(WATCH) Election Interference

You’re probably starting to hear a lot about invisible forces trying to shape the information landscape in the 2024 presidential campaign. We’re told to worry about China and Russia and all the disinformation competing for our attention. Scott Thuman looks at the players and finds there is also plenty of home-grown propaganda to worry about.

The following is a transcript of a report from “Full Measure with Sharyl Attkisson.” Watch the video by clicking the link at the end of the page.

Sean McFate: We are our own worst enemy. Not China, not Russia, not Iran, not al-Qaida. We are.

Sean McFate is a former soldier, a national security strategist, and author, who says fear over foreign interference in U.S. elections may warrant some concerns, but it’s homegrown political operatives and interests that stand a bigger chance to influence voters.

McFate: Rewind 20 years ago, and you can look at what were policy makers saying about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to get the United States in Iraq?

Scott: So it’s not always Russia and China we need to be leery of; there’s sometimes groups here in the States?

McFate: Well, there’s big donors. There’s big media corporations. They all have their interests. The question is, are they doing this in a thoughtful, authentic, objective way, or are they trying to themselves push voters one direction or another with some sort of scare tactic?

Even the White House pushes its own interests.

Last year, the House Judiciary Committee revealed Facebook caved to pressure from the Biden administration during the pandemic and banned posts questioning the origins of COVID. Internal company emails obtained by the committee initially show uncertainty around the policy.

“Can someone quickly remind me why we were removing—rather than demoting/labeling—claims that Covid is man made,” asked Nick Clegg, president of global affairs for Facebook’s parent company, Meta, in a July 2021 email to his co-workers. Then, the intent became clear. “We were under pressure from the administration and others to do more,” replied the social media company’s employee in charge of content policy. “We shouldn’t have done it.”

A year after those emails were written, the state of Missouri challenged the Biden administration’s ability to lean on any social media company to censor content, in a lawsuit heard in the state’s supreme court.

The alleged First Amendment violation has now made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court where Benjamin Aguiñaga, the attorney representing Missouri and Louisiana, who later joined the lawsuit, argued before the Justices.

Benjamin Aguiñaga: “The moment that the government tries to use its ability as the government and its stature as the government to pressure them to take it down, that is when you’re interfering with the third party’s speech rights.”

Scott: Is there a fine line between President Biden asking, for example, big tech companies to remove posts about vaccines that don’t mesh with the White House narrative and Russia bending over perspectives on candidates?

McFate: I think it’s hard to tell. Look, there’s disinformation and there’s misinformation. Disinformation is somebody in St. Petersburg, Russia creates fake news intentionally to stir the pot. Misinformation is somebody here innocently clicking and retweeting it, right? That’s misinformation. It’s not just a Biden thing. No party is better or worse in my opinion, but that is alive and well today.

In the early days of Ukraine’s war against Russia, using propaganda led to a boost in support for their armed forces, when a media clip of defiant Ukrainian troops, positioned on a strategic military outpost called Snake Island, went viral after they were ordered to lay down their weapons by a Russian warship, and replied with a defiant expletive: “Go f*** yourself.”

Their quickly-reported deaths made them instant heroes. The fact they didn’t die, but actually survived and were prisoners, did little to lessen the impact.

Terrorist groups use it too, like Hamas, who launched a horrific surprise attack on Israel from Gaza in October, killing more than 1,000, then watched the public sentiment flip against Israel, after unleashing devastating counterattacks from land and sky.

Even the U.S. government has been called out.

In 2019, the Trump administration reportedly attempted to sow unrest within the Chinese government to diminish its global power by using fake social media accounts to make Chinese citizens more skeptical of their own government and leaders. The U.S. also planting that seed around the world where China’s spread has grown.

And China, hardly an innocent bystander, was accused just weeks ago of interfering in Taiwan’s elections.

McFate: Look, we live in an information age, and it changes geopolitics. It changes warfare even. One hundred years ago, the way you won war was through kinetic firepower. Today it’s with disinformation.

Scott: Are we way behind in this game?

McFate: We are. I think we’re playing too nice. Part of it’s also that we’re a democracy. We have free companies; we want to keep that. We have freedom of speech; we want to keep that. But you know what? Democracies are vulnerable to it, but democracies are resilient. Autocracies can play these dark arts, but they’re brittle. We need to fight back.

Sharyl (on-camera): I think it was generally accepted that all that fuss about Russian interference in 2016 was, in hindsight, exaggerated. 

Scott: Well the effect has certainly been analyzed. And there was a study last year by NYU, New York University, and it was published and it found, quote, no evidence of a meaningful relationship between exposure to the Russian foreign influence campaign and changes in attitude, polarization, and voting behavior.

Sharyl: Despite all the hype. So how do we think that our authorities can tell the difference between foreign propaganda, domestic propaganda, and what is propaganda? 

Scott: Well for Congress, the answer could very well be a ban on, or the forced sale of, TikTok. And it’s a unifying issue for both Republicans and Democrats, because they know it’s a product of Beijing, so it’s unifying to Congress. They would also love, on a national security level, to cut off China from that data of the 100 million users of TikTok here in the United States, and they say that would be a step toward separating fact from fiction.

Sharyl: Weirdly, they’ve been talking about that for years, since Trump was president, so I’m not sure why now all of the sudden it’s a bigger deal.

Watch video here.

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