State Department Strengthens Offensive Against Propaganda and Disinformation
Special counsel Robert Mueller’s indictment of 13 alleged Russian agents for creating fake online profiles and trying to meddle in the 2016 elections was an acknowledgment of the threat state-sponsored disinformation poses to the United States. Now, the Trump administration is fighting back.
On Feb. 26, the State Department announced it signed a deal with the Pentagon to transfer $40 million from defense spending to be used to enhance the Global Engagement Center, which identifies and counters propaganda and disinformation.
The Global Engagement Center was established by former President Barack Obama shortly before he left office, and was originally introduced under the bipartisan Countering Information Warfare Act of 2016.
According to a press release, the additional funding will be used in fiscal year 2018 for “initiatives to counter propaganda and disinformation from foreign nations.”
Among these initiatives is the creation of new grants, under a public-private Information Access Fund for groups to counter propaganda and disinformation. It will be available to civil society groups, media content providers, nongovernmental organizations, federally funded research and development centers, private companies, and academic institutions.
“This funding is critical to ensuring that we continue an aggressive response to malign influence and disinformation and that we can leverage deeper partnerships with our allies, Silicon Valley, and other partners in this fight,” said Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Steve Goldstein, in the release.
“It is not merely a defensive posture that we should take, we also need to be on the offensive,” he said.
An initial $5 million in grants will go towards consultation with Congress, and according to the release will include “$1 million in initial seed money from the Department of State’s public diplomacy account in order to kick-start the initiative quickly.”
It states the fund will “drive the use of innovative messaging and data science techniques.”
It also adds that the Pentagon will use its own funding for additional programs with the Global Engagement Center.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson approved the request for the program’s close to $60 million in funds last year.
The bill that launched the program was introduced to the Senate on May 16, 2016. It was sponsored by Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and co-sponsored by Sen. Christopher Murphy (D-Conn.). It was later changed to the Countering Disinformation and Propaganda Act.
The program was quietly signed into law by Obama on Dec. 23, 2016, and was packaged in the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act.
The initial bill warned that foreign governments including China and Russia “use disinformation and other propaganda tools to undermine the national security objectives of the United States and key allies and partners.”
While its main focus was to identify and counter disinformation campaigns that threaten the national security of the United States and its allies, it was also intended to “protect and promote a free, healthy, and independent press in countries vulnerable to foreign disinformation.”
It would also work with various departments to “expose and counter” information operations with its own “fact-based narratives that support United States allies and interests.”
When it was signed into law, Portman said in a press release, “Our enemies are using foreign propaganda and disinformation against us and our allies, and so far the U.S. government has been asleep at the wheel.”
“With this bill now law, we are finally signaling that enough is enough; the United States will no longer sit on the sidelines,” he said. “We are going to confront this threat head-on.”
The legislation had two key focuses. The first was to develop a “whole-of-government strategy” to counter foreign propaganda and disinformation, according to the release, and included both state and non-state actors as targets of the Global Engagement Center.
While the Global Engagement Center is led by the State Department, it has senior-level participation from the Department of Defense, USAID, the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the intelligence community, and other relevant agencies.
The second focus of the legislation was to seek expertise from outside the government to “create more adaptive and responsive U.S. strategy options,” according to the release. Part of this is to train local journalists and provide grants and contracts, which would help build expertise in “identifying and analyzing the latest trends in foreign government disinformation techniques.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the number of alleged Russian agents whom special counsel Robert Mueller has indicted. Mueller indicted 13 alleged Russian agents for creating fake online profiles and trying to meddle in the 2016 elections. The Epoch Times regrets the mistake.