Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election woke up Americans to the threat of disinformation, especially from Vladimir Putin’s Russia. But almost three years and many more interference campaigns later, the United States still lags in responding to malign foreign influence in the information space, argue Alina Polyakova and Daniel Fried. This article originally appeared in The Washington Post.
Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election woke up Americans to the threat of disinformation, especially from Vladimir Putin’s Russia. But almost three years and many more interference campaigns later, the United States still lags in responding to malign foreign influence in the information space.
In a new report for the Atlantic Council, we looked into how European and U.S. authorities are addressing the challenge of disinformation — and found that the Europeans come out on top.
First, the good news. Democracies on both sides of the Atlantic have moved beyond “admiring the problem” — or reacting with a sort of existential despair in the face of a new threat — and have entered a new “trial and error” phase, testing new policy responses, technical fixes, and educational tools for strengthening resistance and building resilience against disinformation.
The European Union has taken the lead in crafting a response. Last December, the E.U. launched an Action Plan Against Disinformation based on principles of transparency and accountability (wisely, the plan was not based on content control). It increased funding to identify and expose disinformation and established a “rapid alert system” to do so in real time. Google, Facebook, Twitter and Mozilla have signed onto an E.U. voluntary Code of Practice, which tries to set some standards for fighting disinformation. Even though implementation has been slow, these are steps in the right direction and offer a solid basis for further action.
From these efforts, it’s clear that democracies might not be able to halt all disinformation, but they can limit it — and, hearteningly, they can do so within democratic norms. The answer isn’t censorship or making governments arbitrators of truth, but rather developing standards of Internet transparency and integrity, limiting space for impersonators, pushing social media companies to develop common standards and — though this is especially hard — addressing algorithmic bias that rewards the sensational and lurid. As democracies learned during the Cold War, we need not become them to fight them.
Now for the bad news. The United States lags behind the E.U. in terms of strategic framing of the challenge and policy actions to deal with it.