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Spanberger, Katko fight foreign disinformation in U.S. politics
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Spanberger, Katko fight foreign disinformation in U.S. politics

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U.S. Rep. Abigail Spanberger addresses election security

U.S. Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-7th, speaks on election security during a 2019 press conference by the Blue Dog Coalition, of which she is a member.

It has been widely reported that foreign governments—particularly adversaries such as Russia, China and Iran—aim to disrupt U.S. democracy and divide more Americans via online disinformation campaigns. That’s especially so as the nation nears its November elections, in which voting has already begun.

On Thursday, U.S. Reps. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.) and John Katko (R-N.Y.) introduced legislation to guard against foreign countries’ efforts to weaken our electoral system amid the COVID-19 pandemic and exploit vulnerabilities in U.S. national security.

“Combating foreign election interference needs to be a bipartisan issue,” Katko said in a statement. “Ahead of November’s election, we need to prevent our nation’s enemies from using social media as a vehicle to deploy disinformation. With this in mind, I’m joining Rep. Spanberger in introducing the Foreign Agent Disclaimer Enhancement (FADE) Act. This legislation would establish enforceable tools to ensure visible disclaimers are included in political posts from foreign agents.”

Katko, a former federal prosecutor, urged his colleagues to support the measure to “increase transparency, reduce the spread of disinformation, and protect our democratic processes from foreign influence.”

Spanberger, a former CIA officer, said she knows the United States is under constant siege by foreign adversaries seeking to spread false information, and that social-media networks are especially vulnerable to such actions.

“Disclaimers on social media posts are often non-existent, particularly when content is shared or linked,” the freshman lawmaker said. “This means that social media can serve as an ideal rumor mill for disinformation, as nefarious actors are able to leverage the rapid transfer of information from person to person.”

She thanked Katko for joining the effort to protect the integrity of the nation’s elections by helping stop foreign adversaries from disseminating propaganda across Americans’ social media feeds.

Their FADE Act would require foreign disclaimers within social media posts, increasing transparency and giving the public accurate information about posts’ sources, Spanberger said.

In August, U.S. intelligence agencies warned that that, “ahead of the 2020 U.S. elections, foreign states will continue to use covert and overt influence measures in their attempts to sway U.S. voters’ preferences and perspectives, shift U.S. policies, increase discord in the United States, and undermine the American people’s confidence in our democratic process.”

The Foreign Agents Registration Act requires foreign officials to disclose to the U.S. Department of Justice political ads and issue advocacy intended to sway the U.S. government or the American people

But the law doesn’t govern social media, and foreign agents working from abroad often evade disclaimer requirements, Katko and Spanberger said.

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Under their FADE Act, disclaimers would stay with a social-media post whenever the post is shared. The bill would clarify that the disclaimer rules apply to the internet and any political communications directed at the United States, regardless of the foreign agent’s location, they said.

The legislation would require the Justice Department to notify online platforms if a foreign agent violated disclaimer requirements, require the platform to remove the materials, and make “reasonable efforts” to tell posts’ recipients that the information was disseminated by a foreign agent.

In addition, the bipartisan bill would require the department to report to Congress on enforcement challenges.

“It is time to update Foreign Agents Registration Act to require disclosure of foreign agents operating online—to limit their ability to deceive and manipulate U.S. politics,” said Karen Kornbluh, director of the Digital Innovation and Democracy Initiative at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. “By requiring disclaimers for digital content and extending FARA to agents operating abroad, the FADE Act would empower Americans with information they need to better protect themselves and democratic debate in the digital age.”

Kornbluh is a former U.S. ambassador to the 37-nation Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, which works to stimulate economic progress and world trade.

The Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan nonprofit that addresses government ethics and campaign finance, and Issue One, a cross-partisan political reform group, endorse the FADE Act, the two legislators said.

Their proposal would bring the Foreign Agents Registration Act into the 21st century, said Brendan Fischer, director of the center’s Federal Reform Program.

“The bill is an important bipartisan measure that protects Americans’ right to know when they are being influenced by foreign sources,” Fischer said. “Foreign actors seeking to influence U.S. politics online must at least be transparent about it.”

Meredith McGehee, Issue One‘s executive director, commended Spanberger and Katko for introducing the legislation and called on Congress to quickly address disinformation threats.

Such foreign activities “cause Americans to distrust our democratic process,” McGehee said. “The ... Foreign Agent Disclaimer Enhancement Act would take necessary steps toward stopping unpaid foreign-backed disinformation from influencing the American public.”

There is not yet a companion bill in the U.S. Senate, a spokesman for the Central Virginia legislator said.

“But the need for these types of reforms has received increasing attention and Rep. Spanberger looks forward to moving forward pieces and packages of legislation that look to address the issue of disinformation and foreign political influence,” said Connor Joseph, the congresswoman’s press secretary.

In a somewhat similar vein, Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, has also introduced a bill to strengthen enforcement of the Foreign Agents Disclosure and Registration Enhancement Act.

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Clint Schemmer, a journalist since 1980, has worked at papers in California, North Carolina and Virginia. He’s been a bureau chief, editorial-page editor, copy desk chief and local news editor. Now a staff writer at the Culpeper Star-Exponent.

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