The Kremlin is engaged in a “global influence campaign to destabilize sovereign countries,” including the United States, the U.S. Treasury Department reaffirmed, as it slapped sanctions on four Ukrainians working for the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB). America’s adversaries have leveraged disinformation since the dawn of the nation. In the early years of the American Revolution, the British monarchy circulated pamphlets in the colonies featuring forged excerpts from ostensible letters written by George Washington suggesting he sympathized with the Monarchy and that the new nation was not ready for democracy. Chinese disinformation campaigns blaming the United States for the origin of COVID-19 recall the Cold War’s Operation DENVER, the KGB’s disinformation campaign promoting the conspiracy theory that HIV and AIDS were bioweapons developed by the U.S. government. Pro-Kremlin social media disinformation efforts during European Union elections in 2019 that implied the EU has Nazi origins are not dissimilar from the Soviet and Czechoslovak intelligence services’ Operation NEPTUNE to discredit West German politicians by tying them to Nazis. In fact, Russia is wielding the same cudgel now against Ukraine, casually and repeatedly accusing its leaders or citizens without evidence of being “Nazis,” even in forums such as the U.N. Security Council.
While the Cold War was riddled with spectacular stories of disinformation, in today’s technological and media environment, Russia and China can now scale their disinformation operations and accelerate its spread in the information ecosystems of adversaries. Disinformation also is now a much more visible topic in U.S. political discourse, as policymakers on both sides of the aisle struggle to define the appropriate role of the federal government in preventing and combating foreign disinformation, other than steps that have become increasingly common, such as sanctions against perpetrators.
This is the question taken on recently by two commissions that, while diagnosing the challenge differently, reached a number of similar conclusions about the steps the federal government needs to take. In December, the nonpartisan Cyberspace Solarium Commission (CSC) issued a white paper drafted while we were on staff. (One of us, Robert, was a lead co-author). The CSC diagnoses disinformation as a problem facing free societies everywhere and describes disinformation as a tool used by those with ill intent to manufacture division and inflame tension. In November, the Aspen Institute Commission on Information Disorder released its own report on the topic. It described structural inequality in the United States as the disease and disinformation as a symptom.
But both commissions offered similar recommendations in several realms for how the federal government can begin to tackle this scourge.
On the issue of social media, for example, the CSC and Aspen agree that the federal government should push for greater transparency on how social media platforms sort, moderate, and remove content on their platforms. The unique position of platforms in the information ecosystem allots them an outsized opportunity to exert positive influence over the media and information environment. But rather than trying to regulate content on these social media platforms, lawmakers and regulators should endeavor to establish clearer transparency expectations and guidelines for social media companies related to labeling advertisements and paid content, bots, and content created by foreign registered agents. In addition, the two commissions argue that the federal government should work with social media companies so that the American public better understands the various platforms’ policies on content moderation and takedowns.
In addition, both the CSC and the Aspen Commission agree that Congress should take action to ensure that third-party researchers can access data to better understand, identify, and – most importantly – explain foreign disinformation campaigns to the American public. The federal government could support these research efforts through grants to nonprofit centers, such as the Alliance for Securing Democracy’s Hamilton 2.0 dashboard and the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab.
Finally, both the CSC and the Aspen Commission identify the importance of civic empowerment and education. In keeping with this conviction, the CSC recommends the creation of a bipartisan Civic Education Task Force to enable greater access to civic education resources, and raise public awareness about foreign disinformation. The task force should be tasked with providing civic education resources, including courses and course materials, for the military and civil servants, all while making these materials available to the broader population.
Beyond these shared recommendations, the CSC advocates for some additional approaches to counter foreign disinformation.
Beware of Overreach
In setting out to address the issue, the federal government must recognize its own limitations and ensure it does not overreach. For example, with few exceptions, the ability of the U.S. government to directly intervene in the information ecosystem is rightly constrained by the First Amendment. Meanwhile, since the Tenth Amendment reserves the right of states to make policy in areas not explicitly delegated to the federal government by the Constitution, states and local governments drive education policy and possess greater control over the content taught in schools.
Federal action also is constrained by the appearance of inappropriate government influence over parts of society that are better served by other stakeholders. For example, it would be inappropriate for the government to exercise influence over journalism, which plays a key role in holding authorities accountable. Rather than federal action to bolster journalism, other stakeholders from civil society or private industry are better positioned to lead this aspect of countering disinformation.
With that caveat, the CSC white paper identifies additional steps the U.S. government could take to improve the health of America’s information ecosystem. Where foreign-owned and operated media outlets are concerned, the federal government could do more to improve transparency on ownership without overstepping its bounds and censoring content. Greater transparency would help ensure that Americans are aware of the foreign actors attempting to influence public opinion.
Updating and Expanding FARA
The Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), a law passed in 1938 in response to Nazi propaganda, provides a framework to promote transparency regarding the sources of information available to the American public. However, many of the rules created by the law are antiquated, and FARA must be reformed to ensure that all agents of foreign adversaries, including such media organizations, register. In the last Congress, Representative (and CSC Co-Chair) Mike Gallagher (R-Wisc) proposed the Chinese Communist Party Influence Transparency Act, which would require all Chinese corporations to register under FARA. Congress should look at expanding this effort to include corporations domiciled in other adversaries like Russia and Iran. In addition, Congress should amend the definition of “informational materials,” which registered foreign agents are required to both label as such and report to the Department of Justice, in FARA to make clear that social media and email communications are included. In addition, Congress should provide greater specificity regarding the types of social media and email communications that need to be included in FARA filings to ensure that the Department of Justice adopts a records system that better captures the dynamism and interactiveness of digital media and communications, allowing, for example, for social media posts filed to be maintained along with, for example, comments on or replies to a post, while preserving appropriate privacy protections.
Combatting disinformation also requires imposing costs on adversaries responsible for influence operations – what the CSC refers to as a strategy of layered cyber deterrence in the information landscape. For example, the U.S. government should continue to engage in robust “defend forward” operations to dismantle adversary disinformation infrastructure and cause friction in adversary disinformation campaigns, as it did, for example, with the Internet Research Agency around the 2018 midterm election.
Countering adversary disinformation is a challenging policy issue. It gets to the core of individual freedom and liberty and undermines national security and the foundations of America’s democracy. Disinformation weaves adroitly through modern society and networks — only sometimes visible but always threatening. No system of government is perfect. Adversaries of the United States seek to leverage some citizens’ frustration with democratic outcomes and the sometimes slow and messy process by which policies are decided. This does not make autocracy preferable to democracy: The features that make democracies uniquely vulnerable to disinformation perpetrated by adversary nations are precisely the elements worth protecting.