Lawmakers, experts see combatting Russian disinformation as a ‘battle’


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House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita LoweyNita Sue LoweyTop Democrats call for administration to rescind child migrant information sharing policy Democrats on high alert to block any funding for Trump’s border wall Border aid fallout tests Pelosi-Schumer relationship MORE (D-N.Y.) is describing the fight against Russian efforts to spread disinformation on social media as a conflict that the U.S. has “got to win.”

At a Wednesday hearing, Lowey referenced the U.S. women’s soccer team’s World Cup win, saying: “We won the USA soccer match, I can’t believe that how difficult it is that we can’t win this battle.”

The comments came during a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing on countering Russian disinformation and malign influence on social media and other communications platforms, particularly attempts to interfere in U.S. elections. 

Rep. Lois FrankelLois Jane FrankelKatherine Clark quietly eyes leadership ascent Can new US Strategy on Women, Peace & Security give women a real seat at the table? Ask Afghan women Overnight Health Care — Presented by PCMA — Senators unveil sweeping bipartisan health care package | House lawmakers float Medicare pricing reforms | Dems offer bill to guarantee abortion access MORE (D-Fla.) quipped in response to Lowey that it was “kind to call it a battle, I would call it a war.”

Rep. Hal RogersHarold (Hal) Dallas RogersFocus on learning for security, prosperity in Central America Congress needs to continue fighting the opioid epidemic Democrats seek to ban federal spending at Trump businesses MORE (R-Ky.), the ranking member of the subcommittee, agreed with Lowey on the threats from Russia through disinformation campaigns, and suggested that an “interagency effort” may be needed to fully address the issue. 

The hearing comes months after the release of special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerTop Republican considered Mueller subpoena to box in Democrats Kamala Harris says her Justice Dept would have ‘no choice’ but to prosecute Trump for obstruction Dem committees win new powers to investigate Trump MORE‘s report, which detailed efforts by Russian entities to interfere in the 2016 presidential election with social media campaigns that sought to sow discord between supporters of then-candidates Donald Trump and Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonOvernight Defense: Drama over 3B House defense bill | Democratic tensions threaten to snag legislation | White House threatens veto | US, Taliban talks end with ‘roadmap for peace’ Hillary Clinton slams Trump administration after Iran exceeds enrichment limits Republican lawmakers on why they haven’t read Mueller report: ‘Tedious’ and ‘what’s the point?’ MORE.

 

Witnesses at Wednesday’s hearing agreed with Lowey’s assessment of the spread of Russian disinformation as an ongoing conflict.

John Lansing, the CEO of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, which has jurisdiction over Voice of America and Radio Free Europe, described the issue of countering disinformation as a “battle.” Lansing asked lawmakers to step up spending to combat Russian efforts.

“I can’t say we’re at the promised land, or we’ve reached the epiphany of making it all go away, but we’re engaged,” Lansing told the subcommittee. “The one thing I would ask…is just help us fund the effort, it’s becoming more and more expensive, because the Russians are sparing no expense in disrupting all these democratic institutions.”

Lansing noted that Russia is stepping up its disinformation efforts in other Democratic countries and in the U.S. in advance of the 2020 elections, and said that operatives are increasingly using artificial intelligence to spread lies under the guise of fake profiles.

“A lie can go around the world while the truth is putting its shoes on,” Lansing said.  

Lansing underlined the overall threat from Russia, and said that he believed Russia’s goal was to “destroy” the truth. 

“In a world where nothing is empirically truthful, any lie will do, and if everything is a lie, the biggest liar wins,” Lansing said. “It’s not an overestimation to say that the information battlefield may be the fight of the 21st century.”

Social media companies like Facebook have faced pressure to crack down on the issue. In the wake of the 2016 election and other privacy scandals, Facebook put geographic limits and other security obstacles on the buying of political advertisements.  

But another witness at Wednesday’s hearing said that in Ukraine, Russia has been testing out ways to skirt those rules, such as through the use of “ad mules,” or paying Ukrainian citizens to use their actual accounts to buy ads.

“It looks like an authentic Ukrainian is logging on and buying those ads, and then they are able to place those political ads,” Nina Jankowicz, a global fellow at the Wilson Center, said, and criticized Facebook for being “extraordinarily lax” in responding to this threat.

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