Countering disinformation online will require long-term engagement from the feds

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Technology companies and DC policymakers are lost in the fog of disinformation. Bombarded with too much information from too many refutable sources, they have responded in a piecemeal fashion with unsustainable “solutions.” In the face of a very real threat to democracy and national security interests, a calculated, cross-sector strategy is essential.

Instead of blindly grasping for solutions, Congress should look to the past for guidance on countering the age-old problem of disinformation—spreading intentionally misleading or false information with strategic intent. Working off the model of the Active Measures Working Group (AMWG), established in the 1980s as a U.S. response to Soviet propaganda, policymakers should form a small, interagency committee comprised of experts from State, DoD, intelligence agencies and the technology community to reexamine disinformation and research its impacts (and hosting a funeral for the overly politicized and vague term ‘fake news’ while they’re at it).

This is not the solution to the problem. But it is a necessary first step to implementing a proportional and effective response.

{mosads}The AMWG launched a robust response that defanged the Soviet disinformation apparatus and validated American accusations of a coordinated influence campaign. A model of interagency collaboration, the AMWG succeeded where most interagency groups fail. With three takeaways from its success in mind, Congress can refashion old, but proven counter-disinformation strategies for the digital age.


First, data is king. The AMWG overcame entrenched bureaucratic resistance to its agenda by elevating the perceived threat level of Soviet disinformation in government. Drawing from hard data and open-source information, its members painted a picture of Soviet disinformation operations that exposed the magnitude of the problem. 

This picture has since dissolved. Despite the saturated media coverage of the Russian election hack, hard data on the source or impact of current disinformation operations is notably scarce. Staffed with both policy and technology experts, the new committee should define and deploy metrics for measuring the impact of disinformation to paint a full picture of the disinformation challenge and the threat it poses to U.S. security and foreign policy interests.

Second, it’s the mission, stupid. The AMWG adopted a limited, strategic mission that identified Soviet disinformation operations, found ways to address them, and produced actual results. The modern-day equivalent of this effort, the Global Engagement Center (GEC), was established by executive order in 2016 to combat foreign messaging. Seeking to “leverage the entirety of the U.S. government” to target content ranging from ISIL propaganda to Russian troll farms, its mission is construed too broadly to be adequately funded or effective. Rather than funneling more resources into the GEC, as the 2017 NDAA suggests, Congress should create stand-alone committee to apply a more focused lens to digital disinformation.

Third, buy-in or bust. Formed by a cast of mid-level officials at the Department of State, the working group’s success hinged on intense support from senior leadership both within Congress, which lobbied on its behalf, and all levels of the executive branch. With a clear picture of the threat, data-backed research, and a specific mission, the new committee will be well-positioned to leverage executive and legislative support.

Replicating the success of the AMWG in the current political landscape will not be easy. However, cutting through the fanfare to expose the perpetrators, their methods, and the scope of their actions will go a long way in exposing the truth about ‘fake news’ and the risks it poses to American democracy.

While political resistance can be circumvented, the complex role technology now plays in influence campaigns cannot.

Once conducted entirely at the state-level between known adversaries, technology has eroded the traditional channels of producing and countering disinformation. Historically confined to pamphlet drops and radio broadcasts, disinformation now takes a variety of digital forms capable of reaching millions in minutes—making it exceedingly difficult for policymakers to define the parameters of the issue, let alone measure its impact. Given the complexity of this information environment, any new committee must incorporate emerging technical solutions into existing policy approaches to counter what has become both a human- and technology-driven problem.

The advent of the internet has also slashed the cost of conducting disinformation operations. At time of AMWG’s establishment, the CIA estimated that the Soviet Union spent $100 million annually on printing and distributing anti-Western propaganda. This resource vulnerability was critical to the working group’s success—exposure drove up the cost of conducting a disinformation campaign while reducing its impact. Digitizing information has removed the cost barrier to orchestrating a global disinformation campaign, and with it, significant leverage for countering its impact.

These obstacles are undeniably daunting. But the consequences of continuing to take no action against foreign disinformation are far worse. Only with a clear understanding of the historical context, technical underpinnings and security implications of disinformation can the policy and technology communities begin to work together to solve it.

Madeline Christian is a researcher at the non-profit Center for a New American Security.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

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