Time to Restore the U.S. Information Agency

Rendering of TV studio camera. Flickr/Creative Commons/Rem Vandermeer

"As other actors are cultivating information-manipulation outfits, the United States cannot afford to be left behind; it has a duty to safeguard itself and confront threats."

When former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper spoke to a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in early January, he did not mince words. He said the allegations that Russian cyberattacks sought to influence the 2016 presidential election were “a multifaceted campaign,” and that “the hacking was only one part of it, and it also entailed classic propaganda, disinformation, fake news.” To respond to this campaign, he suggested bringing back the United States Information Agency. “I do think that we could do with having a USIA on steroids ... [We could use] the United States Information Agency to fight this information war a lot more aggressively than I think we’re doing right now,” Clapper said.

The United States is embroiled in a continuous information/cyber war with a wide array of actors, both state and nonstate. To confront these threats, a new sort of entity is needed: one that engages foreign audiences on behalf of the United States while countering misinformation, disinformation and influence campaigns. A renewed and revitalized U.S. Information Agency, as proposed by Clapper, is the best fit for this role.

Contemporary Influence Campaigns

Following the recent American presidential election, once again Russia has come to occupy the spotlight as the most notable cyber/information threat confronting the United States. This is not a new situation. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union engaged in what were called “aktivnye meropriyatiya” or “active measures.” A June 1992 report, released by USIA, explains the basic concept behind the strategy:

Active measures is a Soviet term that refers to the manipulative use of slogans, arguments, disinformation, and carefully selected true information, which the Soviets used to try to influence the attitudes and actions of foreign publics and governments. […] manipulative actions by foreign governments do not have to be overtly anti-American in order to be inimical to U.S. interests. Conciliatory and alarmist themes can be very damaging to the United States, if they cause the U.S. government to take actions that work to its detriment and which it would not otherwise have taken if it had not been the target of distorted or false messages systematically propagated by a foreign government for a political, economic, military or related purpose.

Putin’s Russia employs similar techniques, though updated to account for modern information technology. A 2015 New York Times story illustrates this, describing a Russian troll farm that engages heavily in spreading propaganda through social media efforts and fake profiles.

Yet states are not the only ones engaged in information campaigns. Nonstate actors have also developed formidable influence capabilities.

The most well-known case is the Islamic State, which possesses a slick and aggressive information division that specializes in self-promotion and recruitment. Lisa Blaker, in a 2015 article for Cyber Military Affairs, noted, “Clearly, social media has proven to be an extremely valuable tool for the terrorist organization and is perfectly suited for the very audience it’s intending to target. ... Platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, and even YouTube, allow ISIS propaganda to reach [young adults it wishes to recruit] across the globe in real time.”

Elsewhere, some influence campaigns are being formed without the clear backing of any particular nation-state or independent organization. In late January, for example, an article from BuzzFeed News detailed an ongoing operation dubbed “The Great Liberation of France.” In order to affect the course of the upcoming French presidential election, supporters of National Front candidate Marine Le Pen recruited ideologically sympathetic English-speaking individuals (generally Americans) via chat rooms and message boards, provided them with detailed instructions to create realistic-seeming profiles on French-speaking social media, and directed them to engage in actions to produce “as much chaos on social media as possible to make ... Marine Le Pen and her supporters ... seem like the most legitimate voice in French politics.”

Lastly, some efforts are born purely out of the pursuit of financial gain. Consider the town of Veles in Macedonia. Teenagers in the town discovered that fake news articles about the U.S. election that confirmed readers’ biases could attract millions of clicks—and thus substantial ad revenue. In a country where the average monthly salary is €350, the opportunity to make thousands was far too tempting to pass up. Concerningly, there is the legitimate concern that this model could work elsewhere. Marius Dragomir, a media expert at Budapest’s Central European University, is quoted in the Financial Times as saying, “I believe it will happen. Many will try as experiences elsewhere show that fake news can be monetised and that is going to prompt many to repeat the success [in Veles].”

The Lack of a Twenty-First Century Information Strategy