What the U.S. Can Learn From Europe on Addressing DisinformationCalvin Johnson / Apr 3, 2023
Calvin Johnson recently obtained a master's degree in global policy from the University of Maine's School of Policy and International Affairs, with a specific focus on US foreign policy and national security.
March 21, 2023: General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party Xi Jinping meets with President of Russia Vladimir Putin in the Grand Kremlin Palace in Moscow. Wikimedia
Disinformation is material meant to mislead or misinform individuals. Long before 2016, when the subject was brought to the fore in Europe and the United States with Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, disinformation eroded trust in democratic systems and various governments around the world. Amidst fraught politics on the subject, the U.S. has yet to make meaningful progress in addressing disinformation, even as it undermines public trust and individual freedoms, whereas Europe has forged ahead with new legislation and initiatives. What can the U.S. learn from Europe?
Stalled Progress in the U.S.
In the U.S., government efforts to combat mis- and disinformation– even to counter campaigns by foreign state actors– remain controversial, and Congress has failed to reach consensus on any new legislation.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Protection Agency (CISA) focus on election related and state directed disinformation, as well as or material related to terrorism. The State Department's Global Engagement Center (GEC) seeks to streamline how the federal government approaches foreign disinformation and propaganda. But both programs have come under scrutiny, particularly from Republican lawmakers and right-wing media. The Disinformation Governance Board, a short lived DHS project intended to develop best practices to counter disinformation that threatens national security, was disbanded in May of last year.
Despite criticisms levied against it, the GEC has proven that the public and private sectors can work together to combat disinformation; however, little has changed in terms of regulation or policy. Amidst divisive politics on the subject, Congress has failed to produce and enact legislation to improve how governmental organizations unify to counter foreign influence encountered via tech platforms and media outlets.
The European Approach
While the U.S. dithers, the Europeans are addressing disinformation through a multilayered approach.
The first layer includes new regulations on online platforms. The Digital Services Act (DSA) strives to improve EU citizens' information environment by providing transparency and security safeguards surrounding digital platforms. This DSA covers risks such as manipulation or disinformation within the information ecosystem and holds tech companies accountable.
Second, the EU Code of Practice of Disinformation represents a voluntary set of commitments from tech and media firms to address disinformation. While the Code is not enforced by the European Commission, it represents a significant effort by the EU to align the efforts of social media platforms, advertising firms, media and advocacy groups, fact-checkers and others to improve the health of the information ecosystem by undertaking a variety of measures.
Third, proactive projects such as the EU vs. Disinfo website and database, launched in 2015, are intended to blunt disinformation campaigns. In particular, EU vs. Disinfo highlights Russia's influence campaigns against the EU, its member states, and allies. Additionally, it covers propaganda and disinformation from all sides of the field, as part of the European External Action Service’s East StratCom Task Force.
And fourth, advancing media literacy is important to mitigate the spread of false narratives. One great example of how an EU member state has elevated the way citizens separate fact from fiction is Finland's approach. Understanding effective media literacy toolkits utilized within the European model of combating disinformation should be recognized as successful tools for institutions at home.
Borrowing the Best Ideas
If the U.S. can get past its fractured politics on the issue, it has much to learn from Europe on how to improve its overall approach to the problem of disinformation.
Each year Congress naturally addresses propaganda, disinformation, and misinformation and influences efforts by advancing bills aimed at defending the country against adversaries, including China and Russia. For example, the FY2023 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) indicates how the US government should approach supporting Taiwan's efforts to combat influence campaigns, including various ways the US should train media personnel and utilize allied partnerships. While such legislation recognizes the existence and impact of disinformation campaigns and propaganda activities, such actions have mostly been knee-jerk or passive reactions based on specific national security concerns or formulated primarily from a defense standpoint. A more substantial conversation about how to counter disinformation could improve the effectiveness of these efforts.
Likewise, the Global Engagement Center is presently little understood, despite its press releases, reports, and announcements. Awareness and transparency as to what the government is doing to address disinformation remains critical for the US government. Adopting a strategic plan to develop an information platform and database similar to the EU vs. Disinfo site would elevate the ability of academic institutions, think tanks, and various organizations to utilize such a resource to create tangible progress.
Of course, the US government cannot simply mimic the strategies employed by the EU. Europe's model of countering disinformation still has flaws. But the Biden administration and Congress should focus on improving partnerships between researchers and communities and developing toolkits to handle challenges posed by disinformation. Firstly, adopting synchronized initiatives tailored to responses to influence operations and ensuring governmental institutions, including Congress, are equipped with the information necessary to tackle disinformation in a bipartisan manner. Secondly, we must develop actionable products such as databases and disinformation dashboards that highlight influence threats and campaigns from adversaries such as Russia or China.