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President Biden during a joint session of Congress at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday. Photo: Melina Mara/The Washington Post/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A coalition of groups is calling on President Biden to create a task force that can explore ways to crack down on deliberate disinformation campaigns in ways that don't unduly limit free expression.

Why it matters: The spread of false information around elections, health, climate and other pivotal issues has had a huge impact on American institutions, but civil liberties groups say it is critical to find solutions that maintain free speech protections.

  • "The prevalence of deceptions, propaganda, and conspiracy theories related to the 2020 election, COVID-19, and the recent Capitol insurrection illustrates the clear and present threat that disinformation poses to our democracy and national security," the group says in a letter to Biden being sent today and provided first to Axios.
  • "However, we are equally mindful that solutions adopted in moments of crisis can themselves pose significant dangers to our fundamental freedoms.

For the record: Signatories of the letter include Writers group' Pen America, Voto Latino, Common Cause, the Center for Democracy and Technology, Access Now, SimplySecure, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Center for American Progress, and Free Press.

Between the lines: As the groups note in the letter, policymakers have to thread a fine needle in trying to reduce misinformation while protecting free speech.

  • "We know that fighting disinformation also means remaining vigilant against censorship and other threats to free expression,” said Matt Bailey, director of Pen America's Digital Freedom Program. “We also know that disinformation itself is a profound threat to free speech, because it prevents the robust exchange of ideas and sows distrust and polarization."

Read the letter in full, below:

Dear President Biden,
Congratulations on your election and your administration’s impressive first hundred days. We are writing as a coalition of human rights, free speech, democracy, and technology organizations to urge the creation of a federal interagency Disinformation Defense and Free Expression Task Force with domestic policy leadership.
As we think about the next four years, we are keenly aware of the challenge the rampant spread of disinformation poses to our nation. The prevalence of deceptions, propaganda, and conspiracy theories related to the 2020 election, COVID-19, and the recent Capitol insurrection illustrates the clear and present threat that disinformation poses to our democracy and national security. However, we are equally mindful that solutions adopted in moments of crisis can themselves pose significant dangers to our fundamental freedoms. As Justice Brandeis once wrote, “fear breeds repression [and] courage is the secret to liberty.”
Urgent action is needed to ensure that our democracy does not continue to be overrun by disinformation, be it domestic or foreign in origin. Sound public health policy, free and fair elections, and effective democratic deliberation all depend upon getting disinformation under control. But the best tools we have for fighting disinformation can pose their own dangers. In the quest to defeat disinformation, we risk enabling censorship, exacerbating existing inequities, and inadvertently curtailing democratic discourse. American democracy thrives on inclusive and sometimes contentious debate. It requires the protection of free expression, imagination, and thought. We must find a path forward that tames the scourge of disinformation while elevating constructive dialogue and making space for robust disagreement and public debate.
As a coalition, we represent organizations committed to balancing and defending the values of free expression, racial justice, privacy, and freedom of expression in the fight for our democracy. We believe that it is crucial for diverse, interdisciplinary voices to be at the table as policies are developed to combat disinformation and foster a functional and vibrant information ecosystem. Therefore, we urge immediate creation of a task force to identify steps that the federal government can take to combat disinformation while safeguarding freedom of expression.
To best support these aims, the Disinformation Defense and Free Expression Task Force should be chaired by the Executive Director of the Domestic Policy Council. Its mandate should include:
Development of governmental approaches that prioritize the defense of free expression in combatting disinformation;
Initiatives to blunt the impact of disinformation on Black, Latino, Indigenous, AAPI, rural, and immigrant communities that are deliberately and disproportionately targeted by disinformation, as well as veterans vulnerable to disinformation campaigns;
Identifying investigatory, disclosure, and information collection powers of federal agencies that can be leveraged to better understand disinformation and potential interventions;
Supporting research into the sociotechnical problem of disinformation, and especially its impact on Black, Latino, Indigenous, AAPI, rural, and immigrant communities; the prevalence of Spanish language disinformation in the U.S.; and identifying federal research priorities and funding mechanisms;
Identifying strategies to increase media literacy among children and adults as a way to stem the spread of disinformation;
Engagement with social media companies on measures the platforms can take to defend against disinformation; and
Training on anti-disinformation strategies for government officials and staff.
Disinformation is a complex challenge that demands interdisciplinary solutions. An effective approach will entail mobilizing expertise from across the federal government, including from agencies that have not traditionally led in combatting disinformation, foreign influence, or related matters. The Task Force should include senior representatives from executive agencies like the Department of Commerce (in particular the National Institutes of Standards and Technology and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration), the Department of Education, and the Department of Justice (in particular its Civil Rights Division). It should include relevant national security officials like the National Security Council Coordinator for Democracy and Human Rights and appropriate representatives from the Intelligence Community. And it should include invited independent agencies with relevant regulatory and research mandates such as the Federal Communications Commission, the Federal Trade Commission, the Institute for Museum and Library Services, and the National Science Foundation.
The Task Force should consult broadly with civil society, including advocates for free expression, civil rights and racial equity, and journalism, as well as academic experts in sociology, psychology, and disinformation and online harm.
Finally, disinformation is both an urgent and a rapidly evolving issue. The threat is protean. In order to make the Task Force effective we believe it must have twin mandates: to provide near term recommendations and to provide ongoing consultation and new initiatives over time. The Task Force should be mandated to deliver, within the first year of your administration, a comprehensive set of principles and overall policy, funding, and legislative recommendations for addressing disinformation and protection of free expression. It should also be mandated to provide periodic updates to these recommendations in recognition of the rapidly shifting cultural, political, regulatory, and technological environment.
We look forward to collaborating with the talented members of your administration on this issue and others.
PEN America, Access Now, Andre Banks (Founder and CEO A/B Partners, Co-Founder Win Black), Ashley Bryant (Principal, A/B Partners, Co-Founder Win Black), Center for American Progress, Center for Democracy & Technology, Common Cause, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Free Press, Katy Byron (MediaWise Editor & Program Manager, The Poynter Institute), Simply Secure, Voto Latino

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