Photo illustration by John Lyman

World News


The U.S. Should Follow the UK’s Lead on Countering Disinformation

When Elon Musk bought Twitter and set up the subscription service Twitter Blue, some enterprising Twitter users soon started to imitate politicians, businesses, and even Elon Musk. They used Twitter’s blue verification checkmark to spread disinformation, disrupting the stock market and public discourse. This episode alone demonstrates the continued power of disinformation, which has already impacted American elections and perceptions of the pandemic. Our adversaries, no doubt can find additional ways to influence Americans and do our country harm.

So, what should we do? The crisis in Ukraine showed us a way to counter and preempt these lies by utilizing the intelligence community’s ability to inform and provide intelligence to the public. The United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defence has been a leader in this technique, regularly tweeting out battlefield updates of the Ukrainian conflict. This information helps counter Russian false narratives and uses the Ministry of Defence’s credibility to offer a genuine alternative for the public.

The United States also provides information and discloses it to the public through the National Security Council, the Department of Defense, and other National Security officials. To capitalize on this success, the United States needs to codify and expand these efforts. The Office of the Director for National Intelligence (ODNI), led by Avril Haines, should lead the fight against Russian and Chinese disinformation. The ODNI should lead this whole-of-community effort to drive change and provide accurate unclassified information to the American people.

Open-source intelligence analysis is a crucial component of this effort. Open-source analysis derives from unclassified sources, can be disseminated quickly to the public, and protects classified sources and techniques. Open-source analysis has gained prominence over the past few decades but still makes up only a tiny share of intelligence community analysis. There are two crucial steps for the intelligence community and the United States government to take to help expand this capability.

Step one is for the ODNI to prioritize unclassified and declassified intelligence as it writes the National Intelligence Strategy. When the National Intelligence Strategy makes open-source and unclassified analysis a high priority in the fight against disinformation, the other eighteen intelligence agencies will follow suit. This emphasis from the highest levels of the community will signal the importance of a culture shift from over-reliance on classified materials and the need to inform, not just government decision-makers.

Step two is for the intelligence agencies to establish a social media presence like the British Ministry of Defence. The intelligence community has the credibility and trustworthiness to legitimize this effort but needs to do more if it is going to combat China and Russia. A 2020 University of Texas poll shows that over sixty percent of Americans believe the intelligence community plays a vital role in national security. If China currently has tens of millions of trolls, the United States government should use every opportunity to inform the public.

Step three is to continue to create transparency in the intelligence community to build that trust. James Clapper, the former Director of National Intelligence, was instrumental in establishing an office ensuring the American people know that the intelligence community works for them. Transparency and trust is built through outreach and regular declassification of documents that have been vetted and have reached a certain time threshold. Creating intelligence products on social media will continue this mission by showcasing the type of information these agencies generate for leaders and decision-makers.

There is a fear of the government acting as a big brother and overreaching, but the risk of inaction is far greater than the risk of action against disinformation. Disinformation is the act of America’s adversaries actively informing people to discredit American strategic goals. The option for the American intelligence community is either to highlight the truth or provide space for Chinese and Russian propaganda. The answer is self-evident.

The intelligence community has always had a duty to warn and inform; let’s expand that mandate to include everyone. Disinformation is an evolving threat. Charging ODNI to provide accurate information to the American people is our best defense. Our adversaries spread disinformation to tear us apart; Our priority to spread the truth will keep us together.

The views expressed here represent those of the author and do not reflect those of the Department of Defense.