WASHINGTON – Former Deputy Director of National Intelligence Beth Sanner called for the government to regulate social media platforms to combat the spread of foreign disinformation.

The idea of making the government or tech companies responsible for combating fake news online is controversial, especially among free speech hard-liners, for whom it raises the specter of censorship. But Sanner, a prominent U.S. intelligence expert, believes it’s necessary to stop the threat of disinformation campaigns from states hostile to the U.S.

Sanner is a thirty-year veteran of the intelligence and national security community who has served under both Democrat and Republican administrations. She raised concern over states like Russia and China using social media to influence public opinion. Sanner sees a role for the government in combating the spread of disinformation online, as well as in applying pressure to the most influential posters who contribute to this spread.

“The whole idea of transparency and accountability needs to be somehow regulated a little bit more,” Sanner said during an Oct. 20 webinar hosted by the left-leaning think tank New America. “And frankly, I think that the public’s now understanding enough that there’s a lot of support for that.”

Sanner did not specify what specific kinds of regulation she had in mind, but she did say that social media companies contribute to the spread of disinformation by promoting content that tends to generate controversy.

University of Nottingham Professor of International Relations Rory Cormac said social media gives states hostile to the West more precision in their disinformation campaigns, allowing them to target individuals rather than whole communities.

“The era of big data and computational propaganda allows (disinformation) to be targeted at a much more micro level,” he said, “playing on an individual’s hopes, dreams, fears, worries.”

Sanner said online influencers are also used by hostile states to spread disinformation. As an example, she pointed to Elon Musk, who recently tweeted out a peace proposal for the war in Ukraine. The proposal included Kremlin-supported positions like recognizing Crimea as belonging to Russia. Political scientist Ian Bremmer later wrote in his weekly geopolitics newsletter that Musk told him he spoke with Putin prior to issuing the proposal. Both Musk and the Kremlin have denied this.

Sanner said it’s important to call out people who spread disinformation for foreign actors.

“I also think the government should, for major people, go behind the scenes and pull people aside and say, ‘You realize that what you’re doing is the dirty work for so-and-so? Do you understand that they’re feeding you lies?’” she said.

However, Sanner acknowledged the government is limited in its ability to directly counter false narratives because of Americans’ growing distrust in their governing institutions.

“As a super dedicated and hardworking civil servant, it pains me, but the fact is … people don’t necessarily believe the government anymore,” she said.

Both Cormac and Sanner said what is needed in the long term is a “whole-society” approach of strengthening education and building up civil society in order to increase the public’s resilience to disinformation.

Cormac said people can also help to combat the spread of disinformation by engaging in political debates in a less hostile and toxic manner. 

“We as a society need to get our own house in order,” Cormac said.