by Adam Johnson
Facebook announced Thursday it was partnering with DC think tank the Atlantic Council to “monitor for misinformation and foreign interference.” The details of the plan are vague, but Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab wrote in a non-bylined Medium post (5/17/18) that the goal was to design tools “to bring us closer together” instead of “driving us further apart.” Whatever that means, exactly.
Behind its generic-sounding name and “nonpartisan” label, the Atlantic Council is associated with very particular interests. It’s funded by the US Department of State and the US Navy, Army and Air Force, along with NATO, various foreign powers and major Western corporations, including weapons contractors and oil companies. The Atlantic Council is dead center in what former President Obama’s deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes called “the blob”—Washington’s bipartisan foreign-policy consensus. While there is some diversity of opinion within the Atlantic Council, it is within a very limited pro-Western ideological framework—a framework that debates how much and where US military and soft power influence should be wielded, not if it should in the first place.
When a venture that’s supposedly meant to curb “foreign influence” is bankrolled by a number of foreign countries—including the United Arab Emirates, Britain, Norway, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea—one would think that would be worth noting. Nor should US government money be exempt from the “foreign” qualifier with its suggestion of malicious influence; to most of Facebook’s 2.2 billion users, after all, the United States is a foreign country. (It should be noted the US government reserves the right to run unattributed propaganda on Facebook, and there’s much evidence they have. Needless to say, the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab hasn’t done any work in this space.)
The major outlets who covered the story, however, didn’t mention this glaring conflict of interest. Instead, they issued repackaged press releases on the partnership, never examining the motives of the DC think tank, its funders, or the broader premise that “fake news” and “foreign meddling” were something in need of combating:
- Facebook Teams Up with Atlantic Council to Fight Foreign Influence (Axios, 5/17/18)
- Facebook Partners With DC Think Tank to Combat Election Meddling (Gizmodo, 5/17/18)
- Facebook Partners With the Atlantic Council to Fight Election Propaganda (Fortune, 5/17/18)
- Facebook Turns to Atlantic Council for ‘Eyes and Ears’ During Future Elections (Adweek, 5/17/18)
- Facebook Partners With Atlantic Council to Improve Election Security (The Hill, 5/17/18)
- Facebook Partners With Think Tank to Fight Global Election Meddling (Engaget, 5/17/18)
- Facebook Tackles Foreign Election Meddling With Atlantic Council Partnership (CNet 5/17/18)
Much like “counter-espionage” is another name for espionage, “counter-propaganda” efforts are just propaganda efforts. How exactly will the Atlantic Council define “misinformation” and “disinformation,” and what “foreign interference” will merit the highest priority? Facebook hasn’t released details of the partnership, and the Council’s Medium post was heavy on high-minded platitudes about being “more free and more fair,” but light on methodology.
More disturbingly, none of the above outlets sought to ask any of these questions, much less note Atlantic Council’s funding sources and long advocacy for pro-NATO positions, including increased military engagement in Syria—a conflict they specifically noted was on the top of their list as a target of “online falsehoods,” on which they planned to “identify sources and amplifiers.”
One rare exception was Splinter News’ Paul Blest (5/17/18), who noted how dubious it was that a group funded by the US, Turkey and absolute Gulf monarchies was going to be anointed protectors of “democracy.” In the piece, he also noted recent not-very-nonpartisan action by the Atlantic Council, like advocating on behalf of one of its previous funders, Turkish dictator Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and giving a “Distinguished International Leadership” award to George W. Bush, whose most notable act of international leadership was the illegal invasion of Iraq that killed between 500,000 and a million people.
Even if one thinks the Atlantic Council can be trusted—and its murderers’ row of spooks, dictators and corporate donors won’t influence its objectivity—at the very least readers should know who’s helping bankroll groups that get to define what the most influential media platform in the history of the world deems “fact and fiction.” These are deeply important and difficult epistemological questions. Questions that will shape the very nature of what news we see and what news we don’t; questions in urgent need of interrogation and introspection—not mindless press releases.