How might the West respond to the explosion of false information in social and traditional media?
There have been many prescriptions for inoculating a curious world against that challenge, especially since Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and, lately, several other pivotal leadership polls in Western Europe. Earlier, it was the ISIS mastery of on-line media that distorted truths in a digital age.
On March 5th, the Atlantic Council’s Washington office issued a landmark report recommending significant steps America and the European Union might take to create “an effective fire hose of truth” to meet the challenge.
The report is entitled “Democratic Defense Against Disinformation.” The 17-page document was prepared by Ambassador Daniel Fried of the Council’s Future Europe Initiative and Eurasia Center and Dr. Alina Polyakova of the Brookings Institution.
The same day as the report’s release, the Council sponsored a roundtable with those two experts and Jonathan Henick, deputy director of the State Department Global Engagement Center (GEC), David Sullivan, the European Union ambassador to the U.S., and Corina Rebegea, director of the U.S.-Romania Initiative.
Moderator of the session was Jim Fry of Polygraph.info, a daily joint multimedia unit at the Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty designed to report on, and fact check statements from Russian media and leaders. Eventually , Polygraph.info will take up misleading reports from Iran, ISIS and China as well.
Main findings of “Democratic Defense Against Disinformation” were:
—The urgency of action. The report and the panelists stressed that there is no time for delay in confronting the crisis.
—Unpacking that challenge. As the report says: “Countering purposeful misinformation and distortion, such as that conveyed by RT, Sputnik and other Kremlin-linked media outlets, is relatively straightforward in concept but difficult in practice.
“These are not news organizations in democracies’ understanding of the term, nor are they state-run but independent media organizations like the BBC.” As the report adds: “They are arms of the Russian state no more independent than Pravda was during the Soviet period.”
—Forming a public and private trans-Atlantic coalition to counter disinformation. This group would meet regularly: like-minded national government and non-governmental stakeholders, including media companies, traditional media and civil society representatives.
The experts’ roundtable offered several thoughts about the Atlantic Council’s recommendations:
*Ambassador David Fried of the European Union: “We need someone in the U.S. government to take strategic leadership — the imperative this year will be to do SOMETHING! We must devise a plan to reach out to social media. The ideas in this paper were intended to help plant the flag.”
*Ambassador Daniel O’Sullivan: “There’s no silver bullet… it’s about being transparent and credible. It’s not about government, it’s about disinformation.”
*Jonathan Henick of State’s Global Engagement Center: “The Atlantic Council report is very useful and timely. Our Secretary is fully engaged with the Department of Defense on this issue — we anticipate that the promised DOD transfer of $40 million to help us will come through shortly. We expect the BBG (the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors), the VOA and the BBC to be the biggest part of countering disinformation”. Mr. Henick’s comment came just two days after the New York Times reported that none of the $120 million dollars allocated by Congress to State’s GEC had been spent.
*Moderator Jim Fry: “We at VOA cover the news, and consider ourselves not so much as countering disinformation but as a fire hose of truth. We’re counting a lot on civil society organizations and NGOs to be part of the mix. I suspect there are ways to detect hostile bots — one of our jobs is to report how disinformation works.
*Corina Rebegea of the U.S.-Romania Initiative: “As it says in Article 6 of the Universal Code of Human Rights, freedom of speech is a core principle in Europe, a supranational force. It’s useful to identify bots and how they work. The EU has just passed a resolution to combat trolls.”
*Dr. Alina Polyakova of the Brookings Institution and co-author of the Atlantic Council’s “Democratic Defense Against Disinformation” report: “This is a problem that can intensify and preoccupy us all for the next five or ten years. We need to be on the offensive, not reacting.”
As that report concludes: “We believe that democratic societies may be at a short-term disadvantage in contending with propaganda and demagogues, but history demonstrates that they have longer-term advantages, especially tools of transparency, fair (and limited) regulation, and an active civil society.”