During Donald Trump’s campaign for president, claims of Russian misinformation and disinformation were ubiquitous on cable news, Twitter and op-ed columns. Public discussion about misinformation has risen dramatically since the COVID-19 pandemic. Most of it focuses on negative anti-vaccination media coverage. Fox News and Joe Rogan’s popular podcast. There are many to choose from. Fox NewsSegments that praise anti-vaxxers up to the point of death are usually hosted by people who have received the vaccine. Rogan’s anti-science, I’m-just-asking-questions shtick is also a serious threat to public health.
Although these are real problems that require profound solutions, there’s an emergent category of would-be misinformation debunkers who should be treated with a great degree of skepticism — specifically, members and partners of the national security state.
There is a not-so-subtle push happening right now to increase the Department of Homeland Security’s role in “combating misinformation.” A recent postThis phenomenon can be seen on the human rights-focused legal blog Just Security. The two authors, a retired brigadier general and a former communications adviser at DHS, argue that misinformation should first and foremost be understood “as a growing threat to America’s security.” To respond to these threats, DHS should “adopt an integrated or ‘whole-of-department’ approach to countering MisDisMal [misinformation, disinformation and malinformation] in key areas under its purview, such as election security, cybersecurity, counterterrorism, disaster response, and public safety.”
The authors suggest a public facing anti-misinformation campaign could be modeled on the “If you see something, say something,” initiative, instituted after 9/11. It’s worth noting that even that seemingly benign poster campaign was more than it appeared, and was riddled with controversy. 2015 saw the ACLU become a national organization. suedThe government sued the government for the program, claiming that the reports generated by it were discriminatory and led to unconstitutional surveillance of data collection. The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency within DHS created a website to partially address this concern during the 2020 election, called “Rumor Control.” That site addressedDisinformation is specific to the electoral process, but it seems to have done little in order to slow down the growing. beliefRepublicans claim that the 2020 election has been stolen.
The “See Something, Say Something” campaign is a perfect illustration of the dangers to civil liberties posed by involving DHS more thoroughly in countering disinformation. It seems impossible to object to the idea: Who would resist alerting authorities to suspicious packages? However, the implementation of the program was incredibly discriminatory. According to an analysis, Muslims, Arabs and people deemed to be any of these identities were overrepresented in the reports that were generated. ACLU review.
Similar to Alejandro Mayorkas, Homeland Security Secretary asked by reporters last month about the connection between misinformation and what DHS classifies as “domestic extremism.” Mayorkas said his agency was seeing “a greater connectivity between misinformation and false narratives propagated on social media and the threat landscape,” and that “false narratives about a stolen election have an impact on the threat landscape.”
For many liberals, Mayorkas’s comments are likely a welcome development after years of DHS and the FBI ignoring the threat posed by the far right. But just like “See Something” posters, there was a barely disguised push to expand the security state in Mayorkas’s remarks. “The use of encrypted channels of communication, it’s posed a challenge to law enforcement well before Jan. 6 2021,” he added. “That is, quite frankly, another element that makes up the threat landscape for us.”
Here again we see how a seemingly unobjectionable premise — Trump’s lies about the 2020 election are harmful — is transformed in the hands of the security state into a justification for increasing its surveillance capacity. Since years, federal law enforcement has been fighting against strong encryption. This protects digital communications from outside surveillance. It’s to be expected that they would instrumentalize the very real threat of right-wing violence toward their own ends. The civil liberty champions have assembled a broad coalition of privacy advocates and organizers. Electronic Frontier FoundationTo the centrist Third WayWith varying degrees of success, we have fought to weaken encryption.
The Obama years are a better example of the dangers that can be posed by using federal and local law enforcement to supposedly address political issues. When Obama and his team came into office, they were determined to leave the rhetoric of the global “war on terror” behind. However, that doesn’t mean they left behind its substance or surveillance tactics. The new phrase of the hour was “countering violent extremism” (CVE), and government contractors shoehorned that phrase into many proposals, because that’s where the money was.
CVE-providers have become a cottage industry. sprangup, working as a public-private partnership alongside the FBI/DHS. This was a break with the draconian surveillance of Muslim community that was common under George W. Bush. However, many Muslims felt that there was more continuity between the two approaches than any disruption.
CVE says that rather than worrying about a new member of a mosque being an informant, CVE recommends that local leaders be concerned. includingImams, teachers, and counselors were given the responsibility of monitoring their communities and reporting any suspicious activity. “The result of generalized monitoring — whether conducted by the government or by community ‘partners’ — is a climate of fear and self-censorship, where people must watch what they say and with whom they speak, lest they be reported for engaging in lawful behavior vaguely defined as suspicious,” the ACLU wrote to Lisa Monaco, Obama’s homeland security adviser, in 2014.
These CVE programs were supposed to be ideologically neutral. However, the overwhelming majority was used to spy on Muslim communities. Brennan Center for Justice found that under Obama, “the federal government awarded 31 CVE grants totaling $10 million, with only one going to a group that even partially focused on far-right violence.”
These programs relied, either implicitly or explicitly, on bogus “radicalization” theories that purported to be able to identify the early signs of violent urges or so-called terrorist ideologies. They actually criminalized protected speech rights and association rights, and treated reasonable political opinions (e.g., harsh criticisms of U.S. policies in the greater Middle East) as precursors for indiscriminate violence. These theories adopt a “conveyor belt” metaphor that sees a linear progression from radical political beliefs or increased religiosity to violence. This is used to justify surveillance or targeting for investigation.
It’s understandable, if misguided, to believe that the powers the U.S. government has directed at Muslims and other oppressed and persecuted communities can now be redirected towards the threat posed by white supremacist groups. The disinformation umbrella can pose serious risks to U.S. Democracy, however limited and inadequate it may be. The lack of trust in government and media is a complex phenomenon. It must be considered in the context of neoliberal reforms that were introduced in the 1970s that sought to destroy the notion of a public good. However, the way to combat misinformation and a lack of public trust is not by directing more surveillance and police toward the problem, it’s by building trust in public institutions by meeting people’s material needs.
The argument is not that government has no role in honest information, batting down false information, and securing electoral infrastructure. All of these tasks are necessary and only the federal government has the resources to accomplish them. The problem is which organs in the state have these authorities and to what end. DHS, FBI, as well as the rest of federal law enforcement, claim they want misinformation to be countered. The problem is that these agencies have a clear record of spreading misinformation themselves — and causing harm with every new campaign that purports to keep us safe.