Second of a three-part series.
The warped reality of disinformation spreading online is a national security risk requiring an all-hands-on-deck approach to thwart the growing dangers. In this three-part series, experts at the University of Buffalo’s Center for Information Integrity assess the threats, the danger they pose and a range of possible solutions.
The stability and efficacy of every government ultimately depends not just on hard assets like military strength, but on decidedly soft variables like perceived legitimacy and public trust. In a democracy, this legitimacy and public trust depend on the public perception that the government rules with the consent of the people, as determined by accurate and reliable democratic processes. So, efforts by domestic groups and foreign adversaries like Russia, China and Iran to undermine the confidence of Americans in their own system of democracy are well-calculated to strike at an area of great sensitivity.
A powerful example of that manipulation came to light following the 2016 when U.S. intelligence agencies discovered that Russia had conducted a systematic cyber-disinformation campaign aimed at discrediting American democracy.
As a direct result, the Department of Homeland Security subsequently designated election infrastructure a part of the nation’s “critical infrastructure,” making it eligible for federal investment in security and defense.
Despite these actions, a 2019 report by then Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller documented the ongoing use of fake social media accounts and false live protest events to “sow discord in the U.S. political system” through “information warfare.” The goal of this campaign was deliberately “to undermine the U.S. electoral system,” with the purpose of weakening the United States internally, and in consequence to weaken it as a defender of the global order.
Unfortunately, these events have been overtaken by a new and potentially more damaging problem: a growing domestic movement that is seeking to gain power by discrediting, rigging, and subverting the trusted procedures and mechanisms of America’s democratic self-governance.
The methods these groups employ are similar to those of foreign adversaries. They use the same tools of “information warfare” to achieve their objectives. For example, they inject deliberate fabrications or misrepresentations into the social media arena and then rely on individual users, whether venal or simply gullible, to spread this disinformation rapidly and widely.
The troubling reality, however, is that this domestic movement has had far greater success than foreign efforts. Deeply unsettling events such as the Jan. 6 insurrection, illegal tampering with voting machines in Georgia and efforts to “decertify” the 2020 presidential elections in several states and the so-called Big Lie that the 2020 election was rigged were all stoked by disinformation that was generated domestically.
Online disinformation is a big challenge to legal system
Online disinformation threats such as these pose exceedingly difficult challenges under the U.S. legal system, which was designed for the problems of another era. The Constitution provides robust protection under the First Amendment for political speech online, for both domestic and foreign speakers, even when speakers know their speech is false and intend it to produce democratically destabilizing consequences.
Extant law has also been interpreted to provide robust insulation from liability for the online platforms that display such speech, providing the mechanisms by which it may readily spread. It’s important to understand that the digital media environment today has little to do with the internet of the late 1990s when search engines were merely responsive to the users’ search commands and had no automated mechanisms that would direct browsers toward “popular” fringe content. That era is gone.
As industry whistleblowers have tried to explain to the public in exposé media pieces, documentary films like The Social Dilemma and in recent congressional testimony, the issues today go well beyond First Amendment rights. The algorithms employed by social media companies to maximize engagement direct users to fringe content of which they may not even be aware. Some former media insiders have urged public officials to adopt regulatory mechanisms to “make social media companies liable for content that their algorithms promote.”
It’s a complex situation calling for an innovative examination of ways to thwart destabilizing threats while protecting – and encouraging trust in – America’s democratic institutions.
How the Center for Information Integrity is Helping
One of the projects of the University at Buffalo Center for Information Integrity is to closely scrutinize the existing legal treatment of speech and information and the media in which they appear.
The purposes of this project include:
- Investigating possible methods for addressing the threats to democracy and government stability posed by mis- and disinformation;
- Exploring ways in which regulatory and statutory law might be yoked into addressing such threats;
- Exploring strategies for altering statutory and even fundamental law for the purpose of defending the security and stability of the U.S. political system.
Any proposed solutions in the legal arena and other areas of concern –such as the technological challenges addressed in the next installment of this article series—will be rooted in the protection of the fundamental freedoms such as speech, press and assembly, which remain integral to the core identity of the United States and its citizens. To meet these complex challenges, we are assembling teams of experts in multiple domains, including law, computer technology, artificial intelligence and informatics, among other relevant fields.
The safety and security of the United States depend upon internal stability. If America is to maintain a self-governing, pluralistic society, there is no time to waste in preventing and dismantling harm from the emerging domestic threat.