The Race to Consolidate Power and Stave Off Disaster
The 2016 U.S. presidential election propelled the threat of disinformation to the forefront of public debate. Americans were shocked by Russian attempts to influence voters by spreading misleading narratives. They had never imagined that a foreign power might use social media and other modern technologies to interfere in their elections.
Four years later, it seems that foreign adversaries were not able to meaningfully disrupt the 2020 U.S. presidential election—the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) declared this recent election “the most secure in American history.” But disinformation continues to circulate widely in the country as President Donald Trump refuses to concede to President-elect Joe Biden. Conspiracy theories about the legitimacy of the election’s outcome course through social media, fill the airwaves of certain partisan outlets, and spill from the White House itself. The current impasse is a reminder that disinformation is not just an inchoate foreign threat—it is also an American pathology.
Homegrown disinformation proliferated in this election year, including claims that so-called antifa militants started wildfires in the Pacific Northwest and assertions—fed by the mushrooming QAnon conspiracy—that Trump is saving the country from a powerful cabal of pedophiles. Such false and wild notions have blossomed in the societal fissures that have widened under Trump—between those who live in rural areas and those who live in cities, for instance, and those who see systemic racism as a major problem and those who don’t. These divisions have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, four years of Trump’s populist rhetoric, and a social media environment that encourages outrage and extremism. The White House has sought to combat disinformation only when forced to and continues to put pressure on social media companies for its own political convenience—bristling, for instance, at content moderation decisions that affect the president, such as Twitter’s decision to label Trump’s tweets as suspect. Social media platforms have made temporary, surface-level changes to curb the spread of false claims, but they continue to profit from the very structures and imperatives that are now driving groups of Trump-supporting, reality-denying vigilantes to rally at ballot counting centers across the country.
Biden and his advisers seem to recognize the scale and scope of the problem. As a bridge builder and big-tent politician, the president-elect may be uniquely equipped to lead efforts to shore up American resilience to foreign and domestic disinformation. Biden is the lone American signatory of the Pledge for Election Integrity, a 2019 document drafted by the transatlantic nonprofit group Alliance of Democracies. The group of mostly European politicians who signed the pledge promised they would not “fabricate, use or spread data or materials that were falsified, fabricated, doxed or stolen for disinformation or propaganda purposes”; distribute deepfake videos; or utilize inauthentic means, such as bots, to amplify their messages. Biden should continue to lead by example and convince Democratic and Republican members of Congress and state and local officials to pledge to abide by these principles.
After four fractious years of politicization and polarization, however, it will take more than official pledges to address the degradation of public discourse in the United States and the manipulation of information by self-interested charlatans. The next administration will do better in this fight only if it pushes for new governmental structures and legislation. The president-elect’s record of bipartisanship presents an opportunity to push for clear, apolitical measures to safeguard American democracy from the toxic threat of disinformation.
The Biden administration must first ensure that all levels of the federal government take the threat of disinformation seriously. This challenge should no longer be a subtopic discussed in hushed tones out of earshot of the president, as it was under Trump, who called disinformation “a hoax” and dismissed any action to counter it as censorship. As a result, the highest levels of the U.S. government never strongly condemned the spread of false messages, nor did the White House ever issue a unifying policy directive to guide agencies in working together to combat disinformation. A few small pockets of the government—notably the CISA, whose director, Christopher Krebs, was fired via presidential tweet this week—had to take on the gargantuan portfolio. But information operations concern every arm of the government. Other countries, such as the United Kingdom, appreciate the magnitude of the problem. The British government convenes foreign and domestic policy officials to develop plans for mitigating online threats and to respond to specific crises, such as the onslaught of Russian disinformation that followed the 2018 poisoning in the United Kingdom of the former Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal.
The United States should take a similar approach, creating a counter-disinformation czar within the National Security Council and setting up a corresponding directorate. This office would monitor the information ecosystem for threats and coordinate interagency policy responses. It would not try to serve any fact-checking or content moderation role, thereby avoiding accusations of censorship. Critically, the team would bring together ideas and opinions from outside the traditional national security and foreign policy realms, including from the Department of Education and organizations such as the National Endowment for the Humanities, two arms of government that deal directly with Americans. The new directorate would also encourage cooperation and information sharing with the private sector and with civil society groups.
With this more comprehensive bureaucratic structure in place, the Biden administration should then set its sights on Congress. Trump-era congressional hearings concerning online disinformation were mostly exercises in political theater, generating viral clips of members of Congress lambasting technology executives but no policy. Biden should lean on his bipartisan track record and encourage Congress to establish a federal commission for online oversight and transparency. Such a commission would make sure that social media platforms guard against malign foreign content and don’t fall prey to partisan bias. Legislators could compel social media companies to report on the decisions they make in devising algorithms and in moderating content, with the goal of building a more transparent and democratic Internet.
Biden must push for new governmental structures and legislation to fight disinformation.
The United States has fallen woefully behind its peers in instituting and implementing counter-disinformation legislation. Common-sense, bipartisan bills such as the Honest Ads Act, which would make the funding and targeting of online political ads more transparent and which counts Lindsey Graham, the Republican senator from South Carolina, among its cosponsors, was denied a vote in the Senate by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky. A bill that passed in the House of Representatives and that directed the National Science Foundation and the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine to conduct research on disinformation regarding the COVID-19 pandemic—including threats that might affect public trust in a future vaccine—has not gained any Republican cosponsors and has not moved out of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions. Even such benign and apolitical bills have fallen victim to rancor on Capitol Hill. Congress must recognize that disinformation is not a partisan issue or risk further neglecting its duty to protect democratic norms and practices.
Serious efforts to combat disinformation will require a commensurate budget. The Biden administration should look to allies that have decades of experience dealing with disinformation. Some European countries have made generational investments in building media and digital literacy programs for both students and voting-age adults. These programs, including Finnish efforts to make even kindergarteners media literate and Swedish government outreach programs focusing on the threat of disinformation, help people learn how to navigate today’s increasingly frenetic online environment so that they can recognize false or malign messaging. Data from Ukraine indicate that in the long term, these programs change behavior and make citizens less susceptible to manipulation. In addition to funding these programs in schools and universities, the Biden administration should consider empowering public libraries—which 78 percent of Americans believe are “trustworthy and reliable” sources of information—to run media literacy initiatives.
The Biden administration should bolster public media in order to provide more sober alternatives to the fire and brimstone of cable news. Partisan U.S. news networks and radio stations have helped drive polarization and distrust of the media in the United States. Countries that demonstrate greater resilience to disinformation, such as Germany and the United Kingdom, tend to invest in a robust public media ecosystem. The United States spends a paltry $1.35 per person per year on the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, despite polling that indicates that Public Broadcasting Service television programming is more trusted than that of its for-profit, private competitors. Local PBS and National Public Radio affiliates are sometimes the only outlets in areas that would otherwise be news deserts; in their absence, partisan junk news would rush into the breach. A functioning democracy depends on the public having access to authoritative information it can trust. The U.S. government should support public media, not threaten (as Trump did in February) to cut its funding.
Both Democrats and Republicans should be able to get behind these policies. But these measures will only begin to address the phenomenon of online disinformation. Public trust in the United States has broken down to such a degree that disinformation is likely to proliferate even in the face of concerted government efforts to combat it. Seventy million Americans voted for Trump, a candidate who actively disseminates disinformation to mobilize and energize his supporters. Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris have insisted that their administration will govern for all Americans; they must reckon with the daunting challenge of repairing the political and social rifts that have allowed disinformation to thrive in the first place. There is no quick fix to bridge these divides, a challenge that will require, for instance, better addressing issues such as systemic racism. But the Biden-Harris team seems prepared to take the task head-on. Building lasting resilience to disinformation demands, at a minimum, an engaged and attentive government.
Foreign adversaries and domestic disinformers failed to disrupt the 2020 election, but the country barely squeaked through. The Biden administration cannot afford to be complacent or myopic. The U.S. government has already spent four years refusing to address this growing crisis. Without a serious injection of urgency at the highest levels and an understanding that fighting disinformation starts with good governance, the chaos of the Trump era will prove to be the norm, not the exception.
Americans Are Primed to Accept Their Adversaries’ Narrative of Doubt