Amid all the hysteria about fake news and foreign influence in the narratives surrounding the 2016 election, Congress responded by authorizing more spending on… propaganda.
Right before Christmas weekend, President Obama signed the bill to authorize the next fiscal year’s defense spending, and tucked inside was a little-noticed provision called the Countering Disinformation and Propaganda Act.
Originally sponsored by Senators Rob Portman and Chris Murphy, the act establishes a new “Global Engagement Center” that is largely funded by the Department of Defense, but will be housed under the Department of State.
The Global Engagement Center’s director will be yet another presidential appointee, and the center’s primary purpose is to oversee the issuance of grants to third party groups that can help counter “disinformation, misinformation, and propaganda directed at the United States and its allies and partners.”
Up to $160 million is made available for this purpose over the next two fiscal years. [Author’s note: You can find the actual text of the act here if you’re interested — search “Global Engagement Center”.]
Now of course, foreign governments engage in their own propaganda efforts. The more despotic the regime, generally, the more aggressive its efforts to convince the rest of the world (and its own citizens) that it’s not so bad, and its enemies are terrible.
Russia, in a holdover from the Soviet era, provides a prime example of this, in that it directly funds outlets like Russia Today (RT) explicitly to provide “a Russian viewpoint on major global events.”
If such propaganda seems Orwellian, well, it is. And the U.S. has engaged in such efforts extensively since the early 20th century, with outlets such as Radio Free Europe and Voice of America providing the “American viewpoint” to whomever cares to listen across the world.
Certainly, it is nice to have counter-narratives out in the world to anti-liberty, anti-American misinformation. The obvious question about this Global Engagement Center, however, is whether a government-controlled media push is likely to be as much pro-America — rather than simply pro-government — from the point of view of whichever administration happens to be in office.
Just as government involvement in countering “fake news” here at home is fraught with concerns about just who gets to decide what constitutes “fake,” so too is that the case with our anti-propaganda propaganda. More importantly, who gets to define what the “correct,” pro-American spin on the news is?
Would conservatives seriously trust the Obama administration, for example, to use these grants and counter-messaging programs to promote a vision of America that they believe in to the world? I’d ask the same question of progressives about a Trump administration.
Thinking about it in that light, does creating a brand new center to pump tens of millions of dollars into, promoting government-approved propaganda still sound like a rational idea?
This article originally appeared on Conservative Review.