GOP rep: We need a ‘counter’ to Russian disinformation

GOP rep: We need a ‘counter’ to Russian disinformation
© Greg Nash

Rep. Will HurdWilliam Ballard HurdElection Countdown: Florida Senate race heads to hand recount | Dem flips Maine House seat | New 2020 trend - the 'friend-raiser' | Ad war intensifies in Mississippi runoff | Blue wave batters California GOP Midterm results shake up national map Election Countdown: Lawsuits fly in Florida recount fight | Nelson pushes to extend deadline | Judge says Georgia county violated Civil Rights Act | Biden, Sanders lead 2020 Dem field in poll | Bloomberg to decide on 2020 by February MORE (R-Texas) thinks there’s something missing from the congressional investigation into Russia's election meddling: solutions for countering foreign disinformation campaigns.

“We’re not talking enough about disinformation and how we counter disinformation,” Hurd said in a recent interview in his Capitol Hill office. “That is where a broader conversation needs to be happening here in Congress. Because we do not have a strategy on dealing with disinformation from a nation-state actor.”

The House and Senate Intelligence committees are 10 months into their parallel investigations into Moscow’s interference in the 2016 presidential election.

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As the committees sift through documents and conduct interviews, the conversation has largely centered on whether President Trump’s campaign colluded with the Russian government.

The U.S. intelligence community in January identified disinformation as a key prong of Russia’s influence campaign against the election. Moscow leveraged state-run media outlets, third-party intermediaries and paid social media “trolls” to spread propaganda, the unclassified assessment stated. 

But it wasn’t until September that Russia’s disinformation campaign started to come into full focus, when Facebook revealed that it sold roughly $100,000 in political advertisements to Russia-linked accounts. The social media giant estimates that the ads reached as many as 146 million Americans. 

Representatives from Facebook, Twitter, and Google were hauled before congressional investigators to testify at the end of October on recent efforts to exploit their platforms.

“I think the public hearings of the three social media companies was valuable to really understand how the Russians were trying to disrupt,” Hurd, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, said. “I say we have to broaden the conversation. Were they trying to influence the campaign, our elections? Yes. But they were doing it to erode trust in our institutions. 

“The question becomes — how do you counter that?” 

Since the election, researchers have continued to observe Russia’s propaganda activity targeting U.S. audiences on social media. In August, experts told The Hill that the messaging had shifted to amplifying the messages of the alt-right and far-right. 

Hurd said that rooting out Russian propaganda is a “whole-of-society problem” — one that warrants action from government and private entities, including news agencies and social media firms.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers has responded to the Facebook revelations by introducing the Honest Ads Act.

The legislation aims to hold political advertisements on social media to the same standards as ads on television and radio stations, creating transparency standards that are meant to make it harder for foreign actors to manipulate elections. Hurd says that he supports these goals, but won’t back the Honest Ads Act on that grounds that it forces “companies to be an extension of law enforcement or regulators.”

Instead, he believes that already existing but less intrusive regulation of social media companies can help keep the Russian government from interfering in future elections. 

“Rules like the Federal Election Regulation Act, McCain-Feingold — all the legislation and laws that govern political advertising should be applied uniformly to all mediums of advertising,” Hurd said. “So, I don’t support creating legislation when you already have tools to use and if you need to enforce it, we should enforce it properly.”

The issue of Russian interference has put Republicans in a bind, as congressional committees probe the Trump campaign and special counsel Robert Mueller indicts Trump's associates.

While GOP lawmakers overwhelmingly accept that Russia interfered in the election, they dispute that Trump or his campaign was involved.

Trump has disputed the intelligence community’s assessment, opening himself up to broad scrutiny.

Recently, Trump signaled that he believed Russian President Vladimir Putin when he said on the sidelines of an Asian summit that Russia did not meddle in the election. The president later backtracked, saying that he stands with the intelligence community in its conclusions.

Trump has said he would like to improve relations with Russia to cooperate in areas of mutual concern.

Hurd is more wary of the Kremlin.

“It is very clear that there was a coordinated attempt by the Russian government to sow distrust in our elections and to manipulate our elections and to erode that trust,” Hurd said.

“Thinking that Vladimir Putin specifically is going to be an ally on issues in the Middle East or Asia is the equivalent of thinking the Iranians are going to stop their pursuit of nuclear weapons,” Hurd said. “It is a wrong worldview, in my opinion.”

To Hurd, it’s just a matter of time before Putin makes his next move against the U.S.  

“As long as Russia is an adversary, they continue to try to use asymmetrical warfare against us,” he said.

The Texas congressman believes that, at the moment, the U.S. isn’t ready for that next salvo of election interference by Russia. Still, Hurd says he’s optimistic that the country can be down the line. 

He credited the Department of Homeland Security in particular for what it is doing to engage states to prevent hackers from infiltrating digital voting infrastructure, but he said more needs to be done to counteract propaganda disseminated on social media.

“I think we are going to ultimately get there, and that’s what is great about the United States of America is that we are resilient and we have always proven that we can bounce back and learn from our mistakes and be ready,” he said.