We Don’t Like ‘Fake News’ Either, But the Creation of a Neo-McCarthyite Committee to Counter Russian Propaganda Is Most Definitely NOT the Answer

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On Wednesday, the House passed the Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017. It includes a troubling provision that establishes a committee to “counter active measures by the Russian Federation to exert covert influence over peoples and governments.”  Based on no evidence, the provision raises the specter of Russian “media manipulation” and “disinformation,” and charges the committee to counter such efforts. The provision fuels an anti-Russia hysteria that threatens freedom of the press in the United States.   

The mandate of the committee is extremely broad, including “such other duties as the President may designate…” Those words are a blank check that could lead to blacklists or a witch hunt reminiscent of the McCarthy era. And the members of the committee give us no comfort. They will be handpicked by the Directors of the FBI, Department of Defense, National Intelligence, and the Attorney General. Given the FBI’s long history of engaging in political manipulation and disinformation campaigns itself, it seems particularly inappropriate to give that agency a role in this committee whose agenda can be so easily subverted to political score-settling. 

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This measures comes on the heels of a report in the Washington Post concerning alleged Russian influence on domestic media that was based in part on a study by a website called PropOrNot. PropOrNot’s staff is entirely anonymous and little is known about them, however, they have assembled a blacklist of 200 online media publications deemed to be agents of Russian propaganda. While some of online media publications on this list do in fact openly receive subsidies from the Russian government, the list also included a number of highly regarded independent online publications, including publications that lean both left and right. Little is known about the criteria that was used to blacklist these venerable publications, but PropOrNot’s own guidance on how to spot Russian propaganda include criticism of US foreign policy and police brutality, or voicing concerns over online privacy or the US deficit, or support for the gold standard. Regardless of what one thinks of any of these opinions, it is clear that a political litmus test is being used to smear publications as being agents of a foreign power.

Given this climate, we are deeply concerned that efforts to counter Russian “media manipulation” and “disinformation” could quickly devolve into the political policing of domestic publications. During the McCarthy era we saw what a deleterious impact on democracy that official conflations of political heterodoxy with foreign subversion has. We should learn from the legacy by making sure the mistakes of the past are never again repeated.

Tell your Senator to oppose this provision.

Additional Reading:

Washington Post Disgracefully Promotes a McCarthyite Blacklist From a New, Hidden, and Very Shady Group – Ben Norton and Glenn Greenwald in The Intercept

US legislation proposes new committee to counteract Russian ‘covert influence’ – Spencer Ackerman in The Guardian

 



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