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ASU’s McCain Institute and Cronkite School Launch Task Force on Defeating Disinformation Attacks on U.S. Democracy

U.S. Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) provided opening remarks to the group.

McCain Institute Executive Director Evelyn Farkas (left), U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) (center) and U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) (right) speak to the Task Force on Defeating Disinformation Attacks on U.S. Democracy at the McCain Institute.

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, the McCain Institute at Arizona State University announced the launch of a new high-level task force on Defeating Disinformation Attacks on U.S. Democracy.

For decades we assumed technology facilitated democracy – advancing freedom, transparency, and liberty. Yet, over time, technology also became a tool to undermine democracy. Technology has facilitated the spread of disinformation. Today, disinformation and its relatives — mis- and mal-information — are wreaking havoc on American democracy. To stem the tide of such attacks against American democracy, Arizona State University’s Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication and the McCain Institute convened a group of experts on disinformation, members of the media, civil society, corporate leaders, and policymakers to discuss the problem and produce concrete and actionable recommendations.

“We are proud to launch this task force,” stated Dr. Evelyn Farkas, executive director of the McCain Institute. “The U.S. is at a critical juncture as it faces internal and external assaults on its democracy. It’s going to take all Americans – on the right, left, and center – to defend our freedom. That is why we’re launching this task force and proud to be partnering with the Cronkite School.”

“The Cronkite School has worked for years to provide resources to improve digital media literacy and help the public recognize the dangers of misinformation. This partnership reinforces the importance of continuing those efforts, which is essential to protecting our democracy. We’re proud to partner with the McCain Institute on this task force,” said Cronkite School Dean Dr. Battinto L. Batts Jr.

U.S. Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) provided opening remarks to the group last month.

“Democracy was one of so many causes that John McCain fought for as a service member, Congressman, and a U.S. Senator. It’s on us to pick up the torch of his leadership and continue protecting our democracy against threats such as political violence and disinformation,” said Senator Klobuchar. “I am confident that the McCain Institute’s task force will uphold John McCain’s incredible legacy and serve as a valued partner in advancing solutions to strengthen our democracy.”

“Whether deployed by dark money-funded climate deniers or foreign adversaries, disinformation can be weaponized to exploit rifts in our society and weaken public confidence in democracy,” said Senator Whitehouse. “I applaud the McCain Institute and the Cronkite School’s task force for this new effort to help restore the American peoples’ trust in our institutions and in one another.”

In Senator John McCain’s farewell letter to his fellow Americans, he said, “Do not despair of our present difficulties but believe always in the promise and greatness of America, because nothing is inevitable here. Americans never quit. We never surrender. We never hide from history. We make history.”

Senator McCain’s words and experience oblige the McCain Institute to promote a safe, just, and democratic country where all Americans can thrive.

This nonpartisan task force will convene throughout the year to meet with experts, policymakers, and Americans who are working on the frontlines guarding our democracy from internal and external threats. The task force will publish its findings and recommendations.

The task force is made possible by a grant from the Knight Foundation and Microsoft.

Task Force on Defeating Disinformation Attacks on U.S. Democracy Members:

Michael Baldassaro, The Carter Center
Michael Baldassaro is a data scientist supporting the Carter Center’s peace programs. In 2019, Baldassaro joined the Center to lead its Digital Threats Initiative, which aims to counter online activity that can lead to offline harms. Prior to joining the Center, he was director of innovation, research, evidence, and data at Democracy International for several years. Before that, he was a program manager at the National Democratic Institute in Africa and the Middle East.

Rachel Brown, Founder and Executive Director, Over Zero
For the past decade, Brown’s work has focused on using communication to prevent violent conflict. She is the author of “Defusing Hate: A Strategic Communication Guide to Counteract Dangerous Speech” and was a 2014 fellow at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide. Rachel previously founded and ran Sisi ni Amani-Kenya (SNA-K), a Kenyan NGO that pioneered new strategies to build local capacity for peacebuilding and civic engagement.

Joan Donovan, Research Director, Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy
Dr. Joan Donovan is the research director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy. Dr. Donovan leads the field in examining internet and technology studies, online extremism, media manipulation, and disinformation campaigns.

Evelyn Farkas, Executive Director, McCain Institute
Dr. Evelyn Farkas has three decades of experience working on national security and foreign policy in the U.S. executive, legislative branch, private sector and for international organizations overseas. Her last government position was as deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine, Eurasia. In 2019-2020, she ran to represent New York’s 17th Congressional District in the House of Representatives. She is currently the executive director of the McCain Institute at Arizona State University. Prior to that, she was president of Farkas Global Strategies and a national security contributor for NBC/MSNBC.

Ellen Gustafson, Co-Founder and Co-Executive Director, We The Veterans
Ellen Gustafson is a proud Navy spouse and Navy and Coast Guard granddaughter. She is a co-founder and co-executive director of We the Veterans, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that empowers the veteran and military family community to strengthen democracy. She is also the co-founder of the Military Family Building Coalition, the first nonprofit supporting active-duty military in building their families.

Mark Jacobson, Assistant Dean for Washington Programs, Maxwell School, University of Syracuse
Mark R. Jacobson oversees year-round academic programs for Maxwell’s D.C. headquarters at the Center for Strategic and International Studies where Maxwell serves approximately 200 undergraduate, graduate, and midcareer executive students each year. Jacobson previously served in government in a number of roles as both a civil servant and political appointee, including as special assistant to the secretary of the Navy, as the first deputy NATO senior civilian representative-Afghanistan and as a presidential management intern. Jacobson also worked on the staff of the Senate Armed Services Committee and as a senior transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund. He is a veteran, having served in the Army and Navy reserves with mobilizations to Bosnia and Afghanistan.

Hazel Kwon, Assistant Professor, Cronkite School of Journalism & Mass Communications at Arizona State University
Professor Kyounghee “Hazel” Kwon received a doctoral degree in communication from the State University of New York at Buffalo in 2011 and has served on the faculty at Drexel University in Philadelphia, Penn. before joining the Arizona State University. Her research interests focus on social/digital media and society, with a particular emphasis on the ways in which digitally mediated communication influences collective sensemaking and (anti)sociality. Some of her research has been supported by DoD, NSF, SSRC, and MacArthur Foundation.

Adrienne LaFrance, Executive Editor, The Atlantic
Adrienne La France is executive editor of The Atlantic. She was previously editor of TheAtlantic.com. Before joining The Atlantic in 2014, LaFrance was a national reporter for Digital First Media’s Project Thunderdome, specializing in investigations and national news, and ran the Washington bureau of Honolulu Civil Beat, covering Congress, federal elections, and the intersection of money and politics. She also worked as a staff writer at Nieman Journalism Lab, managing editor of Honolulu Weekly, reporter and news anchor for Hawaii Public Radio, and news writer for WBUR, Boston’s NPR affiliate.

Stefanie Lindquist, Executive Director, Center for Constitutional Design, Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, Arizona State University
Stefanie Lindquist is a professor of law and political sciences in the School of Global Politics and the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law. Her prior service at ASU includes heading Global Academic Initiatives as senior vice president in the Office of the Provost (2019 to 2021). In that role, she facilitated ASU’s global academic portfolio. She also served as deputy provost and vice president for academic affairs and was foundation professor of law and political science at ASU from 2016 to 2019. Before coming to ASU, she was dean and arch professor at UGA’s School of Public and International Affairs from 2013 to 2016, after serving as interim dean, associate dean for outreach, and associate dean for academic affairs at the University of Texas School of Law.

Jim Ludes, Executive Director, the Pell Center and VP for Strategy, Salve Regina University
From July 2006 to August 2011, Jim Ludes was executive director of the American Security Project (ASP), a think-tank in Washington, D.C. ASP was founded in 2006 to educate the public on a broad range of national security issues and the value of a principled approach to security. From November 2008 to February 2009, Ludes was a member of president-elect Obama’s transition team. During this time, he participated in the Agency Review Team, working inside the Department of Defense (DOD) to identify critical issues that would need to be tackled by the new administration. In January, he took on the additional responsibility of running the confirmation team for DOD nominees selected for the roles of deputy secretary of defense undersecretary of defense for policy, comptroller and general counsel. From 2002 to 2006, Ludes was legislative assistant to Sen. John Kerry for defense and foreign policy.

Matt Masterson, Director of Information Integrity, Democracy Forward Team, Microsoft
Matt Masterson is the director of information integrity for the Democracy Forward Team at Microsoft. Previously he served as a non-resident policy fellow with the Stanford Internet Observatory. He served as senior cybersecurity advisor at the Department of Homeland Security, where he focused on election security issues. He previously served as a commissioner at the Election Assistance Commission from December 2014 until March 2018, including serving as the Commission’s chairman in 2017-2018. Prior to that, he held staff positions with the Ohio Secretary of State’s office, where he oversaw voting- system certification efforts and helped develop an online voter registration system.

Mary McCord, Executive Director, Georgetown Law Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection (ICAP)
Mary McCord, J.D., is legal director at Georgetown Law’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection (ICAP) and visiting professor of law at Georgetown Law. She is a member of the new National Task Force on Election Crises. McCord was the acting assistant attorney general for national security at the U.S. Department of Justice from 2016 to 2017 and principal deputy assistant attorney general for the National Security Division from 2014 to 2016. Previously, McCord was an assistant U.S. attorney for nearly 20 years at the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia.

Tim Roemer, Director of Homeland Security, State of Arizona
Tim Roemer was appointed by Governor Doug Ducey as the director of the Arizona Department of Homeland Security in April of 2021. Director Roemer also serves as the State’s chief information security officer (CISO), managing cybersecurity for the State of Arizona. In his role, Director Roemer advises the governor on a wide range of topics including cybersecurity, border security, and counterterrorism. As State CISO, Director Roemer leads the state’s cybersecurity team, sets cybersecurity strategy, and defends the state against evolving cyberattacks that threaten our citizens’ data and Arizona’s critical infrastructure.

Kristy Roschke, Managing Director, News Co/Lab, Cronkite School, Arizona State University
Dr. Kristy Roschke is a media literacy educator and scholar. She is the managing director of the News Co/Lab, a Cronkite School initiative aimed at advancing media literacy via journalism, education, and technology. Her research interests include misinformation, media literacy education and media trust. Roschke has developed curriculum and taught journalism, digital media production and media literacy courses at the high school and university level for nearly 20 years. She currently serves on the board of the National Association of Media Literacy Education.

Scott Ruston, Center Director & Research Professor, Center on Narrative, Disinformation and Strategic Influence, Arizona State University
Dr. Scott Ruston is a research professor with Arizona State University’s Global Security Initiative, a university-wide interdisciplinary hub for researching complex challenges in the global security arena. He directs the Center on Narrative, Disinformation & Strategic Influence, leading research teams that combine humanities, social science, and computer science in order to better understand manipulations of the information environment and develop technologies to identify malign influence activities.

Melanie Smith, Head of Digital Analysis Unit, Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD)
Melanie Smith is head of ISD’s Digital Analysis Unit, which combines large-scale social media data collection and advanced open-source investigation techniques to study disinformation, hate, and extremism. Smith leads a team of digital analysts to deliver public research on topics like state-sponsored information operations, public health misinformation, and online conspiracy movements

Brette Steele, Senior Director, Preventing Targeted Violence, McCain Institute
Brette Steele serves as the senior director for preventing targeted violence at the McCain Institute. Prior to joining the McCain Institute, Steele served as the regional director of strategic engagement for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Office of Terrorism Prevention Partnerships. In that role she advised the State of California in the development of a statewide preventing violent extremism strategy and partnered with counties, cities, and nonprofit organizations to develop and implement preventing violent extremism programs. Steele established and served as deputy director of the U.S. Countering Violent Extremism Task Force, which coordinated all federal efforts to prevent violent extremism in the United States.

Dhanaraj Thakur, Research Director, Center for Democracy and Technology
Dhanaraj Thakur is research director at the Center for Democracy & Technology, where he leads research that advances human rights and civil liberties online. Over the last 15 years, he has designed and led research projects that have significantly informed tech policy and helped improve the way public policy problems are framed. These have ranged from large multi-national research projects to those working with groups of individuals.

McCain Institute Staff:

Paul Fagan, Director of Human Rights & Democracy Programs, McCain Institute

Pedro Pizano, Task Force Manager, Human Rights & Democracy Programs, McCain Institute

Luke Englebert, Program Coordinator, Human Rights & Democracy Programs, McCain Institute

About the McCain Institute at Arizona State University
Inspired by Senator John McCain and his family’s legacy, the McCain Institute at Arizona State University is nonpartisan and fights to secure democracy and alliances, defend human rights, protect the vulnerable and advance character-driven leadership in all communities around the world.

About Arizona State University
Arizona State University has developed a new model for the American research university, creating an institution that is committed to access, excellence and impact. ASU measures itself by those it includes, not by those it excludes. As the prototype for a New American University, ASU pursues research that contributes to the public good, and ASU assumes major responsibility for the economic, social, and cultural vitality of the communities that surround it.

About the Cronkite School
The Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University is widely recognized as one of the nation’s premier professional journalism programs and has received international acclaim for its innovative use of the “teaching hospital” model. Rooted in the time-honored values that characterize its namesake — accuracy, responsibility, objectivity, integrity — the school fosters journalistic excellence and ethics in both the classroom and in its 13 professional programs that fully immerse students in the practice of journalism and related fields. Arizona PBS, one of the nation’s largest public television stations, is part of Cronkite, making it the largest media outlet operated by a journalism school in the world. Learn more at cronkite.asu.edu.

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Publish Date
January 9, 2023
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