If you want to pass a controversial piece of legislation in the US, you can go the route of intensive debate and public discussion to defend the position. Or, if there’s a big spending bill coming up, you can just slip it in there and hope nobody notices.
That was the go-to strategy for Sens. Rob Portman (R – OH) and Chris Murphy (D – CT) in getting their big “counter-propaganda” bill through the Senate, sneaking it into the massive military spending bill for fiscal year 2017, which passed overwhelmingly, and which most probably didn’t even know included the provision.
While the measure has its origins in a less ambitious bill intended to subsidize “independent” (but obviously pro-US) journalists in Eastern Europe to counter the influence of the Russian state media, it rapidly grew to include a domestic component, creating a State Department center to track and counter what they consider “foreign disinformation.”
There are a lot of questions unanswered about how exactly the “Countering Disinformation and Propaganda Act” will end up working, but Sen. Murphy bragged that it will provide the federal government with an entire set of tools to counter threats to America’s “foreign policy goals.”
The environment in which the bill passed is disconcerting, however, coming just weeks after the Washington Post publicized a “list” of hundreds of private US media outlets who they accused of being “Russian propaganda,” and the Senate agreed to add the bill to the spending measure the day Hillary Clinton made a big speech hyping the “fake news” problem.
That we still don’t know much about what this new federal body will be authorized to do reflects both the vague wording of the bill itself and the fact that there was virtually no debate on the matter. This vagueness likely means future governments will be able to decide for themselves just how broadly empowered they have been, which is never a good sign.