Disinformation has become another insurmountable problem in Washington

WASHINGTON. The memo, which reached the leadership of the Department of Homeland Security in September, could not be clearer about its plan to create a council to monitor national security threats caused by the spread of dangerous misinformation.

The department, he said, “should not try to be the universal arbiter of truth in the public arena.”

Yet when Secretary of State Alejandro N. Majorcas announced the creation of a disinformation council in April, Republican lawmakers and conservative commentators denounced it as such, calling it an Orwellian attempt to stifle dissent. So did some critics on the left, who questioned the powers that such an office could have in the hands of future Republican administrations.

Within weeks, the new board was dismantled – officially put on “pause” – partly destroyed by the forces it was supposed to fight, including a distortion of the board’s intentions and powers.

It is widely believed within the federal government that coordinated disinformation campaigns threaten to exacerbate public health emergencies, stoke ethnic and racial divisions, and even undermine democracy itself. The fate of the board of directors, however, has shown how partisan the issue has become in Washington, making it nearly impossible to consider removing the threat.

Inaction, experts say, has left room for new waves of disinformation in the run-up to the November midterm elections, and even violence like the racist Buffalo supermarket massacre in May, motivated by baseless conspiracy theory that global powers sought to “replace” white Americans with immigrants.

“I think we are in a very grim situation here in this country,” said Nina Jankovic, who briefly served as director of the council before resigning as the controversy flared up.

A well-known author and disinformation researcher who once advised the Ukrainian government, Yankovych has become the center of a furore caused by false or misleading information online about her role in what critics have called the Ministry of Truth.

“It’s hard to imagine how we move away from that,” she said in an interview, “when our elected representatives behave like this — when we can’t agree on, you know, what the truth is.”

The threats of disinformation today are related to issues that not so long ago could go beyond party politics. Instead, disinformation has become mired in deepening party and geographic differences on issues such as abortion, weapons and climate change.

Even under the Trump administration, the Department of Homeland Security was aware of the threat. The agency, along with the director of national intelligence, commissioned a 2019 study that concluded that disinformation can, among other things, “exacerbate existing social divisions” and “cause panic that reverberates in financial markets.”

The Federal Bureau of Investigation, the State Department, and the Pentagon have repeatedly warned of threats from foreign disinformation sources. Federal Election Commission held a symposium ahead of the 2020 elections to discuss the issue.

By that time, however, a party split over the issue had already begun to form.

Its roots go back to Russian interference in Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential election, which he and his allies have repeatedly condemned as bogus despite evidence collected by federal investigators about Russia’s complicity.

The misinformation that continues to swirl around Covid-19 and Biden’s 2020 presidential election. Trump continues to insist, against all evidence, that it was a scam, leading many Republicans to view the fight against disinformation itself as a partisan attack.

“Today, even the word ‘disinformation’ cannot be used without political overtones,” said John Cohen, a former senior Department of Homeland Security intelligence official who has been involved in discussions about addressing the national security threat fueled by the Internet. contributed to the spread of misinformation.

By all accounts, the ministry failed to foresee the furore that the creation of the advisory group would create, nor the ease with which critics would brand it for the campaigns it was intended to oversee.

mr. Mallorcas announced the board of directors at a budget hearing in April, after which tweet message from Ms. Jankovic. By that time, the board had already been working for two months, although it had not yet formally met.

In addition to the new director, his staff included four officials seconded from other parts of the department. It did not yet have a dedicated budget or law enforcement. However, conservative commentators, including Jack Posobec, lashed out, joined by conservative media and Republican officials.

The board quickly became the new backdrop to the old Republican campaign narrative that powerful Democrats want to intrude deeper and deeper into people’s personal beliefs by “reversing” conservative values. RS. Yankovic’s prominence in discussing Russia’s actions has made her a particular target for Republicans.

“The right recognizes that this is a way to make people furore,” she said. Yankovic said. “The problem is that there are very real national security issues here, and not being able to speak like a grown-up about it is a real disservice to the country.”

However, the opposition did not come only from the right.

Three advocacy groups—Defend Democracy, Columbia University’s Knight Institute of the First Amendment, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation—applauded the ministry’s recognition of the scale of the problem, but cited the ministry’s “history of flagrant violation of the constitution” as reason enough. carefully.

“In the wrong hands, such a board will become a powerful tool for state censorship and retribution,” they note. wrote in a letter Mr. Mallorcas, urging the department to reconsider the advice.

The damage was done, forcing G. Majorcas change course. He suspended the council’s work pending review by the department’s advisory board, which is expected to be completed by August. one.

He asked a bipartisan pair of former officials to consider fighting disinformation: Michael Chertoff, department secretary under President George W. Bush, and Jamie S. Gorelick, deputy attorney general under President Bill Clinton. Few expect that the government will be restored in the form in which it was conceived.

The growing polarization of disinformation — like many other problems — is hampering the search for solutions by Congress and the Biden administration.

Legislation like the Fair Advertising Act, which would regulate political advertising on the Internet in the same way as on television or radio, has stalled for years. United States could not act on privacy or other issues to curb the power of social media giants, even as Europe, for example, has taken steps to force them to reveal how their services amplify divisive content and stop targeting online advertising to a person’s ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation.

Washington doesn’t even agree on threats, and Republicans have jumped at the fight against disinformation in an attempt to silence conservative voices.

According to internal Department of Homeland Security documents from which the council was created, they include crises plucked from today’s headlines: disinformation that undermines public health emergencies. Human traffickers who spread lies to send immigrants on a perilous journey across the southern border. Conspiracy theories that generate violence against employees of state and local election commissions.

The documents were released by two Republican senators who were openly critical of the government, Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Josh Hawley of Missouri. They cited them as evidence not of the need to fight disinformation, but rather of the nefarious aims of the government, even though all the memos stressed the fundamental need to protect free speech. Among the documents, though, were the theses that Mr. Mallorcas received for meeting with Twitter officials to combat disinformation, which the senators described as an attempt to “suppress objectionable content.”

mr. Grassley did not respond to a request for comment. Mr. Hawley’s spokeswoman, Abigail Maron, said President Biden “intended to lead an administration that is the most anti-First Amendment in American history.”

“His idea of ​​’disinformation’ is that parents are talking about their children being taught critical racial theory, or concerned Americans are asking legitimate questions about Covid vaccines,” she added. “Biden’s goal is to use the power of the federal government to suppress speech.”

In February, the Department of Homeland Security added the threat of spreading false information to its periodic national terrorism advisory bulletins for the first time. “The United States remains in an elevated threat environment fueled by several factors, including an online environment filled with false or misleading stories and conspiracy theories,” the warning said.

The bulletin adds that foreign and local actors are “seeking to exacerbate social tensions in order to sow discord and undermine public confidence in state institutions in order to provoke unrest that could potentially provoke acts of violence.” While, Senator Marsha BlackburnRepublican from Tennessee, said that the department “controls the speech, thoughts and opinions of American citizens.”

The department repeated the warning. newsletter for the last month.

“At this point, it’s almost impossible for us to have a calm discussion about this issue,” said Paul Barrett, associate director of the Stern Center for Business and Human Rights at New York University. “And there’s this weird, circular looping effect. The problem itself helps to make us unable to talk about the problem.”