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US agency fighting Russian, Chinese disinformation may lose funding

Special Envoy James Rubin says the Global Engagement Center wants to work with Republican lawmakers who claim conservative speech has been stifled.
US agency fighting Russian, Chinese disinformation may lose funding
Posted at 12:00 PM, Apr 20, 2024

This year, a record-breaking number of elections will take place around the world. The State Department’s Global Engagement Center has plans to help U.S. allies prevent Russian and Chinese disinformation from influencing voters. But the federal agency itself is in the midst of a quiet battle for survival.

The agency was established with a bipartisan bill that was introduced in 2016 by Republican former Sen. Rob Portman and Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy. But eight years later, some Republicans accuse the GEC of suppressing conservative speech and want to block funding.

“We really are fighting the information war. And there is an information war going on in this world,” said Special Envoy James Rubin, who leads the center, which is tasked with exposing and countering foreign disinformation.

“We have a few dozen people with a relatively small budget, and we're up against a Chinese and a Russian disinformation budget that's billions of dollars,” Rubin said.

With a budget of about $61 million, the center recently exposed how Russia is flooding Africa and Latin America with conspiracy theories and how China is secretly influencing foreign news outlets.

Rubin said the Chinese have taken some lessons from the Russian playbook. 

“They have started to use bots on the internet. They have started to repeat each other's narratives and then use artificial means to exaggerate the extent to which people are believing particular narratives," he said. "So, there is no question that Russia, which has been doing disinformation for hundreds of years, has brought some unfortunate lessons to the Chinese.”

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But some Republican lawmakers accuse the GEC of mission creep and using taxpayer dollars to undermine the speech of conservatives. Rubin said the accusations would concern him “no matter where they are coming from.”

In a lawsuit, two conservative news outlets, the Federalist and the Daily Wire, accuse the center of orchestrating “one of the most audacious, manipulative, secretive, and gravest abuses of power and infringements of First Amendment rights.” They argue that the GEC funded a project for an organization called the Global Disinformation Index, which, a year later, named their outlets as high risk for purveying disinformation, ultimately hurting their ad revenue and circulation.

The special envoy, a former journalist, suggests the GEC is prepared to make some changes to the grants it gives so that lawmakers do not cut off crucial funding.

“We didn't provide money to anybody to make any judgment about conservative viewpoints. But I'm a realist,” Rubin says. “I live in a world where Congress has to fund us. And if Congress is prepared to work with us and get the GEC reauthorized, I don't see any reason why we would want to fund an organization that they hate so much.”

Rubin says that he, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and the White House are working hard to get the center reauthorized. It comes after efforts to get the GEC reauthorized earlier this year failed when Republicans objected to including it in the Senate’s Ukraine supplemental military aid package.

Sen. Chris Murphy, who helped write legislation establishing the GEC, is “actively looking” for other avenues that would allow Congress to reauthorize it, an aide to Murphy told Scripps News.

An end to the GEC’s mission would not only benefit Russia and China, said Rubin, it could also harm relationships that took years to build with other countries who the U.S. partners with to disarm foreign disinformation.

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