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US Senate Panel OKs Funds to Fight Online Propaganda

Senator Rob Portman, a Republican from Ohio, inside the U.S. Capitol, Nov. 16, 2016. Portman originally launched the effort to combat Russian propaganda in eastern European countries.

The United States could bolster its fight against foreign online propaganda in a major way if Congress passes a portion of the National Defense Authorization Act that would pour $160 million into the effort over two years.

A congressional committee on Wednesday approved the measure, which would expand the ability of the State Department's Global Engagement Center to identify and combat online disinformation. It still must be voted on by the full House and Senate and signed by the president before taking effect.

U.S. 'asleep at the wheel'

Ohio Republican Senator Rob Portman originally launched the effort to combat Russian propaganda in eastern European countries. The focus was broadened to address propaganda aimed at the United States following intelligence reports that Russia tried to sway the U.S. presidential election by stealing and publishing emails belonging to the chairman of Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign, John Podesta.

“This propaganda and disinformation threat is real. It's growing, and right now, the U.S. government is asleep at the wheel," Portman said in a formal statement. “The U.S. and our allies face many challenges, but we must better counter and combat the extensive propaganda and disinformation operations directed against us.”

Portman's proposal grew out of a previous bill called the Countering Foreign Propaganda and Disinformation Act, which he co-sponsored with Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy in March.

Increased funding needed

The idea behind the original bill was to bolster the U.S. ability to counter foreign propaganda and disinformation, and help local communities in other countries protect themselves from manipulation from abroad.

The measure advanced this week would draw on the resources of the Defense Department, intelligence agencies, the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Broadcasting Board of Governors — parent organization to Voice of America and other U.S. government-funded international broadcasters — according to the Washington Post newspaper.

Portman had previously argued that government spending on Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty is dwarfed by spending on RT, a Kremlin-funded satellite TV channel, and the Chinese government's CCTV.

“These countries spend vast sums of money on advanced broadcast and digital media capabilities, targeted campaigns, funding of foreign political movements, and other efforts to influence key audiences and populations," Portman said in March in an address to the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based research institute.

Funds for independent journalists

Russia has repeatedly denied it tried to affect the outcome of the election, and Russian President Vladimir Putin has said he had no preference between the two candidates.

In addition to combating online disinformation, the measure would create a grant program to fund independent journalism in Russia and other countries.