Amid all the media hysteria over Russian propaganda and its effect on the U.S. presidential election, few have noted the quiet advance of legislation designed to counter such threats. Last week, a counter-propaganda bill sponsored by Senators Rob Portman (R-OH) and Chris Murphy (D-CT) passed the Senate as part of the National Defense Authorization Act. The bill is expected to be signed by President Obama before he leaves office.
In a press release last week, Senator Portman laid out the two priorities of the bill:
The first priority is developing a whole-of-government strategy for countering foreign propaganda and disinformation. The bill would increase the authority, resources, and mandate of the Global Engagement Center to include state actors like Russia and China in addition to violent extremists. The Center will be led by the State Department, but with the active senior level participation of the Department of Defense, USAID, the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the Intelligence Community, and other relevant agencies. […]
Second, the legislation seeks to leverage expertise from outside government to create more adaptive and responsive U.S. strategy options. The legislation establishes a fund to help train local journalists and provide grants and contracts to NGOs, civil society organizations, think tanks, private sector companies, media organizations, and other experts outside the U.S. government with experience in identifying and analyzing the latest trends in foreign government disinformation techniques.
The Portman-Murphy bill will be funded to the tune of $160 million over two years: a notable increase from the $20 million demanded in an earlier version. What remains to be seen is how effectively that money will be spent. As Karina Orlova noted in May, raw expenditures are not a reliable indicator of propaganda’s effectiveness, particularly in the Russian case. And it is anxiety over the supposed effectiveness of Kremlin-funded Russian propaganda that appears to have driven the newfound push to pass the bill.
It is most certainly true that hostile powers like Russia have long wielded disinformation and propaganda as foreign policy tools, and that Washington has been slow to respond to this threat. Indeed, as John Schindler noted last year, the Obama White House scrapped a nascent counter-disinformation effort within the State Department before it got off the ground. To the extent that the Portman-Murphy bill can help us remedy these past failures, and equip the government with better data to respond to real threats, it will be a useful effort.
Still, there is no reason to celebrate quite yet. For one, the effectiveness of the new legislation will depend on its implementation by the new administration. Given Trump’s outright dismissal of concerns about Russian hacking and propaganda, he is unlikely to make countering such efforts a priority. Moreover, some experts like Clint Watts have argued that the bill’s interagency approach to fighting propaganda will be inherently unfocused; throwing more money at a government bureaucracy is no guaranteed recipe for success.
Finally, there is the risk that empowering anti-propaganda efforts will only add to the unreasonable panic over Putin-planted “fake news” that has engulfed public debate since the election. We have argued before that such hysteria is overwrought, and that overreacting will only play into Putin’s hands. This does not mean that the Portman-Murphy bill is misguided, or that the threat is not real. But it is important to remember that an effective counter-disinformation effort should help us see the threat more clearly, not inflate it unnecessarily.