On 23 December 2016, President Obama signed a Defense Department appropriations bill with a provision establishing an interagency office to identify and combat foreign propaganda.
The provision is aimed at countering foreign sources of disinformation and does not apply to American independent or alternative media.
On 25 December 2016, the unreliable political site YourNewsWire.com published an article asserting that President Obama had signed a “Christmas bill … quietly” that effectively labeled alternative media as “propaganda” and criminalized it:
President Obama has just quietly signed into law a bill that makes it illegal to run an alternative media website in the U.S … two days before Christmas , Obama signed the “Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017” bill into law.
This bill will “Criminalize ‘Fake News, Propaganda’ on the Web,” a key piece of legislation meant to crack down on free speech and independent media. In Layman’s terms, the act will allow the government to crack down with impunity against any media outlet it deems “propaganda.” The next piece of the legislation will provide substantial amounts of money to fund “counter propaganda,” to make sure the government’s approved stories drown out alternative media and journalists who question the status quo.
What does that mean for you if you are an independent journalist or blogger? … it means that for simply writing this and asking questions and pointing out that Obama always signs these bills around the holidays like I did in this poem, if I am accused of “fake news” or propaganda, I could face criminal charges.
The original source cited in the above excerpt, WeAreChange.org, claimed that the legislation was timed to coincide with the distraction of Christmas so as to escape public notice:
Late Friday night, while Americans were distracted by the holidays, President Obama quietly signed the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act into law, which authorizes a military spending budget of $611 billion, and includes the dangerous Counter Disinformation and Anti-Propaganda Act.
Purposely or not, these sources have conflated and misrepresented two separate pieces of legislation. One, the Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017 (H.R. 6393, reintroduced as H.R. 6480), authorized funding for the federal intelligence services. The other, the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2017, authorized funding for the Department of Defense. While both contained provisions related to foreign propaganda, only one, the NDAA, was signed into law before Christmas 2016. It contained a section (originally introduced as separate legislation called the Counter Disinformation and Anti-Propaganda Act) described by its bipartisan co-sponsors as follows:
[On 16 March 2016], U.S. Senators Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) introduced legislation to help American allies counter foreign government propaganda from Russia, China, and other nations. Specifically, the bill will improve the ability of the United States to counter foreign propaganda and disinformation by leveraging existing expertise and empowering local communities to defend themselves from foreign manipulation.
“In order to improve our response to foreign propaganda and disinformation, we need a comprehensive strategy. We have to delegitimize false narratives coming out of Russia, China and other nations and increase access to factual information,” said Portman. “By directly countering false narratives and empowering local media and civil societies to defend themselves from foreign manipulation, this legislation will help support our allies and interests in this increasingly unstable world. This bill underscores the United States’ commitment to protecting the freedom of the marketplace of ideas on the international stage. I’m proud to join my colleague, Senator Murphy, on this bipartisan effort.”
“A hallmark of democracy is the free flow of accurate, uncensored information, but many nations today are bombarded by foreign propaganda and manipulated information. This disinformation is often intended specifically to undermine the United States, our allies, and interests,” said Murphy. “Keeping America safe requires us to adapt alongside the threats we face, and right now, we’re too slow to adapt to the disinformation campaigns of our adversaries and competitors. The Countering Foreign Propaganda and Disinformation Act would ensure America’s national security infrastructure helps counter the false narratives that harm our security — delivering truthful information and making the world a safer place for the United States and our allies.”
Note that according to its authors, the legislation was conceived not to clamp down on alternative news sources within the U.S., but rather to protect the “freedom of the marketplace of ideas on the international stage.” Note also that as written into the NDAA, the legislation’s provisions establish an inter-agency body “to track and evaluate counterfactual narratives abroad that threaten the national security interests of the United States and United States allies,” and to develop “procedures to expose and refute foreign misinformation and disinformation and proactively promote fact-based narratives and policies to audiences outside the United States.”
Similarly, language in the Intelligence Authorization Act (passed by the House but not yet, as of this writing, passed by the Senate or signed into law) would establish an executive branch committee “to counter active measures by the Russian Federation to exert covert influence over peoples and governments.”
So, while neither bill explicitly rules out targeting the spread of disinformation on the home front, the stated focus in both cases is on stemming its flow abroad. More to the point, the focus is on disinformation originating from foreign sources (e.g., Russia and China), not domestic ones. Contrary to rumor, therefore, there is nothing in either bill, targeting or “criminalizing” practitioners of so-called “alternative media” or “independent journalism” within the United States.
As with any legislation, there is always the possibility that in practice its scope will extend, for good or ill, beyond the authors’ original intentions (and that circumstance can be cause for concern), but there is nothing in the language itself that directly threatens the freedom of American journalists.