At a Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Thursday, ranking member U.S. Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) pressed a state department official to explicate the Russian government’s role in spreading misinformation about the coronavirus and asked for her assistance in resisting what he characterized as the Trump Administration’s complicity in facilitating a culture of untruth.
Booker’s questioning came on the heels of a Saturday Washington Post report about nearly two million tweets over a three-week period pushing coronavirus-related conspiracies abroad. According to The Post, “Some of the activity showed signs of being part of a coordinated, inauthentic campaign, but the federal report offered scant additional details about who was behind such efforts.”
Lea Gabrielle, who heads the Global Engagement Center, an arm of the state department, said the Kremlin “seeks to weaken its adversaries by manipulating the information environment in nefarious ways, by polarizing political conversations, and attempting to destroy the public’s faith in good governance, independent media and democratic principles,” she said in her testimony.
Part of that effort includes the dissemination of misinformation about the coronavirus.
Gabrielle told Booker and his colleagues that Americans need to go to trusted sources, like the World Health Organization, for information about the outbreak, with a presumptive case surfacing last night in Bergen County. But the New Jersey Senator spoke of his frustration over hearing members of the Trump Administration refusing to speak of the Russian misinformation threat – including its impact on U.S. elections – as legitimate.
“The Democrats are politicizing the coronavirus. They’re politicizing it,” President Donald J. Trump said last week. “They don’t have any clue. They can’t even count their votes in Iowa. No, they can’t. They can’t count their votes. One of my people came up to me and said, ‘Mr. President, they tried to beat you on Russia, Russia, Russia.’ That did not work out too well. They could not do it. They tried the impeachment hoax.”
Speaking this morning to Gabrielle, Booker said, “We still have people in positions of authority denying the Russians are doing this kind of activity. Government officials are denying the strength and sophistication of the ecosystems you speak of. Doesn’t that make us more vulnerable and muck up the waters?”
“I have received full support from this administration,” said Gabrielle, who spoke specifically about the budget she needs to do her job, which she said she hopes the senators will approve.
“It is problematic if [people in] positions of authority are undercutting the very point you’ve made,” said the senator, about Russia’s misinformation campaign.
Gabrielle then put a finer point on it. “The Kremlin’s goal is to divide us,” she said. “The more we can work together to counter propaganda, the better we will be.”
“Hallelujah,” said the New Jersey senator. “It’s very frustrating to me. Folks who should be working in tandem are undermining simple truth.”