In a virtual forum, U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Holly) on May 11, 2020, warned that disinformation about COVID-19 from foreign adversaries and other malign actors threatens to sow division, distrust and even violence. Slotkin and Rep. Lauren Underwood, who have led legislative efforts to counter foreign disinformation around U.S. elections, convened thes virtual Homeland Security Committee forum to discuss how those same techniques are being used in the era of COVID-19.
Malign actors “want to sow discord and disbelief and to amplify and expose division,” Slotkin said during the virtual forum hosted by the House Homeland Security Committee’s Subcommittee on Cybersecurity, Infrastructure Protection, and Innovation.
“Here’s what we’ve seen: deliberate attempts to spread disinformation; promotion of conspiracy based websites by nation-sponsored networks. Chinese, Russian, Iranian and Venezuelan networks teaming up to supercharge misinformation. When they keep us fighting each other, we can spend less time dealing with the issues in front of us and confronting their hostile behavior.”
The forum included testimony from Renée DiResta of the Stanford Internet Observatory and Nina Jankowicz of the Wilson Center, who discussed the way foreign nations and non-state actors manipulate social media.
Slotkin highlighted the spread of misinformation can help spark mistrust and even violence. She noted multiple recent examples in Michigan of assaults against store workers who asked customers to wear masks.
“While we can’t say for sure what role disinformation may play in inspiring events like this, it is fair to say that they represent exactly the kind of distrust, anger and even violence that malevolent actors are working to spread,” Slotkin said.
She also highlighted public reports that hostile actors, possibly connected with the Chinese government, are sending disinformation directly to Americans via text messages. “This kind of direct misinformation attack on individual American citizens is a real concern,” Slotkin said.
Slotkin said that fighting misinformation will require greater scrutiny from the Americans targeted by these attacks, and she also called for social media companies to establish more consistent standards for when and how they will act to stop the spread of misinformation. Last year, Slotkin introduced the Digital Citizenship and Media Literacy Act to help boost Americans’ ability to identify and expose disinformation online.
Slotkin and Underwood led Task Force Sentry, a group of lawmakers from backgrounds in national security, technology and law who worked behind closed doors to develop and introduce legislation to close holes in U.S. law that allow for foreign interference and financial influence in the U.S. political process.