The current campaign being waged against the U.S. is serious. I believe it merits a response from a trusted source.
Though there are fact-checking websites in the U.S. like Snopes, a threat of this magnitude requires more than just citizen-run or private organization-operated programs.
A government effort to combat fake news would provide citizens with information about the scope of information warfare. It would also create a clearinghouse about fake news that can inform not only the public, but also government agencies and policy-makers. There is no current effort of this sort in the United States.
The EU created a specialized task force in March 2015 to identify the Russian campaign’s strategies and expose them to the public. The East StratCom Task Force was formed by the European Council to provide information to the European Union and its member states on the extent of Russian disinformation campaigns.
The task force publishes two weekly newsletters. The Disinformation Review is published every Tuesday to show the latest examples and trends in Russian trolling. There’s also a Disinformation Review Facebook page and Twitter account that has 35,000 followers.
The Disinformation Digest is released every Friday. It features what the pro-government media outlets in Russia are saying and compares that to independent media voices. It also presents trends in Russian social media feeds.
In addition, the task force publishes analyses and reports about specific stories that have begun to trend on social media. Those reports appear as close as possible to the time the stories appear. They help illustrate how hashtagging and trending stories may be falsified and why they can both directly and indirectly benefit the Kremlin.
For instance, they have published analyses of the manipulation of trending stories on the Salisbury poisoning. That’s the incident in which a former Russian spy who was living in England, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter, Yulia, were poisoned by a nerve agent. British Prime Minister Theresa May has accused the Russians of the attack. The task force highlighted Russian disinformation about the incident, including stories that claimed that the “West (was) using it to destroy Russia’s reputation as a peacemaker.”
Lastly, they provide briefings to law enforcement agencies across the EU, as well as lawmakers and the general public. This helps to make the role of Russian propaganda a real, tangible problem that can be understood by anyone.
In fact, the U.S. government is already taking steps abroad to combat Russian messaging via a new service operating via Polygraph.info.
The site acts as a counterpart to the European task force, though it is not currently directed to U.S. audiences. Instead it operates via the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe, which serves international audiences. It seems plausible that the U.S. government could adapt this tool to directly service U.S. citizens, which could be a tremendous step forward to counter Russian messaging.
The suggestion that the U.S. engage in efforts to formally counter disinformation campaigns from Russia and elsewhere was recently made in a report by Brookings Institution scholar Alina Polyakova and former State Department official Daniel Fried.
It may seem odd to propose that the government run its own campaign to clarify what is real and fake online. But I believe it is necessary in an era where individuals may not be able to fully separate fact from fiction, and legitimate news sources from the disreputable. An effort like this is not government censorship of the news – or even of fake news. It is government fighting false information by providing context, analysis and facts.
These EU newsletters provide a way to fact-check stories initially released by social media accounts with no apparent journalistic credentials. Further, their reporting communicates practical insights as to how propaganda campaign messaging fits into broader stories being pushed by the Kremlin that in some way benefit Russia.
Creating similar resources within a government organization like the Department of Homeland Security could go a long way to helping the general public separate truth from reality and become more informed of the real threat America faces from the insidious and manipulative practices of information warfare.