Fighting the New Digital Propaganda War

With the release of thousands of Russian Facebook ads, the debate is over: As the intelligence community and members of Congress of both parties acknowledge, hostile foreign powers led by Russia definitely interfered in American politics by peddling propaganda to influence our 2016 elections. It was a harbinger of 21st century, digital-age information and psychological warfare. The question now is: How do we fight back?

Propaganda is an age-old wartime tactic to win or defeat hearts and minds. The word itself conjures images of Joseph Goebbels and the Nazi Ministry of Propaganda, airdropped leaflets, and Soviet posters extolling communism. Or more murderously, Rwanda’s government-sponsored hate radio that incited the 1994 genocide against the ethnic Tutsi.

During World War II, Allied troops in the South Pacific were targeted by “Toyko Rose,” the name given several female radio personalities broadcasting Japanese propaganda meant to mislead or demoralize our forces. “She” would tease the (mostly) men that their lonely beloved ones back home were dating others. It didn’t work. But as the late radio broadcast historian Jerome Berg noted, that was because the vast majority knew it was propaganda and considered the source.

That is not so easy in today’s post-truth, fake-news internet age, when the public is overwhelmed by information and disinformation and does not have the tools to know what is true. We no longer accept Founder John Adams’ dictum that, “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” Today, as many note, we are guided more by subjective belief than objective fact.

Foreign propagandists are exploiting internet and social media for cheap, easy, instant access to millions of unsuspecting people, anonymously and without accountability. The Cold War secret agents are now computer agents — human “trolls” and automated “bots” — that infiltrate trusted news feeds, mine user data, and flood us with propaganda-motivated comments, memes and GIFs that seem real to believers.

The impact of today’s foreign digital war is even more insidious than the old tried-and-true tactics to undermine a declared enemy. Russia and other hostile powers are undermining democracy itself by sowing public distrust, discord and division, and distorting free elections, starting with ours but also reaching into Western Europe. So why focus on America? Our system remains a model for social equality, rule of law and checks and balances. Even while under stress, we still influence and inspire others around the world striving for democracy or fighting its regression.

Today’s propagandists know: As our democracy goes, so goes democracy writ large.

Just a decade ago, undermining democracy would seem impossible. The 20th century closed with our model of government triumphant over authoritarian rule across Europe, Eurasia, Latin America and Africa, and rising up against intractable regimes. But the old forces of totalitarianism, nationalism, xenophobia, corruption and division are rising anew.

In concluding that Russia did engage in a covert influence campaign aimed at our 2016 elections, and that the Russian government at the direction of President Vladimir Putin “sought to sow discord in American society and undermine our faith in the democratic process,” the House Intelligence Committee majority report says, “Now, more than a year after the election, the American people rightfully want to know what the Russians did; how they did it; with whose support, if anyone’s; and what can be done to counter any election tampering by foreign adversaries in the future.”

So what can be done? It is not necessary to censor the internet or infringe upon our First Amendment rights to protect democracy — and doing so would play into the hands of anti-democratic forces. Instead, we could simply bring our political advertising disclosure rules up to date and applying them to internet social media platforms.

We are all familiar with those “paid for by” disclaimers on political ads on radio and TV thanks to federal requirements when those ads are disseminated by broadcast, cable and satellite providers. Why shouldn’t the largest online platforms have similar transparency and reporting obligations to inform their users and viewers? Why should digital providers like Facebook, the nation’s largest digital platform — whose 210 million American users are nearly ten times as large as the subscriber base of the largest cable or satellite provider—face significantly fewer obligations? The bicameral, bipartisan Honest Ads Act would accomplish this task, and many more.

Increasing transparency and accountability for online political ads would simply bring the disclosure requirements into the 21st century digital age, and empower voters, law enforcement, journalists, and watchdog groups to better detect and investigate foreign involvement in our elections.

“Trust, but verify,” President Ronald Reagan famously said during the historically tense period in U.S.-Soviet relations. Today, as always, the first weapon against propaganda is to verify the source of information to see if we trust it. Free speech is our first and most cherished right. Knowing who pays for it can protect our democracy, and by our example, the world’s.

Meredith McGehee is executive director of Issue One, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to political reform and strengthening government ethics.

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