The NATO Washington Summit and Disinformation

July 02, 2024
This article is part of a series of short texts on issues that challenge the alliance as it celebrates its 75th anniversary.

Citizens of NATO member states face an increasing onslaught of manipulated information, a challenge made more complex—and more widespread—by the ease of access to generative artificial intelligence (AI) tools. The alliance’s adversaries, particularly the Kremlin, have long been exploiting open, transparent information environments to foment greater instability in democratic institutions and societies. Russia, especially, seeks to undermine public support in NATO nations for helping Ukraine defend itself while amplifying views of European allies as freeloaders exploiting US largesse and tarnishing the democratic values that ostensibly unite countries in the world’s preeminent political-military alliance.

Russia’s attempts to spread state propaganda, misinformation, and disinformation encompass an array of overt channels, proxy accounts, and covert operations. The Alliance for Securing Democracy at GMF (ASD at GMF) studies the myriad pathways by which Russian state media reaches audiences in NATO states. ASD at GMF’s most recent online research tool, the Information Laundromat, shows that even efforts by transatlantic governments and technology platforms to sanction, ban, deplatform, and downrank Russian state-sponsored propaganda fall short of shutting off the firehose of information manipulation.

Data from the Laundromat reveals that accounts on YouTube and Reddit facilitate the spread of content from RT, the Kremlin's primary mouthpiece target foreign audiences, even though the platforms have banned and blocked the outlet. These accounts provide links to mirror or content re-poster sites, or use automated text-to-speech tools that create audio versions of RT articles. Search engines that list the links among top results, and platforms that fail to label proxy accounts that spread Russian state media as official state media sources, exacerbate the problem. Indeed, the obfuscation of the provenance of RT “news content” means that citizens in NATO nations often have no idea which articles they read are, in fact, Kremlin propaganda. 

It is not enough for NATO bodies simply to counter Russian information manipulation. As a political-military organization underpinned by shared democratic values, the alliance needs to contribute to strengthening democratic resilience in member-state societies. At the Washington summit, a NATO agreement on establishing a Center for Democratic Resilience would be welcome. Such an agency should establish deep, meaningful links with the many civil society organizations that work across the transatlantic community and provide citizens with data, analysis, and educational tools that can improve whole-of-society defenses against threats from information manipulation.