With voting nearly underway for 2020, who is in charge of policing disinformation?
- By Derek B. Johnson
- Feb 02, 2020
The presidential campaign of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) released a plan for curbing foreign disinformation online, calling for changes in the way social media companies share and label information through their platforms and more formal channels of cooperation with the government to thwart ongoing campaigns.
A coordinated, covert and multi-pronged campaign by Russia rocked the 2016 American presidential elections and intelligence officials, law enforcement and experts have warned that the 2020 elections will likely see similar campaigns waged by a larger group of states.
One major difference between 2016 and 2020 is that the Federal Elections Commission is currently without a quorum of commissioners. That means the organization is unable to conduct much of its oversight responsibilities for the upcoming election, including opening investigations and imposing penalties on campaigns who are charged with violating election and campaign laws.
Commissioner Ellen Weintraub, who has been an outspoken advocate against foreign interference efforts, told FCW that without at least four commissioners, the FEC's role this cycle will likely be limited to raising public awareness about what is and is not legal when it comes to actively participating in foreign-led disinformation campaigns.
"I think it's important that we use the tools that are currently available to us to try to keep people informed about what the law is," Weintraub said in an interview at the State of the Net 2020 Conference in Washington, D.C. "I don't want somebody coming in down the road and saying 'oh well I didn't know what the law was, I was politely going about my business violating the law but how could I have possibly known?'"
For example, it's illegal for campaigns to accept gifts or contributions from foreign nationals or governments, something Weintraub and others have argued could include electoral help in the form of a disinformation campaign. The House has passed bills designed to impose stricter rules on accepting or coordinating with covert foreign campaigns, but they have all died in the Senate.
"Our tools are really limited," Weintraub said. "It's a sad state of affairs and I hope the president and Senate will fix that."
Warren's plan calls for unspecified civil and criminal penalties. Election officials and law enforcement organizations including the FBI have said in the past that while they are normally reluctant to directly call out political disinformation shared online to avoid chargers of favoritism, they would likely be more willing to do so for false or misleading information about voting logistics – such as the date of an election or the location of polling places.
Camille Francois, Chief Innovation Officer at Graphika, leads the company's efforts to detect and mitigate disinformation online. She said American institutions have improved since 2016 in terms of how they communicate to the public about disinformation campaigns and their overarching goals. U.S. government agencies like DHS and FBI have developed new policies and protocols for dealing raising awareness about and mitigating such campaigns, while bodies like the Senate Intelligence Committee have issued lengthy reports detailing how groups like the Internet Research Agency operate.
She said the improvement is most noticeable when she travels to other countries that are starting to grapple with similar campaigns.
"It's true that last time we saw a Russian campaign targeting the divisions in French society and had to explain that [they just want to sow discord], I sensed more confusion on the French side," Francois told FCW. "It reminded me that on the U.S. side we have made great progress in helping people understand those campaigns, how they work and what does it mean to target divisions in a society."
Derek B. Johnson is a former senior staff writer at FCW.