Jonathan Henick, the acting deputy coordinator of the Global Engagement Centre (GEC), told a group of international journalists on Wednesday at the Foreign Press Centre in Washington DC that the US government has decided to redouble its efforts towards thwarting the spread of disinformation.
The GEC is the arm of the Department of State primarily responsible for coordinating America’s response to the spread of disinformation.
“Counter-disinformation efforts, programmes, grants, financial support to fact-checking organisations, other civil society organisations, if we adopt that definition, the United States spend(s) probably over a billion dollar a year to country disinformation,” he said.
“The Global Engagement Centre itself this year has only a budget of $85- 90 million to counter state and non-state disinformation but that doesn’t include our normal development programmes.
“It doesn’t include investments by US military, normal exchange programme that we do, public diplomacy and a lot of other things that we do that are used to counter disinformation,” he added.
Mr Henick, who defined disinformation as the deliberate spread of “information that is knowingly false with the intent to deceive the audience,” said those he described as “malign actors” have taken advantage of the rapid the change in technology, communication and how news is consumed to spread their nefarious interest.
He, therefore, said the GEC has to come up with a robust approach to countering the spread of this toxic mix of disinformation. He admitted that the United States may have been complacent for a while, especially after the Cold War, but has now realised that it has to do more in the area of counter-disinformation.
According to him part of this robust approach includes working with the media, civil society organisations, governments, and the public to “increase resiliency to make people understand that they are venerable to misinformation and disinformation.
“To do what we can to make it difficult for our adversaries to take advantage of the situation,” he said.
Mr Henick added that the United State is adopting an all-encompassing approach to battling the spread of disinformation and not just limiting it to the work his organisation is doing.
According to him, the GEC is not the only part of the US government doing this work.
“This is work that is done every day domestically in the United State by state governments, local governments, by agencies here and certainly done on behalf of the US government overseas in all of our embassies, our ambassadors, our press attaches, development partners who are working on programmes to strengthen the media, even our military colleges who are trying to develop relationships with the media and communicate accurately what our military policies are as well.
“This is a collective effort. What the GEC was empowered to do was to try to coordinate those effort to better understand disinformation, who our adversaries are, what their tactics are, to do a better job of supporting like-minded government and civil society and media partner all around the world to help expose and counter disinformation.
“We are also investing very heavily in science and technology and data analytics, we are working with private sector technology companies to identify new tools, new software that will help us to better grapple with this challenge,” he said.
Countering spread of extremism
Mr Henick said the US government is adopting a similar approach to countering the spread of terrorism ideologies by groups such as ISIS and Boko Haram. He, however, acknowledged that there are no quick fixes to the problem.
According to him, a robust and continuous countering to the spread of violent extremism ideologies seem to be the best way to tackling the problem.
“There (are) some similarities between the tactics they have been adopted by terrorist groups and the tactics that have used by foreign state actors. There are no quick easy solutions to these problems. It is not like we can flip a switch and deny them access to the TV or radio or internet access.
“We can shut down individual accounts and we see them pop up as quickly as we can shut them down,” he said.
“One of the things we are doing is to work with the big social media platforms to try to automate their ability to detect these types of terrorist disinformation and be able to take down some of these contents as soon as possible.
“But in the long run, it’s going to require more traditional means of working with responsible media organisations, working with civil society organisations.
“Just because somebody is consuming radical ideological information online, that is not a crime in itself, but in a lot of countries there is no social support system such as religious figures, counselors at school.
“Parents are faced with the choice of reporting their own children to law enforcement authorities,” he said.
Despite the expression of doubt by the president Donald Trump, US intelligence agencies have said that Russia disrupted the 2016 presidential election and is still trying to disrupt the mid-term elections in the country through the spread of disinformation and certain propaganda.