Prompt and coordinated action needed to fight disinformation, experts say
Although disinformation campaigns are not a new phenomenon in the political toolkit, Russia’s recent tactics and manipulation of social media, have presented governments with new challenges. The solution is a coherent and coordinated response from society as a whole and prompt action by the trans-Atlantic alliance.
An Atlantic Council event on Wednesday, March 7, included the following panelists:
Ambassador Daniel Fried, Distinguished Fellow, Future Europe Initiative and Eurasia Center, Atlantic Council
Dr. Jonathan Henick, Deputy Director, Global Engagement Center, US Department of State
H.E. David O’Sullivan, Ambassador of the European Union to the United States
Dr. Alina Polyakova, David M. Rubenstein Fellow – Foreign Policy, Center on the United States and Europe, Brookings Institution
Ms. Corina Rebegea, Director, US-Romania Initiative and Fellow-in-Residence, Center for European Policy Analysis
Mr. Fried said the Western response to counter disinformation – which includes overt propaganda, social media manipulation and cyber hacking – must be aligned with democratic values and coordinated with the efforts of the governments, civil society and tech companies.
This type of societal collaboration should also be represented on the trans-Atlantic level, in the form of the “Counter-Disinformation Coalition,” which would be an informal coalition between the U.S. and E.U. governments and non-governmental actors who would develop common norms and best practices. “We are in this together”, said Fried, but acknowledging that Europe has been ahead of the U.S. on countering disinformation.
“It is time to stop admiring the problem and wringing our hands about it”, said Fried calling for prompt action.
Mr. O’Sullivan discussed the need for the public debate to expose disinformation tactics and misuse of social media, stressing the importance of a “whole of society response” in building resilience to disinformation. “There is no silver bullet for governments to sort of pass a law which suddenly makes this problem go away”, said Sullivan.
Dr. Henick of the Global Engagement Agency, established in 2016 to lead U.S. efforts to fight terrorist and foreign propaganda, said that disinformation per se is not a new problem and various U.S. agencies have long been working on it. He dismissed recent claims in the press that his agency remains less active in countering Russian propaganda than was initially foreseen, due to low interest from the State Department and delayed financing. Henick said the shortly expected first $40 million tranches of a much-anticipated funding allocation will allow the agency to “redouble their efforts”, to invest in new technology and empower civil society actors with resources.
“We need to work with strengthening the independent media, to build up resistance, increase digital literacy”, said Henick, adding that debunking false information alone is not sufficient and that he did not support the counter-use of “troll farms”. “The solution to this problem is going to look nothing like the problem itself”, said Henick.
Dr. Polyakova said that, although Russia is at the center of the disinformation discussion, the recommendations provided in the Atlantic Council report are about building a long-term societal resistance to disinformation and interference. “Russia is a starting point, but this is really about much more than just one state actor. It is really about the resilience and resistance that we can build”, said Polyakova.
Ms. Rebegea said that while free speech is a basic right in the European Union, regulations also permit banning media outlets that spread hate speech. This was the case in Lithuania, which first banned Russian TV channel RTR Planeta for three months in 2015 on grounds of inciting hatred in their reporting on Ukraine.
“I think there are ways in which we can preserve democratic values and safeguards”, said Rebegea, “but at the same time to go against these bad actors”.
Among the measures of countering disinformation recommended by the Atlantic Council, is the need to clearly label Russian networks such as RT and their content as propagandistic by both the traditional and social media. Another measure is to stop spreading false news, for instance by having tech companies “mute” and “de-rank” untrustworthy and deceptive content and content from automated accounts. Ms. Polyakova said these measures would help prevent false information from “going viral”, whereas “no one knows where the information came from”. “These kinds of disinformation campaigns can be identified today and they [tech companies] can stop them at the beginning”, said Polyakova.
Some other recommendations outlined in the Atlantic Council report include:
- the U.S. should create new governmental agencies with a focus on disinformation,
- the U.S. needs to bring transparency to online political ads
- Governments and tech companies should support, including financially, civil society organizations, such as StopFake, to expose disinformation.
- Governments should implement programs on civic-education and training on media-literacy for the public, with support from civil-society groups and tech companies.
The report can be found on the Atlantic Council website.
By Valeria Jegisman