Senior U.S. envoys travels to Balkans, an information battleground

The Wall Street Journal: Michael R Gordon & Dustin Volz

WASHINGTON—The State Department is increasing efforts to push back against the Kremlin’s disinformation campaign even as Russian propagandists have sought to exploit the extensive leak of purported U.S. classified information.

In meetings early this week in the Balkans, a senior U.S. envoy outlined proposals to help governments there strengthen their capability to ferret out Russian and Chinese disinformation sites on their territory so they can call them out and, the U.S. hopes, shut them down.

“With Secretary Blinken’s strong endorsement, we are going after the purveyors of Russian disinformation,” James Rubin, the envoy, said in a telephone interview during a stop in Pristina, Kosovo, in a reference to Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

The Balkans have long been an information battleground. Moscow has sought to exploit the traditional affinity between Serbian communities and the Russians as well as lingering divisions over the breakup of Yugoslavia and North Atlantic Treaty Organization interventions to protect Kosovo and quell the ethnic strife in Bosnia.

Online news websites with Facebook pages are one of the main ways people in the region receive news. The U.S. has identified several that have echoed Russian disinformation, including claims by one site that Ukraine is preparing a false-flag operation that it could blame on Russia.

“There is perhaps more social receptivity to the kind of narratives that the Russians are apt to put forth and perhaps less institutional capability to deal with it,” Daniel Fried, who served as the top State Department official for Europe, said of the region. “There’s work to be done. It doesn’t mean it’s hopeless.”

The push marks a departure for the Global Engagement Center, the State Department office led by Mr. Rubin that was established in 2016 to counter foreign propaganda and disinformation abroad. For years, the nearly 200-strong office, which has an annual budget of about $61 million, has published detailed analyses to rebut Russian and Chinese attempts to manipulate global opinion. Now it is starting to target the machinery that transmits that disinformation in foreign countries, including in friendly Balkan nations that are members of the NATO alliance.

By its own account, the State Department effort has a long way to go. Like the U.S. military, the Global Engagement Center has shifted its focus from countering Middle East militants to the “great power” competition with Russia and China, only to find itself operating at a disadvantage.

“We are massively behind,” said Mr. Rubin, who served as the State Department spokesman for Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and has longstanding ties to Mr. Blinken. He was named as a special envoy and coordinator of the Global Engagement Center in December. He made that comment at a seminar at a European embassy in Washington.

On Monday, Mr. Rubin urged officials in Montenegro to craft an information code of conduct that would enable the government to crack down on websites that have been carrying Russian propaganda on the conflict in Ukraine. The next day he offered technical support to North Macedonia to help it ensure the troll farms that once disseminated Russian narratives in the country couldn’t re-emerge.

The proposals are part of a broader package the U.S. is developing with the European Union that includes the establishment of a common database of Internet Protocol addresses and domain names that traffic in disinformation.

An effort is also under way to use software to trace Russian and Chinese narratives as they migrate across borders so the U.S. and its foreign partners can try to counter them.

The longer-term effort would see legal standards strengthened abroad to preclude disinformation and American support to foreign partners to develop the in-house expertise to identify it. U.S. economic sanctions against malign actors that facilitate Russian and Chinese disinformation could also be in the offing.

The center traces its origin to a State Department office that was established in 2011 to counter violent foreign online propaganda espoused by al Qaeda and other international terrorist groups. Five years later, President Obama broadened its mission to respond to propaganda and disinformation from foreign governments and nonstate actors, a mission codified by Congress in 2017.

f its current staff, 16 are foreign service officers, 32 are civil service employees, seven are military service members or personnel from other agencies, including intelligence agencies. The remaining are contractors.

Among its initiatives has been an effort to unmask Russian intelligence agencies that used online publications to undermine confidence in Pfizer Inc.’s and other Western vaccines against Covid-19. A Kremlin spokesman denied that allegation.

The Global Engagement Center’s activities have drawn the ire of Elon Musk, who bought Twitter last year and has accused the center of engaging in censorship by seeking to influence social media content. A spokesman for the center said that the office identifies sources of disinformation but doesn’t focus on U.S. social-media accounts or tell them what to do.

A more common criticism is that the center has struggled to find its footing in recent years.

“The GEC has had a lot of opportunity to do great work, but has yet to realize much of its potential,” Lisa Kaplan, a former State Department consultant and the founder of Alethea, a technology company that seeks to fight disinformation and social media manipulation.

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