How Many Disinformation Agencies Does the Federal Government Need?

AP Photo/Gregory Bull

Did you know the federal government has created multiple agencies ostensibly designed to root out and counter foreign disinformation?

Apparently, according to a recent report, those working in the upper echelons of the government are quite fixated on determining what kind of information Americans are allowed to see. However, despite these agencies being supposed to target the nation’s enemies, it is not difficult to see how these arms of the state could, and probably will, be used against American citizens.

The Intercept’s Ken Klippenstein reported that “offices dedicated to fighting foreign disinformation are springing up like daisies” in the federal government. He referred to the Pentagon’s Influence and Perception Management Office and “at least four organizations inside the Department of Homeland Security” and the State Department and FBI as well.

But now, the federal government has created yet another agency, one disinformation agency to rule them all, so to speak. The director of national intelligence has revealed the existence of the Foreign Malign Influence Center (FMIC), a new intelligence entity tasked with monitoring foreign influence efforts such as disinformation campaigns.

Established in September 2022 following Congressional funding approval, the center has the authority to marshal support from across the U.S. intelligence community. Its purview extends beyond election security and Russian disinformation. While concerns have been raised that the new organization duplicates existing entities, such as the State Department’s Global Engagement Center (GEC), which focuses on countering foreign disinformation, its creation has been welcomed by some, given the increasing importance of countering malign influence operations.

The FMIC has the authority to fight back against foreign disinformation targeting U.S. elections and “the public opinion within the United States” generally, according to the legislation that created the agency. Since Russia’s state-sanctioned interference in the 2016 election, which was partly fueled by bots and trolls amplifying disinformation on social media, offices tasked with combating foreign disinformation have proliferated, leading to concerns about disjointed efforts and overlapping operations. However, the FMIC, situated within the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, is viewed as a positive development, given its unique authority to coordinate the efforts of all elements of the U.S. intelligence community.

Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, while giving testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday, mentioned the creation of the FMIC for the first time.

“Congress put into law that we should establish a Foreign Malign Influence Center in the intelligence community; we have stood that up,” Haines explained. “It encompasses our election threat work, essentially looking at foreign influence and interference in elections, but it also deals with disinformation more generally.”

Haines also detailed how the new agency will focus on disinformation campaigns launched by the Kremlin and other hostile nations.

“What we have been doing is effectively trying to support the Global Engagement Center and others throughout the U.S. government in helping them to understand what are the plans and intentions of the key actors in this space: China, Russia, Iran, etc,” he said.

The Global Engagement Center (GEC) is another State Department entity whose role is countering foreign disinformation by leveraging America’s own propaganda effort. However, the GEC has been criticized for being ineffective and not doing enough to combat foreign disinformation. It has also come under scrutiny for funding the Global Disinformation Index (GDI), a private entity dedicated to attacking conservative and libertarian news sites by going after their advertising revenue.

Klippenstein also details how the growth of agencies specifically intended to address foreign disinformation has proceeded after Russia’s effort to meddle in the 2016 election. He wrote:

Since then, government entities charged with combating foreign disinformation have proliferated. In the fall of 2017, the FBI established the Foreign Influence Task Force. In 2018, the Department of Homeland Security established the Countering Foreign Influence Task Force — which in 2021 was updated to include a misinformation, disinformation, and malinformation team — as well as a Foreign Influence and Interference Branch and last year, the Disinformation Governance Board.

However, some have argued that all these new entities are unnecessary as “Russia’s efforts as of 2019 were not well coordinated and overstated in their impact,” according to Klippenstein. A RAND Corporation study found that the Kremlin’s disinformation efforts have “been neither well organized nor especially well resourced.”

The creation of the FMIC raises concerns about government overreach and censorship. Given what we have learned from the Twitter Files about the government’s effort to surveil and censor Americans on social media platforms, such concerns seem warranted.

In the name of “combating disinformation,” the FMIC could be given broad powers to monitor online activity, which could have a chilling effect on free speech and privacy. There is a risk that the FMIC could become yet another tool for government propaganda and the suppression of dissenting voices rather than a force for good in the fight against disinformation. Indeed, from where I sit, this is just another step in growing the surveillance and censorship state.

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