Communication Currents

Fist and Russian flag

Combating #FakeNews and Foreign Propaganda: America’s New Voice

August 29, 2017
Freedom of Expression, Political Communication

The battle against fake news and disinformation distributed by foreign governments is not unique to the current White House administration. In the aftermath of a controversial presidential election now being investigated by top intelligence officials for potential collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign, then-President Barack Obama signed into law the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which included a provision called the Countering Foreign Propaganda and Disinformation Act (CFPDA). The CFPDA established a Global Engagement Center under the State Department, consolidating several federal broadcasting entities, such as the Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Free Europe (RFE).

In a new First Amendment Studies article, Holly Kathleen Hall argues that while the United States does need a governmental entity devoted to counter-propaganda, the CFPDA as it is currently structured has many “deficiencies and vulnerabilities,” including a “lack of adequate administrative oversight.” Hall’s essay provides background on the increasing proliferation of fake news in our media streams, and explains how intelligence findings surrounding the 2016 election led to the creation of the CFPDA and other countries’ efforts to fight Russian propaganda. She also offers recommendations for an effective governing structure given the current administration’s fractious relationship with journalists and the media, and its seemingly “cozy” relationship with Russia.

How is the CFPDA to be set up?

The Global Engagement Center proposed in the Act was to collect and analyze the narratives generated and distributed by foreign governments, and then develop “tactics, techniques, and procedures to expose and refute foreign misinformation and disinformation,” specifically from terrorist group ISIL. Within this structure:

  • CFPDA provides grants to support and train local media to support the mission of the Center.
  • The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) is housed within the Executive Branch, is overseen by a presidentially appointed CEO, and is made up of an advisory board that includes the Secretary of State.

Why do we need an entity such as the CFPDA?

Hall notes that “the American public was challenged in the 2016 election to discern the difference between propaganda and the truth, between ‘fake’ news and ‘real.” She cites investigations by mainstream media that uncovered hundreds of Russian-proliferated fake news stories about the election, along with thousands of fake social media accounts devoted to the same topic. The ongoing federal investigations into possible collusion between President Trump’s campaign and the Russian government provide a clear rationale for an “effective counter-propaganda mechanism,” Hall writes.

America is not alone in combating misinformation

Hall provides multiple examples of other countries’ efforts to fight Russia’s propaganda machine:

  • France’s new president, Emmanuel Macron, has acknowledged the need for increased counter-propaganda programs following a Russian hack into his campaign emails and communications during that country’s election.
  • Germany is creating an “anti-fake news bureau” to produce counter-speech to combat foreign propaganda.
  • Lithuania is asking the public to step up and report suspicious, propaganda-like activity.
  • The Czech Republic created an anti-fake-news unit called the Centre Against Terrorism and Hybrid Threats, and is training civil servants on how to avoid blackmail and foreign lobbying influences.
  • Finland is focusing its efforts on developing citizens’ critical thinking skills.

How can the CFPDA be more effective?

As it stands, Hall believes the current structure of the CFPDA leaves our country vulnerable to continued propaganda attacks, and notes that some critics fear the “BBG could become simply a propaganda machine for the new president” in light of President Trump’s declaration that mainstream media is the “enemy of the American people.” She wonders if eliminating the BBG could solve issues related to inefficiency and waste. But, eliminating the barrier between BBG journalists and political influence could hinder journalistic credibility and independence. “A full-time, bipartisan board made up of experts and professionals in the field would better serve the media outlets under the BBG,” she writes.

Hall also suggests that the CFPDA structure needs to “create an environment that allows private foundations and civil society actors to step in, fund fact-checking establishments and develop competing narratives.” This allows for greater integrity among subject matter experts and prevents the government from directly communicating stories that advocate the government’s point of view.

Finally, the author recommends taking the personal safety of media professionals into consideration when constructing a new approach to counter-propaganda. This should include “methods for reporting on the status and safety of journalists who are fighting to tell the truth.”

Ultimately, Hall argues, to successfully counter disinformation, “there must be an engaged, informed, and media-literate citizenry.” She suggests connecting media and information literacy to human rights, and minding UNESCO’s Five Laws of Media and Information Literacy to strengthen civic engagement and prevent threats to democracy.

This essay was translated from the scholarly article: Hall, Kathleen Holly (2017). “The new voice of America: Countering Foreign Propaganda and Disinformation Act.” First Amendment Studies, doi: 10.1080/21689725.2017.1349618.

About the author (s)

Holly Kathleen Hall

Arkansas State University

Associate Professor of Communication

Photo of Holly Kathleen Hall