Exposing Russian Influence Operations
and First Amendment Concerns

America’s Great Challenge:
Russia’s Weapons of Mass Deception

US Government

There is broad consensus among U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election, continued its meddling in the 2018 Congressional elections, and will attempt to do so again in the 2020 elections, probably using ever more sophisticated techniques.  These recent Russian efforts reflect a long history of influence operations.  While the Soviet Union may have collapsed nearly 30 years ago, Russia believes it is at war with the United States and that the United States is at war with it.

Amid this backdrop, a small and informal group gathered on May 2, 2019 in Washington, DC.  Many of the participants were veterans of the Cold War with long firsthand experience in this area. They had served in the White House, the State Department, United States Information Agency (USIA), the Pentagon, the Intelligence Community, the FBI, research centers, and broadcasting entities under Republican and Democratic administrations. Amongst its conclusions, the U.S. has organized itself to successfully counter Russian influence operations previously—and can do so again.  The outcome of this meeting was a summary report entitled America’s Great Challenge:  Russia’s Weapons of Mass Deception (September 2019).

In a follow-up to the above workshop report, a discussion paper was prepared in April 2020 which examines the intersection between protecting First Amendment rights while simultaneously countering pervasive Russian influence operations in the U.S.  Specifically, the paper addresses the following question:  Should government exposure of Russia’s current influence operations, which may include excerpts from selected American content, be precluded because of First Amendment concerns?

In examining this question, the paper argues that while much attention has focused on Russia’s meddling in U.S. elections, Russian information operations are continuous and extend to a broad range of domestic issues.  The operations aim at creating confusion, fomenting distrust of all institutions, and deepening discord on just about every contentious topic—including national debates on race, immigration, policing, gun control, LGBT rights, vaccination, and other issues.  While no longer interested in promoting a Marxist-Leninist agenda, Russian efforts seek to amplify extreme positions, often magnifying dissonance and aggravating divisions by promoting the polar expressions of both sides of the issue.  Ideology is no longer a component. 

Making the question even more challenging is that Russian influence operations can use content generated by U.S. citizens—or at least purportedly to be.  Though most participants were not lawyers and there is already a rich body of First Amendment legal rulings and analyses, there are precedents for mandating and enforcing transparency.  These include:  campaign-financing laws, bans on tobacco advertising, defamation laws, subpoenas for records or testimony.  There is a requirement for foreign agents (including lobbyists employed by foreign governments) to register. 

Ultimately, participants agreed that First Amendment rights must be carefully protected, but that exposing Russian information operations, even if they excerpt material produced by American authors does not impede free speech or rise to the level of censorship.  It does not prevent or regulate what American authors produce.  Neither does exposure of Russian information operations interfere with the right of Americans to receive speech from foreign speakers, including hostile governments.  If First Amendment concerns were to preclude efforts to expose Russian information campaigns because they included believed American-generated content, foreign information operations would, in effect, be protected by the First Amendment.  At face value, this would be an absurd conclusion.

Nonetheless, participants underscored the need for close oversight to ensure that selective exposure was not being used to belittle or vilify Americans whose content might be repeated or otherwise abused to support political agendas.  Efforts to ensure transparency by mandating self-disclosure and exposure of those who fail to do so must be transparent themselves.