Russia plans to disrupt the midterm elections in Nov. That… was the surprisingly frank conclusion announced by several Trump administration officials in a joint news conference on Thurs. FBI Director Christopher Wray described what he called ongoing “information warfare” on social media. He & other members of the national security team assured the American public that they would do everything they could to protect the elections & counter Russian disinformation. Yet the briefing revealed little in the way of detail.
As U.S. officials attempt to formulate an effective response to Kremlin mischief-making, there’s one precedent that might be worth considering: the U.S. government’s anti-smoking campaign.
The effort to reduce smoking in the U.S. began in 1964, when the government acknowledged for the first time that smoking is harmful to health. By 2015, the U.S. had managed to cut the smoking rate by more than half. When the campaign began, doctors were still telling pregnant women that it was safe for them to smoke. Fifty years later, smoking has been banned in many public spaces.
What made this campaign so successful? First, the government used its regulatory powers. Much like Big Tobacco in the 1950s, the tech industry today operates in an unregulated environment. FB, Twitter & Google are all keen to avoid being treated as media companies, which would make them subject to… FCC regulations.
So far…, the companies have made only superficial changes to their platforms at the behest of new EU regulation around user data privacy. These voluntary efforts are failing to curtail the spread of disinformation, & sooner or later the tech industry will have to face the same FCC restrictions on content & advertising as traditional media — which would undoubtedly help to reduce the spread of erroneous reporting.
Second, the messenger matters. The U.S. Surgeon General, which published a 1964 report linking smoking to cancer, was a trusted government agency. Research shows that even truthful information will be dismissed by audiences if it doesn’t come from a trusted source…
Responsibility for warning the public about disinformation threats should fall to DHS & FEMA, which are responsible for providing accurate info during crises. DHS chief Kirstjen Nielsen, who participated in this week’s briefing, has described Russian interference in the U.S. elections as “a Category 5 hurricane” & announced the creation of a National Risk Management Ctr. As a first order of business, this new task force should assess how the agency can deploy its existing emergency response capabilities to counter disinformation, work with local officials & establish appropriate responses to attacks.