On December 23, 2016, President Barack Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017 into law. Buried deep inside the Act is a little-known provision called the Portman-Murphy Counter-Propaganda Bill. The Bill requires the U.S. Department of State to set up and run a “Ministry of Truth” to counter online information from China and “other enemies” of the U.S.
The sole purpose of the new Bill is to amplify America’s message to the world while de-amplifying the world’s message to America. The U.S. has long been a staunch supporter of an open and global platform for communication, but this new Bill questions America’s commitment to the free exchange of ideas. “Our enemies are using foreign propaganda and disinformation against us and our allies, and so far, the U.S. government has been asleep at the wheel,” U.S. Senator Rob Portman said.
The Cold War-style “counter propaganda with propaganda” bill was introduced by U.S. senators Portman and Chris Murphy in March 2016, and is designed to counter foreign disinformation and propaganda with all elements of America’s national power, including new media. The adoption of the Bill suggests that America’s message to the world is losing its appeal in the face of a much more fiercely competitive market place of ideas.
The fabric of American democracy is threatened by the creation of a comprehensive agency for the purpose of deciding the truthfulness of foreign information and ideas. What constitutes disinformation and propaganda is not defined, and it is unclear how the U.S. government will make that decision in a system based on the free flow of information and ideas and with respect to constitutional rights.
The Bill is organized around two main priorities to help achieve the goal of combating foreign disinformation from America’s enemies. The first is developing a government strategy for countering foreign propaganda and disinformation. Though mainly focused on Russia, China is labeled an enemy and accused of using disinformation and other propaganda tools to influence the policies and social and political stability of America and its allies. The second is to leverage outside expertise, mainly at the local level. According to the Bill, the U.S. will fund and support local groups, such as local NGOS, to counter official messages and influence the policies and social and political stability of China and other enemies.
A “whole-of-government approach” is called for to counter disinformation, meaning multiple government departments will work closely with the U.S. Department of State. This includes the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the parent organization to Voice of America, as well as various other government agencies. The new interagency center housed at the State Department will be responsible for all government initiatives intended to promote America’s message to the world.
In the name of national security, the U.S. government can now smear and exclude foreign media views and opinion, an important counterbalance to America’s message in the global marketplace of ideas. The adoption of the Bill comes at a time when China’s message to the world is strengthening. People’s Daily (@PDChina) and other Chinese media outlets have been building their online presence in recent years by relying more and more on international new media to tell the story of China and to present news and views from a Chinese perspective.