proxy outlets as a result have made their way not only to official Russian state-funded media outlets like RIA Novosti, RT, and Sputnik, but to other outlets as well.
Second, we have seen Russian-influenced actors fabricate Ukrainian provocations and falsely claim a deterioration of human rights in Ukraine, using both state-controlled media and social media to sow division and to justify a Russian intervention.
We have seen these false media narratives also blame the West for escalating tension while highlighting supposed humanitarian issues in Ukraine that they claim Russian intervention could resolve, while at the same time encouraging Russian patriotism to bolster domestic support back home for military action.
Finally, we are aware of ongoing activities by Russia’s military intelligence services to sow disinformation and propaganda meant to undermine, demoralize, and discredit Ukrainian governmental organizations and personnel.
The State Department’s Global Engagement Center first flagged this concern about Russian disinformation publicly in a 2020 report which identified five pillars of Russian disinformation operations as integral to its communications ecosystem. These pillars are official government communications, state-funded global messaging, the cultivation of proxy sources, the weaponization of social media, and cyber-enabled disinformation. Each of these pillars work together and reinforce each other. The interaction between the different elements creates a media multiplier effect that amplifies false narratives and creates virtual disinformation storms that spread quickly through online media.
That first report focused on pillar three, the use of proxy sources. The GEC is now releasing a report that looks at pillar two, state-funded global messaging, which relies on Kremlin-controlled organizations that masquerade as independent media. Russian state-owned and state-directed media, such as RT and Sputnik, play a crucial role in how Russia uses disinformation to advance its foreign policy. These state-funded and state-directed outlets disseminate Russian narratives to foreign audiences and regularly amplify content from the other pillars of Russia’s disinformation ecosystem, including websites associated with Russia’s intelligence services.
We saw this in the 2014 Russian invasion of Ukraine. At that time, RT played an important role in attempting to influence foreign audiences in support of Russia’s invasion, mislead global audiences, and mitigate international reaction to Russia’s actions by spreading disinformation. We are seeing the same playbook today.
Today, we are also launching a public website where you can find examples of Kremlin disinformation tools and techniques and learn how to prevent the spread of Russian disinformation. I encourage you all to visit www.state.gov/disarming-disinformation. We’re sharing this information today to help people be more aware of the scope of Russian disinformation actions in the information environment. Working as a community, committed to protecting an open and transparent exchange of ideas and debate, we can mitigate these Russian disinformation actions.
A common understanding of the hallmarks of Russian disinformation narratives helps people recognize and counter them. Ultimately, the best way to deny Russia the effectiveness of disinformation as a weapon is to raise awareness and increase transparency of its disinformation tactics and tools.
Thank you and I look forward to your questions.
MODERATOR: Thank you so much. Operator, can you go ahead and explain to the journalists how they can get into the queue for questions?
OPERATOR: Yes, thank you. Ladies and gentlemen, if you do have a question for today’s conference, please press 1 then 0 on your touchtone phone. You’ll hear an acknowledgement that you’ve been placed in queue. You may remove yourself from queue at any time by pressing 1, 0 again. And again, once – ladies and gentlemen, if you do have a question at this time, please press 1 then 0 on your touchtone phone.
MODERATOR: We’ll just give it a second for folks to get into the queue.
And it looks like we do have one question from Alex Raufoglu with Turan News Agency. Operator, can you open his line?
OPERATOR: Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Yes. Thank you so very much. This is excellent work, and thanks so much for a very compelling report. My question is to the briefer number two. May we talk about the threat against European security? What is your assessment on how we arrived from the fact that Russia has invaded Georgia and Ukraine and maintains troops in Moldova against the will of the government to an empty narrative of NATO expansion to Ukraine, which is not happening anytime soon, but has already dominated the news agenda? You laid out the tools, but what did we the media miss in this process and how to prevent this from happening moving forward? Thanks again.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Thank you for that question. I think you hit it on the mark that a key element of Russia’s toolkit is to use dissemination and spread false narratives to advance its policy objectives. One of the best ways that we can really deny the effectiveness of those false narratives is to raise awareness and increase transparency of its disinformation tools and tactics. So increasing that awareness, working together, that is the best way to prevent the effectiveness of those narratives from taking root.
MODERATOR: Thank you. Our next question goes to Paolo Mastrolilli from La Stampa. Operator, can you open his line?
OPERATOR: Yes, please go ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you very much for the briefing. Paolo Mastrolilli with the Italian daily La Repubblica. I would like to ask if this disinformation campaign is directed only toward Ukraine or if you have any evidence of a force that are targeting the other European country, the NATO Allies.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Thank you. I would offer that Russia has a long history of employing disinformation outlets, intelligence service affiliates globally, to spread false narratives in support of its strategic goals. It’s not just limited to Ukraine. Again, I would reiterate that one of the best ways to really counter this is to raise awareness of Russia’s tactics and techniques, which is what we are hoping we are doing today.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MODERATOR: Thank you. Our next question goes to Francesc Garriga. Operator, can you open that line?
OPERATOR: Yes. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Hi, hello. It’s Francesc Garriga from Catalunya Radio in Barcelona. You were talking about raising awareness of these tactics of disinformation, but can NATO or the U.S. fight in social media this somehow? I mean, is there, like, any plan of action to actually use the same weapons to fight these disinformation campaigns?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Thank you. Well, I would offer that at the State Department, partnerships are a key priority in the State Department’s Global Engagement Center, as we believe that countering propaganda and disinformation requires a whole-of-society approach. We work routinely with partners from around the world in the private sector, in academia, in civil society, and with our NATO and other allies and partners. Again, this is a challenge that requires a whole-of-society approach and we do work closely with our counterparts and colleagues.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: This is just briefer number one. I was just going to add: fully agree with all those points. We have had a very strong transatlantic partnership, the United States and the European Union, with member states, to proactively and positively message about our values, our principles, and to expose disinformation, as was just laid out. And I think there’s really, really strong partnerships that already exist and are being used today to help expose some of these – the points you exactly raised.
MODERATOR: Thank you. If we don’t have any more questions in the queue, Operator, could you explain the procedure for asking a question again?
OPERATOR: Yes, and once again, ladies and gentlemen, if you do have a question, please press 1 then 0 on your touchtone phone. One moment, please, while we wait for our next question. It will be just another moment, please.
MODERATOR: Thank you. Okay. Our next question goes to Magdalena Sakowska with Polsat TV.
OPERATOR: Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Hello, thank you very much for doing this call. I have a question to both briefers: Have you realized in the last days that Russia intensified the disinformation campaign, or it’s still on the same level?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Thanks. I would offer that we have seen consistent use of disinformation over the preceding months. We noted earlier that during December alone, Russian language content on social media covering false narratives related to Ukraine increased to an average of nearly 3,500 posts a day, which was a 200 percent increase from the daily average in November. So we are seeing a consistent and steady use of disinformation to support advancing its political objectives vis-à-vis Ukraine.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: That’s exactly right. I don’t have anything to add.
MODERATOR: Great, thank you. Our next question goes to Rosiland Jordan. Go ahead and open Ms. Jordan’s line.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Hi, thanks for doing the call. I think I have a very basic question, but I think it is important to ask: Why this intense focus on what you’re calling Russian disinformation? Is there concern within the Biden administration that somehow the Russians might be able to persuade the American public and perhaps the European public that what it’s trying to do in Ukraine is actually justified? Is this an essential part of the overall diplomatic effort? Thank you.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Let me jump in at the beginning. Look, if we go back to the history – let’s go back to either 2008 or even 2014. We’ve seen how Russian disinformation has been used to advance and promote their policy agenda, as I laid out in my opening remarks; how it is used to sow essentially a war on truth, to create confusion, and to in some ways create grounds for them to advance their policy objectives.
And so I think as we’ve laid out today and as you’ve seen us – our senior officials continuing to make clear our concerns about Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and based on that history, we see a real reason to be concerned about this. This is part of their toolkit that Russia goes to in order to promote and advance aggression against neighbors and undermine their sovereignty. And so I think it’s a much broader threat picture, if you will, of the threat that Russia’s use of disinformation poses for us as the transatlantic community.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: I have nothing to add. Absolutely right.
MODERATOR: Thank you. And we don’t have anyone else in the queue. Operator, could we do one more request for how to get into the queue?
OPERATOR: Yes. And once again, ladies and gentlemen, if you do have a question, please press 1 then 0 at this time.
MODERATOR: Thank you.
OPERATOR: One moment, please, while we wait for our next question.
MODERATOR: Thank you.
It doesn’t appear we have any other questions. I will turn it over to our briefers if they have any closing remarks.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I’ll defer to briefer number two.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Thank you. I would just thank you for the opportunity to present here today. I – this is an important issue. Russia has a long history of using disinformation to achieve its political objectives. It is truly through transparency as our tool that we can raise awareness and deny the effectiveness of this tool in the context of current aggression against Ukraine. The State Department and all of our interagency colleagues are committed to taking strong actions to expose and counter Russian disinformation. Thank you.
MODERATOR: Great. It does look like we have one journalist that flagged that he does have a question and that will be our final question today. Oliver Grimm from Austria, Die Presse.
OPERATOR: Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Hi, can you hear me?
QUESTION: Hi, I’m the Brussels correspondent for the Austrian newspaper Die Presse. A short question: The European parliament voted on the Digital Services Act yesterday, which is a main tool of sort of cleaning up the online information space. In very general terms, what do you expect Europeans to do about these disinformation threats that you’ve outlined in your paper and in your briefing now? Thank you.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Sure, thank you. We believe that a shared understanding of the nature of the challenge leads to shared solutions, so again, it is about building that shared knowledge that we can coordinate both our assessments of strategy, our analysis, and our actions to expose and counter these activities globally. Thank you.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: And I would just add that we also, as you’ve seen from all of our diplomacy, is that we want to build a common message to Moscow that it needs to de-escalate and that we consider its use of disinformation as part of that, as I pointed out, aggression and escalatory pathway, and that for diplomacy and dialogue to continue, we want to see Moscow to de-escalate.
MODERATOR: Great, thank you. And I would like to thank everyone for joining us today and our briefers as well. As a reminder, please attribute the speakers as senior State Department officials. And with that, this briefing is concluded.