Homeland Security’s Attempts to ‘Combat Disinformation’ Are Suspicious

During Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, allegations of Russian misinformation and disinformation were ubiquitous on cable news, Twitter and opinion columns. Public debate on misinformation has since skyrocketed during the COVID-19 pandemic, typically focusing on harmful media coverage against vaccination, for example, FoxNews and the popular Joe Rogan podcast. Of course there is no shortage FoxNews segments praising anti-vaxxers to death, usually by hosts who received the vaccine themselves. Rogan’s anti-science, I’m just asking questions, is also a serious threat to public health.

While these are real problems that require profound solutions, there is an emerging class of potential disinformation debunkers that should be treated with great skepticism – in particular, members and partners of the national security state .

There’s a not-so-subtle push right now to increase the Department of Homeland Security’s role in “countering disinformation.” A recent Publish on the human rights-focused legal blog Just Security is a good example of this phenomenon. The two authors, a retired brigadier general and former DHS communications adviser, argue that misinformation must first and foremost be understood “as a growing threat to America’s security.” To respond to these threats, DHS should “take an integrated or “comprehensive” approach to combating MisDisMal [misinformation, disinformation and malinformation] in key areas of its competence, such as electoral security, cybersecurity, counter-terrorism, disaster response and public safety.

The authors suggest that a public campaign to counter misinformation could draw inspiration from the “If you see something, say something” initiative, instituted after 9/11. It should be noted that even this seemingly benign poster campaign was more than it looked and was riddled with controversy. In 2015, the ACLU for follow-up the government on 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.” This site address disinformation specific to the electoral process but seems to have done little to curb 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 deeper involvement of DHS in the fight against misinformation. At first glance, it seems impossible to oppose it: who would object to alerting the authorities to a suspicious package? But the implementation of this program was incredibly and predictably discriminatory: Muslims, Arabs and people perceived to belong to either of these identities were overrepresented in the reports generated, according to a ACLU Review.

Likewise, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas was request by reporters last month about the link between misinformation and what DHS calls “domestic extremism.” Mayorkas said his agency is seeing “greater connectivity between disinformation and false narratives propagated on social media and the threat landscape,” and that “false narratives about a stolen election are impacting the threat landscape.” .

For many liberals, Mayorkas’ comments are likely a welcome development after years of the DHS and FBI ignoring the threat posed by the far right. But much like the “See Something” posters, there was a thinly disguised push to expand the state of security in Mayorkas’ remarks. “The use of encrypted communication channels posed a challenge to law enforcement long before January 6, 2021,” he added. “That’s, quite frankly, another element that is the threat landscape for us.”

Here again, we see how a seemingly flawless premise – Trump’s lies about the 2020 election are harmful – turns in the hands of the security state into a justification for increasing its surveillance capacity. Federal law enforcement has been waging a years-long public relations battle over strong encryption, which shields digital communications from outside surveillance. They are to be expected to instrumentalize the very real threat of right-wing violence for their own ends. A broad coalition of privacy advocates and civil liberty organizers defends the Electronic Frontier Foundation to the centrist Third way have battled attempts to weaken the encryption, with varying degrees of success.

The Obama years provide an even better example of the dangers posed by the use of local and federal law enforcement to supposedly combat what are ultimately political issues. When Obama and his team came to power, they were determined to leave the rhetoric of the “Global War on Terror” behind. However, that doesn’t mean they’ve left behind its substance or surveillance tactics. The hot new phrase was “countering violent extremism” (CVE), and government contractors incorporated that phrase into many proposals because that’s where the money was.

As a result, a cottage industry of CVE providers gushed in place, 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 pervasive under George W. Bush. For many Muslims, however, there was much more continuity than rupture between the two approaches.

Under CVE, rather than fearing that a new member of the mosque would be an informant, the local leaders themselves, including imams, teachers and counsellors, have been tasked with monitoring their communities and reporting so-called suspicious activity. “The result of widespread surveillance – whether conducted by government or community ‘partners’ – is a climate of fear and self-censorship, where people have to be careful of what they say and to whom. they speak out, lest they be reported for committing lawful behavior vaguely defined as suspicious,” the ACLU wrote to Lisa Monaco, Obama’s homeland security adviser, in 2014.

Although these CVE programs claimed to be ideologically neutral, the overwhelming majority of their funding was directed to spying on Muslim communities. The Brennan Center for Justice find that under Obama, “the federal government awarded 31 CVE grants totaling $10 million, including just one to a group that even partially focused on far-right violence.”

These programs relied, implicitly or explicitly, on false “radicalization” theories that claimed to be able to identify early signs of violent impulses or so-called terrorist ideologies. What they have actually done is criminalize protected rights of expression and association, and treat reasonable political views, such as harsh criticism of US imperial policy in the greater Middle East, as precursors of indiscriminate violence. These theories adopt aconveyor beltmetaphor that sees a linear progression from radical political beliefs or heightened religiosity to violence. This fabricated threat of imminent violence is then used to justify surveillance and targeting for investigation.

It is understandable, if misguided, to believe that the powers the US government has directed against Muslims and other oppressed and persecuted communities can now be redirected to the threat posed by white supremacist groups. There are very real risks to American democracy, however limited and insufficient, that come from disinformation. Lack of public trust in government and the media is a complicated phenomenon that must be seen in the context of neoliberal reforms from the 1970s that deliberately sought to destroy the idea of ​​a public good, as well as directed disasters by elites like the war in Iraq and the global recession in 2008. However, the way to combat misinformation and lack of public trust is not to direct surveillance and policing more towards the problem, but to build trust in public institutions by meeting people’s material needs.

The argument here is not that the state, per se, has no role to play in providing honest information to the public, combating bad information, and securing election infrastructure. All of these tasks are necessary, and only the federal government has the resources to do them. The question is which organs of the state claim these powers, and for what purpose. The DHS, FBI and the rest of federal law enforcement say they want to fight misinformation. The problem is that these agencies have a clear track record of spreading false information themselves – and of causing harm with every new campaign that claims to keep us safe.

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