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One tiny corner of the U.S. government pushes back against Russian disinformation

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Not the White House, the State Department or the CIA. The recordings were published by a U.S.-government-funded website called Polygraph.info, whose reporter says she got them from a source close to the Kremlin.

Polygraph is a relatively new fact-checking arm of an obscure, diminutive media effort by the U.S. to highlight Russian misdeeds and counter Russian propaganda.

It’s an anomaly in the Trump administration — perhaps the only part of the U.S. government whose job is to regularly punch back against what experts say is a stream of Russian disinformation aimed at America and the West.

“At the end of the day, the Russians are engaging in information warfare — they’re telling lies,” said John Lansing, a former television executive who oversees the effort. “And we’re confronting them toe-to-toe with fact-based, truthful, professional journalism.”

 Outside the headquarters of the Broadcasting Board of Governors in Washington and its five broadcasting services, including the Voice of America. NBC News

Russia’s proficiency at information war has been on display in the wake of the U.S.-led military strike Friday night in Syria. Russia called the strikes illegal and said the chemical weapons attacks that prompted them were staged. To get that message out, there was a 2000 percent spike in activity in the hours since the strike by fake Russian propaganda accounts on social media, a Pentagon spokeswoman said Saturday. A website that tracks a slice of those accounts, Hamilton 68, found that they were pumping out the Russian government narrative in English.

They’re “eating our lunch”

The U.S. is ill-equipped to respond. Polygraph, part of the tiny corner of the government that’s trying, has a staff of five that doesn’t usually work on the weekends.

“We focus mostly on Russia right now because there is a large flow of disinformation that’s coming from Russia,” said Jim Fry, a former Dallas television reporter who runs Polygraph from Washington.

 Irina Van Dusen is chief of the Russian Service of the Voice of America, which runs the Russian-language television news program “Current Time America.” NBC News

Polygraph is a joint venture of the Voice of America and Radio Liberty, which are funded by — but independent of — the U.S. government. They fall under the umbrella of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, whose mission is to promote freedom and democracy and “tell America’s story” around the world. But they are walled off, editorially, from the administration in power.

“The law protects us from interference by U.S. government officials,” said Tom Kent, who spent 44 years at The Associated Press before becoming president of Radio Liberty and Radio Free Europe. “They can’t tell us what to broadcast.”

During the Cold War, the VOA and Radio Liberty sought to counter communist propaganda and funnel information to the news-starved citizenry behind the Iron Curtain.

Those muscles — and budgets — have long since atrophied. But in recent years, there have been growing calls for a new twist on that old mission.

When Lansing became CEO of the Broadcasting Board of Governors in 2015, he said he was confronted on Capitol Hill and throughout the government with a single question:

“Why are the Russians eating our lunch in terms of information warfare?”

People were talking mainly about RT, the former Russia Today, which spends hundreds of millions of dollars a year on an English language broadcast and web platform that regularly skewers American and the West. The U.S. government has labeled RT a propaganda operation.

The State Department came under criticism earlier this year when news reports highlighted its failure to spend $120 million that had been allocated to push back on Russian propaganda abroad.

Lost in that conversation was the fact that one month into the Trump Administration, Lansing and his team launched Current Time America, a 24-hour Russian-language broadcasting and web platform. The budget was $20 million — around one-tenth the size of RT’s budget, Lansing says. But one year later, Current Time America is available on TV screens in 30 countries, and officials counted 400 million view views on social media last year.

Still, U.S. information efforts are minuscule compared to the Russian campaign. While Current Time America is available in Russia, the Russian government makes it difficult to find — keeping it off cable systems and requiring special tuning for satellite reception.

The broadcasting board’s total budget this year is about $660 million dollars, about a third of what was spent in 1991, adjusted for inflation.

“I think we should be investing more,” Lansing said.

“There are facts”

The Russian government labels the entire U.S.-funded journalism operation “propaganda” that is “part of a broader, wide-reaching American system of pressure on our country.”

Irina van Dusen, who heads the effort as chief of Voice of America’s Russian-language programming, knows what propaganda looks like. She grew up in the Soviet Union, listening to the VOA on an illegal short wave radio for scraps of accurate reporting.

She got her journalism degree in Moscow, but decided that if she wanted to practice real journalism, she would have to move to the West.

During the Cold War, she says, the VOA was trying to break through jamming and censorship. Now there has been a proliferation of Russian TV and web channels that put out a cacophony of news, nearly all of it favorable to Vladimir Putin. The task in 2018 is trying to break through a fog of disinformation.

The prevailing view in Russia, she said, is that “There is no truth. There is only different versions, different narratives. … We stand by the fact that there is truth. And there are facts.”

 Jim Fry, managing editor of the fact-checking website Polygraph.info, says its target audience is English-speaking audiences in all of the countries bordering Russia. NBC News

From a TV studio near not far from where special counsel Robert Mueller comes to work each day, Current Time America covers Washington, offering live broadcasts of Congressional hearings with simultaneous translations.

“People can listen, see how it’s done, how policies are made, what questions asked, what facts are being brought up,” she said.

The channel also covers Russia, to “provide Russian speaking audiences with a true portrait of the society, you know? As opposed to state-run Russian television that — interprets everything that is done in the world … as some kind of a United States manipulation and United States meddling in world affairs.”

Polygraph.info, and its Russian-language counterpart, Factograph, try to be slightly edgier than a traditional news operation.

“What our reporters do every day is they begin the day looking at Russian media,” said Fry. “Looking at what’s coming out of Russia. And then we decide whether there’s something to fact check. Usually, almost every day, there’s more to fact check than we could possibly do with our staff.”

The site is modeled after other media fact check efforts, including Politifact and factcheck.org. It highlights a claim, say, by Putin or another Russian official, and brands it for veracity, with labels like “Partially True, “False” or “Misleading.”

In March, the site fact-checked a Putin documentary that alleged the Russian leader had always believed that the Ukrainian territory of Crimea was part of Russia. It highlighted remarks by Putin in 2008 in which he said something very different: “Crimea is absolutely not a disputed territory.” Six years later, Putin seized Crimea from Ukraine, to international condemnation.

Polygraph also challenged Russia’s denial that the nerve agent used to poison a former spy in the U.K. was made only in Russia, and its assertion that no chemical attack took place in Syria.

Polygraph reporters are not afraid to endorse criticism of the U.S. when it’s accurate. When Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov criticized a list of Russian oligarchs that the Treasury Department admitted it cribbed from Forbes magazine, Polygraph labeled his comments, “Partially True.”

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Scots 'alarmed' at SNP plans for 'wild card referendum', says former Scotland Secretary

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NICOLA STURGEON’s plans to hold a second independence referendum will “alarm” Scots if she does not have the legal framework.

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'EU should learn from UK': German election favourite Scholz wanted to emulate UK strategy

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THE EU should learn from the UK’s migration strategy, German election frontrunner Olaf Scholz warned five years ago, suggesting that the fractured approaches of the trading bloc’s member states were not working.

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The GOP’s election review in Arizona is over. Its influence is just beginning, experts say.

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Arizona Republicans on Friday championed the results of their extraordinary partisan election review — which again affirmed President Joe Biden’s victory in Maricopa County — and called for similar examinations around the country.

“We need to do bigger audits on every election, just to make sure that everybody’s following the rules,” said Senate President Karen Fann, a Republican, boasting about how many lawmakers from other states had visited the site of the ballot review.

Fann and state Sen. Warren Petersen, also a Republican, listened to hours of testimony from third-party contractors including Doug Logan, CEO of the lead contractor, Cyber Ninjas, as they cast doubt and suggested their work had turned up evidence of improprieties including illegal votes and deleted election files.

But experts and critics say the supposed findings confirm what they already knew: that the hired contractors were inexperienced and failed to use industry best practices, while misunderstanding and misconstruing the basics of election administration and Arizona election code. And with the proliferation of Arizona-inspired efforts spreading around the country, experts say there’s real damage being done to trust in elections.

“They’re doubling down on some of the things that have already been refuted. And just continuing to give oxygen to things that are untrue,” said Tammy Patrick, a former Maricopa County elections official who is now a senior adviser at Democracy Fund, a nonpartisan foundation that aims to improve American elections.

“They’re simply taking routine election administration processes and attempting to cast what they don’t understand as suspicious,” said Liz Howard, senior counsel of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.

Contractors with Cyber Ninjas examine and recount ballots cast in the 2020 general election in Maricopa County, in Phoenix, on May 6, 2021.Matt York / Pool via AP file

Howard was appointed by Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, a Democrat, to monitor the review and spent weeks in Phoenix observing the Cyber Ninjas do their work.

“It’s unreasonable to assume that this isn’t unintentional,” she added.

Both Howard and Patrick said the auditors’ findings — which were circulated in a draft on Thursday night, before being presented in a livestreamed event on Friday — made it clear they didn’t understand basic election administration.

For example, contractors reported that there were possibly thousands of out-of-state and out-of-county voters, as well as hundreds of dead voters who cast ballots in November, numbers they calculated by comparing voter rolls with commercial data lists.

Patrick said that such data was poorly vetted, and that political groups who had used commercial mailing lists had at times ended up sending mailers out to people’s pets, because someone, for example, had once signed their cat up for a subscription to Cat Fancy magazine.

Howard agreed that commercial data was unreliable for this purpose and added that there are also valid reasons a voter would be associated with another address but still be an eligible voter in Maricopa County, like students.

Contractors also alleged that election files had been deleted, something Maricopa County tweeted they “strongly” deny, noting they have additional records but that the state Senate had never requested them.

Experts and critics say the impacts of the review, however, are just beginning.

Arizona Republican state Sen. Paul Boyer, who initially backed the review but pulled his support in February over concerns for how it was progressing, said he believes it will make legislating on elections harder.

“I think now you’re going to see a hundred or two hundred election bills next year and no one is going to listen to the experts,” he told NBC News on Friday.

He added that he has spoken to voters who have either left the Republican Party or stopped voting altogether because they don’t have faith in the election.

Around the country, too, experts see the propagation of Arizona-style ballot reviews. Texas launched a “forensic audit” of four counties on Thursday night, just hours after former President Donald Trump called for it. Similar reviews are underway in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.

Speaking of those legislators from other states who visited the review, Patrick said: “They’re using it as justification and reasoning to promote this sort of activity in states across this country.”

Asked how he’d advise lawmakers beginning a ballot review in their states now, Boyer said he’d urge them to have bipartisan, expert-informed reviews.

“Trust the professionals. They’ve been doing it for decades. They know what they’re doing. Make sure that anybody you hire doesn’t already have their mind made up. We can’t actually call this an audit. This is a partisan investigation,” he said of the Arizona review. “Ironically, it’s going to sow even more distrust when the claim, if you can believe it, is they’re trying to create more confidence.”



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