The United States has fallen behind the European Union in efforts to fight disinformation campaigns, particularly by Russia, according to expert organizations studying the topic.
The U.S. “has struggled to frame consistent policy responses,” according to a June report by the Atlantic Council, an international affairs think tank.
Meanwhile, the E.U. published the Action Plan against Disinformation in December 2018, claiming its “democratic processes are increasingly challenged by deliberate, large-scale and systematic spreading of disinformation.”
The plan announced the creation of a “rapid alert system” to share data about disinformation campaigns. It devoted more money and resources to address disinformation and included plans to increase cooperation between members of the E.U. The bloc has also launched a Code of Practice on Disinformation, which was a voluntary agreement with companies to prevent the spread of disinformation. Some of the signers of the agreement were Facebook, Google, Twitter, and Mozilla. At the same time, it has created the East StratCom Task Force to address Russian disinformation.
The United Kingdom has taken its own steps to reduce the impact of disinformation, a campaign called “Don’t Feed The Beast.”
“We’ve set out plans to make the U.K. the safest place in the world to be online, including educating and empowering those who see, inadvertently share and are affected by false and misleading information,” a spokesperson from the U.K. Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport told The Globe Post. “In the Online Harms White Paper, the Government also committed to introducing a new duty of care on online companies to tackle a wide range of online harms, including limiting the spread of disinformation.”
The Online Harms White Paper is a proposed package by the U.K. government of legislative and non-legislative measures addressing online safety.
These and other efforts from the E.U. exceed those by the U.S., according to the Atlantic Council, which said the U.S. had made “little progress” but noted there has been some “notable activities.”
“Russian disinformation campaigns aim to amplify existing social divisions and further polarize democratic societies. As such, they don’t stop when the ballot box closes.” https://t.co/wkBvL4iP8C
— Brookings (@BrookingsInst) July 27, 2019
The activities by the U.S. include the release of the special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on the Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, the change of focus by the State Department’s Global Engagement Center from countering extremist Islamist ideology to countering state-sponsored disinformation, and congressional hearings with social media representatives.
Erik Nisbet, an associate professor at the Ohio State University’s School of Communication and the co-director of the Eurasian Security and Governance Program, told The Globe Post countries should look at the demand for disinformation as well as the actual supply.
“They’ll only be moderately effective at best until they address the root causes of why people are vulnerable to disinformation,” Nisbet said.
He said people who feel anxious, threatened or are dissatisfied with the political system will be vulnerable to information that confirms their emotions and biases.
Nisbet acknowledged that Europe has developed a more coordinated strategy against disinformation, but he added that just addressing the supply side of disinformation is like playing whack-a-mole. At the same time, he argued that while it’s too early to judge Europe’s disinformation prevention efforts, they may not have been that effective.
Nisbet said new data privacy laws in Europe, while not designed specifically to target Russian disinformation, has helped limit it. If the U.S. government passed similar data privacy laws, would assist its efforts against disinformation.
During a hearing on Russian disinformation and Europe’s response to it by the Subcommittee of Europe, Eurasia, Energy and the Environment, Representative William Keating, D-Mass., committee chairman, said the U.S. has to do more.
“Russian interference undermines our elections, as well as those of the countries around the world, while sto king anti-Western sentiment and threatening our alliances and our security,” Keating said. “While there have been steep challenges in their efforts to combat Russia’s disinformation activities, we can build on [Europe’s] progress and start moving much more aggressively to address this here at home.”
Between September and November of 2016, Russian troll accounts posted over 130,000 tweets related to the U.S. presidential election. Disinformation campaigns are a major part of Russia's "gray zone" toolkit: https://t.co/eA3zOVHpoo pic.twitter.com/vGU0CqF07Y
— CSIS (@CSIS) August 1, 2019
Disinformation doesn’t just come from Russia.
Researchers told The Washington Post that Iran has targeted the U.S. with disinformation and that Saudi Arabia, Israel, China, the United Arab Emirates, and Venezuela host online influence operations with a history of influencing other countries.
“Many more countries are developing capability to replicate what the Russians have done,” said former special counsel Mueller during a House Intelligence Committee hearing last week.
The Atlantic Council’s June report also warned that “terrorist groups with a higher tolerance for risk” could develop disinformation toolkits.
When asked during the hearing whether Russia would try to get involved in a U.S. election again, Mueller said, “They’re doing it as we sit here.”
The Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency contradicted this claim with an infographic, published before the Mueller hearing, that compared foreign interference to putting pineapples on pizza.
“To date, we have no evidence of Russia (or any nation) actively carrying out information operations against pizza toppings,” the department wrote above the infographic.