Telephonic Press Briefing with Ambassador Michael Kozak & U.S. Special Envoy Lea Gabrielle

Moderator:  Greetings to everyone from the U.S. Department of State’s Media Hub of the Americas in Miami, Florida.  I would like to welcome our participants who have dialed in from the United States and across the region.  This is an on-the-record briefing with Ambassador Michael Kozak, Acting Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, and Lea Gabrielle, U.S. Special Envoy and Coordinator of the Global Engagement Center.  The speakers will discuss the threat from disinformation and propaganda in Latin America. 

We are pleased to offer simultaneous interpretation in Spanish and Portuguese for this briefing.  I request everyone to keep that in mind and speak slowly.  

I will now turn it over to Ambassador Kozak for his opening remarks. 

Ambassador Kozak:  Well, thank you.  Good afternoon and thanks to all of the journalists for joining us today.  I’m certainly happy to be here and to be joined by my colleague, Lea Gabrielle, the special envoy for the Global Engagement Center.  We will talk with you about the shared challenge of overcoming disinformation from malign actors in the Western Hemisphere, particularly in the face of the global pandemic.  

Now, Russia is an old hand at malign action in our region.  They make significant efforts to create chaos in the region at a time when countries are most vulnerable.  This is because they believe that instability in the Western Hemisphere is bad for the United States, and that anything that’s bad for us is good for them.

China’s motives are slightly different.  China seeks to deflect from its own failings on COVID and the growing unpopularity of its predatory economic practices in the region by attacking the United States.  And despite these concerted efforts, however, the United States continues to be the partner of choice in the region.  We share the common values of our friends and neighbors, and we continue to demonstrate global leadership in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic and to help people all over the world.

As the largest trading partner in the Western Hemisphere, we promote sound, transparent policies that protect the rule of law and provide an attractive business environment for entrepreneurs.  We recognize that China is and will remain an important trading partner for countries in the region, including our own.  But we urge countries in the region to engage China on their own 21st-century terms of transparency, and not on the opaque and corrupt 19th-century terms dictated by the Chinese Communist Party.

The Western Hemisphere is what Secretary Pompeo calls “the hemisphere of freedom.”  We’re a family of likeminded countries and we will get through this together.  Times like these show the importance of our unity.  As Americans, we are proud that our public and private sectors have already marshalled resources to help the fight against COVID-19.  Since the outbreak began, the U.S. Government has committed $900 million in assistance.  American businesses, nongovernmental organizations, faith-based organizations, and individuals have given at least $6.5 billion in donations and assistance.  And in this hemisphere, the U.S. Government has devoted a total of more than $64 million to more than 30 countries, specifically to help them fight the coronavirus.

Authoritarian governments expose their weaknesses in times of crisis.  During the current global health pandemic, we’ve seen Russia, China, Iran, Cuba, the former Maduro regime, and other malign actors play a role in the creation, dissemination, and amplification of disinformation and propaganda around the region with the purpose of undermining the efforts of the competent authorities in the region to address the crisis appropriately.  It is a very cynical way to advance the perceived interests of these malign actors.  

The relations we have with the governments and the people of the Western Hemisphere are important to this administration.  We will continue to stand with our friends as we confront the challenge of COVID-19.  We will continue to push back on disinformation and malign influence in Latin America.

And with that, I’m happy to hand it over to my colleague, Lea Gabrielle, who will explain in detail and quantify those threats and activities of disinformation.  Special Envoy Gabrielle.

Special Envoy Gabrielle:  Well, thank you so much and it’s wonderful to be here with you, Ambassador Kozak, and with all of you.  Thanks for the opportunity to speak with you.  

For those who aren’t familiar with the Global Engagement Center, I just want to make sure that you first understand what it is that we do.  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. or that’s aimed at undermining the interests of our allies and our partners.

And as we know from experience in the U.S., 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 what we’re dealing with right now as we’re all trying to work together to try and meet the common challenge that COVID has presented.

So the problem is a complex one, especially looking at Latin America, where it involves a combination of multiple actors using a wide array of methods to push influence and to try to shift opinions across the region.  Russia, China, and Iran – they’ve all used platforms that are aimed at Latin America as, of course, do the former Maduro regime and the Government of Cuba.  

So let me make three points before we turn to questions.  First, Russia in particular has a large information infrastructure of state-funded outlets and other tools that it aims directly at Latin American audiences.  So an example of that is RT en Español produces far more content than other international broadcasters, like the BBC or CNN.  RT en Español has proven adept at leveraging social media platforms to draw in those younger viewers using what’s called clickbait videos and sensational stories.  So its website has over 40 million visits, its YouTube channel has more than 2 billion views, and its video sites, like RT en Vivo, have over 51 million views.

The GEC has also tracked social media personas linked to Russia promoting protests in the region that were already ongoing and then spreading false information about how some governments in the region have responded to the challenge of COVID-19.  So the [inaudible] that we face is that we know Russia will not hesitate to use these tactics to undermine local governments at a time when we all need to be working closely together.  And taking advantage of a major health challenge is simply a well-known Russian tactic.  I mean, in the case of coronavirus, we’ve seen Russian state-funded outlets push out wild conspiracy theories since the very beginning of this crisis, and we’ve seen false personas linked to Russia amplify these claims.

So that’s why today I want to be clear with all of you that we believe this activity constitutes a threat to public health and we do expect this activity to continue even as the world moves towards developing treatments and, eventually, a vaccine for COVID-19.  This is something that audiences in Latin America really need to be aware of.

And second, turning to China, we’ve seen that, unfortunately, Beijing is increasingly adopting these Russian-style disinformation tactics.  So previously, there was only limited information in public discussion of the Chinese Communist Party’s use of bots and trolls and other Russian-style tactics against audiences outside of China.  But the COVID crisis has underscored the length the CCP is willing to go to in an attempt to try to control the global narrative.

So we’ve now seen concerted efforts by Beijing to push conflicting theories about COVID-19 and these are intended to sow doubt, to deflect blame, and to try to create the idea that while it may not be possible to know the truth, China is attempting to present itself as a superior model in responding to the global health crisis.

So the CCP’s decades-long effort to control information within China is well documented and I’m sure you’re all aware of it, but unfortunately, the public is not well enough aware.  And now its censorship and its silencing of voices within and into China is being matched by efforts to push propaganda and disinformation across a massive global information ecosystem, including on platforms that are blocked within China.  And so this results in a one-way megaphone from the CCP to the rest of the world.  So general populations may or may not realize this when they see CCP narratives, CCP personas, or personas pushing CCP narratives on the social media platforms used in open and free societies that these are one-way megaphones from China, from the Chinese Communist Party, injecting CCP influence worldwide into free societies.

Now, we can also assess that these efforts are backfiring in many places.  So we’ve seen foreign governments, academics, and media all calling out Chinese disinformation and propaganda and joining the U.S. in our demand for transparency.  The CCP is finding less and less space to be able to push these false narratives in the face of local criticism.  So we believe it’s critical that democratic countries continue to call attention to CCP efforts to use disinformation to reshape the global narrative around COVID and to prevent this behavior from becoming the norm for Beijing.  

So my third point is that while Russia and China present the largest threats from disinformation and propaganda globally, in Latin America we have also seen the former Maduro regime in Venezuela, the Cuban Government, and Iran through its Spanish-language platforms all attempt to spread disinformation.  In fact, Latin America is one of the most complex regions in the world in terms of its information environment because of how these malign actors are leveraging each other’s content and creating a storm of disinformation in the region.

So just to give one example, take a look at Ecuador where we’ve seen what’s perhaps one of the clearest demonstrations of the impact that disinformation can have on a society and on the global community.  Videos circulated on social media and were amplified by RT en Español and Maduro’s TeleSur, and they claimed that Ecuadorians were burning bodies in the streets because of the number of deaths from COVID-19.  So with the videos and articles about this saturating the information space, including on a wealth of social media platforms and digital media outlets, the sensational nature of the claims and the visceral reaction that it caused made it all the more believable during the panic that’s been brought on by the pandemic.

So although the government was challenged to deal with the overwhelming number of deaths, these claims and videos about burning corpses in the streets that circled the globe and were reported widely in our international media and by governments were false.  And in reality, they were actually sofas and tires burning.  So here we see actions that don’t just simply push out false narratives, but they question the ability of the government to fulfill its fundamental role of protecting its population.  These actions are fundamentally destabilizing and especially dangerous during a public health crisis.

So the U.S. Government established the GEC to develop a means of uncovering these tactics, exposing them, like through conversations we’re having today, and working with our partners to counter them.  So we’re very happy to be working with our colleagues, including Ambassador Kozak’s teams in Latin America, to do so. 

And with that, Ambassador Kozak and I would be happy to take your questions.

Moderator:  Thank you.  We will now begin the question and answer portion of today’s call.  For those on the English line asking questions, please state your name and affiliation and make sure to limit yourself to one question related to the topic of today’s briefing.  If you submitted your questions in advance, I have incorporated them into the queue.

Our first question will go to Larry Arroyo from Noticias Costa Rica, who submitted the following question to the speakers:  “In view of the investment of hundreds of millions of dollars that Russia makes in RT and Iran in HispanTV across the region, would you consider as a viable tool the U.S. Government to support the media combating the disinformation with technological equipment or with some other financial support?  And if so, how would such aid be accessed?”

Ambassador Kozak:  This is Mike Kozak.  In fact, we can’t match China and Russia dollar for dollar in everything they do and wouldn’t want to, because our approach is a very different approach, different model of free markets, free media, and so on, whereas theirs is all heavily controlled.

That said, we have – the U.S. Government has had for many years programs in the region to try to build the strength and resiliency of independent media.  I know in my previous job in the Democracy and Human Rights Bureau, we had programs – we have a training center, for example, in San Salvador where journalists are taught how to take security precautions so that they can’t be as readily intimidated in doing their jobs.

But fundamentally, we’re in favor of free, independent media and so trying to create a structure where we support media as a government is probably not the best way to go.  But we constantly are looking at ways to be supportive of free media in the region and will continue to do so.

Special Envoy Gabrielle:   And if I could just tack onto that, it’s important to understand best practices in countering propaganda and disinformation are about increasing resilience to disinformation in local communities.  So, the idea is for information consumers to check the sources of that information and ask if it’s a source that they recognize and they trust, and that’s especially true around this infodemic that the COVID crisis has created.  There’s a lot of fact-checking organizations and media outlets working around the clock to try to provide accurate information to the public.

And so the GEC, in coordination with Ambassador Kozak’s teams, are supporting some of those initiatives, a few of which Ambassador Kozak just pointed out.  The GEC is also working with some of our partners to share tools to help with technology that helps to counter disinformation and propaganda with our partner governments.

Moderator:  Our next question will go to Alejandra Arredondo from Voice of America.

Operator:  Please, go ahead.

Moderator:  Alejandra?

Question:  Hello?

Moderator:  Okay.  We’ll try – try again, Alejandra.  

Question:  Hello, can you hear me?

Moderator:  Yes, please go ahead with your question.

Question:  Okay.  Hello, thank you, and thank you all for doing this.  So my question is in regards to Venezuela.  I want to know, you – the Department of State has said before that there’s a big disinformation campaign going on in Venezuela.  I want to know exactly which kind of disinformation have you seen in the country and, yeah, how is it operating?  Thank you very much.

Ambassador Kozak:  Well, I think probably anything that the government or the former Maduro regime puts out has a huge component of disinformation to it.  Most recently, we’re seeing their campaign about this alleged invasion of the country, which they seem to have had something to do in creating themselves.  But it’s – it just – anything that they put out is really, really suspect.

The part that’s frustrating, though, is that they block coming into Venezuela on cable and satellite TV and so on, they try to block legitimate outlets, like CNN en Español and others so that their people only see the pre-prepared propaganda that the regime wants.  That doesn’t mean they believe it.  I lived in Cuba some years back and nobody believed the state-run media, but what they didn’t know – they knew that much of it was not true, but they didn’t know what was true and what was not true because they didn’t have those trustworthy, independent sources of media that would allow them to make their own judgments.  So I think that’s what we would look for more in Venezuela is not how to stop them from doing disinformation, but how to get quality information in there so people can make their own judgments.

Special Envoy Gabrielle:  And if I could just add to that as well, one of the trends the GEC is seeing is that in Venezuela, Maduro is trying to convince the world that U.S. sanctions prevent an effective response to COVID by preventing access to necessary medicines and medical devices, which is on its face false and Maduro himself has said so as he’s touted the receipt of 65 tons of medicines and medical supplies throughout the pandemic.  But I think what’s even more harmful is the Maduro regime’s ability to use official accounts coupled with state-owned or controlled media outlets and its allies’ messaging apparatuses that work together to convince audiences that the disinformation touted by Maduro is true.  Secretary Pompeo has said on many occasions that our sanctions do not target the innocent people of Venezuela and they will not prohibit humanitarian assistance, but Maduro’s claims to the contrary continue and we’ve observed accounts linked not just to Maduro, but also to Iran, Russia, and Cuba, that have all tried to suggest that these sanctions impair the ability of them to be able to obtain humanitarian assistance.  

So they take these claims and then they amplify them by accounts that are engaged and coordinated, inorganic, or inauthentic activity, significantly amplifying the presence of the claims in the information space.  So that’s one of the trends that we’ve seen from the GEC’s perspective.

Ambassador Kozak:  Yeah, and this is Mike Kozak again.  I would emphasize on that that the – at the same time that the regime has been saying, or falsely saying, that our sanctions blocked the importation of medicine and medical supplies and food, they do things like prevent UN agencies from delivering food.  They want to be able to deliver it themselves and deliver it on a politicized basis to their supporters and not to other people.  

And the other thing they do, and we have experience with them with the so-called CLAP program, the food program that the regime in Venezuela has used where they buy boxes of food from other countries and bring them in and distribute them to their supporters.  It’s bad enough that they’re being that biased, but what we’ve also found is that they take – they go into another country, in this case Mexico, they’ll buy a box of food that costs $5 and then they sell it to the – to themselves, to the Venezuelan Government, for like $90 and then pass it out to the people.  Well, guess who owns the front company that’s taking that markup?  The family of Nicolas Maduro.  His wife and sons are the front.  So this is the same reason that they’re promoting this whole idea of sanctions exemption for medicine and so on is precisely so they can set this kind of a thing up again.  They’re having a hard time stealing money from the Venezuelan people these days and they’re looking for new mechanisms to do it, and this is what’s behind this.  It’s really quite disgraceful.

Moderator:  Our next question goes to Raquel Krahenbuhl from Globo News.  

Question:  [Inaudible.]

Operator:  Raquel, your line is open.

Question:  [Inaudible.]

Moderator:  Raquel?

Question:  Hello?

Moderator:  Yes, please go ahead with your question.

Question:  Yeah.  My name is Rekha from La Estrella de Panama.

Moderator:  Apologies, I think we have the wrong line, but please go ahead with your question.

Question:  Okay, hi.  Well, my question is related actually.  Mr. Kozak, when you were here in Panama you said that no option was off the table with Venezuela, that we could – we probably – if we go back in history, there was a military intervention in Panama and there is – there is the report from the international Commission of Human Rights, which it was with the victims and it said that the U.S. during that intervention violated some human rights laws.  So I would want to know which is the official position for this case of the United States, and also how can, for example, the Government of the United States say that there is no option off the table if there is this precedent?

Ambassador Kozak:  Okay, thank you.  I think our President has said no option off the table all along, but I think if you look at what we have been doing in Venezuela and certainly since the time I visited you last fall, what have we been focused on?  We’ve been focused on diplomatic and economic efforts and political efforts to try to persuade the regime, and it’s very simple what the objective is: to hand over power to a transitional government that can organize free and fair elections and resolve the political crisis in Venezuela.  You can’t do it with Maduro.  The reason the crisis exists in the first place was Maduro used his power to completely rig and discredit the elections in 2018.  

I think you may have seen that Secretary Pompeo about three or four weeks ago rolled out a proposed framework for a transition that was quite detailed.  We have been very happy that that has gained the support of, for example, the EU and many other – the Lima Group, many other countries around the region, because it’s a roadmap for how you could find a political solution to the crisis.  So saying that no option is off the table does not mean that we’re aiming for some other option.  Right now our efforts are focused on the diplomatic-economic front and the rest is a distraction from that. 

Moderator:  We have time for one last question.  The last question goes to David Alandete from ABC.

Question:  Hi.  Hi there.  Thank you for doing this.  I have one question regarding this.  You both have made a point on comparing Russian and Chinese disinformation.  We’ve seen measures taken regarding Chinese operations here in the United States regarding visas and other diplomatic measures.  Are you considering any type of measure related to this against Kremlin-backed and financed outlets like RT en Español, to which you have pointed that they have had a malign activity, as you’ve said, throughout the Western Hemisphere?  So I was wondering if besides this calling them out and tracking what they do [inaudible] if you were considering or you have considered any type of measure beyond the outlet being registered through [inaudible] which I believe is what was done a couple of years ago?  Thank you very much.

Ambassador Kozak:  This is Mike Kozak.  I’ll take a quick stab at it.  I mean, first I would say that whatever we might be considering, we wouldn’t be broadcasting it in advance.  But second, and hopefully Special Envoy Gabrielle can amplify on this, I think that what we see as most concerning in the region are where people don’t know what the source is.  If you see that RT is a source and you – and people become educated consumers and realize that RT broadcasts a lot of questionable or worse information, disinformation, that’s – that is a good thing.  

What is really pernicious, though, is that they use social media platforms and fake personas so that you’re reading along and you see somebody who looks like they’re a fellow American citizen in my hometown of Pasadena, California, and they’re interested in this and that, and then they start giving you news and so on.  And it turns out the person that they are identifying themselves as doesn’t even exist.  It’s a Russian troll, and then they – then they turn around and try to broadcast that as validation of the propaganda line that they’re broadcasting on RT.  

So I think what we really, first and foremost, want to do is get people throughout the region and in our own country to look at this stuff on social media and say, “Who’s the source?”  If it’s some person who purports to be an American citizens who’s in favor of human rights or something, unless you know them and have a very – or know them by reputation and through other people you know, be questioning about it.  Don’t take it as a – at face value.  Because that seems to be the most pernicious thing we’ve seen going, and we’ve seen it in some of the countries.  Perhaps the special envoy can give us some facts and figures, but in places that we have seen – sometimes you’ll do a sample of 140,000 media or social media things, and it turns out 100,000 of them are orchestrated and manipulated like this.  They’re not – they’re not genuine people.  So that tells you just how serious that problem can be.

Special Envoy Gabrielle:  Yes, and I’ll just add to that that you’re asking specifically about Russia, but I’ll tell you that in terms – and you’re asking about activity or action we might take.  From our perspective, truth is the weapon to counter propaganda and disinformation.  It’s shedding light on the truth.  It’s helping people to use critical thinking skills to find the truth out, and our partners and allies also getting involved in shedding light on the truth.

But I do just want to highlight that we’ve seen a lot of different disinformation networks in the region.  So Russia does have a massive information infrastructure in Latin America and a history of using disinformation during a global health crisis and, like I’ve said before, will likely continue as we see COVID treatments come around and a vaccine potentially become available.  But we’ve also seen that Cuba’s capitalized on COVID-19 to try to amplify its longstanding propaganda campaigns around its medical missions, routinely amplifying reports of Cuban doctors assisting in the fight against COVID-19 in countries around the world.  And we certainly encourage Cuba to allow its doctors to provide their assistance freely instead of withholding their salaries, confiscating their passports, and forcing them into destitute living and working conditions, but what we’re seeing is the Cuban propaganda machine have a global reach through social media.  So we’ve identified, for example, more than four dozen Twitter accounts that are key components of that global network, including accounts in Venezuela alongside other countries in the region, even as far as Africa, the Middle East, and Europe.  And these accounts have worked together to try to obscure the well-documented exploitation inherent to the Cuban medical program.

Now, we’re – our analysis in GEC has also uncovered connections between other local disinformation networks in the region.  So we’ve uncovered connections between accounts located in countries across Latin America that use what we call Russian-style methodologies to amplify and disseminate information and propaganda using social media.  So these accounts are located at a minimum in Venezuela, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Mexico, Bolivia, Cuba, and Argentina, and when working together they’re able to spread disinformation and propaganda across the region at a breathtaking speed.

So accounts that we’ve seen located in Venezuela and Ecuador are uniquely important to these networks because they use broad, diverse connections to accounts located around the region, and they use both witting and unwitting parties to inject disinformation and propaganda narratives that are designed to sway the public and try to alter outcomes in societies in a manner that is befitting of their self-interest, essentially.  

But bottom line, truth to counter disinformation is what we – is what we use, and the GEC is coordinating with the State Department and others throughout the interagency and with our partners worldwide to do things like build the technical skills of civil society organizations, local influencers, and journalists to expose and counter disinformation.  We’re developing partnerships with key local messengers who have the reach and resonance with target audiences worldwide, and we’re deploying technology, as I mentioned before, to help provide early indicators and warnings for disinformation, and then analyzing disinformation and assessing its impact on foreign audiences and then sharing that information.

Moderator:  That concludes today’s call.  I want to thank Ambassador Kozak and Special Envoy Gabrielle for joining us, and thank all of our callers for participating.  If you have any questions about today’s call, you may contact the Miami Media Hub at  Information on how to access the English recording of this call will be provided by AT&T shortly.  Thank you and have a good day.

Ambassador Kozak:  Thank you all.

Special Envoy Gabrielle:  Thank you.