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Homeland Security’s Attempts to “Combat Misinformation” Are Suspect

The U.S. should fight misinformation by building trust in public institutions — not by expanding the security state.

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas arrives for a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill on November 16, 2021, in Washington, D.C.

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 of misinformation has since skyrocketed during the COVID-19 pandemic, usually focusing on harmful anti-vaccination media coverage on, for example, Fox News and Joe Rogan’s popular podcast. There are, of course, no shortage of Fox News segments praising anti-vaxxers until they die, generally by hosts who themselves have gotten 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 post on the human rights-focused legal blog Just Security is a good example of this phenomenon. 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. In 2015, the ACLU sued the government over the program, alleging that the reports generated by the program were discriminatory and resulted in unconstitutional surveillance and 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 addressed disinformation specific to the electoral process but seems to have done little to tamp down the increasing belief among Republicans that the 2020 election was 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. On the surface, it sounds impossible to object to: Who would oppose alerting the authorities to a suspicious package? But the implementation of that program was incredibly and predictably discriminatory: Muslims, Arabs, and people perceived to be either of those identities were over-represented in the reports that were generated, according to an ACLU review.

Similarly, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas was 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. Federal law enforcement has been waging a public relations fight against strong encryption, which protects digital communications from outside surveillance, for years. It’s to be expected that they would instrumentalize the very real threat of right-wing violence toward their own ends. A broad coalition of privacy advocates and organizers from the civil liberty champions the Electronic Frontier Foundation to the centrist Third Way have fought against attempts to weaken encryption, with varying degrees of success.

The Obama years provide an even better example of the dangers posed by using local and federal law enforcement to supposedly combat what are ultimately 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.

As a result, a cottage industry of CVE-providers sprang up, working in a public-private partnership with the FBI and DHS. On the surface, this approach was a break from the draconian surveillance of Muslim communities that was ubiquitous under George W. Bush. For many Muslims, however, there was far more continuity than disruption between the two approaches.

Under CVE, rather than fearing a new member of the mosque might be an informant, the local leaders themselves, including imams, teachers and counselors, were tasked with surveilling their communities and reporting so-called 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.

Although these CVE programs purported to be ideologically neutral, the overwhelming majority of their funding was directed toward spying on Muslim communities. The 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. What they actually did was criminalize protected speech and association rights, and treat reasonable political opinions, such as harsh criticism of U.S. imperial policy in the greater Middle East, as precursors to indiscriminate violence. These theories adopt a “conveyor belt” metaphor that sees a linear progression from radical political beliefs or increased religiosity to violence. This manufactured threat of imminent violence is then used to justify surveillance and 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. There are very real risks to U.S. democracy, limited and insufficient though it is, that fall under the umbrella of disinformation. Lack of public trust in government and media is a complicated phenomenon that needs to be seen in the context of neoliberal reforms from the 1970s onward that deliberately sought to destroy the idea of a public good, as well as elite-led catastrophes like the war in Iraq and the global recession in 2008. 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 here is not that the state, per se, has no role in providing honest information to the public, batting down bad information and securing election infrastructure. All of those tasks are necessary, and only the federal government has sufficient resources to achieve those ends. The issue is which organs of the state claim these authorities, and toward what end. DHS, FBI, and the rest of federal law enforcement say they want to counter misinformation. 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.

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