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New House Bills Take Aim at Foreign Propaganda

Two new measures try to provide Americans with greater disclosure about foreign influence.

A man looks at TV sets, broadcasting live the annual press conference of the Russian President Vladimir Putin in an electronics store in Moscow on Jan. 31, 2006.  (Denis Sinyakov/AFP/Getty Images)
A man looks at TV sets, broadcasting live the annual press conference of the Russian President Vladimir Putin in an electronics store in Moscow on Jan. 31, 2006. (Denis Sinyakov/AFP/Getty Images)

A pair of bills expected to be introduced in Congress on Tuesday aim to increase transparency requirements for foreign media outlets and government-backed institutions vying for influence in the United States, representing the latest attempt by American legislators to respond to foreign propaganda and influence peddling in the United States.

The first such measure, the Countering Foreign Propaganda Act of 2018, would require government-controlled foreign media outlets with U.S. operations to file semiannual disclosures to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and to include conspicuous announcements informing American consumers of the foreign government funding the content.

The bill, which was introduced Tuesday by Reps. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.) and Elise Stefanik (R-NY), targets outlets owned and controlled by foreign governments and would not affect broadcasters such as the BBC and France 24, which receive funding from the British and French governments, respectively, but retain editorial independence.

The proposed legislation aims to provide American media consumers with a greater degree of transparency regarding Russian government-controlled outlets, such as RT and Sputnik, which are accused of playing a key role in Kremlin-backed propaganda.

“Russia attacked our democracy in 2016, France and Germany’s elections in 2017, and is already spreading disinformation ahead of our 2018 elections,” Moulton said in a statement to Foreign Policy. “We can’t be blindsided by another outlet like [RT] spreading propaganda that undermines our democracy.”

The bill amends the 1934 Communications Act by requiring foreign outlets to disclose their ownership and government ties. It would also require the FCC to submit regular reports to Congress conveying that information and would obligate foreign outlets to include a “conspicuous statement” on video broadcasts disclosing that the content is produced on behalf of a foreign government — much like American campaign ads contain text disclaimers.

The second measure introduced on Tuesday, the Foreign Influence Transparency Act of 2018, takes aim at entities such as the Confucius Institute, Chinese government-funded cultural outposts that donate money to universities across the country.

The legislation, sponsored by Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.), would require the Confucius Institute and other entities that promote the political agenda of foreign governments to register as foreign agents. It also forces universities to disclose donations from foreign sources of $50,000 or more. Currently, universities are only required to disclose donations to the Department of Education that top $250,000.

The Confucius Institute, affiliated with China’s Education Ministry, works with more than 100 American universities. But most Confucius Institute donations are between $100,000 and $150,000, below the reporting requirement thresholds.

Former senior Chinese Communist Party officials have called the institutes an important arm of the country’s “overseas propaganda set-up.”

In a brief interview with FP, Rep. Wilson says the bill was all about boosting transparency, particularly for U.S. universities that receive foreign government funding. “It’s attribution that’s important to me,” Wilson says.

“Students and academics and parents and [school] administrations need to know that there is actually a direct connection to a particular foreign government,” he adds. “Then they can judge for themselves.”

Wilson says he designed the bill with the Confucius Institute in mind, but it applies to all foreign political parties and governments, including Russia, which has received the lion’s share of attention in Washington’s unfolding debate over foreign influence in domestic affairs.

He says he has received strong bipartisan support for the bill.

Recent attempts to increase scrutiny of foreign propaganda have focused on reforming the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), a law passed in 1938 aimed at countering Nazi propaganda. FARA requires individuals and organizations engaging in lobbying or public information campaigns on behalf of foreign powers to register with the Justice Department. But the statute includes numerous exemptions, including for media outlets not under the control of a foreign government, and its vague language makes it difficult to ascertain which organizations are required to register.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) introduced a bill in October 2017 that aims to strengthen FARA by giving the Justice Department authority to investigate outlets suspected of having foreign funding or direction and would close a loophole that has allowed many lobbyists to avoid registering. The bill is still under discussion.

But the Countering Foreign Propaganda Act bypasses FARA by tacking on new regulatory requirements directly to the 1934 Communications Act, which established the FCC and created a regulatory framework for radio and television broadcasts in the United States.

“FARA is about shining a flashlight, shining a spotlight on who’s making statements,” says Ron Oleynik, the chair of Holland & Knight, a law firm specializing in trade and regulatory practice. “We’ve got free speech, you can say whatever you want, but if you’re being directed by a foreign principal, you ought to be telling people.”

The bill appears to dovetail with efforts to tighten FARA requirements, according to Dan Pickard, an attorney at Wiley Rein. “The new proposed bill seems consistent with the legislation proposed by Sen. Grassley in that it is intended to increase the reporting and labeling obligations of foreign media outlets,” he says.

Press freedom advocates have responded skeptically to efforts to label certain media outlets as propaganda outlets and warn that such efforts may discredit the work of independent government-funded outlets. When YouTube began labeling content published by government-funded outlets this month, the Committee to Protect Journalists found that only 19 of 37 government-funded outlets had been tagged with a label.

FARA’s media exemptions have allowed some foreign news outlets to avoid registering, and the new bill would make twice-yearly disclosures and conspicuous labeling mandatory for all foreign media agencies.

“They’re trying to shore up that crack in the regulatory scheme,” Oleynik says. “This new bill is bringing the FCC into the picture to say, ‘Hey, it’s going to be your job to police this, to regulate this.’”

RT, for example, had flown under the Justice Department’s radar before it was required to register last year. The Justice Department typically does not prosecute FARA violations and works with lobbyists and others covered by the bill to register and stay in compliance with the law.

That spotty enforcement regime has led to inconsistencies in how media outlets register under the law. While RT has registered as a foreign agent, the U.S. arm of Chinese state television, CGTN, has not.

The bill introduced Tuesday would begin to close that loophole in American law and counter what Stefanik, the bill’s Republican sponsor, calls “information warfare from adversarial nations.”

Update, March 20, 2018: This article was updated with comments from Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.). 

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering cyberspace. @EliasGroll

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy@RobbieGramer

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