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US leading global alliance to counter foreign government disinformation

US leading global alliance to counter foreign government disinformation

US leading global alliance to counter foreign government disinformation

A global coalition of democracies is being formed to protect their societies from disinformation campaigns by foreign governments, the US special envoy on the issue has said.

James Rubin, the special envoy for non-state propaganda and disinformation efforts at the US state department’s global engagement centre (GEC), said the coalition hoped to agree on “definitions for information manipulation versus plain old opinions that other governments are entitled to have even if we disagree with them”.

The US, UK and Canada have already signed up to a formal framework agreement, and Washington hopes more countries will join.

The GEC focuses solely on disinformation by foreign powers. Apart from trying to develop global strategies, it works to expose specific covert disinformation operations, such as a Russian operation in Africa to discredit US health services.

The US, UK and Canada signed the framework to counter foreign state manipulation this month with the aim of addressing disinformation as a national security threat that requires coordinated government and civil society responses. “Now is the time for a collective approach to the foreign information manipulation threat that builds a coalition of like-minded countries committed to strengthening resilience and response to information manipulation,” the framework says. It also encourages information-sharing and joint data analysis tools to identify covert foreign disinformation.

A hugely experienced US official and journalist who has worked with diplomats such as Madeleine Albright in the past, Rubin admitted his first year as special envoy had been one of his most intellectually taxing because of the complex definitions surrounding disinformation.

In the continuum between hostile opinion and disinformation, he has tried to identify where and how governments can intervene without limiting free speech.

The principle on which he has alighted is deception by foreign powers. “In principle every government should be free to convey their views, but they should have to admit who they are,” he said an interview.

“We want to promote more fact-based information, but at the same time find ways to label those information operations that are generated by the Chinese government or the Kremlin but to which they don’t admit.

“In the end that is all I know we can do right now without interfering with a free press. We are not asking for such covert disinformation to be taken down but a way to be found for the source to be labelled.”

As an example he cites a hypothetical message shown on the phone screens of people in eastern Europe, telling them “the US has bioweapons in Ukraine”.

“It is a classic disinformation trope that you might or might not believe,” he said. “But if on your screen it says in some way ‘Russia says the US has bioweapons in Ukraine, or Russia Today says it’, then the damage is less.

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