Why you should care
Because the government has to step up, and not defer to social media companies.
Lauren Claffey is a managing director at Hamilton Place Strategies. She previously served in the Department of Homeland Security during the Trump administration and as a senior adviser for the Senate Intelligence Committee.
This week, a series of comprehensive reports to the U.S. Senate Committee on Intelligence put a finer point on what we have known for a while — Russia is spreading lies and falsehoods in America in a blatant attempt to undermine our democracy. The reports catalog detailed misinformation campaigns, as recent as October’s confirmation hearings of Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Russia has done this in France, Germany, the U.K. and Syria too. But American politics are clouding our vision to the true threat: Russia’s disinformation attacks weaken us from within, distract us from global issues, disrupt Western alliances and bolster Kremlin dominance inside and outside of Russia.
Forget about Donald Trump and the 2016 election. It’s bigger than Michael Flynn, Robert Mueller or Michael Cohen. Russia has declared war on the United States. And we’re not fighting back.
You can’t even be a yoga instructor in America without a certification; why not also provide the same stamp of approval for journalists?
Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, called for “some much-needed and long overdue guardrails when it comes to social media.” North Carolina Republican Sen. Richard Burr, the committee’s chairman, said the reports are “proof positive that one of the most important things we can do is increase information sharing between social media companies who can identify disinformation campaigns and the third-party experts who can analyze them.”
But how much of the responsibility should lie with social media giants? All solutions thus far have put the primary onus of protecting truth on the company executives whose platforms are being abused by the Russian Internet Research Agency.
This isn’t going to be a sufficient response for the war ahead. The government has to play a greater role in verifying information, providing greater transparency in media and pushing back on propaganda domestically.
First, we need to adopt measures that call out state-sponsored information here at home. Currently, the effort to fight propaganda is focused overseas — for example, the work being done at the State Department’s Global Engagement Center. But we need the same here. The U.S. government must take a more active role in identifying and placing a warning label around content that is considered foreign propaganda, like Russia Today — the Kremlin-backed state news organization.
One measure that could help has been introduced in the U.S. House: the Countering Foreign Propaganda Act of 2018, which would require government-controlled foreign media outlets with U.S. operations to file semiannual disclosures to the Federal Communications Commission and to include conspicuous announcements informing American consumers of the foreign government funding the content — much like political campaign ads are handled in the U.S. currently.
Second, we need to direct more funding to anti-propaganda and fact-checking media outlets that are focused on the Russian threat. Traditionally, this mission has fallen under the Broadcasting Board of Governors, a government agency designed to promote freedom and democracy around the world. Polygraph, a joint venture of Voice of America and Radio Liberty, has seen the most success in this area thus far, but it struggles to keep up with the lies coming out of the Russian propaganda machine. We need more government grants to new independent media monitoring organizations dedicated to pursuing and calling out disinformation.
Third, we need to discuss a voluntary certification program for news journalists and media outlets. You can’t even be a yoga instructor in America without a certification; why not also provide the same stamp of approval for journalists? This would enable us to also provide greater transparency into what is a trusted source of fact-based news versus opinion journalism and propaganda. Real journalists perform an important and dangerous job: 34 were killed in reprisal for their work this year, according to new figures from the Committee to Protect Journalists, nearly double last year’s numbers. Media literacy and verification can only help the American public discern for themselves what is Russian-backed lies and what is truth.
Countering propaganda and cyber aggression is a new battlefield for our nation. We will need to answer the questions of what constitutes malicious influence operations and what is simply ineffective persuasion. Or where does free speech end and censorship begin? And while these may not be the right answers, it is imperative we start discussing how to move from defense to offense in the propaganda war with Russia and start hitting back.
Read more from Lauren Claffey: What you’re getting wrong about the caravan.