How Congress is tackling disinformation from US adversaries

The U.S. government is seeking to step up its information war to defeat nation-state threat actors like Russia and China which, in recent years, have ramped up their disinformation campaigns globally.

Lawmakers are not only concerned about how nation-state threat actors are waging an information war inside the U.S., but also globally as they expand their malign influence in other parts of the world, including in Africa and Latin America.

“Countries including Russia and China deploy immense resources to wage global information campaigns attempting to shape the narratives of their actions to their advantage, most often by twisting the truth or deflecting attention to distract the public from their true goals,” said Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), during a hearing held by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week.

Amanda Bennett, CEO of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, who testified at the hearing, said that Russia, China, and Iran, which often work together, are heavily investing in disinformation campaigns both inside their countries and abroad.

“The reality is that if we miss this opportunity to make strategic investments now we may run the risk of losing the global information war,” Bennett told the lawmakers.

“We should be alarmed about this but still optimistic, alarmed because we’re being vastly outspent, but optimistic because we still have the competitive advantage,” she added.

The experts said although foreign influence isn’t a new phenomenon, they were glad to see that Congress is exploring ways to tackle it as disinformation continues to spread partly due to the rise of social media and the speed at which information is conveyed.

David Hickton, founding director of the University of Pittsburgh’s Institute for Cyber Law, Policy and Security, said the U.S. should not just focus on the direct impact of disinformation campaigns but also understand that those false narratives are created to incite distrust. 

“If you can create distrust, you really are along the path to destroy people’s faith in democracy and once people’s faith in democracy is gone…that’s very dangerous,” Hickton told The Hill in an interview.

Russia’s goal is to create internal discord

Russia, who has been a main rival of the U.S. since the Cold War, has been focused on creating internal unrest from inside the U.S. Their goal has been to pit Americans against each other and further polarize the country, especially in the political sphere, experts said.

“Russia has had a long history of working to sow social upheaval in the United States,” Todd Helmus, a senior behavioral scientist at the RAND Corporation, told The Hill in an interview.

“Their 2016 campaign did try to target the U.S. election, and of course, also sought to pit Republicans and Democrats against each other,” he added.

Helmus also said that Russia has been very active in this space and most recently has been working to undermine any efforts from Western countries to support Ukraine.

Last year, cybersecurity firm Mandiant released a report that showed how Russian-backed actors launched numerous disinformation campaigns intended to demoralize Ukrainians and incite internal unrest.

In one of the campaigns, the actors falsely claimed that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky committed suicide in a military bunker in Kyiv because of his failure to keep his country safe.

In another operation, the actors used Telegram, a popular social media platform, to spread disinformation including that the Ukrainian government was corrupt and incompetent, and that the country was unprepared for the war.

“The best way for them to achieve [their goals] is to create cracks between us and our allies,” Hickton said. 

Ivana Stradner, a research fellow in the Barish Center for Media Integrity at the Foundation for Defense Democracies, said she believes the U.S. is already losing in this space as it’s currently playing defense against Russia by trying to debunk its false narratives.

“I believe that Russia is winning the information war because it’s weaponizing the First Amendment here in the United States by putting us on the defensive,” Stradner told The Hill in an interview.

“We should be putting Russia on the defensive so they spend time, energy and resources on defending itself from our information operations,” she added. 

China’s attempt to save its own image

Although China’s objectives sometimes overlap with Russia’s, its main goal is to push a pro-China narrative around the world and maintain a sphere of influence in the Indo-Pacific region, particularly as it relates to Taiwan which it considers as part of its sovereign territory under the “One China” policy. 

Helmus said that China has vested interest in reunifying with Taiwan and undermining pro-democracy protest movements like the one that occurred in Hong Kong in 2019 and 2020. 

“You can very clearly tie that to Chinese national security goals and objectives,” Helmus said. 

Like Russia, China has also launched its own disinformation campaigns against the U.S. 

Last year, Mandiant released a report showing how a pro-China disinformation group had been aggressively targeting the U.S. by using various tactics designed to divide the country along party lines and isolate it from its European allies.

The report revealed that the campaign was attempting to discredit the U.S. political system and discourage Americans from voting in the 2022 midterm elections. 

In one of their operations, the group attempted to cast doubt on the productivity of U.S. lawmakers and questioned whether the legislative process is having a real impact on American lives. 

“China deeply cares about its own reputation, and they’re doing everything possible in the information space to debunk American narratives,” Stradner said.

How should the U.S. respond?

The experts said the U.S. government should invest in detecting those disinformation campaigns early, publicize those efforts, and remove fake accounts as soon as they’re detected to prevent further spread online. 

They also said it should invest more in media literacy and educating audiences about what is true and fake.

They added that Congress should also pass a legislation that would require social media companies to be more transparent with the government on how they’re investing in this space, what their policies are, and what they’re doing to enforce those regulations. 

“This is why education, research and the importance of the media as the check on falsehoods is so critical,” Hickton said.

Tags Amanda Bennett Ben Cardin China disinformation foreign interference russia Volodymyr Zelensky

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