Why Democrats Should Fear The Disinformation Board
Along with everyone else
Since you clicked on this link, you’ve probably already heard a bit about this new board, but here’s some more context:
The Disinformation Governance Board is a subordinate organization within the Department of Homeland Security that was created this year. It was revealed to the public in a hearing before the United States House Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security where the DHS secured a 7 billion dollar increase in their budget from 2022 bringing it to $97 billion. Its current stated goal is to police disinformation purportedly drawing migrants to the southern border and possible Russian threats to the upcoming midterm elections. How exactly this board will address these issues is not clear. The board is not mentioned in the DHS’ 2023 budget in brief and secretary Mayorkas did not go into specifics about the board’s actual authorities in his testimony.
This vagueness is, in some ways, a reason to dismiss dystopian fears about state-enforced truth. The Disinformation Board is perhaps more likely than not to become just an annoyance like the TSA, a fellow Homeland Security subgroup, rather than becoming an iron fist of the state. However, the vague mission and authority of this board also gives it room to grow. The precedent of extrajudicial detention, brutal policing of domestic protest, and murder of innocents provided by the DHS’ history should terrify Democrats (and everyone else). Even if the powers of the Disinformation Board remained constrained to the southern border and Russian cyber attacks, the likely successor of the presidency can immediately use this power to amplify pre-existing attempts to psyop the American people with new state authority.
What The DHS Has Done And Can Do
A comprehensive list of the abuses of power originating from the Department of Homeland Security would be far too long to reproduce here. Instead, I will focus on those examples which most closely relate to the Disinformation Board’s mandate: treatment of migrants, and monitoring/enforcement of political dissent.
Treatment Of Migrants
The Department of Homeland Security has detained tens of thousands of people without trial, often in torturous conditions for months at a time. The most recent examples of this were the overflowing migrant camps, most prominent in 2019 but they are still still around today.
In places like the one pictured here the DHS housed hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children. Conditions in these prisons were uniformly horrible. A private practice physician who toured a border detention facility in McAllen, Texas reported that detainees were prevented from washing their hands or their children’s bottles and concluded that “the conditions within which they are held could be compared to torture facilities.” When congresspeople like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez toured border facilities they saw similar abuses and went even further in their description of the conditions endured by the migrant detainees saying “This administration has established concentration camps on the southern border of the United States for immigrants, where they are being brutalized with dehumanizing conditions and dying. This is not hyperbole. It is the conclusion of expert analysis.”
Unfortunately, this treatment of migrants continued through the Biden administration.
Hundreds of thousands of people were detained and deported during the Biden administration and they were kept at camps which produced the similar reports of disease, sexual abuse, self-harm, and starvation which have defined migrant detention camps under all administrations. The DHS has held thousands of people at the Migrant Operations Center in Guantanamo Bay.
The justification for these acts is of course security of the US-Mexico border. Having only been created a few days ago, the Disinformation Board has not yet participated in any of these abuses, but they share the same mandate of border security. They share the same resources, precedent, and authority which facilitated the creation of concentration camps on the border, the detention of migrants in Guantanamo Bay without trial, and the killing of innocents.
Although border security is an explicit part of their mandate and they share an organization with the people who perpetrated the preceding crimes, you may think that associating the Disinformation Board with abuses of migrants is unfair because they only deal with the information drawing migrants to the border, not the migrants themselves. A much more direct connection can be found in how the DHS has dealt with possible sources of disinformation and threats to democracy in the past.
For example, the Department of Homeland Security has been closely monitoring Black Lives Matter and associated groups after protests in Ferguson, Missouri. This includes location tracking and social media surveillance, even for entirely peaceful events like candlelight vigils and funk festivals. The DHS objects to the use of the word ‘surveillance’ and instead claims it exists only to provide ‘situational awareness’ to other federal agencies.
Baher Azmy, a legal director at the Center for Constitutional Rights, however, argues that this “providing situational awareness” is just another word for surveillance and that creating this body of knowledge about perfectly legal events is a problem in and of itself. “What they call situational awareness is Orwellian speak for watching and intimidation,” said Azmy. “Over time there’s a serious harm to the associational rights of the protesters and it’s an effective way to chill protest movements. The average person would be less likely to go to a Black Lives Matter protest if the government is monitoring social media, Facebook, and their movements.”
Monitoring of political groups whom the DHS deems dangerous or possibly connected to foreign governments is exactly the sort of thing that the Disinformation Board will do. The DHS’s mandate goes beyond just information collection, however. In response to protests in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray, the DHS deployed over 400 armed federal agents to police the city. They employed the same tactic in 2020 during protests in Portland, Oregon.
The same man who approves and funds the Disinformation Board also approves and funds spying on political dissidents and imprisoning migrants in Guantanamo Bay. The Department of Homeland Security houses the deepest darkest parts of our government. The Disinformation Board aims to empower the same organization which extrajudicially detains thousands and deploys federal agents to crack down on protests with a mandate to go after someone for posting something false online. Currently, this mandate is pointed outwards, towards Russians and immigrants. But the same was true of the DHS as a whole when it started as a counter-terrorism organization. Brendan McQuade, a visiting assistant professor at DePaul University observed that the DHS was “set up for counterterrorism, but it became ‘all crimes, all threats, all hazards’.” It would be a wild exception to the history of the DHS if the Disinformation Board stays strictly within its founding mandate and avoids abusing its power unlike every single one of its peers under the DHS umbrella.
What’s The Plan For The Next Guy?
Lets say that wild exception happens. For the next 2 years the Disinformation Board dutifully and exclusively polices Russian disinformation, picking out good from bad, banning the bad, and educating the public on what to avoid. Then, in 2024 Trump gets elected again which is not unlikely.
Many of his appointees and congressmembers will be people who believe that the 2020 election was stolen, alongside other conspiracy theories. They will now control the very Disinformation Board which was created to debunk their claims. For example, consider this document put out by the DHS in 2019 titled: Combatting Targeted Disinformation Campaigns. They cover a case study of a Russian-originated story implicating the DNC in the deaths of 4 people who were purportedly going to come forward with information implicating Hillary Clinton. This story was planted by the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service. It’s exactly the type of thing that a Disinformation Board would call out. Unless, of course, it was staffed by all the the Republicans who believed the story! Then, they would use such a board to testify to the truth of these claims and empower their followers who also believe them.
In general, because the president has almost complete power over who staffs the DHS and the Disinformation Board in particular, it is guaranteed that one day the authority given to the board will fall into the hands of your political enemies. Given the yawning gap between what is considered as truth by our two political parties, establishing this board is a shortsighted mistake. Perhaps if the board were more independent from politics it could stand a chance at being unbiased but as it stands, as soon as the presidential winner changes the position of this Disinformation Board on what is true and false will change with it.
Right now, the Disinformation Board is nothing more than a name. Nobody has yet been imprisoned for wrongthink and no one has been assigned soma doses. The world is not much more dystopian than it was a few days ago before this board was announced. But we don’t need to wait for these things to happen to understand the potential for danger and dystopia that the Disinformation Board carries. We already know that the DHS routinely violates the rights of tens of thousands of people. And we already know that when the Disinformation Board falls into the hands of the people who believe in these lies, it will lose any chance of correctly enforcing truth. Everyone, no matter what they believe, should fear this potential and do what they can to fight against it.