December 6, 2023

WASHINGTON — The memo that reached the top of the Department of Homeland Security in September couldn’t be more explicit about its plan to create a board to monitor national security threats from the spread of dangerous misinformation.

The statement said the department “should not attempt to be an arbiter of truth for all purposes in the public arena.”

However, when Minister Alejandro N. So did some critics on the left, who questioned the powers that such a position might exercise in the hands of future Republican administrations.

Within weeks, the new board of directors was dismantled – officially put on “pause” – and partly undone by the forces it was meant to combat, including distorting the board’s intentions and powers.

There is broad agreement across the federal government that coordinated disinformation campaigns threaten to exacerbate public health emergencies, stoke racial and ethnic divisions, and even undermine democracy itself. However, the fate of the board has underlined how deeply biased the issue has become in Washington, making it nearly impossible to think about addressing the threat.

According to experts, the failure to act has left opportunities for new waves of disinformation ahead of the November midterm elections — and even for violence like the racist massacre at a Buffalo supermarket in May, which was prompted by a baseless conspiracy theory that world powers targeted it. To replace white Americans with immigrants.

“I think we’re in a really bleak situation here in this country,” said Nina Jankovic, who served briefly as director of the board of directors before resigning when the controversy raged.

Ms Yankovic, a prominent writer and researcher on disinformation who advises the Ukrainian government, has become the focus of outrage, and has been targeted online with false or misleading information about her role in what critics have called the Ministry of Truth.

“It’s hard to imagine how we’ll come back from this, when that’s how our elected representatives behave – when we can’t agree, you know, what’s the truth,” she said in an interview.

Threats from disinformation today include issues that may have transcended party politics not long ago. Instead, disinformation has become mired in the country’s deep partisan and geographic divisions on issues such as abortion, firearms and climate change.

Even during the Trump administration, the Department of Homeland Security recognized the threat. The agency, along with the Director of National Intelligence, commissioned a study in 2019 that concluded that disinformation can, among other things, “exacerbate existing societal divisions” and “cause panic that reverberates in financial markets.”

The FBI, the State Department, and the Pentagon have repeatedly warned of threats from foreign sources of disinformation. The Federal Election Commission Hold a symposium before the 2020 elections to address the issue as well.

By then, the partisan divide had already begun to take shape.

It had its roots in Russia’s interference in the 2016 election of President Donald J. Trump, which he and his allies repeatedly denounced as fake despite evidence federal investigators gathered about Russian collusion.

The disinformation still circulating about Covid-19 and President Biden’s 2020 election – which Mr. Trump continues to insist, despite all the evidence, was a fraud – has made many Republicans view the fight against disinformation as a partisan attack.

Enabling the rapid spread of misinformation, said John Cohen, a former senior intelligence official at the Department of Homeland Security who has been involved in discussions about addressing national security threats fueled by the Internet.

By all accounts, the department failed to anticipate the uproar that the creation of the advisory committee would cause — as well as the ease with which critics might taint the kind of campaign it was meant to monitor.

Mr Mayorcas announced the Council, impromptu, at a budget hearing in April, which was followed by Share on Twitter From Mrs. Jankovi? By that time, the council had already worked for two months, although it had not yet formally met.

In addition to her new director, her staff included four dismissed officials from other parts of the department. It has not yet had an earmarked budget or executive authority. However, conservative commentators, including Jacques Posubic, pounced, and were joined by conservative media and Republican officials.

The board quickly became a new frustration in an old Republican campaign narrative that authoritarian Democrats want to pry deeper and deeper into people’s personal beliefs – “abolishing” conservative values. Ms. Yanukovych’s prominence in discussing Russia’s actions made her a special target for Republicans.

“The right recognizes that it is a way to irritate people,” Ms Jankovic said. “The problem is that there are very real national security issues here, and not being able to talk about this in a mature way is real damage to the country.”

However, opposition did not come only from the right.

Three rights organizations — Protect Democracy, the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University and the Electronic Frontier Foundation — welcomed the department’s acknowledgment of the scale of the problem, but cited the department’s “history of violating the Constitution in egregious ways” as enough reason to be wary.

“In the wrong hands, such a council would be an effective tool for government oversight and retaliation,” Hmm wrote in a letter To Mr. Mayorcas, calling on the Chamber to reconsider the Board of Directors.

The damage occurred, forcing Mr. Mallorcas to reverse course. The council’s work has been suspended, pending review from the ministry’s advisory board which is expected to be completed by August 1.

He has asked two former officials from both parties to review the case for combating disinformation: Michael Chertoff, Secretary of State under President George W. Bush, and Jimmy S. Gorelick, deputy attorney general under President Bill Clinton. Few would expect the council to be reshaped in anything like the intended shape.

The growing polarization of disinformation – like many other issues – has hampered the search for solutions by Congress and the Biden administration.

Legislation such as the Honest Advertising Act, which regulates online political advertising the way it appears on television or radio, has been suspended for years. The US has failed to act on privacy or other matters to rein in the power of the social media giants even as Europe moves, for example, to force them to reveal how their services amplify divisive content and stop targeting online ads according to someone. Race, religion, or sexual orientation.

In Washington, there is not even agreement on threats, as Republicans use the war against disinformation as an attempt to silence conservative voices.

According to the Department of Homeland Security documents that established the board of directors, they include crises taken from today’s headlines: misinformation undermining public health emergencies. Human traffickers who sow lies to guide migrants on dangerous journeys across the southern border. Conspiracy theories that generate violence against workers in state and local elections.

The documents were released by two Republican senators who attacked the board, Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Josh Hawley of Missouri. They cited it as evidence not of the need to combat disinformation but of the board’s nefarious goals, even though the memos all emphasized the fundamental need to protect freedom of expression. Among the documents, though, were talking points Mr Mayorkas received for a meeting with officials from Twitter to tackle disinformation, which the senators described as an attempt to “suppress spam”.

Mr. Grassley did not respond to a request for comment. Mr. Hawley’s spokeswoman, Abigail Maron, said President Biden was “intent on leading the most anti-First Amendment administration in American history.”

“His idea of ​​’disinformation’ is for parents to speak out about teaching their children critical race theory or anxious Americans who are asking legitimate questions about Covid vaccines,” she added. “Biden’s goal is to use the power of the federal government to shut down speech.”

The Department of Homeland Security added the threat of false information to its national circular on terrorism for the first time in February. “The United States remains in an environment of increased threats fueled by several factors, including an Internet environment full of false or misleading narratives and conspiracy theories,” the warning read.

The bulletin added that foreign and local actors “seek to exacerbate societal friction to sow discord and undermine public confidence in government institutions to encourage unrest that may lead to acts of violence.” at that time, Senator Marsha BlackburnA Tennessee Republican declared that the department “monitors the speech, thoughts, and opinions of American citizens.”

The department repeated this warning in last month’s bulletin.

“We’re basically unable to have a quiet discussion on this issue,” said Paul Barrett, deputy director of the Stern Center for Business and Human Rights at New York University. “And there is a strange, circular, swirling effect. The problem itself helps to make us unable to talk about the problem.”

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