On April 27, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced that it had formed a new board focused on combating disinformation. The board will be headed by Nina Jankowicz, a Wilson Center fellow with experience advising Ukraine on communication strategies and authoring a book focused on Russia and fake news. The focus of the board will be specifically on combating disinformation originating from Russia and human smugglers at the southern border. Specifically, the board will be preparing to combat Russian disinformation in the upcoming midterm elections and currently combating disinformation about the war in Ukraine.
In an attempt to mitigate domestic backlash, the Russian government has been utilizing social media to falsely claim that documentation of and reporting on the war is fake, and the board will be developing strategies to combat this misinformation. In addition, in the lead up to the 2016 election, Russian media companies attracted audiences of hundreds of thousands by creating fake media brands supposedly based in the United States. These companies then shared disinformation about the election, including spreading false information about voting requirements and encouraging their audiences to not vote. The board will also be strategizing ways to combat this form of disinformation in the months leading up to midterm elections and future presidential elections. It will also be focused on combating the disinformation originating from human smugglers attempting to increase business by spreading false information about the United States border policies. Last year, false information spread on Facebook and WhatsApp targeted at the Haitian community on these apps claiming that the United States borders were open, leading to 14,000 Haitian migrants arriving at Texas’ southern border in hopes of entering the United States.
There have been varying responses to the DHS’s announcement of this new board, including claims that it will violate citizens’ first amendment rights coming especially from conservative leaders, including Senator Marco Rubio. These claims, however, hold very little truth considering that the focus of the board is largely on disinformation originating from international sources. Many on the right also expressed outrage that this would be diverting attention away from defending the country’s borders, though if the board is successful at curbing disinformation spread by human smugglers, border crossing attempts should also decline. There has also been general outrage that the Department of Homeland security has given themselves the authority to decide what is true. Disinformation, however, is a serious issue for the United States, and many other countries, that the government needs to address in order to strengthen our democratic institutions. False information spread online, specifically about elections, has led to a weakening of the United States’ democracy, because as Jonathan Haidt argues, social media has weakened three of the major pillars of a strong, healthy democracy: social capital, strong institutions, and shared stories. Social media has contributed to the weakening of interpersonal trust within America and amplified the influence of populist, especially right-wing populist, movements in the country. In addition, as Peter Pomerantsev argues, those wishing to spread disinformation can easily prey upon the fragmentation of the populace that social media has created, leaving our democracy open to external influences, like those coming from Russia.
Attempts have been made to find solutions to disinformation that rely on the individual to make more informed choices about where they find their information on the internet. One example of this is a study done by New York University’s Center for Social Media and Politics, which found that providing individuals with reliability ratings for news sources through a browser extension was able to decrease the amount of time that individuals spent on unreliable news sites for those that previously frequented unreliable sources. For those that already found their news mostly on reliable sites, there was little to no effect from the intervention. However, due to the small sample size and short duration of the study, significant conclusions could not be drawn about exactly how effective the intervention is and if it would continue to be effective in the long term. In addition, solutions like this would be difficult to implement on a wide scale because it would require each individual to install the necessary browser extension on their computer and it would not have an effect on those that receive news through social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook that do not require a browser.
The most effective way to curb disinformation would come from regulations placed on those that are spreading it, and the DHS’s disinformation board seems to present a possible solution. However, the limited scope and power will likely not be enough to effectively curb the spread of disinformation to a negligible level. For example, one of the most dangerous areas of disinformation right now is in the health sector. As Food and Drug Administration Commissioner, and former cardiologist, Robert Califf, stated, misinformation is one of the leading causes of death in the United States right now. He points to the top two causes of death currently, heart disease and COVID-19, as evidence of this, as there are known prevention and treatment methods for both causes of death. He claims that the widespread disinformation about these illnesses is causing people to make decisions that are actually negatively impacting their health. Despite the dangers of this form of disinformation, this will not actually be a focus of this new disinformation board. The board is also only focusing on disinformation that originates internationally, even though disinformation originating in the United States also poses a significant threat to the country’s democracy. In addition to the limited scope, the actual power that the board has is unclear, but seems to be limited to developing strategies to respond to disinformation, rather than preventing it from occurring and spreading in the first place.
Overall, the United States government is taking a step in the right direction with the creation of the new DHS board focused on disinformation, because the spread of disinformation is a serious threat to the country’s democracy. However, the limited scope and power of the board will likely mean that it cannot be effective on its own, and interventions from platforms that support disinformation, like social media platforms and search engines, will likely be required to effectively end the spread of disinformation.
Photo by Katie Moum, (Unsplash), Creative Commons Zero license. https://unsplash.com/photos/o0kbc907i20