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Experts report presents options for countering disinformation

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Experts report presents options for countering disinformation

Experts at the Atlantic Council are releasing a new report that presents a slate of options for the United States and European allies to counter disinformation from foreign adversaries. 

The report represents the latest effort in Washington to address Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, and positions countering disinformation as a global challenge that will only grow larger with the evolution of the digital realm.

The experts lay out a wide set of recommendations that can be broadly applied to future disinformation campaigns, noting that the problem is “broader than Russia” because other foreign entities are already looking to deploy digital disinformation tools.

Among the recommendations, the paper calls for the creation of a so-called “Counter-Disinformation Coalition” comprised of government and private sector representatives that would develop “best practices” for defending against disinformation, such as standards for social media companies to voluntarily adhere to. 

The experts also recommend that the Trump administration establish a high-level interagency operation to coordinate activities to counter disinformation between the FBI, CIA, Pentagon, and the Departments of Homeland Security and State. They propose the entity be led by an official at the level of undersecretary or higher who would report to the Director of National Intelligence and the president. 

The report also suggests that the Trump administration set up an office within Homeland Security to share sensitive information on emerging disinformation threats with private sector companies.

Daniel Fried, a State Department official who served in both the Clinton and Bush administrations and Alina Polyakova, a foreign policy expert at the Brookings Institution, coauthored the report, which will be released at an event in Washington Wednesday morning.

“It was designed to be operational rather than theoretical,” Fried told The Hill in an interview. “We’re at the stage where people say, we know there’s a problem, what do we do? We try to give operational suggestions.”

The new recommendations come as Democrats step up charges that the Trump administration has done little to respond to or counter Russian election interference. Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats told senators Tuesday that the White House is engaged on the issue and aware of the threat, though he acknowledged that the administration has yet to put a “coherent strategy” in place to address it.

Coats and other U.S. intelligence officials have said they expect Russia to look to interfere in the 2018-midterm elections.

Fried said that it is paramount that the U.S. engage with allies in Europe to counter disinformation from Russia and other countries.

“The Europeans are ready to work with us. They face the same challenges,” said Fried, who consulted U.S. and European officials, academics, analysts and others when formulating the report. “This is going to be an ongoing and evolving challenge.”

The report calls on Congress to increase funding for the State Department’s Global Engagement Center beyond the $40 million allocated through transfers from Pentagon to support counter-disinformation efforts. The department has suffered scrutiny this week after the New York Times reported that none of the funds allocated to the center since late 2016 had been put towards defending against foreign election interference.

The report also includes a number of specific recommendations for cracking down on disinformation on social media platforms, in the wake of evidence that Russia leveraged Facebook, Twitter and other platforms to spread divisive content.

In February, special counsel Robert Mueller indicted 13 Russians and three Russian organizations linked to the so-called Internet Research Agency, a Russian troll farm that spread divisive political and cultural messages via social media.

The report, for instance, suggests that Congress enact the Honest Ads Act, legislation introduced last year by a bipartisan cadre of senators that would extend disclosure rules for political advertisements to social media.

It suggests tech firms like Facebook, Google and Twitter should move to limit the effects of disinformation by, for example, labeling outlets like RT and Sputnik as Russian propaganda on their platforms and “muting” content from bot accounts. 

Both Facebook and Twitter say they have taken steps to crack down on “fake news,” the latter suspending hundreds of Russia-linked accounts and limiting bot accounts.

The experts suggest the administration penalize “malign cyberactors that undermine democratic institutions and their supporters” by expanding sanctions legislation passed by Congress last summer to penalize Russia to include Russian bot factories and troll farms.

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