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Combating Disinformation: An Essential Role For The Civil Service

We should use government funds for government-funded broadcasts, clearly attributed, that offer the official stance on matters of public interest or areas of misinformation or disinformation

Did you know that the U.S. government has an anti-disinformation service, that it's called Polygraph, or that this website operates jointly with a Russian-language site called Factograph?

Polygraph is operated by the Voice of America, which claims editorial independence. So does Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Both are funded by the U.S. government (see graphic adapted from the U.S. Agency for Global Media website).

Just a cursory review of the discussion around these sites seems to indicate a focus on Russia and Russian disinformation campaigns. (Here is an example of Polygraph at work. Here is an example of controversy around its activity.)

Perhaps we haven't heard much about Polygraph here in the U.S. because the audience is not domestic. It is permissible for us to see it, though, because the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act of 2012 made it permissible for State Department and then-Broadcasting Board of Governors materials (now Agency for Global Media) produced specifically for non-U.S. audiences to be shown domestically.

This passage from p. 30 of Seventy Years of the Smith-Mundt Act (University of Southern California, Center on Public Diplomacy, 2018 — free PDF online) captures the mainstream media firestorm that ensued when the "modernization" of Smith-Mundt became law:
BuzzFeed was first to raise the alarm in advance of the bill’s passage. A website that epitomizes the contemporary media ecosystem, it published an article about the proposed legislation that declared, ‘An amendment that would legalize the use of propaganda on American audiences is being inserted into the latest defense authorization bill…’ Politico soon followed suit, writing, ‘The new law would give sweeping powers to the State Department and Pentagon to push television, radio, newspaper, and social media onto the U.S. public.’ Also weighing in on the subject, a reporter for The Christian Science Monitor tweeted, ‘What I want is to make it harder, not easier, to propagandize our citizens.’ And an academic with a widely read blog focused on foreign policy asserted that the legislation would ‘allow the Department of Defense to subject the U.S. domestic public to propaganda.’”
Even without Smith-Mundt, the most obvious question that comes to mind is how any government-funded broadcaster can expect a claim of objectivity to be credible -- whether the product is or not. (In fact, because of the Gillett Amendment, it is illegal for government agencies to produce domestic propaganda or self-promotional communication.)

One might point to legal "firewalls" that prevent this from happening, but the reality is that in the U.S., federal agencies have found numerous workarounds for this prohibition, such as calling public relations specialists by other titles.

This deliberate murkiness has made it notoriously difficult to standardize anything to do with federal communication; in the perverse world of bureaucrats, "what isn't measured cannot be managed." The 1969 classic, Toward a Theory of Street-Level Bureaucracy (free PDF) amply demonstrated how the administrative state maintains its authority through adroit invisible maneuvers.

The simple fact that the administrative state refuses through passivity to classify, quantify and name what federal communicators actually do suggests a certain level of disingenuousness when we refer to any law, regulation, policy or "firewall" actually protecting editorial independence in practice. Perhaps recognizing this with respect to the supposedly illegal practice of public relations in government, even the Government Accountability Office recently used the term "public relations specialists" in a recent study of government spending on these activities.

There is an entire field of study dedicated to the need for persuading people to adopt healthier behaviors -- social marketing. It is obvious that the government can and should engage in this activity at times, if only to reduce unnecessary spending on damage caused by counterproductive social behaviors.

That said, there is no need for civil servants to justify in rosy terms -- as opposed to simply explaining intelligibly -- what the government does; that kind of activity does not serve the public interest. Yet the line has routinely been crossed, with numerous examples available from years past. The issue is not only a simple repeal of "outdated" law, but whether government-funded communication can ever be said to be unbiased in nature.

More to the point: Unbiased communication means "telling both sides of the story." Is it routine for federal communicators to criticize the policies of the agencies they serve in the course of carrying out their duties? Is waste, fraud and abuse a part of official communication, or is it siphoned to the side in Inspector General Reports and GAO audits, rarely alluded to officially because these are not a "good news story?"

A related issue has to do with civil servants who are lawyers. Is the federal agency their "client," or do they serve the public at large? The obvious answer, of course, is "the public," but the challenge is always how to implement this ideal in practice, so that the people drawing their paychecks from a federal agency are not overtly or subtly coerced into protecting it from the consequences of its own misconduct.

Here's another problem when the government claims to fund unbiased news: We actually need biased communication at times for the sake of national security. The Department of Defense is very open about this specialty, which is called "psychological operations." The Army recruits such specialists on its own website.
"PSYOP Soldiers typically operate in small, autonomous teams or with other Special Operations forces to develop relationships with a country’s civilian population, government figures and military and law enforcement agencies."
What happens when DOD operations "provide support" to Department of State "public diplomacy" efforts, which obviously include broadcasts funded by the U.S. Agency for Global Media?
"PSYOP Soldiers’ primary missions include Military Information Support Operations (MISO), Civil Authority Information Support, Military Support to Public Diplomacy, and Military Deception (MILDEC)." (Emphasis added)
It gets even more complicated than this. What happens when the enemy you're fighting is actually a U.S. citizen who is colluding with a foreign government on domestic soil? What are the rules of engagement for the Department of Defense in countering traitors who are engaging in disinformation efforts under the guise of acting as ordinary U.S. citizens, or even the media?

We cannot solve all the problems of the world at once. But we can take a step forward, and reconceive of the government communication function itself. We should use government funds for government-funded broadcasts, clearly attributed, that offer the official stance on matters of public interest or areas of misinformation or disinformation. This idea is nothing new; the UK tried this in 2018 with a "rapid response social media capability," and the future of this unit is uncertain.

The world is watching. Students are deeply engaged in the effort to identify, classify, and study what fake news is (free PDF). Things are set to get even worse as technology makes it possible to produce authentic-seeming fake video, setting the stage for fake news that can be "verified" and "sourced" as absolutely real.

It seems a weak remedy, as Sweden does, to tell citizens to "avoid propaganda in a crisis." (English version of brochure is here.)

One study this year, of 600+ Dutch civil servants, noted their concerns about disinformation. It is unclear to me why we steadfastly refuse to use the U.S. government to combat it, especially when you consider that fake news directly interferes in the democratic process, including interfering in elections.

Indeed, in 1993, the National Partnership for Reinventing Government brought hundreds of U.S. civil servants together, detailed from their home agencies, to support a massive efficiency/effectiveness initiative “focused on how the government works, not on what it should be doing.” This led to the launch of the Federal Communicators Network in 1996.

Can the government launch a coordinated effort to combat disinformation with fact? Perhaps at the very least we could establish an easy-to-search portal combining federal court cases, Government Accountability Office reports, Inspectors General reports, Open Data, "Myth vs. Fact" documents such as this and this, and training documents and videos that help citizens learn how to find the information they're looking for.

Much ado has been made about "QAnon" -- both pro and con -- who claims to be a kind of government communicator, stating: "We serve at the pleasure of the President." But regardless of where you stand on the matter, it should concern you that the lack of credible, relevant, and easy to access-and-understand federal communication is so pervasive that an impossible-to-trace person (or group) was named among the "25 most influential people on the Internet" by Time.

Even more troubling from the perspective of media reliability, Q purports to tell us the reality of current events, while also stating openly that "disinformation is real."

There is no question that America faces determined enemies, people who would like nothing more than to show that they were powerful enough to destroy us.

The modern method of conducting warfare is to destroy the minds of the people first.

We cannot let our enemies to win the war by refusing to show up on the battlefield.

By Dr. Dannielle Blumenthal. All opinions are the author's own. This content is hereby released into the public domain. Creative Commons photo by Yomare via Pixabay.