Seeking to counter Russian disinformation, Washington has already signed a Memorandum of Understanding to cooperate with North Macedonia in the fight against the manipulation of information. It says it has the same intent with other countries such as Bulgaria and Slovakia.
An example of the need for the policy is expected Sunday (June 11, 2023), when Montenegro is to hold early parliamentary elections. The official said Montenegro has been faced with Russian disinformation and propaganda, including from Serbia, where Russia Today (RT) and Sputnik are still broadcasting.
James Rubin, special envoy for the State Department’s Global Engagement Center, spoke Tuesday to VOA State Department Bureau Chief Nike Ching about countering Chinese and Russian disinformation.
Rubin told VOA there are pros and cons to using artificial intelligence in the information battleground, but the GEC currently is not using AI to counter foreign disinformation campaigns.
The following excerpts from the interview have been edited for brevity and clarity.
VOA: U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told Senator Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut) during a Senate hearing on May 16 that the Global Engagement Center is working with the State Department’s “China House” to counter disinformation from China. Secretary Blinken also said the U.S. is now making available the Associated Press, Reuters and other objective sources of information to other countries. Can you provide more details on that? What are those countries?
JAMES RUBIN, SPECIAL ENVOY FOR THE STATE DEPARTMENT’S GLOBAL ENGAGEMENT CENTER: Information manipulation is a major problem for the United States. It’s a problem all over the world. I think we’ve discovered that in some cases, China will provide its news service for free to certain news outlets, but say, you can’t use any other news service if you want ours for free. So, we’re trying to counter that.
The important thing is that it’s attributed, it’s transparent, so the marketplace of ideas can make the decisions. What is a problem is when Chinese support is not transparent, when it’s behind the scenes, when there’s a hidden hand. And what we at the GEC do is try to provide evidence for countries around the world when their information space integrity is violated.
VOA: The United States has signed a memorandum of understanding with North Macedonia to cooperate in the fight against manipulation of information. What do you hope to accomplish? Is the U.S. pursuing similar deals with other countries?
RUBIN: What we discovered is that because RT and Sputnik still existed in Serbia, that that was being used to disrupt North Macedonia. So, what we did is agree with a Memorandum of Understanding with the North Macedonian government. And what these memos do is establish the will of another country to treat a problem with the same urgency that we’re treating it. It’s not a solution. It’s a demonstration of will. Now it’s up to us working with the North Macedonia government to give them the capacity to follow this information space integrity, to try to show when Russia’s hidden hand is interfering in their information space, to try to give them tools to analyze this poisoning of their information space. So, that means sharing best practices on free media, fact checking, building resiliency.
Our partners in North Macedonia and other parts of the Balkans — Bulgaria, Slovakia — have all told us they recognize this as a terrible problem they’re facing, and what we want to do is work with them to make sure that when Russia or China or any other country interferes in the information space, that it is transparent, it is attributed, so that the hidden hand of these other countries can be made apparent. It’s not wrong for countries to present their point of view, but it needs to be no longer hidden. It needs to be transparent.
VOA: So, will there be similar deals with countries in the Balkans?
RUBIN: We don’t have an MOU plan for other countries, but we have the same intent planned with other countries. In my meetings with Bulgaria and Slovakia, they both expressed an interest in working with us to build their GEC-like capability. We’re going to give them technical assistance, we’re going to provide them with support so that we all can have the same common operational picture.
VOA: In April, you visited Montenegro, where you warned about the significant problem of disinformation facing the country, and that the new government would have to deal with it. Montenegro will hold early parliamentary elections this Sunday, June 11. Has GEC noticed any external actors trying to meddle in Montenegro’s domestic politics through disinformation?
RUBIN: I don’t have any current information this week about what’s been going on. What I do know is that Montenegro used to have a political relationship with Serbia. Serbia is the one place in the Balkans where RT and Sputnik are still broadcasting. Serbia also has Serbian language versions of RT and Sputnik. So if you’re living in Montenegro, you can read Russian disinformation straight through, in Serbian, coming through Serbia. So it’s not so much outside interference in the election per se, as it is that we need to get RT and Sputnik not able to cause so much damage inside Montenegro or North Macedonia.
VOA: Speaking of elections: China has been accused of meddling in Canada’s elections. As the U.S. heads into presidential elections, how worried are you, and how closely is the GEC monitoring foreign disinformation campaign meddling in domestic U.S. politics?
RUBIN: The GEC’s job is overseas. It’s to try to combat disinformation and information manipulation in Africa and Asia, in Europe, in Latin America. We leave it to the domestic capabilities to deal with the American election. But I’m always worried when outsiders try to interfere in elections wherever they are.
VOA: A senior official said the State Department has had sessions on artificial intelligence, and there are discussions on implications of AI for U.S. foreign policies. Is GEC using AI to counter foreign disinformation and propaganda?
RUBIN: Not at this time, we haven’t been using AI tools that I’m aware of.
AI is both a problem and an opportunity. Every new technology has great advantages and sometimes downsides. We discovered that with social media, we discovered that with all of the digital revolution. With AI, what I’m concerned about is when other countries who are putting out lies, who are putting out disinformation, who are using information manipulation, use AI to translate to a hundred languages instantly. That’s a capability that normally would take hundreds and hundreds of people. It’s very difficult to do. It requires cultural, being culturally attuned to all the different countries. With an AI tool, it’s possible that our adversaries will use that tool to do multiple translations instantly. That could be a problem.
VOA: Russian mercenary Wagner Group’s leader Yevgeny Prigozhin has been openly criticizing top leadership in Russia. What does that tell you? Is Putin’s control of the information flow weakening?
RUBIN: What I can tell you about Mr. Prigozhin is that sometimes he tells the truth, sometimes he exaggerates things. I think what it reflects is the difficulty Russia has had in achieving its own objectives. Russia has failed to achieve its objectives in Ukraine. Every day that’s increasingly apparent, and they’re all criticizing each other because they haven’t achieved their objectives.