When then President Donald J. Trump ousted Christopher Krebs shortly after the 2020 election it was likely the first that most Americans had ever heard of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). As CISA’s director, Krebs had earned bipartisan plaudits for his leadership, before he was fired for publicly debunking Trump’s false claims concerning voter fraud in the 2020 presidential elections.
While the public saw the firing as another self-serving act by a vengeful president, security professionals drew a deeper lesson – that DHS could be playing a more forceful role defending against the spread of misinformation and disinformation. For context, it’s worth recalling that DHS was created in 2003 when the U.S. government was still reeling from its inability to “connect the dots” before the 9/11 attacks. The new department was to become the central hub around which the “spokes” of law enforcement, intelligence, border security, and aviation security would revolve.
Essential to this vision was the creation of a seamless web of information-sharing relationships at the federal, state, and local levels. Information from the 22 federal agencies combined to create DHS would be distilled from highly classified intelligence and then distributed, as appropriate, in the form of unclassified updates for public release. In essence, DHS had the federal government mandate to become the “truth-teller” to the American people about hazards they faced from threats ranging from natural disasters to cyber and terrorist attacks.
The actions Krebs took in calling out foreign election interference and debunking the president’s claims pointed toward a more aggressive government response to what is often referred to as “MisDisMal” (for Misinformation, Disinformation, and Malinformation). Yet the broader question remains: What role should DHS play in countering the tsunami of falsehoods engulfing American civil discourse?
First, DHS should treat the MisDisMal phenomenon as a growing threat to America’s security. Public access to factual, non-partial information is vital to the health of our democracy. The dramatic increase of MisDisMal breaks the link between such information and the public’s understanding of verifiable truth. Indeed, significant portions of the American public now believe in demonstrable falsehoods that bear upon our common security and welfare, including that the 2020 presidential election was fraudulent and that COVID vaccines – and even the pandemic itself – are dangerous ploys by nefarious actors.
The Trump administration’s disregard for truth metastasized the growth of such conspiracy theories. Once-fringe notions became mainstays of the partisan media. It also launched a cottage industry of research programs, whistleblowers, and think tank studies on the threat. These developments have helped us learn more about how social media algorithms on Facebook, YouTube, TikTok, and other platforms monetize our partisan divides by serving us with content that appeals to our biases, no matter how spurious the information. Add to this the reality that social media has displaced local journalism as a source of news for many Americans and you have the recipe for how MisDisMal spreads rapidly and operates at scale.
The Role For DHS
Enter DHS, and its putative role as the government’s truth-teller about risks. With information sharing already its main priority, the Department of Homeland Security can make a significant contribution to countering this growing threat. The wise course is for DHS to adopt an integrated or “whole-of-department” approach to countering MisDisMal in key areas under its purview, such as election security, cybersecurity, counterterrorism, disaster response, and public safety.
Specifically, CISA should take the lead role in coordinating and disseminating unclassified, public information releases to counter MisDisMal, working jointly with relevant DHS components and other federal partners. Indeed, CISA already communicates about risks with the public, and with private sector owners and operators of critical infrastructure, through its National Risk Management Center (NRMC).
Crucially, DHS has considerable experience managing large, public-facing outreach and communications campaigns, including If You See Something, Say Something™; the Blue Campaign to counter human trafficking; Ready.gov; and the National Terrorism Advisory System (NTAS), among others. More specifically, the process for issuing NTAS alerts could serve as a possible model for an effort to counter MisDisMal. There, the DHS Counterterrorism Advisory Board, or CTAB – which includes intelligence, operational, and policymaking elements across the department – produces coordinated responses to terrorist threats, including NTAS alerts to the public, government agencies, first responders, transportation hubs, and other public sector organizations.
To be sure, there is always a risk that an administration could coopt a non-political channel such as this for partisan purposes. In practice, however, DHS has strong privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties functions in place. Additionally, by drawing on the tested CTAB/NTAS model, the department can insulate this new effort from manipulation, becoming an authoritative counterweight to the growing threat posed by foreign and domestic sources of MisDisMal.
Time is of the essence, however. In less than two years the United States experienced two events that greatly accelerated the problem: the worst pandemic in more than a century and the first-ever attempt by an incumbent administration to overturn the results of a free and fair election. Of course, individuals will continue to make up their own minds. And having DHS exert its mandate against this threat won’t be the single solution to what is undoubtedly a complex problem. But it’s an important start.