The Threat of Foreign Disinformation

Two hundred forty-four years ago, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” With the final signing of our Declaration of Independence, these rights of man became the foundation of the American experiment.  On every Fourth of July, we celebrate the birth of American independence, and recall the magnificent courage of those patriots who signed this bold statement.  

Our American “experiment” has survived many difficult challenges over those 244 years. We overcame the injustices of slavery by a vicious, bloody Civil War that cost over 600,000 American lives and wrecked the economies of many states.  We struggled to find a way to live with our native Americans – and left a record of violence, broken treaties, and what we would call today ethnic cleansing which today we are still struggling to set right.  We built an industrial state on the backs of immigrant labor, and then fought decades of struggle to recognize the value of hard work and honest labor.  We overcame a crushing Depression that left a quarter of America’s work force long-term unemployed. We mobilized for two World Wars, built the world’s finest systems of public education, and brought in successive waves of immigrants.  We gave women the right to vote, and struggled to deal with the consequences of slavery, decade after decade. The Sexual Revolution and the Civil Rights movement brought such issues to the fore again in the late twentieth century, and there is much left to be done for both women’s rights and overcoming centuries of racism. We endured a four decades-long Cold War against the Soviet Union, and emerged as the world’s lone superpower, only to suffer the awful strikes of terrorists in New York and Washington on September 11, 2001.  The first two decades of the twenty-first century have brought war, and two severe economic crises, and the current pandemic.  Now, the United States faces rising international challengers in China and Russia.  

Why did American democracy survive?  Because, in the face of adversity, American democracy continued to prove self-correcting. Common sense eventually prevailed.  Americans saw, read, felt, and despite not always understanding the nuances and details, voted. But common sense wins over individual self-interest only when Americans have access to information. Our First Amendment rights, freedom of speech, the right to assemble, and freedom of the press are the essential guarantors that common sense will ultimately prevail.  This has been true despite the fact that bias has always existed in journalism, the press, the media, and indeed, all sources of information. Truth is always somewhat relative to the perspectives and beliefs of the observer. Inflammatory rhetoric has also remained the norm in American politics. Yet somehow the common sense of the voter has prevailed time and again to see us through.

When the Soviet Union fell, we thought that the great challenges to the American experiment had been left behind. We were wrong. The collapse of the Iron Curtain enabled incredible global interconnectivity, further enhanced by cell phones, messaging, and the explosion of social media.  Yet these developments also exposed our democracy to great peril: the threat of disinformation, strategically designed to sow division, spread false narratives, sway opinions and use our own freedoms as vectors of attack against our country.

However, the success of these new disinformation campaigns by our adversaries depends on the gullibility, naivete, or willfulness of the American people.  Members of both parties have mistakenly or purposefully shared Russian, Chinese and Iranian false messaging, and it is this domestic amplification of propaganda and disinformation that give it the punch to hurt us.  Sometimes even our leaders tweet and share intentionally false information online, deceiving and misleading us.

In 1838, Abraham Lincoln in his Lyceum Address stated that, “If destruction be our lot we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen we must live through all time or die by suicide.” In short, the American experiment can only be destroyed by Americans. We must recognize that disinformation – when amplified by us – is the greatest threat to our American “experiment.” 

The powerful disinformation campaigns perpetrated by adversarial nation-states take many forms. Social media bots spread the intended false messages across American feeds by the millions, Russian or Chinese-owned media outlets urge Americans to “question everything” and publish false articles to reinforce their false messages, our adversaries offer economic deals with top American politicians and corporations to encourage the further spread of false ideas in exchange for individual gain. 

As an example, in Texas in 2015, the US Army was conducting military training operations, known as the “Jade Helm” exercise. Russian media and bots were able to create a wave of conspiracy theories in the United States that furthered the idea that these military trainings were for nefarious purposes, threatening Texas civilians. The false Russian messages became mainstream and prompted the governor of Texas to send state militias to oversee the military training. The militias reported that normal military training took place, showing that the false Russian conspiracies had fooled the American people, our media institutions and some in our own government.

In 2020, the strategies of adversarial disinformation have become even more effective. False Russian messages of paid protestors at Black Lives Matter protests echo across social media constantly from American politicians, conspiracy theorists and social media bots. There remains no evidence that the majority, if any at all, of the protestors have been paid by any overarching organization. These disinformation attacks discredit our democracy and threaten our resilience, driving a wedge in our political system and preventing any bipartisan dialogue from solving other threats to American democracy.

So, what can be done?  Many throw up their hands and complain about the technology itself.  But at Renew America Together, we believe modern communications technology is not only an avenue of attack but also offers us the best means to solve this problem – by enabling hundreds, and even thousands of alert Americans to spot and call out the fake news, social media bots, disinformation and foreign propaganda, in real time, on a person-to-person basis. To this end we intend to highlight and publish information on active disinformation campaigns, to create tools that teach Americans about this threat to our democracy, and to invite all Americans to join together to identify, call out, and work against disinformation in all its forms.

To help our cause, you can report disinformation to Renew America Together by tweeting with the hashtag #USvsDisinfo and join our network of online truth-seekers to identify and combat this threat online. By actively identifying disinformation through social media, we can more readily combat and disprove disinformation campaigns that seek to polarize our democracy. Spotting disinformation is not too difficult, simply check the promoter of the false information and trace the facts to determine the accuracy of the statement. If the factual basis is false or the information promotes conspiracy content, if the person pushing the story is not an American but someone from abroad, if the messages are reinforced by so-called bot-nets, you’ve discovered disinformation. Call it out – and let us know!  

A hundred years ago, Americans had to learn rifle marksmanship to help defend America.  Today, you can do it from your couch, desk, or bedroom, online, with the incredible power of computers and networking.  Join us, help defend America’s precious freedoms, and renew the promise of America.  

We appreciate your help in defending our great nation against the threat of foreign disinformation.

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