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(January 9, 2024 / Newsweek) Over the past three months, Russian, Chinese, and Iranian bots have flooded the internet with anti-Zionist, antisemitic and anti-American content, aggravating dangerous and widening political rifts in the United States.

It’s already an old story: for years, America’s foreign adversaries have been weaponizing the media and social networks to interfere in our domestic politics and push their narratives overseas.

And U.S. administrations have been slow to catch up.

Since the end of the Cold War, Washington has been hyper-focused on traditional warfare. The United States spent $877 billion last year on its military, more than the next nine countries combined.

But China, Russia, and Iran are well aware that they cannot challenge the U.S. in a traditional military conflict, so they resort to irregular means such as funding proxies like Hamas and Hezbollah and engaging in cyber-attacks and disinformation campaigns.

As a result, Russian and Chinese budgets for government-funded media and propaganda dwarf the budget set by the U.S. Congress.

The inequality was not inevitable. After the Cold War, U.S. policy slowly abandoned the information sphere. In 1988, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s (RFE/RL) budget was $219 million or $586 million when adjusted for inflation. Today, its budget is $123 million. RFE/RL, which was set up during the Cold War to broadcast anti-communist and pro-democratic messaging behind the Iron Curtain, played a major role in combatting Soviet narratives. By 1990, RFE/RL was the most listened-to Western radio station in the Soviet Union and played key roles in the Czechoslovak and Romanian revolutions.

RFE/RL falls under the U.S. Agency for Global Media umbrella that includes Voice of America, Radio Free Asia, the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, Middle East Broadcasting Networks and the Open Technology Fund. Last March, President Joe Biden requested an increase in the total USAGM budget of 11 percent to $944 million in response to Russian, Chinese, and Iranian campaigns to undermine U.S. values and influence. It has yet to be approved.

Russia, on the other hand, spent $1.9 billion on media propaganda last year. And China’s budget for cyber-propaganda and global disinformation is in the billions, according to a recent U.S. State Department report. Even economic sanctions have not deterred Iran from coughing up $200 million for state broadcasting alone.

Often Russia, China, and Iran work together, especially when the goal is to thwart U.S. influence. For example, besides using disinformation to prop up its own geopolitical interests and squash domestic criticism, Beijing has also used its information apparatus to support Kremlin narratives on the war in Ukraine, including Moscow’s false claims that Ukraine has operated secret biological warfare laboratories and that NATO encroachment caused Russia’s invasion.

In the West, Russian and Chinese strategy has exploited existing societal divides. Both Beijing and Moscow have formed relationships with far right and far left extremists, widening division and sewing instability. Their topics of choice include racism, immigration, and the culture wars.

The U.S. should not play such a dirty game. But Washington must understand that disinformation is having massive effects at home and abroad. The Biden administration must increase efforts to counter such disinformation as well as bring the fight to the regimes spreading it. This can be done through increased funding to the USAGM as well as support for independent media outlets banned by these dictatorships, such as the Nobel Prize Winning Russian independent newspaper now in exile in Latvia, Novaya Gazeta, and the London-based Persian-language news television station, Iran International.

Additionally, the U.S. should establish programs to train Chinese, Russian and Iranian expat journalists in investigations and intelligence to disprove false narratives and expose the rampant corruption, human rights abuses, and aggression in their home countries. These investigations could be done from abroad, relying on local sources and open-source information as is done by Bellingcat, a Dutch-based investigative journalism group that has been referred to as “Russia’s biggest nightmare.”

Such steps would be especially effective if these journalists focused on sensitive issues. For example, China, Russia, and Iran have brutally persecuted ethnic minorities, which make up large percentages of their populations.

China detains an estimated 2 million ethnic Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other Turkic groups in reeducation camps. Iran has launched a brutal campaign against its ethnic minorities that includes the use of torture, forced disappearances and mass arbitrary arrests. And Russia reportedly has used ethnic minorities as cannon fodder in its war against Ukraine.

The driving cause for the harsh treatment of minorities is a fear of ethnic separatism. Increased media coverage could bolster domestic and international pressure on these regimes and possibly even cause ethnic uprisings.

After all, In 1989, RFE/RL’s coverage of the Romanian government’s repression of ethnic Hungarians and Germans and reporting of the ensuing protests played a major role in leading to the fall of the regime of Nicolae Ceausescu.

But before the U.S. adjusts its policy, it must change its basic strategy.

For the past 15 years, U.S. foreign policy has sought to put out fires, not prevent them. There has been no coherent strategy beyond crisis management and containment. When it comes to information warfare, Washington’s goals have largely been limited to identifying and trying to shut down foreign-funded, anti-Western propaganda. However, this alone is not tenable. Any military strategist or even a sports announcer will tell you that no matter how good the strategy, you will never win if you are constantly on defense.

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About the Author

Joseph Epstein
Joseph Epstein is EMET’s Legislative Fellow. Prior to EMET, Joseph worked in Business Intelligence and Due Diligence for Kroll and Vcheck Global. He has additionally worked as a journalist, analyst, and consultant covering security and migration issues in the former Soviet Union, the Middle East, and Central Africa. From 2017 to 2019, he served as a Lone Soldier in the Israeli Border Police. A graduate of Columbia University, where he studied Political Science and Soviet Studies, Joseph is fluent in Russian and Hebrew.

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