The German Marshall Fund says it has documented Russian interference in the elections or political affairs of at least 27 countries since 2004, ranging from disinformation campaigns on Facebook, Twitter and other social media to cyber attacks.
The Helsinki Commission held a hearing Thursday on Capitol Hill focusing on what it called the "scourge" of Russian disinformation conducted both at home and abroad.
“Through its active measures campaign that includes aggressive interference in Western elections, Russia aims to sell fear, discord, and paralysis that undermines democratic institutions and weakens critical Western alliances such as NATO and the EU,” charged Democratic Senator Corey Gardner.
“Russia’s ultimate goal is to replace the Western-led world order of laws and institutions with an authoritarian-led order that recognizes only masters and vassals.”
US election meddling
Other experts agreed during a session in which few if any defenders of Russia were represented, reflecting the increasingly adversarial relationship between the two countries. Molly McKew of the communications consulting firm Fianna Strategies spoke with VOA about reports that Russia targeted U.S. voters on social media during last year's presidential election campaign.
“I think even the Kremlin is surprised at how easy it is to use social media as an amplification tool for the kind of narrative that they do,” she said.
McKew said opinion polls show most Americans do not believe disinformation could work on them. But she says the Russian government uses marketing and basic psychology to influence people to vote for a certain person or to stay at home on election day.
In an era when many get their own personalized news feeds on Facebook or Twitter, she said, people can be targeted individually with what she calls ads, smears or lies.
RT, Sputnik broadcasts
U.S. complaints of Russian disinformation have focused frequently on the broadcasts of the Moscow-backed RT television network and Sputnik news agency, which have denied they are spreading propaganda.
When it was reported this week that the FBI recently questioned a former White House correspondent for Sputnik as part of an investigation into whether it is acting as an undeclared propaganda arm of the Kremlin, the news agency said in a statement:
"We are more than happy to answer any questions the [Department of Justice] or the FBI might have. Sputnik is a news organization dedicated to accurate news reporting. Our journalists have won multiple media awards throughout the world. Any assertion that Sputnik is anything but a credible news outlet is false."
However Broadcasting Board of Governors CEO John Lansing, who also spoke at the forum, agreed with others on the magnitude of the Russian threat and said the United States must counter Russian disinformation, but do so by with objective news and information.
“The United States will not do propaganda,” said Lansing, whose agency oversees U.S.-funded broadcasting around the world. “And in fact we have a firewall protection, a legislative firewall that makes it impossible for the government to interfere with our independent editorial decision-making.”
WATCH: Lansing on countering Russian propaganda
Lansing, who oversees the Voice of America and several other U.S. government-funded broadcasters, said he has seen a "global explosion of propaganda and lies," and that his agency is focused on getting accurate information to Russian speakers around the world.
The forum was shown a promotional video for "Current Time," a Russian-language news network jointly operated by VOA and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, which Lansing said, "helps viewers tell fact from fiction."
"The Russian strategy seeks to destroy the very idea of an objective, verifiable set of facts," Lansing said. "The BBG is adapting to meet this challenge head on by offering audiences and alternatives to Russian disinformation in the form of objective, independent and professional news and information."
Germany, France elections
Melissa Hopper of Human Rights First said Germany appears set to fend off attempts by Russia to interfere in its elections later this month. She said Berlin acted early, after the U.S. election last November, to establish a government-wide task force to counteract Russian manipulation of social media.
Hopper also said France was successful in thwarting Russian interference during its elections in April and May, with the French media agreeing not to cover information that came from cyber attacks.
But she warned that Russia has quite an “arsenal” at its disposal, including a worldwide media program with an annual budget of more than $300 million. She said Russian online media “weaponizes” false media narratives, especially about minority populations such as immigrants or LGBT communities, which can lead to physical threats in the real world.