The government’s biggest challenge isn’t combating disinformation spread by Russia or other foreign actors ahead of the 2020 elections. It’s the fake news and information generated and spread by Americans.
That’s the view from a senior cybersecurity adviser at the Department of Homeland Security, who says domestic disinformation is “the hardest challenge that we have.”
“Amplification of domestic activity is something that’s very hard, if not impossible, for the federal government to respond to, given all of the appropriate First Amendment protections that lie around it,” Matt Masterson said at a conference hosted by the Hewlett Foundation.
The dilemma is especially top of mind after the 2018 midterms, when law enforcement, tech companies and researchers saw that Americans were taking a page out of Russia’s playbook and spreading lies and stoking divisions on social media.
The government wields broader authorities when foreign adversaries are trying to sow discord on social media – it investigated and indicted a Russian group of Internet trolls for information warfare, and even launched an offensive cyberoperation to take down the St. Petersburg troll farm during the midterm elections.
But when Americans are manufacturing the falsehoods, the government has to tread more cautiously. It has to be mindful about how it even flags it to the tech industry.
The government has to be “very careful” as it responds to disinformation that Americans share, former FBI chief James B. Comey said at the same conference. By contrast, Comey said, “if you’re focused on a troll farm in St. Petersburg, there are authorities that can be used there – where you’re not worried about infringing on free speech.”
At home, the FBI can share communications that seem suspicious “in a responsible way” with the technology companies, who he called a “ready partner” to ensure widely-used platforms do not foster disinformation or other harmful content.
“But even when sharing information you have to do in a thoughtful way,” Comey said. “Because if you’re wrong or you overshare, you might step on speech you shouldn’t be going anywhere near.”
DHS also has shared information with the technology companies, Masterson said. “When we would get information from state and local officials, we push it to the platforms with no comment on anything other than this was given to us and then allow them to take the appropriate action,” Masterson said.
That puts the onus on Silicon Valley companies to determine how to crack down on fake news, at a time when they’re already wrestling with pressure to improve their content moderation efforts. Though the tech giants say they are committed to keeping their platforms safe and preserving democratic institutions, they also are struggling to make tough calls that could impact speech online. Facebook recently called for regulations that would set a baseline for what content should be prohibited.
“Lawmakers often tell me we have too much power over speech, and frankly I agree,” Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg wrote in a recent op-ed. “I’ve come to believe that we shouldn’t make so many important decisions about speech on our own.”
Despite its limitations, the U.S. government is also trying to get creative as it tries to prevent a repeat of the 2016 presidential election. Masterson tells me DHS is expanding its efforts to educate the American public on ways to spot the tactics and techniques of disinformation, whether it’s domestic or foreign in origin.
“From a federal government perspective, as we look at disinformation and responding, our approach at DHS is going to be to push out and educate the American public about what disinformation tactics look like,” he said.
DHS already engaged in education and awareness efforts ahead of the 2018 midterms. The agency worked with state and local election officials to ensure that voters knew where they could obtain trusted information about their polling places or whether they’re registered to vote.
But ahead of 2020, the agency is hoping to work with a broader set of partners to help Americans be vigilant for fake news online. Already, DHS is working with the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School on this issue. Masterson told me the efforts are still in early stages, but he would like to do outreach with local libraries and groups representing Americans who are disproportionately targeted with disinformation, like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People or AARP.
THE WASHINGTON POST