Lawmakers, experts see combating Russian disinformation as a 'battle'

Lawmakers, experts see combating Russian disinformation as a 'battle'
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House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita LoweyNita Sue LoweyWhite House prepared to support December CR On The Money: Trump seeks to shift spotlight from impeachment to economy | Appropriators agree to Dec. 20 funding deadline | New study says tariffs threaten 1.5M jobs Appropriators agree to Dec. 20 funding deadline MORE (D-N.Y.) is describing the fight against Russian efforts to spread disinformation on social media as a conflict that the U.S. has “got to win."

At a Wednesday hearing, Lowey referenced the U.S. women's soccer team's World Cup win, saying: "We won the USA soccer match, I can’t believe that how difficult it is that we can’t win this battle."

The comments came during a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing on countering Russian disinformation and malign influence on social media and other communications platforms, particularly attempts to interfere in U.S. elections. 

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Rep. Lois FrankelLois Jane FrankelCharlize Theron: We didn't want the politics to overshadow 'Bombshell' Democrats introduce 'THUG Act' to block funding for G-7 at Trump resort Overnight Defense — Presented by Huntington Ingalls Industries — Impeachment inquiry overshadows Trump at UN | Veterans push VA to follow through on reforms | Iranian leader open to changes in nuke deal MORE (D-Fla.) quipped in response to Lowey that it was “kind to call it a battle, I would call it a war.”

Rep. Hal RogersHarold (Hal) Dallas RogersTrump says he'll decide on foreign aid cuts within a week Pelosi warns Mnuchin to stop 'illegal' .3B cut to foreign aid Appropriators warn White House against clawing back foreign aid MORE (R-Ky.), the ranking member of the subcommittee, agreed with Lowey on the threats from Russia through disinformation campaigns, and suggested that an “interagency effort” may be needed to fully address the issue. 

The hearing comes months after the release of special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerSpeier says impeachment inquiry shows 'very strong case of bribery' by Trump Gowdy: I '100 percent' still believe public congressional hearings are 'a circus' Comey: Mueller 'didn't succeed in his mission because there was inadequate transparency' MORE's report, which detailed efforts by Russian entities to interfere in the 2016 presidential election with social media campaigns that sought to sow discord between supporters of then-candidates Donald Trump and Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham Clinton2020 Democrats make play for veterans' votes The Memo: Democrats confront prospect of long primary Manafort sought to hurt Clinton 2016 campaign efforts in key states: NYT MORE.

Witnesses at Wednesday's hearing agreed with Lowey's assessment of the spread of Russian disinformation as an ongoing conflict.

John Lansing, the CEO of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, which has jurisdiction over Voice of America and Radio Free Europe, described the issue of countering disinformation as a “battle.” Lansing asked lawmakers to step up spending to combat Russian efforts.

“I can’t say we’re at the promised land, or we’ve reached the epiphany of making it all go away, but we’re engaged,” Lansing told the subcommittee. “The one thing I would ask ... is just help us fund the effort. It’s becoming more and more expensive, because the Russians are sparing no expense in disrupting all these democratic institutions.”

Lansing noted that Russia is stepping up its disinformation efforts in other Democratic countries and in the U.S. in advance of the 2020 elections, and said that operatives are increasingly using artificial intelligence to spread lies under the guise of fake profiles.

“A lie can go around the world while the truth is putting its shoes on,” Lansing said.  

Lansing underlined the overall threat from Russia, and said that he believed Russia’s goal was to “destroy” the truth. 

“In a world where nothing is empirically truthful, any lie will do, and if everything is a lie, the biggest liar wins,” Lansing said. “It’s not an overestimation to say that the information battlefield may be the fight of the 21st century.”

Social media companies like Facebook have faced pressure to crack down on the issue. In the wake of the 2016 election and other privacy scandals, Facebook put geographic limits and other security obstacles on the buying of political advertisements.

But another witness at Wednesday's hearing said that in Ukraine, Russia has been testing out ways to skirt those rules, such as through the use of “ad mules,” or paying Ukrainian citizens to use their actual accounts to buy ads.

“It looks like an authentic Ukrainian is logging on and buying those ads, and then they are able to place those political ads,” Nina Jankowicz, a global fellow at the Wilson Center, said, and criticized Facebook for being “extraordinarily lax” in responding to this threat.