Testimony of Melissa Hooper
Senator Gardner, Co-Chair Smith, Ranking Member Cardin, and Members of the Helsinki Commission, I would like to thank you and Chairman Wicker for giving me the opportunity to testify today regarding the damage caused to democracy and human rights globally by Russian disinformation efforts in the United States and in Europe, the efforts of some European countries to respond, and steps the United States should consider to counter Russia’s weaponization of information.
I want to address these issues from the perspective of someone who has studied Russia’s interference strategies as they operated in Russia during my years living there, and followed their development in Europe, especially after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
In the United States, we are still grappling with the ramifications of the Russian government’s meddling in the 2016 Presidential election. Just last week, Facebook revealed its sale of $100,000 worth of ads promoting divisive social messages to 470 fake, likely-Russian-owned sites. Since the election, Congress and other policy-makers have become increasingly sensitized to the Russian government’s use of various forms of disinformation, including Russian-funded media outlets that publish false or misleading stories, automated bots and trolls that disseminate false information to create the appearance of a “grassroots” movement, the use of faux “experts,” foundations and think tanks that lend a veneer of credibility to fabricated information, and other methods intended to sow confusion and threaten the foundations of democracy – including the concepts of truth and trust.
The use of disinformation is not the Russian government’s sole strategy, but is part of a coordinated effort to disrupt and attack liberal policies, institutions, and norms wherever the opportunity arises, with an overarching goal of fracturing the European Union and the trans-Atlantic alliance. Other strategies include economic influence, in which key figures are offered lucrative deals that implicate them in Russian corruption – such as has occurred in Germany, the UK, and the Czech Republic; electoral disruption, such as funding fringe political parties – as has occurred in Germany and France; and the weakening of multilateral organizations such as the OSCE or UN bodies through obstructionist policies.
At Human Rights First, we have documented the effectiveness of these threats in Eastern Europe, including how Russia has contributed to significant backsliding on democracy and human rights in Poland and Hungary – each a NATO ally. We are seeing Russia make inroads in Central and Eastern Europe through the use of online bots and trolls in Poland, the buying off of politicians and business leaders in Hungary and the Czech Republic, the funding of youth military camps in Hungary and Slovakia, and the dissemination of fabricated stories about migrants and Muslims across Europe, but particularly in Germany.