(New York, NY) — Today PEN America, alongside a coalition of human rights, free speech, democracy, and technology organizations, sent a letter to the White House urging the Biden-Harris administration to create a Disinformation Defense and Free Expression Task Force to target the crisis of disinformation that threatens our democracy.

“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 illustrate the clear and present threat that disinformation poses to our democracy and national security,” the letter reads. “Urgent action is needed to ensure that our democracy does not continue to be overrun by disinformation, be it domestic or foreign in origin.”

As the administration approaches its 100th day, the letter urges the president to assemble the Task Force under the White House Domestic Policy Council with two mandates: “to provide near term recommendations and to provide ongoing consultation and new initiatives over time,” with the deadline of proposing its first principles and recommendations within the first year of the administration.

“We know that disinformation itself is a profound threat to free speech, because it undermines the robust exchange of ideas essential to a democracy and sows distrust and polarization,” said Matt Bailey, digital freedom program director at PEN America. “We also know that fighting disinformation means remaining vigilant against censorship and other threats to free expression. The Biden-Harris administration must tackle these problems head on, living up to their campaign promises of protecting the First Amendment while also allowing discourse to flourish without the blight of disinformation.”

The coalition urges the proposed Task Force to consider ways to combat disinformation while also shielding free expression; to blunt the profound impact disinformation has on Black, Latino, Indigenous, Asian American and Pacific Islander, rural, and immigrant communities; to identify federal agencies that can be used to better understand and potentially intervene in halting the spread of disinformation; and to find ways to promote media literacy as a means of combatting disinformation, among other mandates.

“Disinformation damages our democracy, harms public health, and disproportionately impacts marginalized groups,” said Jennifer Brody, U.S. advocacy manager at Access Now. “We call on the Biden-Harris administration to take this threat seriously by creating a multidisciplinary Task Force that addresses the crisis head-on. It is essential that any remedy to help address disinformation be rooted in upholding freedom of expression while also protecting the most at-risk populations.”

“Disinformation is causing great harm across our society—and we urge the White House to address these challenges in a comprehensive and coordinated fashion,” said Jessica J. González, co-CEO of Free Press. “As we race to end the pandemic, health disinformation is keeping people from getting vaccinated. As we strive toward racial justice, hateful conspiracies about people of color are sparking racist violence. Election lies helped set the stage for a direct attack on our democracy, as we saw on January 6. Climate denialism is delaying action needed to save the planet. And, unfortunately, the list goes on. The Biden administration won’t be able to tackle any of these problems if it doesn’t confront disinformation.”

“Disinformation online is not exclusive to election cycles. It’s a pervasive, daily threat to our democracy that needs to be addressed at the highest levels of government. Digital media literacy education is an essential part of the solution and why programs like The Poynter Institute’s MediaWise project are in such high demand. When facts prevail, democracy wins,” said Katy Byron, MediaWise editor and program manager, The Poynter Institute.

“Disinformation is a powerful weapon aimed at creating distrust in our government. It is the most morbid form of voter suppression because it prevents people from engaging with government even when it means life and death. For example, the disinformation around COVID vaccination prevents an individual from staying healthy. In those cases, the distrust in government will translate to a distrust in our very democracy and the same person is likely to disengage and unlikely to vote in the future,” said Voto Latino co-founding president and CEO María Teresa Kumar. “The Biden administration and the Congress must protect us—especially highly-targeted people of color—by immediately punishing the criminals creating these vile threats and the social media and news platforms spreading and abetting them.”

Signatories caution that the fight to defeat disinformation can risk “enabling censorship, exacerbating existing inequities, and inadvertently curtailing democratic discourse.” The nonpartisan coalition recommends that the Task Force should consult with civil society groups, free expression organizations, organizations focused on racial equity, groups that promote a free and open press, as well as academic experts across a range of disciplines.

Click here to read the full letter and view the full list of signatories.


Stephen Fee
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+1 202 309 8892