New law lets government fight propaganda with propaganda

After this year’s election, a topic which has seen a lot of coverage is “fake news.” There were some stories that were shared that sounded plausible to some, but were not true. There was other information that was provided that was true, but may have been obtained by foreign powers.

Some in Congress reacted to this and thus we have the Portman-Murphy Counter-Propaganda Bill. The new law was built into the enormous $611 billion defense appropriations bill signed into law by President Obama on December 23, 2016.

The bill aims to “improve the ability of the United States to counter foreign propaganda and disinformation from our enemies by establishing an interagency center housed at the State Department to coordinate and synchronize counter-propaganda efforts throughout the U.S. government. To support these efforts, the bill also creates a grant program for NGOs, think tanks, civil society and other experts outside government who are engaged in counter-propaganda related work. This will better leverage existing expertise and empower our allies overseas to defend themselves from foreign manipulation. It will also help foster a free and vibrant press and civil society overseas, which is critical to ensuring our allies have access to truthful information and inoculating people against foreign propaganda campaigns.”
These grants appear to be the government increasing their ability to generate propaganda through the use of third parties. The stated intention is to counter propaganda, but it could potentially be used to generate propaganda even possibly propaganda aimed at the American People.

The official press release also establishes two priorities of the bill:

“The first priority is developing a whole-of-government strategy for countering the foreign propaganda and disinformation being waged against us and our allies by our enemies. The bill would increase the authority, resources, and mandate of the Global Engagement Center to include state actors like Russia and China as well as non-state actors. The Center will be led by the State Department, but with the active senior level participation of the Department of Defense, USAID, the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the Intelligence Community, and other relevant agencies. The Center will develop, integrate, and synchronize whole-of-government initiatives to expose and counter foreign disinformation operations by our enemies and proactively advance fact-based narratives that support U.S. allies and interests."

“Second, the legislation seeks to leverage expertise from outside government to create more adaptive and responsive U.S. strategy options. The legislation establishes a fund to help train local journalists and provide grants and contracts to NGOs, civil society organizations, think tanks, private sector companies, media organizations, and other experts outside the U.S. government with experience in identifying and analyzing the latest trends in foreign government disinformation techniques. This fund will complement and support the Center’s role by integrating capabilities and expertise available outside the U.S. government into the strategy-making process. It will also empower a decentralized network of private sector experts and integrate their expertise into the strategy-making process."

The sponsoring Senators made the following statements in the press release.

“Our enemies are using foreign propaganda and disinformation against us and our allies, and so far the U.S. government has been asleep at the wheel,” Portman said. “But today, the United States has taken a critical step towards confronting the extensive, and destabilizing, foreign propaganda and disinformation operations being waged against us by our enemies overseas. With this bill now law, we are finally signaling that enough is enough; the United States will no longer sit on the sidelines. We are going to confront this threat head-on. I am confident that, with the help of this bipartisan bill, the disinformation and propaganda used against us, our allies, and our interests will fail.”

“The use of propaganda to undermine democracy has hit a new low. But now we are finally in a position to confront this threat head on and get out the truth. By building up independent, objective journalism in places like eastern Europe, we can start to fight back by exposing these fake narratives and empowering local communities to protect themselves,” said Murphy. “I’m proud that our bill was signed into law, and I look forward to working with Senator Portman to make sure these tools and new resources are effectively used to get out the truth.”

This new law appears intended to allow the United States to create news organizations that provide true news or news fact checkers. The definition of what exactly “fake news” is a bit murky. It appears that many of the truly fake news stories were spread by sites that counted on unique stories that were not true to drive visitors to their site and generate ad revenue. Some of these sites are parody and others interest people since they provide shocking, but possibly believable stories based on your world view. Some of these stories are difficult to determine if they are real or not.

Then there are the sites like Wikileaks that host information and are not concerned about how the information was obtained. The information that they provide is usually vetted to establish its validity, but not who provided the information. Wikileaks came to prominence when they released hundreds of thousands of United States State Department cables starting February 18, 2010 in coordination with El País, Der Spiegel, Le Monde, The Guardian and The New York Times. The cables are believed to have been uploaded to Wikileaks by a disgruntled United States Army soldier Bradley Manning.

They increased their standing on April 5, 2010 by releasing a video in which a US Apache gunship killed a wounded Reuters employee in Iraq who the gunship mistook for an insurgent. Reuters had unsuccessfully tried to obtain the video via a Freedom of Information Act request. Wikileaks provocatively entitled the video “Collateral Murder.”

During the election, Wikileaks published a number of emails belonging to DNC employees and former chairman of the Hillary Clinton Campaign John Podesta. These emails put the campaign in a bad light. There was discussion of how to help Hillary Clinton from DNC officials who were supposed to be impartial. There were reporters acting more as campaign workers than independent journalists. There was a reporter providing a debate question to Mrs. Clinton. This release of the internal communications of the DNC and campaign affected the campaign negatively. In a close election it might have been the difference between winning and losing.

The emails leaks contain google hashes which verified that they were unaltered. This would make them accurate internal communications, but they may have been copied and provided by a foreign government. To some this would constitute “fake news,” since it is a foreign organization possibly influencing a United States election.

This law seems to be aimed at the latter definition of “fake news” where true information is disseminated by foreign agents.

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