U.S. Senators Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican, and Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat, have introduced a bill aimed at countering propaganda from Russia, China and other countries.
According to its sponsors, the legislation — called the "Countering Foreign Propaganda and Disinformation Act” — is aimed at improving the ability of the United States to counter foreign propaganda and disinformation, and help local communities in other countries protect themselves from manipulation from abroad.
Speaking during a conference Wednesday at the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based research institute, Portman said he believes the U.S. is not making sufficient efforts to counter "destabilizing" foreign propaganda and disinformation.
"While much of the public discussion of these issues is focused on the urgent need to counter extremist messaging, and I understand that, I think it is equally important to address the extremely sophisticated, comprehensive and long-term efforts by nation states to manipulate and control information in order to achieve their national objectives, often at the expense of U.S. allies; our interests, our values," Portman said. "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.”
According to the Ohio Republican, the scale of spending on the U.S. government's Voice of America, and that of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, which is funded by the U.S. Congress, is dwarfed by the money spent on RT, a Kremlin-funded satellite TV channel, and the Chinese government's CCTV.
There also is a need to restructure U.S. counter-propaganda efforts, Portman said.
“Surprisingly," he said, "there is currently no single U.S. governmental agency or department charged with the national level development, integration and synchronization of whole-of-government strategies to counter foreign propaganda and disinformation.”
Murphy said the proposed legislation seeks to restructure U.S. government counter-propaganda efforts to allow for better coordination.
"The simple suggestion in our bill is to have an umbrella strategy that unites all of the different agencies that are playing roles, so that we can have a coordinated strategy."
Kristin Lord, a former acting president of the U.S. Institute of Peace and now CEO of IREX, a non-profit organization that promotes global change, told the conference an important feature of the legislation is that it proposes giving resources to invest in what “credible” local actors are doing in communities around the world.
“Whether it’s counter-propaganda, whether it’s counter-extremism, we just really have to come to terms with the fact the United States government is not always the most credible voice in these debates,” she said. “So we have to invest in the people who are making the credible arguments.”
Proposal for new center
Under the bill, a new Center for Information Analysis and Response would play the coordinating role. This center, Portman said, would be led by the U.S. State Department, but with the "active participation" of the Department of Defense, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (which oversees VOA and RFE/RL, among others), "the intelligence community and other relevant agencies."
The bill also would set up an Information Access Fund, which would assist in the training of local journalists, as well as award grants and contracts to non-government and civil society organizations, research centers, private sector companies, media organizations and other experts outside the U.S. government that have experience in identifying and analyzing disinformation methods used by foreign governments.
This fund, said Murphy, would "simply seek to seed good information efforts — telling the truth, telling counter-narratives to the Russian story, to the Chinese propaganda stories all around the world."
The legislation, he said, also would "beef up" support of U.S. State Department exchange programs, "which have been so vital to the growing move toward self-determination all around the world."