By: Jarjieh Fang
Today, America’s trust in public institutions, like the Federal government and professional news organizations, are at an all-time low. As a result, America’s news consumption habits have changed dramatically. The number of fringe news media outlets that Americans have access to has grown, and social media platforms play an increasingly prominent role in disseminating news, much of it questionable. At the same time, nations like Russia and China have developed tactics and capabilities to undermine objective and independent news and to coerce audiences at home and abroad. More concerning, these nations have also demonstrated a willingness to do just that.
These changes have increased the risk that American news media can be corrupted and that Americans are influenced by external actors. The United States is at an information inflection point. If policymakers do not react to these changes appropriately, the United States will be increasingly vulnerable to information warfare.
News organizations, objective and independent, have long been considered the fourth estate of American society. The press ensures that the public is well-equipped to punish or reward the actions of their elected officials. In times of excess, the press is a check on government. In times of apathy, the press is critical in raising issue saliency and spurring action. At the heart of the press’ influence is trust; the public and policymakers must trust news organizations for journalism to have any impact.
Worrisomely, evidence of America’s eroded trust in public institutions, including the press, is everywhere. In the 1960s, more than 72% of Americans trusted professional news media outlets and 66% of Americans thought newspapers were fair. Over time, those proportions have seen a sustained decline. In 2016, only 18% of Americans trust national news organizations and more than 74% believe that news organizations are biased. It is clear that American news consumers no longer view professional news organizations as objective, independent or trustworthy.
In some circles, the term ‘mainstream media’ is used to derogate the press. The term labels most professional news sources as untrustworthy. A clear indicator and consequence of the declining trust in professional news organizations is the dramatic emergence of alternative and fringe media sources into the national consciousness. These ascendant alternative and fringe media sources spread misinformation and should have little credibility. Yet they have grown into a misinformation barrage that crowds out professional, mainstream news and undermines the ability of the press to counter disinformation. Steve Smith, a journalism professor at the University of Idaho said to the Washington Post, “When you combine this digital tsunami with the loss of quality and quantity in American journalism [due to cutbacks and economic woes] over the years . . . journalists just don’t have the ability to keep up once a false narrative gains speed”.
In other words, Americans are increasingly exposed to sources of information that have no commitment to facts. As a result, this misinformation barrage is becoming more accepted, making the American public vulnerable to manipulation and coercion by potentially malevolent actors. Near-peer competitors, like Russia and China, are acutely aware of and have developed tools and tactics to exploit the eroded status of professional press in the United States. Russia’s considerable investments have created “an impressive range of alternative outlets to address all sectors of the target audience”.
These alternative outlets masquerade as legitimate sources of information, but in reality serve the interests of the Kremlin by spreading disinformation.
While it may seem apparent that Russian news outlets should be approached with considerable skepticism, Western audiences seem undeterred. RT, a mouthpiece for the Kremlin, claims that “about 85 million people in key urban areas can watch RT in English and Spanish” and that, in 2014, RT’s weekly audience in the largest US cities doubled. A cursory examination of Russian state-coordinated or controlled media, like RT and Sputnik, reveal that they parrot the rhetoric of American fringe media outlets, like Breitbart and Infowars, in attempts at converting Americans disaffected with “mainstream media” into consumers of Russian propaganda. One example is RT’s “Ultimate Guide to Mainstream Media (MSM)” that is supposed to help consumers “navigate the opaque world of mainstream media”. This and other efforts perpetuate the perception that Western mainstream media outlets should not be trusted and that Russian coordinated or controlled media outlets are friendly alternatives.
Social media is another critical weakness in America’s ability to resist information warfare. In their current forms, many social media platforms serve as force multipliers for state-sponsored disinformation campaigns. According to the Pew Research Center, 62% of Americans use social media for news, growing more than 10% since 2012. Though it may be as much our own faults as the overly accommodating algorithms, social media platforms have long been criticized as being echo chambers. As a result, social media can become bunker where fringe falsehoods fester and mainstream news does not penetrate.
Even absent a concerted disinformation campaign, social media platforms, particularly Facebook, are susceptible to featuring fake news stories and sources at the top of news feeds. At the height of a conflict, it is not hard to imagine a scenario in which a state, like Russia, leverages all of its tools for information warfare, driving disinformation tailored to trend at the top of news feeds and designed to confuse policymakers and public and sow division. It’s not hard to imagine because Russia is already doing it. As national security experts, Andrew Weisburd, Clint Watts, and Jim Berger write in War on the Rocks, “Russia’s honeypots, hecklers, and hackers have run amok for at least two years, achieving unprecedented success in poisoning America’s body politic and creating deep dissent, including a rise in violent extremist activity and visibility. Posting hundreds of times a day on social media, thousands of Russian bots and human influence operators pump massive amounts of disinformation and harassment into public discourse”.
The United States and other liberal democracies are at an information inflection point. Given the demonstrated interest that states, like Russia and China, have in sowing division and unrest in liberal democracies, journalists and policymakers must act quickly to counter the growth of the misinformation barrage and the declining financial health and social status of America’s fourth estate. Social media companies must recognize their awesome power as media companies and take tangible steps to expose all users to objective, professional news. Furthermore, social media companies and governments must work together to help develop more critical media consumers. Finally, the United States and other liberal democracies must work to ensure that foreign audiences, like citizens living in repressive states, have access to the facts about global events and international affairs.