Comment: Should Washington step in or walk away from “fake news”? | Comment
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 doesn’t just affect political elections.
Today, misinformation and its malicious sister, misinformation, permeate American society so much that citizens have no easy way to know what information is accurate. Someone has to clean up the information environment, or American society will fragment as different groups believe 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 being trained by the Ukrainian Armed Forces to scout for 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 to be false.
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. No study has shown that Swedes don’t feed their guests, but that hasn’t stopped the storm of anger from spreading and damaging the country’s reputation.
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 United States and Canada by posing as posing as concerned local residents on social media. China dominates the world’s crucial processing of rare earths, using large volumes of imports from African mines.
It’s not limited to politics
Companies, meanwhile, are already acutely aware of the power of misinformation and disinformation; indeed, some companies are already harming their competitors by using “misinformation as a service” packages offered by a host of shady groups. PwC 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.
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 totally unwilling to tackle the problem fundamentally, as lies are 70% more likely to be shared on social media, and social media companies make their money on 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.
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 jurisdiction 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.
How the government can help
A much better idea would be for the US government to take inspiration from the new Swedish Psychological Defense Agency, whose very specific mission is to monitor and counter foreign campaigns of malign influence and build citizens’ resilience against misinformation and misinformation. This means that the agency does not insert itself into the national debate, but rather strives to protect the country from external threats while helping citizens become better informed.
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 Center, a 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 Swedish agency.
US states also have a role to play in stemming foreign disinformation. Connecticut takes the lead. Hartford plans to appoint an official to monitor and debunk misinformation about state election logistics such as polling locations and hours of operation. However, the official will not monitor or report any lies in the political debate. Colorado, meanwhile, is trying to teach its people to be careful about what they share and encouraging them, for example, to read a graphic novel on disinformation published by the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency. The Kansas City Library, in turn, teaches residents about information and media.
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.
Elizabeth Braw is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. She 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). This essay first appeared in The Ripon Forum.