Fake News, Free Speech, and Russian Influence

Ripped from the headlines. That’s what our work feels like, sometimes, at the Jackson Foundation. Given our focus on important topics such as climate change, human rights, rule of law, and the need for new public leadership, our efforts have never felt more vital.

This couldn’t have been more obvious than in the wake of the Special Counsel Robert Mueller indictments against Russian individuals and institutions for a targeted disinformation campaign intended to sow dissension in the United States in the run-up to the 2016 election. And that interference in the U.S. is clearly continuing up to the present day.

The Foundation, in a partnership with Human Rights First, has been working quietly for several years to highlight the role Russia has been playing in an influence game in the West. Suddenly this disinformation and fake news effort on the part of the Kremlin has become front page news.

From left to right: Melissa Hooper (Moderator) with panelists Jamie Fly, Amy MacKinnon, and Nina Jankowicz.

Recently we held a public event at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. focused on Fake News, Free Speech, and Foreign Influence. In the wake of extraordinary coverage of Russia’s role in the 2016 election and its ongoing interference in social media, this event focused on how the U.S. can combat disinformation and counter Russia’s online influence campaigns. The discussion included two highly-substantive panels with experts who described the nature of the false content – it is ongoing, hard to identify, impacts both political parties, and seeks to divide Americans. In a riveting panel moderated by Human Rights First’s Melissa Hooper, Jamie Fly, Senior Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the U.S., warned the packed room, “This is still going on, it never stopped. The Russians never left and others learned from the Russians. The goal is to sow chaos and pit Americans against each other.” Amy MacKinnon agreed, saying that, “It exploits grievances that are already in societies. They know where the fault lines lie. They know more about us by far than we know about them.”

Independent author and researcher Nina Jankowicz emphasized that solutions would come from “a whole of government approach, including the Department of Education.” A day or two after the event, The New York Times published an opinion piece on this topic written by her that expanded on this view.

From left to right: Shanthi Kalanthil, (moderator) with panelists Emma Llanso, Jason Pielemeier, and Tiffany Li.

Other speakers also recommended changing our society in ways that would make it less vulnerable to this type of exploitation. A number of speakers emphasized strengthening basic critical thinking skills, civic training and civic education in our nation. They suggested that Americans should improve their media literacy and support high-quality independent media. The panelists believe that technology companies should also play a larger role assisting this process, such as by creating greater transparency around automated bots and better identifying information sources.

Foundation President John Hempelmann offered a welcome for the program and Vice President Craig Gannett and Program Officer Maura Sullivan attended. They found the program, which is one of a number that we have produced in partnership with Human Rights First related to Russia’s role in influencing Western societies, to be informative, well executed, and timely. Human Rights First plans to synthesize the thoughts from the day and will work to inform members of Congress about the recommendations. We will share that with you when it is complete.

 

Lara Iglitzin

Executive Director

 

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