A chat with Nina Jankowicz
By T.J. Sjostrom
WASHINGTON — If you have read any authoritative source in the past two years about the Russian disinformation campaign in the U.S. media or have wondered where American policymakers get their information from, there is a strong likelihood that Nina Jankowicz influenced both the story and your knowledge of it in some way. The Wilson Center Global Fellow at the Kennan Institute has been working the disinformation beat since before the Russian-Ukrainian war started in 2014, emerging as one of the subject’s leading voices.
Tomorrow, Jankowicz will give a guest lecture for the European and Eurasian Studies David P. Calleo Seminar Series at the SAIS DC campus. Hosted by SAIS professor Dr. Lisel Hintz, the talk will be titled, “More Than Just Whack-a-Troll: Lessons Learned from Responding to Disinformation in Central and Eastern Europe.” Jankowicz generously shared her time to provide The SAIS Observer with an exclusive interview prior to her arrival; below is the lightly-edited interview transcript:
Good afternoon Nina, and welcome back to the U.S. How was your trip overseas?
Hi! The trip was great, I spent a few days in Germany discussing disinformation with students, then I spent a week in London for meetings. It was really interesting to interact with Germans and discuss disinformation.
How do you define disinformation?
That’s a hard question, because so many people conflate disinformation with the broader Russian influence campaign, and they’re separate entities. Disinformation is any false information shared with malicious intent, whereas the wider influence campaign extends to tactics like funding the government-organized non-governmental organizations (GONGOs), and political parties to push Russian narratives.
In a recent piece you penned for The Wilson Quarterly, you introduced the ‘Finland Approach’ to tackling disinformation – can this be replicated in the United States?
Editor’s note: In Finland, media literacy has been inculcated among children from an early age, known as the ‘Finland Approach.’
I think it can, if there is a holistic approach to teaching media literacy and civics, taught in schools and to adults – though the latter demographic will be harder to educate. Media in the U.S. is highly politicized, and it really needs to be divorced from politics. There are ways to incentivize implementation in schools, such as giving money to schools or states who incorporate these topics into their curriculum, along with partnering with college boards to potentially make civics and media literacy questions part of the SAT. We seriously need to teach more civics – 2016 happened because of this illiteracy. But the U.S. can do this – when has the U.S. shied away from a hairy project before?
So, what got you started on this career path? This doesn’t seem like something someone just falls into.
I have Polish and Ukrainian ancestry. When the Soviet Union invaded Poland (in 1939), my grandfather was deported from Poland to Arkhangelsk Oblast, so the history is ingrained. My interest grew when I took Russian at Bryn Mawr, which grew into a double major of political science and Russian, which included a semester of study in St. Petersburg, Russia. My undergraduate thesis was about social movements (such as the Solidarity movement) in Poland. I did my master’s degree at Georgetown’s Center for Russian, Eurasian and East European Studies, then started at the National Democratic Institute, where I supported democracy activists in Russia and Belarus. In 2016, under the auspices of a Fulbright-Clinton Public Policy Fellowship, I moved to Ukraine, where I advised the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry communications team.
What and who do you read to stay current in global affairs?
For Russian news, I read Meduza with zeal and Coda Story. I have a fairly holistic approach to my reading – I also read Bellingcat and [I am] a fan of Eliot Higgins, Ben Nimmo, Peter Pomerantsev, Anne Applebaum, Michael McFaul (whether you agree with his politics or not; he’s lived it, and his career arc is similar to mine), Edward Lucas, and David Patrikarakos.
Many people at SAIS are looking for policy-specific jobs after graduation; can you suggest any neglected areas of foreign policy to get involved with?
I am a staunch advocate of area studies – area studies expertise is very important. The more specialists we have, the broader the knowledge base we get to work with. Generalists are fine, but area studies specialists can dig deeper into complicated problems and make sense of them.
You have testified to Congress, and just returned from an international trip spreading knowledge about the Russian influence campaign. What is it that brings you back to college campuses to discuss this issue?
I like interacting with students, because they challenge my thinking and generate good conversation about the topic. I’m also not far removed from grad school – you can do something cool with a nerdy degree. This career path was one of my wildest dreams five years ago and did not seem like reality that it could happen.
Last question – it’s well documented that you’re a Georgetown graduate, but…can we admit at this point that SAIS is better?
[laughs] I didn’t apply to SAIS, because it’s economics-heavy, and my interests lie more with qualitative and analytic work. I feel like I made the right choice, but there are amazing people from both schools.
T.J. Sjostrom is the editor-in-chief of The SAIS Observer and a second-year MA student at the SAIS DC campus. He is also a research intern and contributor for FPRI Eurasia’s BMB Russia website, and his work can be found on The Defense Post. Twitter: @sjostromtj