Lawmakers stare down challenge of cyber-enabled ‘fake news’

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Lawmakers on Thursday faced some hard-truths about the U.S. government’s work to counter cyber-enabled propaganda efforts by nations such as Russia.

A group of senators heard testimony from experts and former officials about how the U.S. has failed to counter propaganda or “fake news,” as technology has allowed information to spread farther and with greater impact.

“Today, cyber and other disinformation-related tools have enabled Russia to achieve operational capabilities unimaginable to its Soviet forbear,” said Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.), chair of a new Senate subcommittee overseeing the Pentagon’s cybersecurity efforts.

“Ultimately, we will continue to struggle with cyber-enhanced information operation campaigns until we address the policy and strategy deficiencies that undermine our overall cyber posture,” he added.


Sen. Bill Nelson (Fla.), the panel’s top Democrat, agreed that technology has significantly amplified information operations.

“This is a whole new magnitude greater,” Nelson said. “Our government and our society remain ill-prepared to detect and encounter this powerful new form of information warfare or to deter it through the threat of our own offensive information operations.”

Thursday’s panel was the first open hearing for the subcommittee, which was formed after details emerged of Russia’s efforts to use cyber tools to interfere in the 2016 presidential election.

Lawmakers have lent more attention to cybersecurity and counter-propaganda efforts since the intelligence community concluded that the Russian government ordered an influence campaign during the election that involved the hacking and release of emails from the Democratic National Committee and top Democratic officials.

U.S. officials assessed that Russian state-backed news outlets like RT and Sputnik, as well as paid social media trolls, contributed to the influence campaign.

On Thursday afternoon, experts and former officials testified to the shortcomings of the U.S. government’s anti-propaganda efforts in the information age.

“The sobering fact is that we are still far from where we need to be to successfully operate and have influence in the modern information environment,” said Michael Lumpkin, a former acting undersecretary of defense for policy who also coordinated the State Department’s Global Engagement Center under the Obama administration.

Clinton Watts, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute who made headlines for his testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee in March, said that in some cases, U.S. efforts to knock down propaganda have been counterproductive.

“When it comes to Americans countering cyber influence operations, when all is said and done, far more is said than done,” Watts told the panel. “When the U.S. has done something, it hasn’t been effective and at worse it’s been counterproductive, and that’s due to the way we structure it.”

He said that the government has focused “excessively” on bureaucracy and cultivating digital tools—though its social media monitoring devices have failed to counter terror groups like al Qaeda.

The experts spoke extensively about options for the U.S. to overhaul its counter-propaganda efforts and recruit better cyber personnel.

There are efforts already underway in the private sector to counter “fake news,” with companies like Facebook, Google and Wikipedia cracking down on misinformation. Watts said that he’d like to see Twitter do the same.

“Twitter’s actions — if they take them on parallel with Facebook and Google and the others — could help shape the Russian influence of the European elections going into the summer,” Watts said.

The Senate panel, a subsection of the Armed Services Committee, has already held two classified briefings on cyber threats and deterrence since being established in the new Congress.

Rounds was frank in the challenge posed by cyber and information operations and emphasized the need for the members to receive input from outside on how to improve the government’s cyber capabilities.

“We don’t know much about cybersecurity, and what we’re trying to do is to learn it,” Rounds said. 

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