When the public loses trust in the press, the Russians are winning. When the press is hyper-critical of Congress for executing oversight and providing transparency on the actions taken by the leaders of our law-enforcement agencies, the Russians are winning. When Congress and the general public disagree simply along party lines, the Russians are winning. When there is friction between Congress and the executive branch resulting in the further erosion of trust in our democratic institutions, the Russians are winning.
The cycle will not stop, and Russian influence operations will continue, unless we take immediate action.
To address continued Russian disinformation campaigns, we need to develop a national counter-disinformation strategy. The strategy needs to span the entirety of government and civil society, to enable a coordinated effort to counter the threat that influence operations pose to our democracy. It should implement similar principles to those in the Department of Homeland Security’s Strategy for Countering Violent Extremism, with a focus on truly understanding the threat and developing ways to shut it down.
There are several ongoing public- and private-sector initiatives at home and abroad taking on the challenge of understanding and discrediting disinformation. Facebook, Twitter, and Google have testified to Congress on their internal efforts. Organizations like Jigsaw, the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensics Research Lab, the German Marshall Fund’s Alliance for Securing Democracy, and the European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats have launched initiatives to develop strategies of their own.
Children know not to talk to strangers, yet people, young and old, seem to share social-media content freely from strangers they know nothing about. To address this, educators are beginning to develop new literacy materials for the public to better assess the credibility of news reports and sources.
All these nascent efforts are important, but we need to marshal these independent initiatives into a comprehensive, national counter-disinformation strategy against third-country influence operations.
Successful strategy implementation will require three key decisions. First, we must identify a lead coordinator to incorporate the efforts of a diverse group of stakeholders. Given the near-term challenge of countering influence operations against the midterm elections, it would be simplest to designate an existing organization like the National Association of Secretaries of State that oversees elections at the state level. Second, we must define concrete roles and responsibilities for supporting public and private stakeholders. Finally, we must determine the capacity and infrastructure needed to execute and adapt accordingly.
When we lose trust in our democratic institutions, we are left unable to leverage our most important power—the power of inspiration. Lincoln described the U.S. as “the last best hope of earth,” Kennedy called on Americans to be the “watchmen to the walls of world freedom,” and Reagan likened his country to a “shining city upon a hill whose beacon light guides freedom-loving people everywhere.” They understood the power of a nation that believed in itself.