Countering disinformation requires a more coordinated approach

David Strom 28 Dec 2021

Taking a close look at the way disinformation is spread across digital networks and proposing a series of policy actions to slow its spread

The US Cyberspace Solarium Commission’s latest report, entitled Countering Disinformation in the US, is the latest analysis to come from this two-year-old bipartisan Congressional think tank. The report, which was released in December, takes a closer look at the way disinformation is spread across digital networks and proposes a series of policy actions to slow its spread using a layered defense. 

As a note concerning context: Back in the 1980s, I worked as an analyst for a bipartisan Congressional institute called the Office of Technology Assessment, which produced similar kinds of reports from 1974, until it was (ironically) eliminated in 1996 in a blaze of partisanship.

The Solarium Commission's report spells out the following specific recommendations:

  1. Congress should establish a bipartisan Civic Education Task Force at the Department of Education to design and make publicly available civic education and digital and media literacy courses for the military, civil servants, and the broader adult population. Given the lack of civics knowledge, these courses can help boost appreciation and help protect the cyber ecosystem. Finland has invested heavily in comprehensive media literacy programs, as one success story cited in the report.

  2. Congress should fund NGO disinformation research through grants and better access to data. The UK’s RESIST 2 Counter Disinformation Toolkit is an example of one type of guide that can help craft responses to blunt the spread of disinformation. 

  3. The Department of Homeland Security should actively monitor foreign disinformation efforts and assist state and local agencies to develop countermeasures. The department should identify foreign state-sponsored propaganda narratives and violent extremist narratives that affect the American public and provide grants to state and local agencies to help identify and block these campaigns. There is a small effort called the Cognitive Security Intelligence Center that has this role.

  4. Congress should improve overall media and social media platform transparency. There are two recommendations: first, amending the Telecommunications Act of 1996 to increase media ownership transparency and create new authorities for the Federal Communications Commission to enforce these rules. Second, Congress should also create a new federal agency to enforce transparency in social media platforms.

The authors recognize that fighting disinformation isn’t going to be easy: “No single federal entity has the oversight, authority, or resources to assume ownership for countering disinformation; nor is it clear that a single federal entity should assume such ownership.” However, “the federal government has not crafted a coherent strategy for the information environment, one that recognizes the unique vulnerabilities of democratic societies to disinformation and their unique strengths in responding to it.”

There are other challenges as well: “Congress has a strong partisan divide,” where the majority of members of the two major political parties disagree about basic facts, who is responsible and ways to fight disinformation campaigns. “Disinformation is seen by many as an issue largely separate from cybersecurity,” the authors also state. A Pew Research study from earlier this year reported that the proportion of Americans who trust the federal government, which has not passed 30 percent since 2007, has fallen to just 20 percent. And another study conducted by the Washington Post in November found that more than 70% of respondents don’t trust Facebook to responsibly handle their personal data. Clearly, there is some tough work ahead.

What I admire about the report was that it doesn't sugarcoat the numerous complicating factors to fix disinformation problems, such as the depth of the US information ecosystem, the use of various social media tools to amplify messages and the wide range of potential adversaries willing to use disinformation to weaken public trust and undermine public health confidence. 

The report outlines the efforts from a variety of state actors who have been involved in large-scale disinformation campaigns. One such effort was this 2021 propaganda campaign to use hundreds of seemingly home-made videos by ordinary citizens showing their free lives. China has ramped up its disinformation efforts throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, “disputing the origins of the virus, and causing widespread panic by amplifying false messages.”  Besides China, Russia and Iran have many different government agencies devoted to these activities. To date the US Treasury Department has taken action against more than 100 individuals many of whom are Russian and Iranians for election-related interference and cyber-enabled disinformation.

Whether or not the US Congress will take up these recommendations is hard to say. Certainly, the current hyper-partisan split won’t make it easier. You can see the move away from bipartisan bill sponsorship as documented by the report in the graph below.


Further reading:
Why we spread disinformation — and what to do about it
Please, everyone, let’s not call it ‘fake news’ anymore

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