BISHKEK -- The US government is raising awareness among Central Asian journalists and scholars in an effort to expose Russia's "disinformation ecosystem" regarding COVID-19 and other topics, the US Embassy in Bishkek said in a statement Wednesday (June 23).
Daniel Kimmage, acting co-ordinator of the US State Department's Global Engagement Centre (GEC), convened an online forum for more than two dozen Kyrgyz and other Central Asian journalists and academics on Tuesday.
The GEC is leading US government efforts to recognise, understand, expose and counter foreign propaganda and disinformation.
During the online forum, Kimmage discussed the GEC's special report "Russia's Pillars of Disinformation and Propaganda Ecosystem".
It details the "pillars" of Kremlin disinformation: "official government communications, state-funded global messaging, cultivation of proxy sources, weaponisation of social media and cyber-enabled disinformation".
These pillars "create and promote disinformation in traditional and electronic media, including social media".
'Fully deniable' propaganda
The Russian regime uses proxy sites to conceal the origins of its disinformation campaigns, the report says.
A GEC report from last August mentioned several such proxy sites and organisations that "occupy an intermediate role between the pillars of the ecosystem with clear links to Russia and those that are meant to be fully deniable".
One example is the Strategic Culture Foundation, an online journal that promotes "obscure Western fringe thinkers and conspiracy theorists" and forms foreign partnerships.
Others include the following: Global Research, a website with a "large roster of fringe authors and conspiracy theorists".
New Eastern Outlook, "a pseudo-academic publication of the Russian Academy of Science's [sic] Institute of Oriental Studies that promotes disinformation and propaganda focused primarily on the Middle East, Asia and Africa".
News Front, a Crimea-based, Kremlin-linked disinformation and propaganda outlet with the self-proclaimed goal of providing an "alternative source of information" for Western audiences.
Analysis and Intelligence (aka SouthFront), a multilingual online disinformation site registered in Russia that focuses on military and security issues.
Katehoz, a Moscow-based quasi think-tank that is a proliferator of virulent anti-Western disinformation and propaganda via its website, which is active in five languages and led by individuals with clear links to the Russian state and to Russian intelligence.
And Geopolitica.ru, a platform for Russian ultra-nationalists to spread disinformation and propaganda targeting Western and other audiences.
Combatting COVID-19 disinformation
State disinformation and propaganda campaigns are, in particular, negatively impacting the fight against COVID-19, Kimmage said on Tuesday.
In February 2020, the GEC observed that Russian, Chinese and Iranian disinformation narratives on the topic of COVID-19 had converged, with all three promoting identical false claims, he said.
COVID-19 vaccines are one of the main targets of Russian disinformation and propaganda campaigns, he said.
"The GEC has monitored two separate but reinforcing approaches by Russia: highlighting the Russian Sputnik V vaccine for geopolitical gain while spreading false and distorted information about Western vaccines," Kimmage said. "The tragic fact is that Russian disinformation undermines trust in all vaccines, not only those of Western origin."
Kimmage emphasised the need for an effective response to disinformation without relying on censorship.
"Training programmes in areas such as investigative journalism, fact-checking, media literacy and digital forensics are proven to help combat disinformation," he said.
"Even more important than programmes such as these is the free debate of ideas and a free press."