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WORLD | 20-04-2024 05:24

Top US official James Rubin: 'China is supporting Russia's war in Ukraine and repeating its crazy arguments'

China is supporting “materially, diplomatically, and even repeating Russia’s crazy arguments for this war,” says James Rubin, the United States’ top diplomat in charge of battling disinformation abroad.

Militarily speaking, the information ecosystem is a deeply disputed domain, with major geopolitical players vying globally for any advantage they can get. Latin America is no exception, and given its geographic proximity to the United States, it becomes increasingly more relevant when its strategic enemies are in play. In a world in conflict, with the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine and a growing confrontation between Israel and Iran, not to mention China’s ambitions in the South China Sea and beyond, Washington is on high alert.

In that context, the James Rubin, US State Department Special Envoy and Coordinator of the Global Engagement Center, made his way down to Buenos Aires, Argentina, this week to participate in Perfil’s “disinformation hackathon,” a two-day event focused on the complexities of tackling information manipulation in the digital ecosystem. 

Rubin, who is in charge of Washington’s overseas response to what is commonly (and incorrectly) dubbed “fake news,” noted that a global information war is being waged, particularly in the context of major conflicts, which also includes the war between Israel and Hamas which has roped in much of the Middle East. 

According to Rubin, these actors are already active in Argentina and across the wider region.

 

Can you give me your vision on the state of disinformation operations in Latin America?

I can. We're worried, we're very worried. The war in Ukraine is important to the United States, but it's also important to the world. You have a country the size of Russia invading its neighbour. You have hundreds of thousands of troops with tanks, airplanes, missiles… this is a real major military operation. And the European countries have realised the danger. Russia is now understanding they're not winning any friends in Europe, which has put sanctions on them. Europe is supporting Ukraine the same way the United States is. 

They're turning their attention to Latin America. They believe that they can persuade the people here that somehow their war is justified. This is an extremely ripe subject for disinformation. And what we've discovered is that, in the last several months, Russia is paying groups, one called the Social Design Agency, another called Structura, which are “influence for hire firms,” to find people they can pay money to in order to try to mislead the people of Latin America. 

Latin America, like the United States, is an open media environment. And it's very important to realise that Russia and China are not open media environments. 

We discovered that they have been trying to build a system where they take Russian news arguments to justify the war in Ukraine and to undermine the United States, or Russian arguments to try to get Latin American people to remember history in which the United States perhaps didn't behave so well. They're using all of these narratives, and trying to spread them across Latin America, because they are hoping that where they have failed in Europe, they might succeed in Latin America. 

They're certainly not succeeding in Argentina. I've been extremely impressed at the way the government and the people here understand that this war isn't a close call – Russia invaded its neighbours with hundreds of thousands of troops for no good reason. And they're killing tens of thousands of people shooting missiles into cities and killing innocent people. The people in Argentina certainly have understood this, the government of Argentina has understood it. 

 

What role do you see China playing in the information ecosystem in Latin America?

China is a growing economy. They're obviously a very large country. The problem that we in the United States have with China is that they used to believe in sovereignty and allowing countries to make their own decisions, in not interfering with the internal workings of other countries. 

China should have every right and opportunity to express its point of view. So should Russia for that matter, in most cases. But they shouldn't be able to do it covertly. They shouldn't be able to buy up newspapers so that no other point of view can be expressed except the one that China has. I'll give you a particularly pernicious thing the Chinese do: they find a small country, they offer the newspaper in that country their wire service for free, [and] in exchange they say “you can't use any other wire service.” That means that in that country, that newspaper is presenting to the people a point of view that is crafted in China. Obviously, that's information manipulation. 

China is supporting Russia's war in Ukraine materially, diplomatically, and even repeating Russia’s crazy arguments for this war. Until China adopts a more responsible position about that war, I think people should be wary here in Latin America.

 

“The absence of shared understandings, of a shared set of facts, does tend to push people towards the extremes, whether on the left or on the right.”

 

Another major global conflict currently underway pits Israel against Iran. What’s your take of how the information ecosystem is being shaken up by this conflict?

What happened to the Israelis on October 7 was a horrific event. Their country was invaded by thousands of people, and over 1,000 people were murdered, civilians. There was rape. Horrible things happened. The Israelis have responded to that by trying to destroy the organisation that committed it, Hamas. Unfortunately, in trying to destroy Hamas the Israelis have not, in our view, paid enough attention to the humanitarian consequences. 

Russia, China, and Iran have tried to use that difficult conflict, a conflict where you would like to see Israel doing more on the humanitarian front, and tried to exacerbate differences between people. 

 

There seems to be a rise in certain extreme positions coming from the “far right” across the globe. Is there something in particular about those types of ideologies that makes them particularly proficient at proliferating in today’s information ecosystem?

It's very difficult as a government official for me to get into politics, so let me try to address your question without getting into them. The information ecosystem has broken down into pieces. And broad agreement on a set of facts or a set of widely shared understandings means that you're going to have sharper and sharper divisions on the left, on the right. And even in the middle. 

The absence of shared understandings, of a shared set of facts, does tend to push people towards the extremes, whether on the left or on the right …

To the extent that we can use fact-checking, responsible journalism, involve civil society and take a broad approach that contemplates the whole of society to this disinformation problem, perhaps we can get back to the day when most people agree on most things, where most people agree on the set of facts needed in order to compromise and make a law, an agreement, or a policy. But until we're able to do that better, the fights are going to be louder, and the arguments are going to be more extreme on the left and on the right. 

 

There are multiple forces pulling at the digital information ecosystem including deep polarisation, mega-corporations that are trying to figure out how to control the conversations occurring on their platforms, and a political spectrum divided as to whether intervention violates free speech. In Latin America there are certain governments that use that ecosystem to attack their political enemies. What can be done about it?

We in the [US] State Department have developed a framework that is intended to try to minimise some of the harms that have occurred as a result of the growth of the information revolution. A set of tools to minimise disinformation, minimise information manipulation, to make sure that at a minimum, foreign governments like Russia and China are not allowed to make the situation worse. 

We talked a little bit about how polarised countries can be, well, they should at least be able to be polarised by themselves. We shouldn't allow other countries to exacerbate that, to stir the pot to make it even worse. I think if we can minimise outside agitation, setting up a better system where civil society checks on journalism, which checks on government, while academia checks on everyone, then we can minimise the damage.

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Agustino Fontevecchia

Agustino Fontevecchia

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