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Under Attack: Malign Influence & Disinformation
Episode 213th August 2021 • Democracy! The Podcast • CEPPS Advisor Adrienne Ross, Fmr Deputy Asst Secretary Strategic Communications, US Dept of State, Journalist
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"[I]f we want to protect our own democracy and our own security we need to be alert to the fact that we are subject to these [malign influence & disinformation] campaigns, even if we can't quite see them or trace their finger prints." Dan Twining, President, The International Republican Institute.

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While the explosive growth of digital and social media has skyrocketed to universal access over the past several years, nations with nefarious intent, including Russia and China, can now sow seeds of chaos and confusion more easily than ever.

In this episode of Democracy! The Podcast, we’ll focus on the threat malign influence and disinformation present to stable societies and democracies everywhere.  

We’ll start in the ancient land of Armenia, where twin crises collided last year, ushering in never before seen levels of nefarious interference.  

Then we’ll take a look at Ukraine, where teams combated malign influence online during three sets of elections.   

And finally, the President of the International Republican Institute shares his perspective on the crippling effect foreign nations have when their bad intentions infiltrate the public information space, and how you can protect yourself from falling prey.  

  

Democracy! The Podcast is brought to you by the Consortium for Elections and Political Process Strengthening (CEPPS) with support from the United States Agency for International Development through the Global Elections and Political Transitions Award.  

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Follow CEPPS on Twitter

Democracy! The Podcast is hosted by CEPPS and Adrienne Ross. 

This podcast has been produced by the Consortium for Elections and Political Process Strengthening through the Global Elections and Political Transitions award and is made possible by the generous support of the American people through the United States Agency for International Development.

Opinions expressed here are those of the host and the guests and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the US Government.  This show is produced by Evo Terra and Simpler Media.

Transcripts

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Hi, and welcome to Democracy!

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The Podcast that shines light on some of the darkest challenges facing the

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fight for democracy around the globe.

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"Democracy will and must prevail."

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[President Biden]

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This podcast is brought to you by the Consortium for Elections and

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Political Process Strengthening direct from Washington, DC, with support

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from our friends at the United States Agency for International Development

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through the Global Elections and Political Transitions Award.

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I'm your host, Adrienne Ross.

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Under Attack.

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Today, we're talking about malign influence and disinformation.

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It's an insidious problem facing democracies everywhere today.

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But can you identify it?

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Ahead, we'll hear from one of the most ardent defenders of democracy,

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the President of the International Republican Institute, Dan Twining.

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He'll tell us why malign influence and disinformation are among the most

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damaging threats to democracy today and how you can protect yourself

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from inadvertently consuming it.

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But first, the Republic of Armenia.

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This ancient land suddenly became a hotbed of political and

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military turbulence last year.

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More now from our Program Manager, Alix Lawson.

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2020 was a difficult year for many, but for Armenians, the double whammy of the

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Coronavirus pandemic and the resurgence of the war in the Nagorno-Karabakh region

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caused not only unique hardships for the nation but a flood of disinformation

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in never-before-seen proportions.

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Armenians were anxious for accurate information and were unsure of

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who or what news could be trusted.

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But as these two crises raged on, the country's relatively nascent democracy,

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which declared its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, hung in the balance.

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In order to correct a compromised information space, it quickly became

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clear that government intervention was vital, and state institutions

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needed to be the first source of not only accurate information but

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also countering disinformation.

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Thanks Alix.

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James Dewitt and his colleague, Dr.

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Artak Shakaryan, join us now to talk about the disinformation that grew in

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the midst of Armenia's twin crises.

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James is the International Republican Institute's Resident

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Program Director for Armenia.

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He has been defending democracy for more than twenty-five years and overseas

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programs which aim to strengthen strategic communications in government and

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institutionalized parliamentary oversight.

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He is no stranger to U.S.

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politics either, having served as a staffer in both chambers of the U.S.

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Congress and the Texas legislature.

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Also here today is Artak Shakaryan, who is a native Armenian.

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Artak, for the last two years, has been IRI'S Senior Program Manager in Armenia.

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Prior to joining IRI, he served as a Child Protection Officer with

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UNICEF in both Armenia and Sudan.

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And Artak, I just have to say, you are an accomplished scholar with

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high education degrees from several well-known international schools,

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including the Kennedy School at Harvard and Johns Hopkins here in Washington.

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Thank you so much for being here today, live from Armenia.

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Armenia really has had a long and complicated history.

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Before we talk more about disinformation, can you share a little bit about how the

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country's past may have contributed to this disinformation emergency last year?

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Yeah, sure.

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If you're talking about Armenia, you're talking about the post-Soviet space.

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Armenia didn't gain its independence until 1991.

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And even following that, you don't see a lot of free media

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developing in the country.

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This government that came into power through the revolution,

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wasn't prepared because just in the past, there just was no need.

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Basically, the government and the media before were one in the same thing.

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That was true during the Soviet era, and that's been true really over the

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past thirty-odd years in Armenia.

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So we can't blame the government.

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They've only been in power for a very short time, but there just wasn't a

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history of free media in this country.

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Then we had the twin crises come on last year and that was a big problem.

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The government really wasn't prepared.

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They needed expertise.

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They needed it quickly, and they needed people that were able to deal

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effectively with social media, especially.

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And to be clear of what you're saying here, James - or Artak, if you'd like

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to answer - what we were seeing was really an uptick in disinformation and

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malign influence related to both COVID and the war as it was continuing on.

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Yes, exactly.

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But at the same time, I will say that the society also has its stake because

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the society lacks media literacy skills.

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So with this inflow of information, they are not ready to handle it.

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They trust whatever is coming out from that magic box, and they are not

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prepared that that magic box may be lying or may be spreading disinformation.

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So that's why when the pandemic struck, the society was also watching, not only

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Armenian TV stations, but also the Western ones, the Russian ones, and was getting

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all those myths about the Coronavirus.

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And it was very hard for the government to deal with that situation.

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Additionally, when the war started, other foreign actors entered the Armenian

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media field and started also using this situation and trying to spread

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disinformation about all other things.

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So, yes, the government was in a really hard situation, and even

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the super professional ones would deal with it with difficulty.

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So we needed the urge to support the government in the communication efforts.

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Yes, luckily, we had prepared.

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The situation in Armenia, and many other countries, especially the

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developing countries, is that the ministries are working in silos.

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They don't talk to each other.

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They don't call the constituents.

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And this creates also this situation of miscommunication.

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That leads also to disinformation.

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So, our idea was to introduce the young researchers and young fellows

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to the ministries so they try to bring in the fresh blood and bringing

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the experience and skills of working with social platforms that are

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taking over the traditional media.

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So we wanted the government to have the proper representation with

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social media and to use the social media in daily communication with

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people and also in handling the disinformation, misinformation.

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These fellows also worked with each other, so they provided a bridge

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between the ministries and the communication between the ministries.

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The government was fighting the problems when propelling the reforms.

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So they were not preparing the ground before introducing the reform, and

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our fellows that were also doing the on-the-job training to the fellow people

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in the ministry tried to instill that idea that before introducing the reform,

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you need to work with the constituents.

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You need to prepare the media.

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You need to prepare yourself - to do your homework before entering the field.

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These are people that are very well versed in social media management,

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countering disinformation.

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They also know the old tools, the old-fashioned tools, are

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very well-versed in the press and communications offices there.

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It's about the communication skills.

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It's about the data visualization skills, preparing infographics, preparing

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short stories out of huge policy document, and preparing it simply so

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that people can read and understand it, and also communicating with the media.

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So most of our fellows used to be journalists, or used to be media anchors,

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so they know the area and they know how to deal with that type of people.

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So they bring in this field experience to the cabinets.

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I think that's really important that you brought that up, Artak, because before

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we had these government ministries, we had the government very much formed

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and structured in the old ways and used to the old methods and issuing

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press releases and things like that.

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I think what's essential is that these SPARK (Strengthening Political

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Accountability through Reform Communication) fellows know that

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there's a lot of noise out there.

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There's a lot of information out there.

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It's very hard to get people's attention, and attention spans are short.

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So as Artak rightly pointed out, these SPARK fellows help to compress

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these messages, to get all this data, and present them in a way that's

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digestible, that people, that the public are actually going to see and

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understand, which is super important.

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Right.

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Communication challenges really are something every single

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government has to deal with.

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But I have to say, I noticed that all of your fellows are women.

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Was that something you did intentionally?

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No.

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That's where the expertise is here in Armenia.

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That's where the demand is.

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We partnered with the various ministries to recruit the SPARK fellows.

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We wanted to make sure that we were bringing on people that

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met the needs of the ministries.

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So there was a huge call, many applications in, and in the end,

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those selected happened to be women.

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So that's who we picked.

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Well, that's great.

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I was happy to see that.

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What is the current military and political situation in Armenia right now?

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Now that the information space has been given a leg up, do we see a

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clear skies there or what do we expect in the next couple of months?

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So, it remains to be seen if we're out of the woods on COVID.

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In terms of the political situation, and in terms of and related to the conflict

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which happened last fall, that continues.

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There are still violations of ceasefire agreements.

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There are shootings on the borders almost every day.

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It's almost becoming commonplace.

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Although commonplace, it's still very tense here.

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I want to add that we understand that the SPARK program is a bandaid solution.

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It's not something remaining.

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And with our CEPPS partners in Armenia, we do work on developing the

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reforms on communication in public administration that will bring more

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sustainable solutions to the issues.

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And the successful pilot of SPARK also adds weight to these messages.

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Although, I agree with Artak about it being a band-aid solution, I

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think it is the genesis of something.

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We're finishing our first year of this program and basically the first

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class, the first graduating class, if I may, of this SPARK program.

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So we're going to have an alumni network.

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We hope these people will work with future SPARK fellows who we're

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in the process of recruiting now.

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So this is the start of something.

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Even though we don't want to be behind this all the time or funding it, this

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is going to have a life of its own.

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I feel pretty confident about that.

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Well, that's a great place to leave things - literally and virtually.

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So thank you both so much for being here.

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We really appreciate your time.

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Now we turn to Ukraine, where disinformation and malign influence have

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infiltrated countless pockets of society.

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Today, the National Democratic Institute's Deputy Director for

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Ukraine, Natia Jikia, joins us.

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Natia is a Georgian local who first started her work as a

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local staffer in her home country before becoming a third-country

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national for Ukraine in 2015.

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She's here now to talk about how she and the NDI team were able

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to combat malign influence and disinformation during three sets of

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Ukrainian elections from 2019 to 2020.

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Thank you so much for being here, Natia.

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Thank you for having me.

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I look forward to the conversation.

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I do, too.

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Malign influence and disinformation are really common problems in Ukraine.

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What can you tell us about this?

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To illustrate the scale of the challenge facing the country.

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I will cite a few findings from NDI's public opinion research.

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According to our 2020 online survey, 87% of Ukrainians think

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that Russian disinformation or propaganda is a big threat or

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some threat to their way of life.

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That is a very, very high number.

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In addition, the vast majority of Ukrainians, that is 79%, recognize

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that disinformation and propaganda are being spread in Ukraine.

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Also a very high number, indicating a high level of awareness of

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the problem in the country.

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So in this context, with USAID support for all three elections, we carried

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out election observation missions that included long-term analysis looking at

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more traditional aspects of elections, such as election administration,

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media environment, and so on.

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When we were initially designing the observation mission, we realized that

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there was no way we could assess the media environment in Ukraine without looking at

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it from the disinformation point of view because of all the challenges I described.

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And especially looking at Russian disinformation and how it impacts

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elections in Ukraine because Ukraine has been the target of

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Russian disinformation for years.

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And these attacks are sustained.

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Those attacks are targeted, and they are very intense.

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We were, of course, very careful in how we've designed the methodology

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of what to observe and how to observe during those elections.

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And we did rounds of consultations.

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We've talked to local civil society organizations including OPORA and [ ] who

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are doing groundbreaking work on countering disinformation in Ukraine.

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We also talk to other election stakeholders, including political

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parties, traditional media representatives, to understand

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their assessment of the problem.

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And as a result of these consultations, we've decided that our monitoring

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efforts would focus on social media, and Facebook and Telegram in particular.

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We also looked for any mentions of election interference.

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For example, for the parliamentary elections, we monitored around

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twenty-six Telegram channels.

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And for the 2020 local elections, we monitored fifty Telegram channels.

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So what did we find?

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We found that political channels on Telegram were similar in focus to Russian

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messaging on electoral candidates.

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They were negative on two politicians in particular, President Zelensky

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and Former President Poroshenko.

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In our monitoring efforts, we looked for any mention of disinformation and election

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interference in the Facebook posts.

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And for local elections, we've collected and analyzed around 17,000 accounts

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of regional media outlets, mayoral candidates, and political parties.

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So what did we find?

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Messaging patterns were similar to those we saw during previous elections,

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and the most widespread narratives were deployed to undermine the

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legitimacy of the Ukrainian state and its government, weaken ties between

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Ukraine and partners in the west, and promote the image of Russian government.

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Out of all of the fantastic work that you all have been able to accomplish,

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what is your greatest outcome?

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What do you think is the biggest difference you've made by doing this?

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Well, first thing that I want to highlight is that disinformation is not

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uniquely an electoral problem, but it impacts elections a great deal, and we

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cannot assess election integrity any longer without the disinformation lens.

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So disinformation should always be incorporated when assessing elections.

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Also, another important takeaway is that it just confirmed that the work that we do

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is very, very important because it makes democracy stronger, which is the best

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countermeasure against disinformation.

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You've mentioned that malign influence can be controlled.

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What do you think the future of malign influence in Ukraine is now that

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it's been recognized and dealt with?

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I think it's complicated.

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But I think the most important thing is being done, which is

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that the problem is recognized and government is making it a strategic

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priority to fight disinformation.

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And so there's a lot of efforts that are being put, both by the government, by the

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locals, the civil society, international communities also focusing on it.

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So I think that the collaborative approach that is being taken in

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Ukraine to fight disinformation is probably going to show results.

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We'll share with you the three reports that we've issued after each of the three

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elections, and it has a dedicated section on disinformation that also includes

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recommendations that we've issued.

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Okay.

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And our listeners will be able to find that on www.cepps.org/podcast.

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Thank you for being with us today.

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Thank you very much for having me.

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If you need more information on combating digital threats, please check out

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the Countering Disinformation Guide.

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This first-of-its-kind resource was created by CEPPS with funding from

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USAID and combines the collective expertise of those on the front

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lines, fighting disinformation.

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The guide outlines how key areas of disinformation are being addressed

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and provides a searchable inventory of organizations working to make the

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digital space safe for democracy.

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Find it at www.cepps.org/podcast.

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One leader who understands weaknesses in the information landscape is Dr.

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Dan twining, the President of the International Republican Institute.

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Dan has been leading the institute's mission to advance democracy and

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freedom around the world since 2017.

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He has also served as Counselor and Director of the Asia program at the

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German Marshall Fund of the United States, as a member of the U.S.

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Secretary of State's policy planning staff, a foreign policy advisor to U.S.

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Senator John McCain, and a staffer for the U.S.

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Trade Representative.

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Dan has also taught at Georgetown University and served as a

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military instructor associated with the Naval Postgraduate School.

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And he just happens to be one of the most verbose writers I have ever come across.

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Thank you so much for being here today.

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Can you explain, in your opinion, why malign influence and disinformation

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are such threats to the health and vitality of democracy?

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Yes.

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Thanks, Adrienne.

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It's great to be with you.

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So, democracy doesn't work without full and effective citizen engagement

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in politics and political life, and citizen engagement is complicated by

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misinformation and disinformation.

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We see that very much with respect to foreign authoritarians, including

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Russia and China who essentially have weaponized information, conducted very

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sophisticated information operations - well, really, we should call the

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misinformation operations - against the United States, against friends and allies,

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against pivotal countries like Ukraine.

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We've seen in Ukraine, for instance, how the Kremlin has sought to

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paint a picture of that country as some kind of failed Nazi state.

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When, in fact, the opposite is true.

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Ukraine is quite a successful country coming out of a very bad period.

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You've listed some really malign examples of this problem, or, at least,

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in terms of countries and nations.

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Where do you personally see the worst examples of malign influence and

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disinformation taking place in the world?

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So there are a couple answers.

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One, frankly, is the malign forms of disinformation that Russia and China

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tell their own citizens, which gives them a totally warped perspective about

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the United States, about the quality of democracy in the world, about

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how we work with friends and allies to maintain peace and prosperity.

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So the Chinese citizenry, in particular, but also Russian citizens in some ways,

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are captured by these fake narratives that come from their autocratic

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governments that really heighten tensions and increase the risk of great

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power conflict between our countries.

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But we've also seen Russia, for instance, attack our own electoral integrity,

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attack electoral integrity and political processes in countries in Europe and

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beyond, including in Latin America.

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We've seen China run all sorts of, again, malign campaigns designed to

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distort truth and reality, including in places that many people listening

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might not see as highly strategic.

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Places and countries in Africa, for instance, where the Chinese run very

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sophisticated campaigns to squash any media conversation or political

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conversation in public about Taiwan, about Xinjiang, about human rights

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abuses in Hong Kong, and beyond.

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And so, many American friends and allies and citizens in the world don't have

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a full picture of the nature of these authoritarian states that understand

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that the way to protect their own autocracies is essentially to neuter

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the international conversation about their human rights abuses through

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forms of information operation.

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It's really quite deep.

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One of the things that I think those of us who follow China in particular

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so closely recognize is that sometimes China doesn't look to be nefarious.

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Sometimes they look to be a very honest broker in some of these situations.

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And I'm wondering, could you give us an example of some of the

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campaigns that you've seen that have been particularly damaging?

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Yeah.

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We've seen, for instance, in our own hemisphere, in a really important country

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like Panama, we've seen China run an influence operation with boatloads of

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misinformation as part of it to lead Panama to break relations with Taiwan

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and create diplomatic ties with Beijing.

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The Chinese came in in a very heavy way to influence Panamanian media outlets

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in directions friendly to Beijing.

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They also ran, essentially, a covert operation with what was called a China

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Panama Friendship Committee that was advising the Panamanian government.

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Members of this friendship committee included Chinese Panamanians.

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But in fact, some of them were working directly as part of a united

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front operation controlled from Beijing, controlled from China.

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So Panamanian citizens and the Panamanian government thought they were having

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a conversation with other Panamanian citizens about what was the best

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course to take in relations with China.

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And in fact, the Chinese were running a giant influence operation in

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Panama that undermined Panamanian sovereignty and caused them to make

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a decision that, frankly, was not in the best interest of Panama.

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But was in the best interest of Beijing.

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I'd also just like to point to a Russian example.

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You know in Georgia, the country of Georgia, their democracy has been

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deteriorating, and what you have going on there is a set of, again, sophisticated

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Kremlin information operations of the kind we've also seen in Ukraine, creation

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of "civil society" organizations that are not, that are actually Kremlin

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operated, designed to cast doubt on the credibility of Georgia's democracy,

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seed divisiveness, seed polarization, create culture wars, and other things.

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Russia uses this misinformation toolkit, not just in Georgia, not just in Ukraine,

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but they've used it here in the United States to try to cause our citizens to

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disagree and divide amongst ourselves.

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Because guess what?

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If you're Vladimir Putin, you're running an autocracy.

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You're a declining power with a lot of nuclear weapons and a lot of oil and gas.

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It really helps if you can set the United States and NATO allies against each other

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internally, and cause societal divisions in the west and political polarization.

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That takes our eye off the ball of Russian aggression and abuses

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throughout the former Soviet Union.

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So it is something to be more aware of, and in terms of what can we do,

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cause I know you want to talk about that, we really do need a lot more

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citizen education, civic education.

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We need private citizens in all of these countries to be able to identify

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true and objective news and fact, an informed opinion from within their

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country, from what is very different, which is foreign misinformation that

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is weaponized against our own country.

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Nobody in the world wants their government to be in hock to a foreign government

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with a totally different agenda.

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Everybody in the world cares very much about their country's sovereignty and

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their security, and does not want the kind of information penetration from

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abroad that weakens and undermines and corrodes governance in that

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country, again, in favor of the interest of some malign foreign actor.

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You've been talking about this for many years.

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This is not a 2021 new pandemic issue.

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Malign influence and disinformation has been around for bit.

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In your opinion, is it getting better?

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Is it getting worse?

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What are we seeing?

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So I think we're at, I hope, an inflection point.

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There has been this Wild West period in social media, in particular,

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where people have lived in these information bubbles and algorithms

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have enabled them not only to suffer from misinformation and disinformation,

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but to live in a world of it based on their social media preferences.

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I do think, fundamentally, that we need, as democracies, for our citizens

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to be more engaged in being able to sort out fact from fiction, to cast a

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skeptical eye on alarmist assertions that may not be rooted in fact, to

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understand that we are not fighting wars against countries like Russia and China.

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But in fact, they are undertaking aggression against us in the form of

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seeding these information operations that are designed to weaken us.

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And if we can cast this partly as a question of civic duty and civic

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patriotism, to be able to snuff out misinformation, but also cast it

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as a national security matter that we don't want our political choices

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and our political conversation in any of our countries to be

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manipulated by malign foreign actors.

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That's really important to sustaining democratic health and integrity.

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This is such an enormous issue, particularly when we

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really start to look at it.

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What is your recommendation for individual citizens?

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People who maybe aren't involved in the democracy, governance,

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and human rights issues?

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So I'd say a couple things.

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One is to try not to consume news or get information just from one source,

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try to take it in from a variety of sources, whether you're a TV person

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or a social media person, or a print media person, you know, range widely.

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If you hear something alarming about something happening in your own country,

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political nefariousness, or somebody selling out, or whatever it may be,

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do a little bit of fact checking.

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Just don't necessarily buy the line that you see in your social media

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feed, but step back and try to be objective and try to be analytic.

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I think all of us, a lot of the social media algorithms and the newsfeeds are

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designed to cause a spike in our own adrenaline and make us angry and outraged.

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And I think trying to be a little less angry and outraged and a little more

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thoughtful and analytic to understand that public servants in our country

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and other democracies are usually good citizens trying to do the right thing.

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That what we may be seeing or hearing in terms of this or that scurrilous

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news report that's getting us so energized, may not in fact be true.

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In fact, it may be coming from a foreign power trying to manipulate us.

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So just to understand that protecting our own democratic integrity today

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requires citizens to be informed and to make smart choices, including about

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how they take in news and information.

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But it's certainly worth the time, I think.

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No, that's right, but if we want to protect our own democracy and our own

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security, we need to be alert to the fact that we are subject to these campaigns.

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Even if we can't quite see them or trace their fingerprints.

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I was reading through some of your testimony before the House foreign

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affairs committee a couple of years ago, and in 2018 you said, "I think

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it can be tempting to take refuge in a belief that democracy promotion

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somehow is a luxury we can't afford."

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Do you still feel that way?

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You know, more people are struggling for democratic rights and freedoms

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around the world than really ever since the fall of The Berlin Wall in 1989.

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We see people stepping out all over the place.

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We also see repressive governments cracking down in, frankly, new and

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sophisticated and dangerous ways.

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So I'd say we have more at stake than ever.

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I agree with the President of the United States when he says that we're in a global

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struggle between democracy and autocracy.

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By the way, President Ronald Reagan, who founded several of the institutes

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who formed the CEPPS Consortium, President Reagan said the same thing.

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So I think it's essential for us as Americans to understand that the health

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and sanctity of our democracy and our free and open way of life are tied to

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the fate of democracy in the world, and that we have a great stake in a free

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and open world that remains friendly to us, to our interests, to our values.

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That's why the Russians and the Chinese and the Iranians and other malign actors

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are trying to chip away at that free and open world, weaken us, diminish

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us, cause us to doubt ourselves.

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We should realize that we have something in common with almost every human being

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out in the world, including literally billions of people in Russia and China

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and Iran and elsewhere, which is this craving to be free, to live a life

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of dignity and individual autonomy.

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So, yes, we have to stand with democrats - small D democrats - all over the world,

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and continue to help push forward the boundaries of freedom so that we can

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all live in safety and prosperity.

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And there's nobody who can say that better than that.

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So thank you.

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Thank you so much for joining us today.

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This has been really fantastic.

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Thanks, Adrienne.

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It's great to be with you.

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And we just so appreciate the terrific CEPPS team and

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the work that everybody does.

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So thank you.

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In Ecuador, the explosive growth of digital and social media has only fueled

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the fiery problems of disinformation.

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In 2013, former Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa passed a gag law to

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silence critics in the mainstream media.

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But that only gave rise to dozens of troll centers.

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To help Ecuadorians find fact-based reliable reporting in the lead up to

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this year's elections, CEPPS partners worked with the government, the electoral

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body, civil society, and candidate stakeholders to develop programs

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with funding from USAID to counter disinformation and cyber attacks.

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The full story is online with Miguel Hernandez at www.cepps.org/podcast.

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This podcast has been produced by the Consortium for Elections and Political

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Process Strengthening through the Global Elections and Political Transitions

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Award, and is made possible by the generous support of the American

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people through the United States Agency for International Development.

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Opinions expressed here are those of the hosts and the guests,

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and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the U.S.

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Government, and is produced by Evo Terra and Simpler Media.

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For more information on Democracy!

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The Podcast, and to access the complete archives, please

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