Fake News and the Federal Government: Should Washington Intervene or Step Down?

by ELISABETH BRAW

The United States has a midterm election coming up – and these days that means the certain prospect of huge volumes of misinformation and misinformation. But the viral spread of lies is not limited to political elections.

Today, misinformation and its malevolent sister, misinformation, permeate American society so much that citizens have no way of knowing what information is accurate. Someone has to clean up the information environment, or American society will fragment as different groups believe in different sources of information. The federal government can play a role of impartial observer, but the most important role is to educate and therefore to empower citizens.

At the start of Russia’s war against Ukraine, there were reports of cats trained by the Ukrainian Armed Forces to spot Russian snipers. One cat in particular, dubbed the Tiger of Kharkiv, was said to be particularly gifted. Countless people continued to share stories of the feline chases, and in no time the stories were going around the world. These stories turned out fake.

A few months later, a bizarre comment from a Reddit user, who claimed to have visited Swedish friends and not eaten at their place, went viral on Twitter, turning into an avalanche of users claiming that Swedes were racist. There have been no study it shows that Swedes don’t feed their guests dinner – but that hasn’t stopped the storm of anger from spreading and damaging the country’s reputation.

Today, misinformation and its malevolent sister, misinformation, permeate American society so much that citizens have no way of knowing what information is accurate.

The so-called Swedengate has also made other countries – and individuals – realize how vulnerable they are to campaigns against them based on misinformation (accidental lies), misinformation (intentional lies) or a combination of both. . And as Americans discovered during the 2016 election campaign, at the very least, geopolitical rivals are cunning in spreading lies to weaken Western societies. In a recent iteration of these malign influence campaigns, pro-China operatives attempted to stir up protests against a new US rare earth processing company and planned rare earth mines in the US and Canada by impersonating concerned local residents on social media. China dominated the world’s crucial processing of rare earths, using large volumes of imports from African mines.

Companies, meanwhile, are already acutely aware of the power of misinformation and disinformation; indeed, some companies already harm competitors using the “misinformation as a service” packages offered by a host of sleazy outfits. watercraft reports that disinformation-as-a-service providers charge “$15 to $45 to create a 1,000 character article; $65 to directly contact a media source to broadcast material; $100 for 10 comments to be published on a given article or report; $350 to $550 per month for social media marketing; and $1,500 for search engine optimization services to promote social media posts and articles over a 10-15 day period. Such misinformation can cause real harm to companies, as negative news can lead to a sale of stocks. Even if the share price subsequently recovers, recurring episodes of bad publicity can permanently damage the image and therefore the value of a company. As a result, many companies are now investing more money in information surveillance, but they clearly cannot prevent lies from being created and shared.

Indeed, perhaps because most people think it doesn’t matter if they see or read unverified information, the spread of misinformation and disinformation continues despite growing awareness. damage they may cause. Citizen incompetence is aided by fake engagement commercial services that help lies go viral. “Of the 114,061 fake engagement purchased, more than 96 percent rest on line and asset after four weeks. To date, none of the platforms’ actions have materially changed the way the manipulation industry operates,” NATO’s Stratcom Center of Excellence noted in an April 2022 report. report.

Because public discourse based on lies and inaccuracies risks rendering democracies ungovernable, it is imperative to tackle the epidemic of lies. Social media companies, however, are completely unwilling to tackle the problem fundamentally – because the lies are 70 percent more likely to be shared on social media, and social media companies make their money from traffic. This means that the epidemic must be fought as it spreads. Yes, that means a role for the government – ​​but above all for the citizens.

Because public discourse based on lies and inaccuracies risks rendering democracies ungovernable, it is imperative to tackle the epidemic of lies.

The role the government should play is not the one envisioned for the Disinformation Governance Council launched by the US Department of Homeland Security this spring. At the council’s launch, US media reported that it would focus on issues as diverse as migration and Russia, but the council’s function and competencies remained unclear. By appointing a think tank with expressed political leanings rather than a respected public service disinformation expert, the government has further undermined its own efforts. To no one’s surprise, the council was quickly suspended.

A much better idea would be for the US government to take inspiration from the new Swedish Psychological Defense Agency (MPF), whose assignment is to monitor and counter foreign campaigns of malign influence and build citizen resilience against misinformation and disinformation. This means that the MPF does not insert itself into the national debate, but rather strives to protect the country from external threats while helping citizens become better informed. Since its creation at the beginning of this year, the MPF has, for example, identified an ISIS-linked disinformation campaign alleging Swedish social services were kidnapping Muslim children and coordinating government debunking. He also launched the Information Literacy website Bli inte lurad (“Don’t be fooled”).

Indeed, because governments in liberal democracies would be entering dangerous waters if they attempted to regulate public discourse, any US government intervention in the flow of information must be limited to lies propagated by foreign governments. The Global Engagement Centera small unit within the State Department already tasked with countering foreign-led disinformation, could easily be expanded and empowered to coordinate US government responses in the same way as the MPF.

Because governments in liberal democracies would be entering dangerous waters if they tried to regulate public discourse, any US government intervention in the flow of information must be limited to lies propagated by foreign governments.

US states also have a role to play in stemming foreign disinformation. Connecticut is take the lead. Hartford plans to appoint an official to monitor and debunk misinformation about state election logistics such as polling location and hours. However, the official will not monitor or report any lies in the political debate. Colorado, meanwhile, is trying to learn its inhabitants to be careful about what they share and encourages them, for example, to read a graphic novel on misinformation published by CISA. The Kansas City Library, on the other hand, teach the locals information and media education.

Such information literacy education should complement federal government oversight of foreign disinformation. Citizens who can verify information will mitigate most fake news and misinformation, but they need to be taught how. States can develop curricula and training materials that counties can use in their school systems and — to reach adults — in libraries. They can even offer it to employers.

Everyone has opinions, but no one would want to consume lies out of ignorance. The fight against misinformation and disinformation does not only involve the federal government, but all components of society.

Elisabeth Braw is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where she focuses on defending against emerging national security challenges, such as hybrid and gray area threats. is the author of The Defender’s Dilemma: Identifying and Deterring Gray-Zone Aggression (AEI Press, 2022) and God’s Spies: The Stasi’s Cold War Espionage Campaign Inside the Church (Eerdmans, 2019).

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