Disinformation in Contemporary U.S. Foreign Policy

Disinformation in Contemporary U.S. Foreign Policy:
Impacts and Ethics in an Era of Fake News, Social
Media, and Artificial Intelligence
Michael Landon-Murray and Edin Mujkic
University of Colorado Colorado Springs
Brian Nussbaum
University at Albany
Misinformation and disinformation, often in the form of fake news disseminated on social media,
are proliferating in the “post-truth” era, with profound implications for public and policy discourse,
political accountability and integrity, elections and governance. The United States is grappling
with an information landscape eroded by deeply flawed information from a variety of
sources, including Russian efforts to undermine its recent presidential election. As it struggles
with these problems, the U.S. must also decide if and how to deploy political disinformation.
U.S. foreign policy has made significant use of disinformation to influence politics and elections,
and as emerging technologies allow new means of producing, disseminating, and amplifying disinformation,
American presidents, security officials, and covert operators will weigh their use
and usefulness. These technologies will also create new, largely unknown effects, the normative,
practical, and governance implications of which must be scrutinized. Despite the attention now
focused on disinformation, this angle has received inadequate consideration. This article argues
that in rapidly shifting technological and political landscapes, disinformation programs require
the highest possible degree of examination and accountability. Congress; the electorate; media;
and researchers must engage in the public conversation to ensure that American democratic and
ethical values inform U.S. policy.
Keywords: artificial intelligence, covert action, disinformation, fake news, intelligence
accountability, misinformation
Information and knowledge are the foundational political resources at citizens’ disposal.
When those resources are too heavily populated with misinformation; disinformation;
propaganda; or conspiracy theory, individual agency is profoundly diminished and
informed policy dialog, meaningful political accountability, and healthy democracy become
Correspondence should be sent to Michael Landon-Murray, School of Public Affairs, University of Colorado
Colorado Springs, 1420 Austin Bluffs Pkwy, Colorado Springs, CO 80918, USA. E-mail: [email protected]
Public Integrity, 21: 512–522, 2019
Copyright # American Society for Public Administration
ISSN: 1099-9922 print/1558-0989 online
DOI: 10.1080/10999922.2019.1613832
virtually impossible. The United States has seen its politics and elections profoundly
undermined by both disinformation (intentionally false information to serve an objective)
and misinformation (simply incorrect information) in recent years, from internal and external
sources. The U.S. itself has a long history of employing disinformation, propaganda,
and political interference (Bittman, 1990; Fabre, 2018; Johnson, 1989; Levin, 2016). U.S.
disinformation operations have targeted the Soviet Union, as well as regimes in Latin
America and the Middle East, and were deployed in the Iran-Contra affair (Bittman, 1990;
Zakaria, 2002). Pressures to conduct political and electoral interventions may have subsided
somewhat after the Cold War, but emerging geopolitical divisions and the successful
use of political disinformation operations by adversaries may make such efforts more
attractive and acceptable to U.S. policymakers (Beinart, 2018). Additionally, in an age of
social media, fake news and rapid advances in artificial intelligence, disinformation operations
take on new forms and will have different, more far-reaching effects. These operations
can be conducted remotely at low cost and presented to audiences of millions or
even billions. Thus, technology-enabled disinformation is poised to be a very potent tool.
It also carries considerable unknowns, a high probability of unintended consequences, and
profound questions of governance, accountability, and ethics. Thus, the U.S. finds itself at
a critical juncture, and must decide if it is willing, as a matter of public policy in the
twenty-first century, to use covert instruments (the focus here being on disinformation) to
compromise the integrity of foreign political and democratic systems. Despite growing
attention on issues of contemporary political warfare and disinformation, the question of
U.S. engagement in cyber disinformation, and the ethics around that, have received much
less focus.
The secrecy inherent in covert action creates unavoidable tensions for American democracy.
If covert action is to be soundly devised and consistent with U.S. legal and normative
parameters, public and Congressional dialog, guidance, and oversight are
necessary, supported by specialists in policy and area studies as well as ethics. Policy
decisions should not unfold in a vacuum, especially when the rule of law and basic
democratic norms seem vulnerable in the U.S. The potentially destabilizing effects of
disinformation, at home and abroad, underscore the criticality of broad input. Further,
uses of secretive intelligence organs and operations must be continually informed by
considerations of ethics and accountability, especially as technology evolves. Intelligence
agencies possess tremendous powers; powers that operate mostly out of public sight and
that have been repeatedly abused in the past. Moreover, when there are heightened worries
about movement in illiberal directions, it is that much more critical to examine the
entities that may be employed in that backslide.
This article thus addresses contemporary U.S. policy decisions relating to the use of disinformation
to influence political systems and discourses of other nations from the standpoint
of ethical and democratic values. To situate the analysis, the article begins with a brief look
at the literature on the practice and ethics of U.S. covert action. It then moves to a discussion
of the modalities, ethical and practical implications, and governance challenges related to disinformation
operations in the age of fake news, social media, and artificial intelligence. The
article also briefly presents alternative strategies and policy options, with a focus on public
affairs education.
Covert action entails efforts to influence political; governmental; organizational; social; economic;
and military dynamics and events abroad while concealing the role of governmental
actors or support, intending to minimize the likelihood of escalation. This includes a range of
specific, often interconnected activities short of open military conflict but beyond overt foreign
policy and diplomacy: propaganda and information operations; electoral interventions; sabotage;
support for coups; and paramilitary operations, among others. Covert tools can be employed
against an adversary (including nonstate actors), or in support of a friend or ally, to serve critical
U.S. foreign and security interests. Intervening in foreign political systems can sometimes be in
the service of democracy in the target nation (Bittman, 1990). In addition to seeking preferred
electoral or political outcomes, information and other covert operations can serve to confuse and
destabilize populations or manipulate perceptions about the actions or intentions of a state. Thus,
there is an intimate coupling of covert political and information operations. In the U.S., the
Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) remains the lead entity on covert action. Its covert tools are
deployed when a president signs a finding, formally designating a given covert action as essential
to U.S. foreign policy and security. A notification is then provided to the intelligence oversight
committees in Congress with a few exceptions. Substantive changes, as well as regular updates,
are also reported to the oversight committees (Baker, 2010).
On covert action, James A. Barry (1993) has offered “thresholds of increasing ethical concern”
from limited to significant, serious, and grave, placing the use of deceptive information
in the “serious” category. Loch K. Johnson (1992) similarly models a four-tiered “ladder of
escalation,” characterizing the use of disinformation as a high-risk operation (third threshold),
both in democracies and autocracies. Major covert war, governmental overthrows, and assassinations
are among the extreme tools. Intervening in nondemocratic regimes or those violating
human rights has been viewed as less ethically wrought (Barry, 1993; Fabre, 2018;
Johnson, 1992), but sovereignty issues remain (Beitz, 2005). Covert action and cyber disinformation
remain nebulously positioned in the context of international law (Lowenthal, 2017;
McClintock, 2017) and domestic laws and regulations, not to mention ethical frames, vary
from state to state (Fitzgerald & Brantly, 2017).
Covert action can be used for narrow rather than national interests, including leaders’ selfinterest
(Brantly, 2014). Some have observed that CIA-sponsored coups in Iran (1953) and
Guatemala (1954) were in service of select business interests (Perry, 2009). The simple invocation
of national interests and security—which may be overstated or simply wrong—is not
grounds for using covert means (Beitz, 2005). Melvin A. Goodman (2000) has written that
covert action has at times been employed by policymakers simply because the option was
there, foregoing careful consideration of potential outcomes. Along these lines, Lowenthal
(2017) notes the importance of looking to past operations when assessing proposed ones.
Barry (1993) has urged that decision making on covert action apply jus bellum justum precepts:
just cause and intention; proportionality; proper authority; likelihood of success; lack
of viable alternatives; the protection of the innocent; and the minimization of damage. Just
war theory has also been applied and examined more broadly in the context of intelligence,
as well as other rapidly shifting areas, such as changing environmental dynamics (Hedahl,
Clark, & Beggins, 2017; Omand & Phythian, 2013).
Many Americans are likely unaware their government has been a frequent source of electoral
and political interference, including meddling in soundly democratic states (Downes &
Lilley, 2010; Levin, 2016). This presents uncomfortable questions about the international and
democratic place of the U.S. The fundamental integrity of the democratic process is contingent
upon informed deliberation and participation (Beitz, 2005). Distortions of reality and
information can make it difficult to impossible for the public to track and direct their elected
leaders (Nincic, 2003). Hidden support of political leadership can corrupt responsiveness to
the electorate (Perry, 2009). Potentially, commitment to democracy contends with security
and economic interests (Downes & Lilley, 2010). A 2015 study found that when U.S. policymakers
expect a democracy to decline (or “decay”), covert interventions become more likely
(Poznansky, 2015).
After the close of the Cold War, Loch K. Johnson (1992) noted there was little systematic
understanding of the long-term and unintended effects of covert action. He offered the boiling
public discontent with the Iranian Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who was ousted and
then replaced by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, as an example of possible negative consequences.
In that case, others have pointed to overt U.S. Iran policy to explain the outcome
better (Treverton, 2007). In any event, tactical successes in the short-term can give way to
tragic conditions in the longer term. This can include subjecting a targeted nation or group to
very dire circumstances, such as the imposition of a violent dictator, as was the case in
British Guiana (Kibbe, 2010). And while Dov H. Levin (2016) more recently found that
electoral interventions increase the votes received by the favored party by 3%, he concluded
that overt interventions are more successful than covert ones, and that insight on key longterm
effects remain limited. Additionally, covert campaigns have resulted in excessive cost
overruns (Prados, 2006). Once a decision has been made to undertake a specific covert
action, operational extrication or termination can be a challenge and achieving objectives can
quickly become not only more expensive, but also more expansive and risky (Kibbe, 2010;
Treverton, 2007). The likelihood of plausible deniability is thus also reduced.
While Cold War disinformation operations often planted fake stories in print newspapers,
today, the Internet; social media; artificial intelligence; and any number of purveyors of bad
information make the spread of such stories more rapid, pervasive, and perhaps convincing.
In fact, bad information often circulates much more quickly than accurate information and is
more likely to be shared, for human, financial, and technical reasons (Meserole, 2018;
Polyakova & Gonzalez, 2018; Warzel, 2018). Facebook, riddled in recent years with fake
news, has nearly two billion users worldwide (Allcott & Gentzkow, 2017). And today,
Americans rely heavily on social media for their news. Of course, it can be challenging to
successfully target audiences in a dense and expanding information space, but online microtargeting
and “echo chambers” that supply personalized, comfortable views and information
certainly help. Further, flooding outlets with bad information can serve to confuse
and overwhelm.
Those who are not “motivated reasoners” can also be duped by false stories.
Individual vulnerability to inaccurate information, and outright lies, is somewhat inherent
(Feldman, 2009). Further, the capacity of flawed and false information to influence perceptions,
even after proven incorrect, has been demonstrated in the context of disinformation
operations (Boghardt, 2009). As technologies advance, detection of the untrue
will be increasingly challenging, with more people likely to believe in events and conditions
that never were. People will encounter very real-seeming (fake) video and audio,
the automated production and dissemination of fake news utilizing sentiment analysis
and bots able to mirror human emotion (Bakir & McStay, 2017; Polyakova, 2018;
Warzel, 2018).
In the context of social media and artificial intelligence, disinformation and misinformation
are thus proving extremely powerful, both qualitatively and quantitatively. Policy decisions
will need to be made regarding both offensive and defensive approaches to emerging
technologies. One of the most fundamental questions for U.S. leaders and the public is
whether the government should be in the political disinformation business. The U.S. holds a
unique place in the world as a senior democracy and leader, and is itself suffering profoundly
from problems of untrue stories and “facts.” Spanning “Pizzagate;” the antivaccination movement;
a Federal Bureau of Investigation wiretap on Trump Tower (that did not happen); the
pervasive consumption of fake news in the 2016 Presidential election (and subsequent disbelief
that there were Russian interference efforts); a White House-commissioned voter fraud
panel (premised on no evidence) (https://www.whitehouse.gov/articles/presidential-advisorycommission-
election-integrity-resources-2); and climate change denialism, more and more
Americans are proving susceptible to utter falsehoods and fallacious reasoning, with very
real implications for public well-being, dialog, and policy as well as political accountability.
To be sure, Americans certainly seem to have a longstanding penchant for the fantastical and
unsubstantiated (Andersen, 2017).
Disinformation applications of current and emerging technologies could allow the U.S. to
create false speeches or acts from political and religious leaders. Such “footage” might have
major geopolitical and diplomatic implications (Warzel, 2018). Of course, these programs
will also be available to private, sometimes sophisticated actors, creating another dimension
for government to grapple with. These tools can be used to stoke tensions and animosity
between and within states and feed false narratives about the past. Leaders will also be able
to say that something that did happen did not actually happen.
False narratives, as stark as fake video or as subtle as lies intermingled with truth, can
also fuel polarized and extreme views, aggravating political and social fissures. This has
largely been the recent U.S. experience. Artificial intelligence will allow nefarious actors to
simulate citizen input, creating false impressions of constituency preferences when key decisions
are made (Warzel, 2018). Such technologies allow actors to propagate disinformation—
whether relating to an event or constituent that does not exist—directly to political
leaders, who themselves may not be equipped to detect such deception. Increasingly complex
networks and campaigns will come with these technological advances. This will create permutations
beyond the already maddening labyrinth of bots; troll farms; hacking and leaks;
social media manipulation; state-run media and the inundation of competing narratives
(potentially from the same source); and the deluge of fake stories.
Thus, foreign political and democratic processes at individual and societal levels can be interfered
with in ways not previously possible, at a time when democratic systems and norms are
eroding around the globe (Freedom House, 2018). Recent political developments in Hungary;
Brazil; Poland; and Turkey are four such examples of eroding democracy. Information landscapes
replete with misinformation will spur immense confusion, even resulting in “reality
apathy” and its alarming implications for citizen knowledge of governance and public affairs
(Warzel, 2018). Dangerous politicians and demagogues can themselves seek to muddy the
waters in order to strengthen their own position. Further, as political knowledge and accountability
are challenged by a chaotic and conflicting information environment, leaders will have a freer
hand to act without meaningful public insight and input (Nincic, 2003).
It is also a virtual certainty that disinformation intended for audiences abroad will be boomeranged
back to the U.S. (dubbed the blowback effect), allies, and other democracies. The
Internet, social media, and related platforms cross national boundaries. By pumping more
junk into cyberspace, U.S. policymakers and operators run the risk of inadvertently compromising
domestic informational and political landscapes. While the CIA cannot purposefully
target domestic populations with disinformation or other efforts to influence politics and
media, it may unintentionally end up doing just that (Kibbe, 2010; Lowenthal, 2017).
If revealed publicly, such campaigns will likely undermine future U.S. efforts to shape
narratives and influence opinions in legitimate ways, including through public diplomacy.
Engaging publics and leaders of other nations, especially after inevitable revelations about
disinformation campaigns, will be difficult. Trust at home will also be eroded, particularly if
covert actions are not truly consistent with American interests and values.
Given the above, the new technologies underlying contemporary disinformation suggest
impacts that likely exceed, or at least not conform to, the degree of ethical concern and disruption
envisioned by Johnson (1992) and Barry (1993). Further, given the unpredictable,
lasting effects of these tools, criteria of proportionality; likelihood of success; protection of
the innocent; and minimization of damage seem very difficult to measure, let alone ensure.
Even in the most just of causes (such as human rights violations), there are likely to be
superior or preferable policy options (that come with less in the way of long-lasting harm),
and thus the application of the just war framework to advanced cyber disinformation campaigns
suggests that few such operations will meet these standards. The unpredictable damage
done by advanced disinformation operations, against innocent citizens in democracies
and nondemocracies alike (including in the U.S.), will be exceedingly difficult if not impossible
to undo, and must be taken into account in decision making. Beyond the residual effects
such operations have caused (Boghardt, 2009), correcting evidence can actually bolster some
individuals’ misinformed and false beliefs, known as the backfire effect (Lewandowsky,
Ecker, Seifert, Schwarz, & Cook, 2012). Further, Mark Stout (2017) observes that the ability
of cyber influence to achieve actual desired ends remains an open question. However, even
the knowledge of possible covert information and electoral interventions can undermine public
confidence in political processes (Calabresi, 2017), and if the sole objective is to create
utter confusion and “reality apathy,” emerging disinformation technologies stand to be quite
powerful. It is improbable that disinformation will be disavowed altogether by the U.S., but
the many and varied downsides, normative as well as practical, cannot be overlooked, and if
fairly assessed, will likely result in the infrequent use of cyber disinformation tools.
The uncertain, uncontrollable effects of modern disinformation, not to mention the profound
ethical implications and possible executive abuse, means that robust Congressional
involvement in U.S. covert action policy remains imperative. This will ensure such decisions
are subject to appropriate oversight and consistent with American values, policy objectives,
and statute. In the secretive, classified spheres of intelligence and covert action, Congress
serves an especially critical role as the public’s proxy. Other key actors, including media and
interest groups, are less likely to pull the “fire alarm” in the face of abuses and bad decisions,
because many operations will remain unknown. Historically, intelligence oversight has not
been a high priority for Congress (Zegart & Quinn, 2010), although the misuse or concealment
of covert tools has quickly gotten its attention in the past (Daugherty, 2004;
Hastedt, 2017).
Recently, base partisanship has often characterized the behavior of Congress, including
the House Intelligence Committee (https://intelligence.house.gov) (Allen, 2018). When legislative
oversight diminishes, executive discretion grows. Early and consistent Congressional
attention could serve to forestall later executive misuse of disinformation. It cannot be overlooked
that a tremendous amount of the misinformation being directed at the American public
has come from their President (Peters, 2017; Rose, 2017). His allegiance to facts has been
shown wanting on a daily basis (Kessler, Rizzo, & Kelly, 2018). He has also accrued a long
list of statements and actions that show contempt for democracy and the rule of law (Just
Security, n.d.). His respect for foreign publics and politics is presumably that much less and
his inclination seems very much toward the brute application of executive instruments.
Reportedly, President Trump implored the Secretary of Defense to have Syria’s president,
Bashar al-Assad, assassinated—one the most extreme covert actions, and outlawed in the
U.S. (Woodward, 2018). At the same time, and as part of what seems to be a broader trend
in delegating national security policymaking to lower-level officials, in August 2018,
President Trump issued a directive that diminishes the interagency review process for offensive
cyber actions (Rudesill, 2018).
Budgeting and funding are key tools to influence covert action. If Congressional committees
do not support covert actions, they can choose not to fund them (Daugherty, 2004;
Lowenthal, 2017). To this end, Congressional oversight will help ensure that actors in the
executive branch are not only considering broader policy and value questions, but also
actively seeking less intrusive alternatives, closely linking proportionate actions with clear
objectives. These factors inform CIA and executive decision making, but historically and
structurally there is good reason to be skeptical (Steiner, 2006). Congress can also informally
dissuade covert actions, and has in virtually all recent administrations, lobbying the President
to forestall a covert operation (Daugherty, 2004; Lowenthal, 2017).
Congress could also enact legislation controlling disinformation policy. In the extreme
form, and perhaps not likely, statute could preclude the U.S. government from spreading
false political information, outside the context of warfare, regardless of the cause. It is worth
noting that the Iran–Contra affair demonstrated that even strict legislative attempts to control
covert action can be ignored or subverted by a determined executive (Currie, 1998).
At a high, unclassified, and normative level, the public sets the parameters of what programs
and operations the government and its intelligence services may undertake. To act as
the ultimate “principal,” it must be a part of the dialog. In the context of covert action, public
debate is essential in determining the appropriateness of objectives and methods (Barry,
1993). However, it is not easy to imagine a civil and relatively dispassionate “national conversation”
on this topic, despite the impact these issues have had on American politics (and
perhaps because of those impacts). With excessive motivated, fallacious reasoning and the
starkly different information universes existing in the U.S., meaningful dialog seems to have
only an outside chance. This is not a positive note to end on, but maybe the best argument
against undermining the integrity of news and information abroad.
The U.S. has long engaged in covert political warfare, including disinformation operations.
Today, the Internet, social media, and artificial intelligence allow unprecedented reach, and
Americans continue to be a target of foreign disinformation. The prospects and ethics of the
U.S. engaging in such tactics in this new era have received inadequate attention. As “fake
news” is about to be accompanied by “fake events,” and other yet unimagined applications,
these potentialities must be addressed. Despite a President who describes any inconvenient
coverage as “fake news,” is a font of misinformation (possibly disinformation) and shows
resentment for even the most basic tenets of democracy, the U.S. retains a critical leadership
role in the international system. There are currently perverse mirrors of this around the world,
as despots make allegations of “fake news” when unflattering stories emerge.
Utilizing emerging technologies in the context of disinformation will not only have destabilizing
and unpredictable effects in targeted locales, but will also result in more bad information
undermining knowledge, political accountability, and democracy in the U.S. U.S.
efforts may be better directed toward measures that will counter adversary disinformation
campaigns and create resilience amongst the U.S. population. There is good reason to look at
efforts to strengthen education and news literacy (including critical thinking); research and
technology; elections systems and practices; information sharing; and international partnerships
among other measures (Bodine-Baron, Helmus, Radin, & Treyger, 2018; Conley &
Jeangene Vilmer, 2018; Conroy, Rubin, & Chen, 2015; Kahne & Bowyer, 2017). Similarly,
the U.S. can learn from other nations and deploy better alternatives to promote its interests,
security, and values. This might include the simple dissemination of true information (both
abroad and at home), aggressive and open efforts to expose disinformation, and the use of
overt policy alternatives which may be more influential in any event and come with much
less in the way of ethical compromise and uncontrollable outcomes (Bittman, 1990; Conley
& Jeangene Vilmer, 2018; Levin, 2016; Sternstein, 2017).
On the education front, there is a critical role for public affairs programs, which will likely
necessitate curricular adaptations. In an increasingly chaotic information and media landscape,
strong democracy and civic engagement are premised on the ability to distinguish
between reliable and unreliable sources and information, and a 2016 Stanford University
study found that American students are not particularly skilled in this regard (Wineburg,
McGrew, Breakstone, & Ortega, 2016). Evidence also suggests that media literacy learning
opportunities help develop such skills, not political knowledge alone, which can actually
embolden motivated reasoning and confirmation biases (Kahne & Bowyer, 2017).
Those entering public service will need to understand and navigate the contemporary landscape,
and avoid its pitfalls themselves. They will also need to make sound, ethical decisions
in that landscape and design policies and messages that help their publics grapple with dubious
and false information. How to use, or not use, advancing disinformation technologies is
only one outgrowth that will need to be addressed by practitioners and scholars, and as more
is learned about combatting bad information, more can be done in the classroom to create the
kinds of public servants the twenty-first century will require. To be sure, other academic programs,
from liberal arts to STEM and law, must also prepare students to fulfill their professional
responsibilities and conduct themselves ethically in a world replete with
The authors would like to thank the anonymous reviewers and editors for their very helpful
feedback, which allowed us to strengthen and clarify central facets of the article.
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