U.S. Department of State
Special Briefing via Telephone
Ambassador Philip T. Reeker
Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs
State Department U.S. Special Envoy and Coordinator of the Global Engagement Center
May 6, 2020
Moderator: Greetings to everyone from the U.S. Department of State. I’d like to welcome all participants joining this discussion on combating disinformation in Europe and what comes next in the fight against misinformation about COVID-19.
Joining us today for this hub call are Ambassador Philip T. Reeker from the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, and Lea Gabrielle, U.S. Special Envoy and Coordinator of the Global Engagement Center. We thank you, Ambassador Reeker and Special Envoy Gabrielle, for taking the time to speak with us today.
We will begin today’s call with opening remarks from our two guest experts. As a reminder, today’s call is on the record. With that, I’ll turn it over to Ambassador Reeker and then Special Envoy Gabrielle for their opening statements. Please go ahead.
Ambassador Reeker: Well, thanks very much, Justin, and it’s great to be with folks today and to be joined by my colleague, Lea Gabrielle, and I’m really pleased I could connect with Europe particularly this week, at least virtually. We had a lot of plans to register and commemorate VE Day, which is almost 75 years almost to the day, when we together defeated fascism in Europe at the end of World War II. Of course, a lot of those things have had to be rescheduled or done in a different way, but now we face a different kind of enemy – of course, this virus. And in fact, the depths of our transatlantic partnership, what we’ve built on over these 75 years has helped us find ways not only to repatriate citizens on both sides of the Atlantic, but to share information about the virus and resources to facilitate the immediate crisis response and look at other complex issues.
I think it’s important to know that despite the pandemic, we continue to move forward on transatlantic relations, on our broad agenda, things like North Macedonia joining NATO as the 30th member. We’ve recently nominated an ambassador to Belarus for the first time in years. The European Union has invited more countries to open accession negotiations. And so in the big picture, the history we’ve created marches on and we’re looking very carefully about how we coordinate revitalization of our economies, how we restart as we come through this corona crisis.
I mention the history because history is, I think, vitally important. We’ve been looking ahead and there have been efforts, certainly on the part of Vladimir Putin’s Russia, to rewrite some of the history and those narratives, and in some ways it’s an unprecedented challenge because when we see what’s going on with the coronavirus, the lack of transparency also creates space for disinformation and rewriting narratives, and that’s what the topic of today’s briefing is about.
I’ll just mention that the United States continues to be the largest contributor to global health security. For over half a century we’ve built a foundation upon which much of the global health system is based, contributing over $140 billion in health assistance just in the last two decades alone. Since the outbreak of COVID-19, the U.S. Government has committed over $775 million in assistance specifically aimed at fighting the pandemic, including to many countries in need in Europe. Of course, Americans don’t provide aid just through our government, but it’s sort of an all-of-America approach, which is important to keep in mind as we help each other and people around the world, the generosity of private businesses, our nonprofit groups and foundations, charitable organizations, faith-based organizations.
Together, I think the figure now is around $4 billion in donations and assistance from the nongovernmental sector, private citizens and foundations, in addition to what the U.S. Government’s provided. We are also leading the effort to help develop a vaccine to end the pandemic. That, of course, is a global, multinational effort with shared information around the world. And I think we’ve already pledged to contribute several billion dollars to the COVID-19 vaccine and therapeutic development.
Of course, our European partners are doing their part. We have a very robust dialogue from a diplomatic standpoint. At the State Department, our Deputy Secretary of State Steve Biegun leads a group of transatlantic partners, colleagues in reviewing issues in a phone call every week, and then working with their teams to address these issues ranging from the immediate needs and comparing notes on what’s happening with the virus in our countries, but also looking at the economic side, coordinating how we will work together to restart the global economy in a robust way. And one of the main themes in that conversation, which involves counterparts from not only the U.S. and Canada, but France, Germany, Italy, the UK, and we also have the EU and NATO deputies involved – one of the main themes has been the challenge of disinformation in this. And we are dedicated, all of us together, to continue to counter the use of disinformation, and share accurate and timely information about the COVID-19 situation as part of our condition of transparency and in terms of democratic governance and the values of our free societies.
So let me stop there and turn it over to Lea, and then get to your questions. Thanks.
Ms. Gabrielle: Well thank you, Phil, and thank you to all of you for the opportunity to speak with you today. For those who aren’t familiar with the Global Engagement Center, I want to make sure that you understand what our mission is. So the GEC’s mission is to lead and coordinate the efforts of the U.S. Government to recognize, understand, expose, and counter foreign state and non-state propaganda and disinformation that’s aimed at undermining the interests of the U.S. and our allies and our partners. And with the current global health crisis, with COVID, we really see that this underscores the serious threats that are posed by disinformation and propaganda campaigns that are pushed by malign actors.
And as we know from experience both in the U.S. and in Europe, there are nations that turn to disinformation as a weapon, and they don’t hesitate to use it, even at the most sensitive and the most critical times, like right now when we’re all working together to try to meet this common challenge that COVID has presented. So I want to keep my remarks brief and make sure that we have the maximum time possible for questions, but I do want to make three points for you about disinformation and COVID.
So the first is that we believe that both governments and the public really need to be aware of the direct threat that disinformation is presenting to our collective effort to be able to deal with COVID. Russian disinformation networks have tried to advance Moscow’s destabilizing foreign policy goals of creating confusion in our democratic societies, and that’s just the last thing that any of us need right now.
Based on what we’ve seen from the Russian disinformation ecosystem historically, there’s a good chance that they’re going to continue to do this as we see the situation with COVID developing. And just for example, if I could go all the way back to the Soviet Union, but even if we only just talk about the use of disinformation on health issues by the modern Russian Federation, their track record is clear.
You can look at the issues of Ebola to Zika to 5G, and the Russian disinformation ecosystem that the Kremlin has helped to build has consistently exploited fear and confusion, or just exploited the general lack of understanding of an issue to both create and to amplify dangerous narratives. And all of this has been well documented by the U.S. Government, by the fantastic work of some of our partners like the European External Action Service Strategic Communications Unit, and multilateral efforts like the G7 rapid response mechanisms, as well as, it’s been documented by other researchers, and by leading media like yourselves.
The State Department has been working since the early days of COVID to expose Russian tactics and those of other malign actors. My organization, the GEC, is monitoring these disinformation efforts from a variety of actors, and we’re constantly working to share that information with our global partners, including many in Europe, because we want to be able to develop countermeasures together. But I think it’s still hard for us sometimes to anticipate the use of this tactic, because it’s just so contrary to our own values. And that’s why I want to send a clear message to you today that based on their track record, we do expect there’s a high probability that the Russian disinformation ecosystem will act to undermine faith in a COVID vaccine when it becomes available. We’ve seen this in the past, and they’ll likely do this by introducing false information of their own and by amplifying local voices that push conspiracy theories. We see this time and time again.
This is highly irresponsible behavior. It’s a public health threat, and the GEC will continue to expose these tactics and help U.S. allies and partners build resiliency, both now, during the COVID situation, and as we move into the future.
And the second point I want to make is on the PRC. Previously there was really only limited documentation and public discussion of the Chinese Communist Party’s use of bots, trolls, and other Russian-style tactics against audiences outside of China. But as we’ve seen during the COVID crisis, it’s underscored the length that the CCP is willing to go to in an attempt to control global narratives. So we’ve now seen concerted efforts by Beijing to push conflicting theories about COVID-19 that are intended to sow doubt, to deflect blame, and to create the idea that it may not be possible to know the truth. China is also trying to push the narrative that it’s superior to the West in responding to global health crises.
The CCP’s decades-long effort to control information within China is well-documented. But unfortunately, general populations are not aware enough of this. And now censorship and silencing of voices within and into China is matched by efforts to push propaganda and disinformation across a massive global information ecosystem, including on platforms that are blocked within China. And this results in a one-way megaphone from the CCP to the world.
General populations may not realize this when they see CCP officials or CCP narratives on platforms that are used in open societies. These are one-way megaphones from China, and it’s important for general populations to realize this. And it’s critical that like-minded countries and free societies call out Beijing’s use of disinformation and propaganda and its one-way megaphone during this crisis to prevent these behaviors from becoming the norm for Beijing.
I’ll close by saying that one of the outcomes of the increased focus on disinformation in the context of COVID is that there’s been an acceleration of cooperation between democratic countries encountering this threat, and that’s especially true for the United States and our European allies. And as Ambassador Reeker mentioned, this the year of the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II. It’s important to note that we have a long history of coming together in the most challenging circumstances, and this is one of those times. And specifically on fighting disinformation, our cooperation has never been closer.
So our experts on this topic are in touch on a daily basis to be able to share analysis and coordinate on countermeasures. And any actors that seek to undermine the solidarity of democratic societies should really understand that we are resolved and that we will not allow their tactics to undermine us and our joint response to COVID now or in the future. So thanks for the opportunity to be here and answer your questions, and now Phil and I will be happy to take some of those questions. Thank you.