WASHINGTON—U.S. Senator Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), a member of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, questioned the State Department’s Global Engagement Center (GEC) Head Lea Gabrielle this week about the center’s work—specifically around the coronavirus misinformation abroad—and what additional resources it needs to carry out its mission more effectively. Murphy and U.S. Senator Rob Portman passed legislation in 2016 that established the ability of the Global Engagement Center to fight propaganda by both state and non-state actors. In 2018, Murphy and Portman also supported legislation to transfer $40 million to the U.S. Department of State to assist the GEC’s mission and efforts.
On the question of additional resources needed for GEC, Murphy said: “We have made a choice over the years to not equip our forces and our foreign policy infrastructure overseas with the capacities they need to compete, and the GEC is an attempt to fill what for too long had been a vacuum. A vacuum on our side of the ledger with respect to the ability to fight and combat disinformation. And yet, you know, the reach of the GEC is frankly meager compared to the need that's out there today, and I'm glad to see an increase in funding being proposed by the president.”
On the coronavirus report that the State Department put together with social media companies, Murphy asked: “So your report on coronavirus misinformation has gotten a lot of attention. I'm glad that you have produced it. Tell us a little bit about your ability to be able to communicate with the social media companies that are transiting a lot of this information. Whether you have that capacity today, whether that's something that you envision being able to do more robustly and more effectively with additional resources.”
Murphy and U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-Ohio) introduced the Countering Foreign Propaganda and Disinformation Act, which was signed into law in December 2016. The law improved the ability of the United States to counter foreign propaganda and disinformation by authorizing the Global Engagement Center (GEC), which is charged with leading the U.S. government’s efforts to counter foreign propaganda and disinformation. The Countering Foreign Propaganda and Disinformation Act expanded the GEC’s mandate and authorized the State Department to request $60 million annually for two years from the Department of Defense for the GEC to help counter foreign propaganda and disinformation being waged against the United States and our allies by state and non-state adversaries.
A full transcript of Murphy’s exchange with Gabrielle can be found below:
MURPHY: “Thank you very much, Senator Booker. Thank you to both you and Senator Portman for convening this hearing. And thank you, Ms. Gabrielle for, I think, what has been very able leadership. And I congratulate you, with a fairly skimpy budget, having extended the reach of the GEC substantially during your time.
“Listen, we have been complaining forever about the fact that we are fighting asymmetric wars all over the world – predominantly with Russia. That's where you hear that term used the most, but with China as well. And of course, asymmetry is a choice, right. It's not an inevitability.
“We have made a choice over the years to not equip our forces and our foreign policy infrastructure overseas with the capacities they need to compete, and the GEC is an attempt to fill what for too long had been a vacuum. A vacuum on our side of the ledger with respect to the ability to fight and combat disinformation.
“And yet, you know, the reach of the GEC is frankly meager compared to the need that's out there today, and I'm glad to see an increase in funding being proposed by the president. I'm hopeful that we can get that through.”
“Ms. Gabrielle with respect to funding, I think it's important to note that, and you can tell me if I'm wrong, that the president's budget request is requesting funding within the State Department for the GEC. At the very beginning, we were forced to do a transfer of funds from the DoD to the State Department in order to get the GEC up and running. But that was and is a cumbersome process that is unnecessary given the fact that we now all agree on the efficacy of your work.”
“So can you just speak to the importance of having the GEC funded through the State Department rather than through transfer funds?
GABRIELLE: “Yes, Senator Murphy and thank you very much for raising this important issue. The GEC is focused on our mission of countering foreign propaganda and disinformation. So what we are requesting and what is reflected in the president's budget request to Congress is an increase to allow us to expand the scope and the scale of our activities to counter foreign propaganda and disinformation and to bring all the different tools to bear. And to focus our team on the mission rather on process. We truly appreciate the work from Congress on finding mechanisms to assist in providing funding for the GEC in the past.
“Over the past year, we have seen the process of trying to obtain funding from a different agency to be extremely cumbersome, although we work very closely with the combatant commands, and have built very strong relationships with the DoD. We do assess that the best practice and the best process would be direct funding for the GEC at the State Department.”
MURPHY: “So your report on coronavirus misinformation has gotten a lot of attention. I'm glad that you have produced it. Tell us a little bit about your ability to be able to communicate with the social media companies that are transiting a lot of this information. Whether you have that capacity today, whether that's something that you envision being able to do more robustly and more effectively with additional resources.”
GABRIELLE: “So I think it's important to understand that right now, what we're seeing are these ecosystems where disinformation and propaganda is being pushed out across platforms. The relationships are very important, and we're working to build relationships. We have an LNO from the GEC now in Silicon Valley, and we're doing a lot of outreach with tech companies to understand some of the technologies that are being developed to counter propaganda disinformation – but also to be able to have those open lines of communications.
“But I do want to be clear here, the GEC works for the American people. Social media companies are companies. So the GEC is going to be focused on best practices to serve the American people and countering foreign propaganda and disinformation.
“So sometimes that means sharing information. Sometimes it means exposure through the media. That relationship is important, but I'm going to be focused on the best practices and not looking at any specific individual accounts but rather the overarching principle of what's happening and how we can counter it.”
MURPHY: “So, I also have a question—and maybe I'm bleeding into this question—about sort of what lanes different parts of the federal government occupy here, and maybe you're starting to give me an answer to this question.
“There is this important question of identifying sources of propaganda, identifying foreign actors that are putting propaganda online. There are some platform companies that are more willing to take those actors off their platform, there are others that are not as discriminating.
“Are you saying that that isn't primarily your role to identify those sources and have that communication with the platform companies, that there are other elements in the federal government that are better suited to do that?”
GABRIELLE: “I think the social media companies have a tremendous challenge with protecting their consumers in terms of what is happening on their platforms. But the point I'm trying to make is that it's not just about the individual platforms is the overall big picture that we're seeing develop and how adversaries are using the social media landscape to push out false narratives.
“So we focus on – and I think there's a misunderstanding out there about how to counter disinformation. There's an understanding that it's just taking down specific personas online or that it’s point and counterpoint, and that's not best practices. The GEC is put a lot of focus on working with our partners in the inner agency, in the intelligence community, our partners worldwide, working with the academic community to really understand how you do this. And it's about sensitizing audiences, its getting out in front of the problem rather than reacting to it.”
MURPHY: “And also, and also trying to focus on sources rather than specific content, right? Because it's hard to chase one lie after another. You have to actually go after the source and expose the source as illegitimate or untrustworthy, is that right?”
GABRIELLE: “That's correct.”
MURPHY: “And then, lastly, tell me about the relationship with the different State Department posts, right? You've got embassies all over the world that are have political officers that are also working on this question of disinformation. That have relationships with local objective journalists who are trying to do the right thing.
“I imagine at current staffing levels it's hard to be able to have a hand into all the embassies and the places we care about on the periphery of China and Russia. Is that something that you can do more of with additional resources?”
GABRIELLE: “There's so much that we can do more of with additional resources. As my team has said to me, we'd like to really get the G in the GEC—meaning global. So posts are critical. Working with regional bureaus is critical. And we've been doing a good job of that. Just to give you an understanding of sort of how the GEC is broken down, disinformation and propaganda is being used to undermine the U.S. security in our in our best interests and that of our allies and partners worldwide every day all the time. So we have to focus our resources on the adversaries that are having the most effect. And that's the way we've broken it down so far. So we've divided into threat teams, Russia, China, Iran, and we continue to stay focused on the violent extremist organization thread.
“And then we've also built cross functional teams. We have a tech engagement team that's out there working with tech companies to identify the best technologies being developed in the space to counter disinformation and propaganda. And what's very critical is we have an analytic and research team that supports all of the teams. This is where we can put a lot of resources to make sure that we're staying up with the latest technology so that we can do those assessments of the information environment, and apply those best practices.
“Our analytics and research team has around 25 data scientists who are experts in things like ad tech, semantic text analysis, natural language processing, social media and traditional media monitoring. They have all the tools, they know how to use the tools that are available on the market. They've also written their own algorithms and their own codes, so that they can build programs that we can share with our partners and allies.
“Another thing that we've done is we built the first of its kind- […] So I want to talk about this information sharing platform that our analytics and research team has developed just the first of its kind, where we're sharing these tools and these capabilities to do analytics and research with our partners worldwide. Not just so that they can see our analysis and use our tools but also, so that they can be forced multipliers and they can do their own assessments and be providing and feeding back in.
“So, this large coordination is a big part of what we are doing. Resources will help and we definitely need to take this issue global”
MURPHY: “Well, I’m grateful to do this work with Senator Portman. Thank you for his leadership and thank you for being here at the hearing. Thanks, Senator Portman.”