A bill on President Barack Obama’s desk this week would authorize U.S. officials to combat propaganda and fake news from Russia and other countries, as well as allow federal money to be used abroad where misinformation “threatens the United States national security.”
“This is the most serious effort in a long time to deal with this,” said Karl Altau, managing director of the Joint Baltic American National Committee, a group that lobbied for U.S. intervention on fake news pushed out by Russian operatives.
The push for a centralized U.S. effort to track and discredit foreign propaganda comes as Republicans and Democrats in Congress set out to investigate whether Russian officials used cyberattacks and other means to influence President-elect Donald Trump’s election. The Obama administration charged in early October that Russia was meddling in the elections.
Officials with the Russian Embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.
Altau says proponents of the anti-propaganda bill see a broad connection between U.S. interests in fighting fake news globally and the upcoming high-level review of whether Russia intentionally tried to sway the 2016 presidential race outcome.
“The No. 1 reason to direct this against America is to cause loss of faith in our institutions,” he said in an interview.
The pending legislation is rolled into the massive, annual military defense bill, passed with bipartisan support in the House and Senate as the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2017. The proposal has been in the works for several months and passed through committees and both chambers earlier this year.
U.S. Sens. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and Chris Murphy, D-Conn., and U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Illinois, along with 13 House cosponsors originally introduced the idea as standalone legislation. Obama could sign the defense bill sometime this week, congressional sources told McClatchy.
A similar anti-propaganda provision is included in the annual Intelligence Authorization Act for fiscal year 2017, which has yet to come up for a vote in Congress. That bill calls for the president to create an inter-agency committee to “counter active measures by the Russian Federation to exert covert influence over peoples and government.”
In blunt language, the intelligence bill calls on the committee to “expose falsehoods, agents of influence, corruption, human rights abuses, terrorism, and assassinations carried out by the security services or political elites of the Russian Federation or their proxies.”
Murphy’s office said Tuesday the proposal in the defense bill would codify in law what Obama’s administration has already begun under an executive order to counter misinformation from groups like the Islamic State. That work is done by the Global Engagement Center, housed in the U.S. State Department. Further authorization would also involve the U.S. Department of Defense and other federal agencies.
Chris Harris, a spokesman for Murphy, said the original bill wasn’t in response to “fake news” circulated during the election cycle but introduced as a means to counter misinformation spread in foreign countries in a way that is harmful to U.S. national security interests.
Russia, in particular, uses “troll farms” to post and spread fake news on social media, said Alina Polyakova, deputy director of the Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council, an independent think tank. Other tactics including using operatives to set up secretive shell companies, under-the-table payments to political parties and other actions to sow media confusion, she said.
“Russia commands a tremendous amount of resources for its information operations. One estimate is that it is over $400 million,” Polyakova said in an interview.
Despite Trump’s insistence in recent days that allegations of Russian meddling in the election are “ridiculous,” Republican leaders in Congress on Monday said the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee will investigate. Those lawmakers have been briefed by U.S. intelligence agency officials who believe Russia may have been behind hacking into Democratic National Committee emails and possibly infiltrating voter registration systems in some states. Those voter systems are not connected to official vote-tabulation infrastructure, the FBI has said.
There’s been no evidence made public from U.S. officials to suggest cyberattacks manipulated actual vote counts in the Nov. 8 election. Instead, some lawmakers have pushed for a congressional investigation into whether Russia used fake news or propaganda to influence voters and undermine U.S. political institutions.
A move toward authorizing the State Department to immediately take up the work of probing such a possibility was welcomed this week by groups who study propaganda tactics and others who represent interests of Central and Eastern European countries particularly threatened by Russian military might and attempts to influence domestic affairs.
“It’s the first major step by Congress to take this threat seriously,” said Peter B. Doran, vice president of research at the Center for European Policy Analysis, a Washington, D.C., think tank that studies what it calls “information warfare.”
Doran said in an interview he thinks Congress intends to offer significant resources to a project that has echoes in the Cold War. During the Cold War, which lasted from 1947 to 1991, the U.S. government and other Western countries heavily invested in radio broadcasts and print media in Russia to deflate Soviet Union propaganda. Since the war ended, U.S. initiatives have been scaled back while Russia has poured resources into creating media and information.
Russia uses state-owned media outlets with a presence in the West, such as the RT television network, formerly known as Russia Today, and Sputnik, a print publication. Both also have online publications.
“Russians are emboldened by the lack of (U.S.) push-back,” said Neil Barnett, founder of Istok Associates, a corporate intelligence and investigations firm, who studies Russian operations in Europe. “Their goal is to undermine and spread disunity in the West, to undermine liberal democracy as a principle.”