Fake News is a Real Threat to National Security
Updated: Nov 29, 2022
By: Dara Paleski
Social media has become ingrained in modern-day life. In 2021 alone, over 4.26 billion people worldwide utilized social media platforms. That number is projected to increase to 6 billion by 2027. Social media keeps us in touch with friends and family, up to date with current events, and connects us to the world. Recently, these worldwide integration tools have been used for more sinister motives. Social media has become a breeding ground for “disinformation” or “fake news.” Former President Donald Trump coined the term “fake news” during his 2016 election campaign and used it to thwart discussions on unfavorable poll data. In colloquial terms, it is used to disregard information that one wishes to present as untrue. Disinformation, as defined by the American Security Project, is the intentional spread of false information with the purpose of deceiving its recipients (this differs from misinformation, which is the spread of false information, but without the malicious intent to deceive).
The fake news phenomenon has been exemplified during the COVID-19 pandemic. Studies have shown that “social media platforms such as Facebook, YouTube, and TikTok have outperformed reputable news sources when it comes to COVID-related news.” The study also highlighted that over 60% of Americans turned to Facebook and YouTube as their news sources. During the height of the pandemic, political officials, including Donald Trump and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, voiced their support for the use of chloroquine (an anti-malaria drug) to treat COVID-19. Despite doctors publicly advising against taking the drug, people did anyway. An Arizona man was killed after he and his wife ingested chloroquine phosphate (an aquarium cleaning agent). Disinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic can also be linked to conspiracy theories about the virus's origin and violent attacks against Asian Americans.
The Threat to National Security
So how does misinformation about a worldwide pandemic threaten America’s national security? In November 2020, The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence published a five-volume report on Russian interference in the 2016 election. Russia was able to infiltrate various U.S. media outlets through the use of counterfeit social media profiles. These profiles would then be used to stir-up political tensions and disseminate fake news from seemingly legit news sites. It was not just the American public affected by Russian influence; U.S. political officials and mainstream news outlets fell for disinformation campaigns as well.
This was a targeted attempt by a foreign adversary to sway the democratic process of the United States. The threats to national security are endless; susceptibility to disinformation is a weakness that degrades our society from the inside out. If we are vulnerable to Russian influence, what else and who else are we leaving ourselves open to? Although this occurred prior to the pandemic, the cycle is likely to repeat itself. A topic of divisive political tension exists. This tension is then manipulated in order to achieve a goal and then births a new divisive topic. This new form of “virtual warfare” requires immediate redress, which Congress seems slow to rectify.
How Do We Combat The Spread of Disinformation?
The largest obstacle to solving this problem is a legislative one. The United States lacks comprehensive federal law to combat disinformation. The regulation of speech online is governed by § 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA) (1996). Section 230 states that "No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider." This means that online platforms are protected from what others say and do on their platforms. This section was enacted when the internet was still in its infancy. The reluctance to amend this legislation relates to First Amendment concerns. Republicans feel that the CDA allows social media platforms to suppress conservative views, whereas Democrats feel the CDA allows social media platforms to keep from acting against hate speech posted on their sites. Amending the statute in a way that creates an equilibrium between First Amendment and political concerns while imposing liability (in some form) on social-media sites, would generate greater effort to curtail disinformation. The threat of liability would make social media sites more inclined to act out against disinformation, therefore strengthening national security from foreign and domestic threats.