By M. Scott Bortot and John D. Matchison
“There is truth and there are lies. Lies told for power and for profit. And each of us has a duty and responsibility, as citizens, as Americans, and especially as leaders—leaders who have pledged to honor our Constitution and protect our nation—to defend the truth and to defeat the lies,” said President Joe Biden in his inauguration speech.
Disinformation is false information deliberately created and spread with the intent to deceive or mislead. In the hands of malign actors, disinformation is an inexpensive, often deniable, weapon used to advance political, diplomatic, social, and military objectives. Left unchallenged, it can undermine popular confidence in the institutions of government, exacerbate public health crises, and fracture societies along political, religious, or racial fissures. The Global Engagement Center’s (GEC) mission is to take that challenge head-on.
GEC reports to the under secretary for public diplomacy and public affairs, and is responsible for the interagency coordination and integration of U.S. government counter-disinformation efforts worldwide. The GEC team leverages a broad range of tools including analysis, campaign planning, regional expertise, and cutting-edge technological solutions such as counter-disinformation gaming, content authentication, and synthetic content detection in support of that mission.
“The GEC is a proud member of the public diplomacy family,” said Leah Bray, acting-coordinator of the GEC. “Our team of experts work with the White House, foreign partners, academia, the private sector, and our colleagues throughout the Department [of State] and overseas to create a whole of society approach to countering disinformation. Our collective efforts are geared to maintaining the integrity of the information space. We work with our partners to drive innovative analytic capabilities and information sharing.”
In the private sector sphere, GEC works closely with technology and social media companies to track disinformation trends and promote fact-based content, information integrity, and digital literacy. Additionally, GEC partners with industry leaders on “testbed” initiatives to subject new counter-disinformation tools to rigorous testing and simulation.
For example, in 2020, GEC supported the development of “Harmony Square,” an online game designed to equip players with cognitive defenses against disinformation techniques. Early assessments of the game were promising. The “Harvard Kennedy School Misinformation Review” reported that after playing, users were more confident in their ability to spot disinformation and less likely to share it with their social networks.
Beyond the technology sector, GEC publishes reports examining how malign actors create and deploy propaganda and disinformation. GEC’s August 2020 special report, “Pillars of Russia’s Disinformation and Propaganda Ecosystem,” set a benchmark for publicly exposing how the Kremlin leverages disinformation tactics to deceive audiences worldwide. GEC also was instrumental in the exposure of Russia’s disinformation activities accompanying its invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. The reports are publicly available on the Disarming Disinformation website and distributed directly to GEC’s network of foreign diplomats, think tanks, and journalists.
GEC’s work is not limited to Russia, however. In May 2022, GEC released a bulletin exposing Beijing’s amplification of disinformation narratives employed by Moscow to rationalize Russia’s unjust and unprovoked war against Ukraine. This report marked one of the first public exposures of the mutually reinforcing feedback loop running between Russia’s global messaging about the war, and the favorable presentation of the same false narratives by Chinese Communist Party and People’s Republic of China media.
GEC also remains engaged on the counterterrorism front. It recently helped lead an international communication campaign designed to discredit Al-Qa’ida and ISIS and degrade the groups’ ability to recruit members, supporters, and sympathizers. In coordination with interagency and international partners, GEC publicly disclosed materials detailing former ISIS leader Amir Said Abdal-Rahman al-Mawla’s role in disclosing intelligence while in Coalition Forces’ custody in Iraq that led to the hunting down of top terrorist leaders. The campaign significantly affected al-Mawla’s global reputation. According to Google Analytics, prior to the disclosures, al-Mawla was most often referred to online as “the Destroyer.” Following the campaign, al-Mawla’s was most commonly referred to as “The Betrayer” and “the Canary Caliph.”
The work of GEC is challenging. Officials expect online disinformation and propaganda to become more pervasive with time and the purveyors of disinformation have a head start. Nonetheless, the work itself is what draws many talented people to their team, as GEC’s mandate is action oriented. That translates to doing something about the problem, rather than marveling over its complexity. In the words of GEC staff member Richard Bruner, “the appeal of the GEC is in knowing that my work matters, and that it’s making a difference.” So long as U.S. national security interests are jeopardized by lies and deceptions from abroad, GEC will stand ready to help turn the tide in favor of the truth.
M. Scott Bortot is a public affairs officer at the Global Engagement Center. John D. Matchison is a senior advisor at the Global Engagement Center.